Revising Leah

October 4, 2008

Fixing Chapter Seventeen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:15 am
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After the last revision cycle, I found that I have three chapters which are lagging behind the others in terms of improvement: chapters six, fourteen, and seventeen. Before I move on to the next cycle, I’m going to perform some “textual surgery” on these three chapters to try to bring them up to speed. I decided to start with chapter seventeen because it’s an easier job: I only have to fix the first half of the chapter. The second half has been making good progress.

The problems that I’m having in each of these chapters are the same basic problems that I’ve been trying to fix in all of the chapters: stilted language, too much “telling” and not enough showing, and awkward scene construction. For some reason, these three chapters have been resistant to my revising strategies so far. Drastic measures need to be taken.

The first thing I did was to print this chapter out. It’s the first time I’ve printed out a chapter since I began this revising project. Holding the hard copy as it comes out of my printer is an interesting feeling. It’s almost like I’m seeing the story for the first time.

I sat down with the hard copy, a pen, and a highlighter in another room away from my computer. I spent about 45 minutes reading through the passage and marking it up. I highlighted sentences that didn’t sound right to me, and with my pen, I jotted down notes in the margin about what kinds of changes I thought I needed to make. When I was done, I took the hard copy back to my computer and went to work. I opened up a blank word processing document and copied the chapter that I was working on into the new document. This way, I could feel free to experiment with whatever changes I want without worrying about messing up the master file.

I won’t try to describe all the changes that I made, but I will discuss one paragraph that I fixed. Here is what the paragraph looked like a few days ago:

When David, Heather, and Melanie had at last finished eating and moved their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. Actually, it turned out that there really wasn’t that much to do with respect to preparing for their presentation, but David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would present. He explained that he would introduce the topic as well as everyone else in the group. Alex complained that everyone in the class already knew who they were, but David argued that introducing them would kill some time, so they might as well do it. Then David said that the order in which they tried to read their presentations to the camera yesterday would remain the same except that Alex would talk about his posters after the other four read their reports instead of going first like they had planned to do if their presentation was on video. Heather again reminded them to read slowly to eat up as much time as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said. None of this was news to their ears, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind. Leah made sure she remembered what was said.

Yuck! The scene is boring, there’s WAY too much “telling” going on here, and the third sentence is contradicting the rest of the paragraph. It says that Leah and her partners don’t have much to say, but really, they do.

So how can I improve this? Well, reading it you’ll notice that this paragraph is describing a conversation — there’s even a quote from David near the end. I wondered, if this is a conversation, then why don’t I just turn some of these sentences into dialogue? In a novel like Leah, where dialogue is in short supply, every little bit that I add can serve to liven up the story. Now, I don’t want to go overboard here and try to turn this scene into a really long conversation. The ninth graders’ discussion here isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of the novel, so while I want to insert some dialogue, I also don’t want to lead the reader down a long road that will only lead to a narrative dead end. So here is how I rewrote it:

At last, when David, Heather, and Melanie had finished eating and set their trays aside, the conversation shifted to their presentation. Leah perked up and made a show of listening to what her partners were saying. David said that he wanted to make sure everyone knew their roles and the order in which they would speak. “We’ll present our reports in the same order as we were going to read them on Sunday. Before you read, though, I’ll introduce each of you to the class.”

Alex laughed, “But everybody already knows who we are!”

David shrugged, “It’ll kill time. We might as well do it.”

David also told Alex that they would present his posters last. “That way, we’ll be able to use your posters to stall for time, if we need to.”

Heather again reminded her partners that the best way to stall for time was to read their reports as slowly as possible. David agreed. “We won’t make an A if we hurry through our reports,” he said.

None of this advice was news to Leah or her partners, but David said it was important to keep it all in mind so Leah made sure she did.

Although the revised passage takes up about the same amount of space on the page, it is actually about 30 words less than the original passage. I cleaned up some sentences and deleted that sentence in the original passage that contradicted everything else. The most obvious difference is that I’ve added a lot more dialogue, but notice that I didn’t transcribe every word that the students say. Heather’s comment, for example, is left out of quotation marks. The effect is that I transformed a single, big paragraph into a shorter paragraph and some dialogue, making this passage easier to get through.

Overall, I made a lot of good changes that move the chapter in the right direction. One chapter down, two to go.

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