Six impossible things

Macro Level Reviewing

A quick aside: Sorcery and Cecelia in ebook form is on sale today, Wednesday October 26, for $1.99 through the International BookBub newsletter. So if you were waiting to pick up a copy, now’s your chance. Back to our regularly scheduled post.

Regardless of whether an author is writing on a computer or with a pen, working from an elaborate outline or winging it, constructing scenes by putting notes together like a jigsaw puzzle or composing more holistically, ultimately writing happens one word at a time. Consequently, many writers have a predisposition toward doing their revisions the same way, focusing on microwriting problems from the mechanics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation to convoluted sentences and tongue-twisting dialog.

Stories, however, work on multiple levels. Words make up sentences; sentences combine into paragraphs, which stack up into scenes, chapters, acts, arcs, and novels. Within that building stream of words, characters arrive, develop, and change. Plots and subplots advance and intertwine; backstory and worldbuilding emerge gradually over the course of the story.

Because books are built out of words arranged linearly, in sentences that get read one after another, in order, any problems at any level must eventually be fixed at that fundamental level. Whether it’s a three-book plot arc or two lines of dialog that are out of character, the only way to fix things is to change some of the words and sentences – sometimes, just a few of them; other times, massive quantities.

Microwriting is the first place many writers start when they’re revising or critiquing. This usually a good idea, especially early in one’s career. The words and phrases and sentences are your building materials, and it is really, really hard to build something wonderful and lasting out of substandard materials.

The trouble with focusing solely on the microwriting is that hardly any of the macro-level problems show up if that’s all you look at. That scene where the protagonist’s apartment gets broken into may work perfectly well if you consider it as a scene, in isolation; in the larger context of the story, though, it throws the plot or pacing off-track, or shows the protagonist acting out-of-character compared to the rest of the book.

Polishing up the microwriting on such a scene is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic into a more pleasing order while the ship is sinking. It only make sense if you are so focused on what is immediately in front of you that you are unaware of the larger context (i.e., the fact that you should really be trying to plug the hole in the ship, or to get into a lifeboat).

Problems with pacing, plot, backstory, and structure are particularly difficult to spot at the scene level. Pacing really needs to be looked at in context; a scene that seems a bit slow, when taken in isolation, can work perfectly as a break in a frantic series of action scenes…or it can be the final, deadly nail in the coffin made of one plodding explanatory scene after another. Plot and backstory build over the course of a novel; inconsistencies often only show up over the course of several scenes or chapters, sometimes many pages apart. And structure underlies the whole story; weaknesses here are usually completely invisible on a scene-by-scene basis.

This is another source of the oft-repeated advice to “kill your darlings.” An excellent-in-isolation scene can, in context, be wrecking the pace or structure and/or totally unnecessary to the plot. Even more often, a scene may be flawed on several levels. A writer who looks at both macro-level and micro-level problems before beginning to revise is a whole lot less likely to spend a bunch of time polishing the micro-writing, only to find that the whole scene has to be torn up (or worse, cut completely) in order to fix pacing, backstory, or structural inconsistencies.

Macro-level problems usually only become visible when you have half or more of the story written, and sometimes, not until you have the whole thing. Whether you’re working with beta-readers, a formal critique group, or strictly on your own, this means doing one or more careful critical passes concentrating on the medium- and large-scale stuff. Depending on your process and on how fast your work sets up into concrete and how much you bog down if you try to do rolling revisions, you may or may not want to go over your entire draft-to-date several times before it gets finished – at the end of each act or section, for instance, or every seven to ten chapters (or pick an arbitrary number greater than 1). Or you may prefer to wait until you have an entire first draft, even if that means you’ll have to rip it to pieces after your macro-level review.

I am a rolling-reviser, so I usually start looking at macro level stuff no later than mid-book. If it “feels wrong,” sometimes I start earlier than that. After the first look, I go back over the whole thing whenever I feel the need or whenever I get stuck, which is probably every two to seven chapters. I am guessing here – I don’t have a set of arbitrary rules for this because they would be, well, arbitrary. Sometimes, the story is rolling steadily along; sometimes, it’s rolling downhill and it’s all I can do to steer, let alone try to stop and check on where it’s been; sometimes, it feels like I’m trying to push a wagon with square wheels up an unpaved mountain. In the first case, I stop and do a major lookover somewhere in mid-story, and then give it a quick look every so often as long as it keeps moving. In the second case, I hang on and write it, then go back at the end and see if and where it needs adjusting (usually if it was rolling downhill that fast, it doesn’t need much fixing. Unless I slammed into a tree somewhere along the way). And if the story wagon has square wheels…well, there’s almost always something wrong, and I need to look at every possible level of story until I figure out what.

8 Comments
  1. The best revising advice I received was to review one’s work in stages – do separate editing passes looking for logic faults, character voice and behavior, grammar, overly abundant adjectives, and whatever else you can think of may need fixing.

    It requires several re-read-throughs and certainly takes longer, but you are far more likely to catch the bugs and squash them than you are trying to do it all at once,

    • What do you do when you’re making a pass for logic faults and spot a character-voice or grammar error? Or vice versa? Ignore it? Mark it for later attention? Go ahead and fix it anyway?

      I can see the advantages of multiple passes where one pass is *primarily* concerned with logic faults, the next is *primarily* concerned with grammar errors, etc. with other bugs being swatted as they happen to pop up. I also have to allow the possibility of someone who is almost but not entirely unlike me finding it easier to staunchly ignore the kind of error that is not on the agenda for a particular pass.

      • Actually for some people it would be easier to catch those other flaws WHILE they are hunting down excess commas. Or long bits of description-instead-of-plot mistakes I sometimes commit. Fun fact – majority of readers can’t simply infer a plot twist by a description of what changed in a room! Ok… if the change is a dead body… its a bit easier to guess the plot twist. 😛

        • What, you mean we actually have to tell readers what’s going on? They can’t just psychically pick it up from our subconsciouses?

          Right there with you, Kin. 🙂

  2. Interesting thoughts!

    Im curious: which of your books were the easiest to write and which were the most difficult?

  3. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to report that _The Interior Life_ is also up online now, at http://www.kithrup.com/~djheydt , in two forms: MOBI for Kindle readers, and EPUB for practically everything else. (It can’t yet be read on Apple machines, but a friend from USENET is working on that). Free to download, but not to redistribute (my sysop had to *tell* somebody that last night).

    I’m now doing both kinds of proofing on _The Witch of Syracuse_, which God willing will go up sometime next spring. There’s typoes; and there’s logical inconsistencies; and there’s hexameters that don’t scan …. !

  4. “I am a rolling-reviser…”

    I’d like to put in a humble request for a post on rolling revision. (How you do it and different types of.)

  5. And just to make it more fun, the place where you spot the macro problem may not be the place where it needs to be fixed. That scene that falls flat may be perfectly fine and not need a word changed, but three other scenes in three previous chapters may need to be adjusted so that the later scene works. That out-of-character climax may be entirely in character, but the author failed to get the groundwork for it actually onto the pages throughout the earlier parts of the book.

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