Revising Leah

September 1, 2008

Speak Softly and Carry a Red Pen

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:38 am
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One of the advantages of reading a text over and over again as I’m doing with this project is that it allows me to see patterns in the text that I would otherwise probably miss. One type of pattern that I look for when revising a piece of writing is whether I am repeating a particular word too many times.

In the third cycle of revision I noticed that I used the word “softly” to describe Leah’s manner of speaking at least four times throughout the course of the novel. For example, it appears in this exchange with Mrs. Nells:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No,” she said, softly.

Now, using a word four times within the scope of an 85,000 word novel to describe how a main character speaks probably wouldn’t be a big deal if that character had a lot of dialogue. But Leah rarely speaks at all in the story (out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to count the number of words that she speaks, but I haven’t got a total word count yet), so when she does speak, it’s a big event. Those four uses of the word “softly” represent a high percentage of the word’s use.

Since I’ve begun noticing the word’s frequent use, the correction that I’ve made in each case has simply been to delete everything outside of the quotation marks, thusly:

“Did you have any trouble finding your classes? That school is an enormous place. I remember my first day of high school — or maybe it was junior high — I’m not sure. Anyway, I once got lost on my first day of school and found myself in a class full of juniors and seniors when I was only . . . when I was only a sophomore. Yeah — now I remember: it was high school. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong class until the roll was called. I was so embarrassed!” Mrs. Nells giggled. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble like that?”

“No.”

I realized that I don’t need the adverb “softly” to describe how Leah speaks because elsewhere in the text I tell show the reader that Leah doesn’t have a very strong voice, and that when she does speak it tends to be in whispers and mumbles (her Egypt presentation is one of the best examples of this). So when she simply says “No” to her mother’s [relatively] lengthy question and anecdote, it is possibly the best revision choice that I could make. That one little word, only two letters long, without the narrator explaining that “she said,” takes up almost no space on the page, just like the rest of her dialogue takes up very little space in the context of the entire novel. It’s simple; it’s elegant; it’s efficient.

June 26, 2008

Progress Report #4: Slowing Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:35 pm
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Often, when I read a novel, I find that the last fifty pages or so seem to take the longest to read. Apparently, the same slow down occurs when one is revising. Since late last week, I’ve been working on the last 5 chapters of the novel, but whereas I used to be able to work through a chapter in just a day or two, it is now taking me a lot longer. In particular, chapter 20 felt like it would never end. Even though it’s not a particularly long chapter, I spent at least three days working on it. The problem was that it was a complete mess in terms of organization. Passages were repeated, sometimes information contradicted or at least was at odds with other details in the chapter or previous chapters, other events weren’t in the best order, and lots of sentences and paragraphs needed to be completely rewritten. It was a nightmare; sometimes I was spending two hours on just two pages worth of text. I finally dug my way out of it, though, and my revising is picking up speed once again. I’m currently on chapter 22.

Sometimes, the corrections that I make while I revise can be very subtle. For example, at the beginning of chapter 22, Mrs. Nells and Grandma are trying to talk Leah into going shopping with them. Mrs. Nells asks Leah if she wants to go, and I originally wrote, “Leah replied to her mother’s question by shaking her head no.” That’s a perfectly fine sentence, but the word “question” isn’t the best word for this context. Yes, when Mrs. Nells says, “Do you want to come along?” she is, technically, asking a question, but it is more accurate to say that Mrs. Nells is inviting her daughter to go with them. Thus, I changed the sentence to read, “Leah replied to her mother’s invitation by shaking her head no.” Using the word “invitation” also strengthens my use of the word “replied” because that is what you do with an invitation: you reply to it.

In the next phase of this revising project, I’ll be spending a lot more time on the details of the text (in this phase I’m trying to look more at the “big picture” elements of the story), but for now, I make little changes and corrections like these when I notice they are needed.

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