Revision and Re-vision

Yesterday, I finished a major revision of my novel, The Lesser Betrayal. A lot of this revision could be described more properly as a rewrite. I changed where the story begins. I moved things forward in the timeline. I… Gasp! [hangs head in sorrow]. I deleted scenes that I love. Scenes that had once been integral to the story. Scenes that moved me.

Ugh!

It hurt to rip those scenes out of the story! It was worse than removing a large bandage from my arm when it’s hopelessly stuck to my arm hair. But that’s what revision does to a story. Revision is a heartless monster that helps a story evolve and grow beyond what it was. As much as I might love a scene, I know that nothing I’ve written is sacred in and of itself. If it doesn’t work for the story, it has to go.

No matter how much it hurts.

Oh, I think I’m probably talented enough to shoehorn something in if I really wanted to. But if I force in a scene because of some nostalgic feeling about it, I will end up hurting my own story.

Other scenes, I shredded like a carrot in a food processor. That was painful, too! My former opening chapter was over 2,500 words. Less than a thousand of those words exist now that I’ve torn it apart and rewritten it.

The thing about revision is that it requires re-vision. It’s more than taking a another look at the manuscript. It’s a recasting of my vision for the story itself. As an author, I need to be flexible enough with my vision to allow it to change, evolve, and mature the story into something even more beautiful than my previous vision allowed.

Revision is a heartless monster. It’s hard work. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes, to perform this kind of open-heart surgery on something you love and into which you have poured so much labor and care.

But revision is necessary. Re-vision is necessary. They make the story better.

So, below is one of the scenes that I love, but had to cut. How I wish it could be otherwise! This was a flashback scene involving my main character, Ashura, and her older sister, Tesha. Tesha has claimed a husband (that’s how women do things in the Queendom of Hoqra), and Ashura struggles with the changes it will cause in her life.

Kind of the way an author struggles with the changes revision and re-vision can bring.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Year 506, Segment 38

The 21st of Heyn

Our front door opens. Tesha and Vornes are standing in the doorway. He looks nervous, but Tesha radiates confidence. They step inside, and I charge.

“Tesha! Vornes!”

I leap at them from several feet away and wrap an arm around each of their necks. I laugh as they catch me, hug me, and lower me to the ground. I step back to look at them. Vornes reaches out to grip Tesha’s hand again. My sister’s normally neat dark-brown hair is a tangled mess, and her clothes look like they’ve been wadded up and sat on. Vornes doesn’t look much better, but now they’re both grinning at me. Vornes’s nervousness is gone.

Mother and Father walk up to Tesha and Vornes. They’re silent, as if waiting for Tesha to speak.

“Mother, Father, I have claimed Vornes as my husband.”

Mother speaks first. “I am pleased to welcome you into our house, Vornes.”

“As am I,” my father says.

“Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Father. I am honored to call Tesha my wife. I am happy that she has chosen me. I have loved her since we were children. I will fulfill every duty to her and to our family.”

Mother smiles at him. I do, too. Vornes is adorable.

“Breakfast is at the kitchen table,” my father says. “The upstairs bedroom and bath are ready for you. We can move Ashura out of Tesha’s room later.”

“Ashura doesn’t have to move out.” Tesha glances toward me. “She can have my room. She has slept there since she was five, and I don’t want her to have to change. I think I’d prefer the upstairs rooms anyway.”

I smile at Tesha in thanks.

She smiles back, then looks at her husband. “Come, Vornes.” She drags him by the hand toward the stairs.

“Do you not want to eat something first, my love?” Vornes looks longingly at the kitchen as they pass it by.

“Nope.” Tesha tugs him along. “You’re coming with me.” There’s a hunger in her eyes, too. But it isn’t for food.

I shake my head and get back to my chores.

*   *   *

Tesha and Vornes walk into the kitchen dressed in fine robes. My two brothers and sisters-in-law arrive a short time later. They congratulate Tesha and Vornes. I take notice when Tesha, my mother, and my sisters-in-law sit at the table to talk. They talk like adults about adult things.

I help my father and brothers put the final touches on the preparations for the celebration.

Soon, hundreds of extended family, friends, and neighbors descend upon our house. They greet and congratulate Tesha and Vornes, and my parents and his.

Tesha wears her sword in her belt. She looks proud and dangerous like a warrior of Hoqra should. Vornes looks handsome and happy next to his wife. As always, I’m in awe of my sister’s beauty. And yet, there’s something in her that I hadn’t noticed before: a power or strength that commands my respect. It isn’t blatant. It’s subtle, but at the same time it’s unmistakable.

