Revision Xibalba: Theading the Plot

First the good news:  I finished the revisions to The Bloodgate Warrior and shipped them off to Alissa this morning.  Even BETTER news – she likes what she’s read so far!  Woot!  That’s always such a relief.  Did I interpret her revision letter correctly, thoroughly, and then most importantly, did I carry those revisions through the ms in a logical way?

Which brings me to today’s revision topic.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last few days and decided I should blog about it in case it might help anyone else working through a rough patch of revisions.

As I told Raelyn earlier this week, I was so deep into the forest that it was hard to see the trees.  All the threads (changes) I was juggling began to get muddled and tangled, and I was starting to lose my grip on what to pull forward when.

What am I talking about?  It’s that chaos theory I’ve joked about before:  A butterfly flaps its wings on page one and you suddenly find yourself revising every single chapter until it’s an entirely different book.

This is why revisions are hard.

I’m not talking about minor line-edit type revisions, but something more challenging.  For instance, Alissa wrote that she’d like to see more of a contrast between Cassie’s driven focus for her job and what happens when Tecun climbs into her bed.  *winks*  I already had some bits of character traits that I really liked for her — her static trait involves her nightly ritual before getting into bed, for instance — but I didn’t go far enough.  (In fact, I realized as I got into the revisions for this element, that I’d gotten a few things terribly wrong that didn’t jive with her character at all.)

Now you might think this was an easy change.  I’ll just throw in a new trait – like maybe she’s OCD about her schedule and has every minute of this “vacation” mapped out down to the minute.  Easy peasy right?

Wrong.  Because if you’re going to ADD something to a finished manuscript, it has to have impact.  If the butterfly flaps its wings, there’s wind, no matter how faint, that must spread and ripple throughout the story.  Otherwise why even bother with the change in the first place?

So if I’m going to add a character trait, I have to SHOW it again and again.  It has to affect the plot in some way, no matter how small, or it’s just noise.  Like a random hair color or scar that I mention without ever explaining where the scar came from or how it changed the character’s life.  Why even bother if it’s not important and crucial to the story?  I couldn’t just mention this trait once and let it drop – that would be doing a lazy injustice to my character.

Everything has to matter.  It has to have impact.  WHY is she doing this?  HOW can I show it?  WHEN does this affect the plot?

And that, my friends, is where the real bite of Revision Xibalba comes into play.  Once you start affecting plot, um… news alert… your plot changes.  Scenes change.  Actions mean something else entirely.  If you change one turning point, then all the others are affected too.

See that trickle down effect?  More than shit begins to roll down hill at this point.  And oh, all those pesky trees.  I had several items I was changing at the same time, not just this one character trait, each one like a colored thread that had to be pulled all the way through to the end in a logical manner.

For example, Alissa mentioned in passing that she liked the idea of the family journal that Cassie brought with her to Guatemala and wondered if there was any way to make that more important.  Well sure.  I could — and did — write several thousand words of journal entries, which became a cool way for me to resolve several items in the revision letter at once.

But which events should the entries cover (I ended up spanning over 500 years!!)?  It couldn’t just be backstory or it’d slow the plot too much.  It couldn’t be all emo whining or moaning about the past.  They had to have real, measurable impact.  Things had to change because of these entries.

What clues could I drop in the journal that would make the reader go OOOOOOOHHHHHH when I finally laid out the live-action scene before them?

Notice that if I’m changing the plot or character…that’s more than just copying and pasting a new journal entry into place.  That means I’m changing significant elements of the plot itself.  Alllllll the way through the ms.

So then it becomes a balancing act requiring a delicate touch and a sharp eye.  If I’m going to drop in this little tidbit here, and make it really really matter, then I have to do it again over here.  I can’t drop a bunch of bright red paint in chapter two and never ever paint with red again.  I also have to remember the green and blue I’m adding and balance that with what’s already there and the new red.  It has to be consistent from start to finish.  All of these new colors are important now so I have to drop some over here, and again here, and then yeah, it’d better become crucial and important before the ending again, or…

Again, why bother?

Threading the plot — carrying these changes through in meaningful and consistent ways — building momentum page after page, THIS is the difference between making your editor happy when she opens up your revised document and making her groan and pull out her red pen again.  I truly believe this is where you can really learn to shine as a hardworking professional.

No, I don’t mean you have to blindly accept every change proposed by your editor.  But when you dig in and begin to make those changes, carry them through.  Don’t just plop a few things in and send it back.  Really think and dig.  Yes, it’s more work.  Yes, it’s painfully hard to come up with new ideas once the story’s already done.  Trust me, I know.  I added over 5K to this story (net – I added way more new words but deleted other passages that didn’t work any longer), and wrote another couple of thousand words of journal entries that I didn’t end up using at all.

But you know what?  I loved Tecun and Cassie before I sent The Bloodgate Warrior to Alissa (or I wouldn’t have submitted it, obviously).  But now?

Well.  I always say this but I think with her help, it’s become the next best thing I’ve written.

4 thoughts on “Revision Xibalba: Theading the Plot

  1. As a fairly new fan, I read the Shanhasson stories, I was excited to see a mesoamerican based book. I read the “Well of the Sky” and really appreciated the sensitive treatment of the Maya. Needless to say, I’m excited at the prospect of a full length novel.

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