Only now do I realize that my big sister really has left me behind. She has grown up. Tesha is a woman of Hoqra, a warrior, a wife.

I’m still a child.

She looks fearless while I see in myself only the stupid and irrational fears that every child has. On the battlefield, Tesha would fill her foes with dread and inspire her comrades with awe. I would be laughed at just as the Daedin scout laughed at me only a few segments ago.

My sister stands with a confidence that would stir others to great deeds. Yet, here I stand doubting everything about myself.

How can Tesha leave me like this? Doesn’t she know how much I need her? Doesn’t she know that she’s my strength and my confidence? Doesn’t she know that I want to be like her?

I hate her!

My heart shatters at the thought. My body shakes as rage turns to remorse. I hang my head and let my hair fall in front of my face to hide the tears that silently explode out of me. I hurry to my room.

No one has bothered to notice the little girl—the worthless, weak, and broken child—slip out of the celebration. I close the door to my room and cast myself on the side of my bed, grasping at my blankets as one who’s drowning grasps for the surface of the ocean.

How can I think such a thing? How can I? I love Tesha.

I can’t stop my tears. Shame stabs me again, and again, and again.

Guilt pours into my soul through the piercing wounds shame has already given me. They mingle together happily, rejoicing in my sorrow, dancing in my indignity. Together they’ll end me. They’ll drown me in disgrace.

It would be fitting. I should run away. I should throw myself off the cliffs. I wish I could disappear and never be seen or heard from ever again.

My world is a torrent of muffled moans and cries.

I know how and I know why I thought that horrible thought. It’s fear. I hated Tesha because of fear. I hated someone that I love because I’m afraid.

I’m a coward. I’m supposed to be a warrior, but I’m a worthless coward.

A gentle hand touches my shoulder. Then arms wrap around me and pull me away from my bedside. I hear my name spoken softly, but I’m too lost in misery to recognize the voice. I have no idea how long I’ve been crying in my room, wallowing in self-pity, hating myself for continuing to breathe. The arms pull me in tight so that my head rests on a slender shoulder.

“Ashura,” Tesha says, “What’s the matter? I saw you leave. You looked upset. I was worried when you didn’t come back.”

“You saw me leave?” I blubber.

“Of course I saw you. Now tell me what the matter is.”

I hesitate a moment while trying to figure out how to begin, but then the dam bursts. I tell Tesha everything. I confess to her about my sadness, my fear, my hate, my shame, my guilt. I tell her about my doubts, my weakness, and my worthlessness. I tell her about my desire to just disappear.

I tell her how I’ll never be like her, never be as strong as her, never be as disciplined as her. I tell her I’m a coward. I tell her I hate myself for being afraid. I tell her how much I love her, how much I need her, how frightened I am to lose her. I tell her how empty I feel to be left behind with nothing more than her shadow to cling to. I tell her I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that she has me for a sister. She deserves someone better. Someone stronger.

I don’t know how long I talk, but when it’s over I’m empty. I have nothing left but a few stray tears that slip down my cheeks.

Tesha puts her hands on my shoulders and pushes me away from her. I think she’s going to throw me aside and leave. It’s what I deserve. But she holds me at arm’s length. She holds me with such firmness that I couldn’t move even if I wanted to.

When I look up, I see that she’s crying, but she looks me in the eyes. Her voice trembles as she speaks.

“Ashura, is this really what you think of yourself?” She uses formal speech. “Because that is not what I see in you.

“I see a flower about to bloom. I see power and strength ready to break loose. I see a warrior in the making whose name shall make the ranks of our enemies tremble. I see such bravery in you that I cannot imagine how your little body can contain it. And you cannot contain it, Ashura! It keeps bursting out all over the place.

“I see a girl who outran twelve elite scouts from Daedin and raised the alarm. I see a brave warrior who stood her ground over a wounded sentry long enough to save the sentry’s life. You stood and fought even though you knew you were no match for the enemy you faced.

“You are concerned because that fool laughed at you when you raised a sword against him? Ashura, do you have any idea how much bravery that took? You are alive and he is dead. My little sister proved to a city that she is more than a child. Every warrior in our city took notice of what you did. They still talk about it! I get introduced to people as ‘Ashura’s older sister.’

“I see so much of myself in you that I sometimes wonder if I am looking at my sister or my own reflection sixteen segments ago. The only way I know it is my sister and not me is because my sister is so much better than I am. She has so much more potential than I have. She is so much braver than I will ever be.

“I see a girl who put my nervous new husband at ease by embracing him as soon as we walked through our door. I was afraid, too, Ashura. I pretended not to be, but your laughter and your embrace made all our fears go away. I see a sister who is selfless, loving, and kind. And, for those things alone I think she is so much more beautiful than I could ever be.

“Ashura, when I look at you, I see our mother and our father in one. You have his heart and his kindness, and you have her fearlessness and her instincts. I see in you the person I want to be like.

“I see a young woman of Hoqra whom I already admire and respect. I want to be brave because she is brave. I want to be good because she is good. I want to be fearless because she is fearless. I want to be kind because she is kind. I want to protect our people because she has protected us and fought for us already.”

Tesha’s voice cracks.

“And most importantly, Ashura, in you I see hope for our people. There is so much more we could be, and somehow my hope is wrapped up in you in a way that I cannot begin to explain. If you disappeared, my world would end. Do you not know how much I love you, how much I need you? Do you not know my confidence would crumble without you? Do you not know that you are my strength? How could I be what I am without you?

“Do not ever forget, Ashura. Do not ever forget how much I love you!”

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

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The Not-So-Dreaded Query

I know I haven’t posted in over a month, but things have been busy. I moved from Fort Wayne to Mount Vernon (the one in Indiana) at the end of June. I started my new position as the pastor of First United Methodist Church. I’ve been learning a new job with new people in a new town. The transition has been a big adjustment for my family. So yeah, life has been busy.

But I got to sneak away for part of a week and focus on writer stuff.

The Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University was incredible! From the day I registered in February, I wanted to get professional help with my manuscript and query letter. On the last day of the workshop, I got to sit down with two literary agents and discuss my query.

First up was Janet Reid, the Query Shark. Janet is amazing and encouraging. She’s a great critic. She was able to point out all kinds of things that didn’t make sense in my query. I really appreciated the time I spent with her.

I didn’t take many notes because I was paying close attention to the things she pointed out in my query, but Janet took my notebook and wrote down four invaluable questions:

1. Who is the main?

2. What does she want?

3. Who’s blocking her?

4. What does she sacrifice?

She told me that once I answer these questions, I can craft my query letter around them. These four things have to be in the query. They’re the most important pieces.

I can’t thank Janet enough. This was exactly the kind of guidance I needed.

Second up was Brooks Sherman. He asked me some tough questions that made me think. His comments were helpful, too. My query was too general. It left too many random ideas hanging out there, and too many things were left unanswered. I really appreciated his feedback. It helped me understand how I can clarify my query.

The last question Brooks asked me was the best one, but also the most difficult. “Do you think the problem is with your query letter or with your manuscript?” I really wanted the answer to be the query letter. That’s the answer I gave before we ended our session together.

But as I sat down with his notes in my hand, I started to wonder about my answer. Then I pulled out my notebook to look at the four questions Janet Reid had written down. All of her input was still fresh in my mind. I needed to figure out the answers to her four questions.

The answer to the first question was easy. “Who is the main?” Ashura is my main character. The whole story is told from her perspective.

The second question was the one that bugged me. “What does she want?” I was pondering that question when Val and Christine, two members of my Noodle Friends critique group, sat down at the table and started discussing the questions with me.

You see, I had an answer for question #2, but I was starting to think it was the wrong answer. Val and Christine questioned my answer, too. They didn’t think the one I had given was correct.

I realized that I had answered the question according to part of the plot rather than the character. As soon as I recognized that, everything began to come together in my mind.

Once I answered question #2 correctly, questions 3 & 4 were easy to figure out.

I also realized the problem was with both the manuscript and the query.

I had created this amazing, vivid main character, but I wasn’t listening to her. Ashura tells us what she wants in the story, but I had shoehorned in a different answer. A wrong answer. Even when I was asking the right question, I was giving the wrong answer. That’s what threw everything off. It’s why my query letter didn’t make any sense. It’s why I needed to revise my manuscript.

I saw Brooks Sherman in the hotel lobby after the workshop and thanked him for the questions he asked. I’ve emailed Janet Reid to thank her as well. They both pointed me in the right direction in slightly different ways, and it felt so good to finally have that.

I know I can do this whole query thing. It’s not something I dread anymore.

I’ve been working on the four questions Janet Reid wrote down, and I’m confident I can craft a great query letter. I’m weirdly excited about it!

Thank you, Janet Reid!

Thank you, Brooks Sherman!

Thank you MWW15 staff, interns, and volunteers!

This is why I love going to writing conferences. This is why I can hardly wait to spend part of next July in Muncie, Indiana.

When I get this query letter hammered out, I’ll post it. It’s going to take many drafts, but I’ll keep tinkering and revising until it’s right.

Christopher