Meet Kristi Wallace Knight, our lovely contributor to this occasional series (Part I, Part II) on how we can use revision to activate our writing. Take it away, Kristi…
My own writing process is one of fits and starts. I may go days or weeks without writing more than a sentence or two, and I can really struggle to get back into a story when I finally have time to sit down and write again. My preferred process is to grab a pen and a cheap spiral notebook (I buy them at Target at the beginning of the school year when they’re ten for a dollar), set a timer, and make myself write for 12-15 minutes. Nothing is off-limits, anything goes, and I have to keep my hand moving the whole time. After two or three sessions like this I’m usually on a roll and don’t need the timer anymore, I’m just going, telling myself the story, and the good and the bad are all swirled up together.
My next step is to type my pages into the computer. This is usually re-drafting, teasing apart the story from the places I’m telling myself the story. Sometimes the difference between the two is obvious, but sometimes subsequent read-throughs reveal more places to increase the action on the page and decrease the distance between the character and the reader.
Stella opened the door to the office her dad was in. He was writing furiously at his desk. He glanced up, nodded to her and stuck his left index finger in the air, then looked back down to finish his writing. When he was done he looked up and said, “hello, dear. How have your studies been?”
“Mrs. Bennett is seeing to my studies, why are you asking me something she can answer?”
Mr. Blackwood gazed over his glasses at his daughter, “my dear,” he began, “I had nearly forgotten who I was speaking to.”
“And just where have you been, anyway? You were due back three days ago.”
Mr. Blackwood got up and closed the door to his office. “I had an unexpected meeting in Pennsylvania, and was advised to have another in New York. So I extended my travel.”
This is boring.
Stella leaves her friend, Lana, and goes to her father’s office. The door is mostly closed. A frosted glass window keeps her from seeing who is inside, but the conversation she hears is heated. She approaches the door and hears: “two, three days at the most,” her father’s voice.
“You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood.”
“And more than doubled our success by doing so. The legend around this other piece…” the other man cut him off
“The piece itself is legendary, we can’t put a legend in the museum. These artifacts are spectacular, I’ll grant you, but will be years of study before they go on public display. Now I need you here, teaching and writing up your finds. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”
The conversation seemed to be over, and the door opened to reveal _________, the President of the University.
“Miss Blackwood, I presume.” Stella was acutely aware that she was one of few thirteen-year-olds seen on campus. “Do us a favor and try to keep your father in town through the semester, would you?”
And here is how I typed up the scene later:
Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.
“…a week, ten days at the most,” her father said.
“You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood,” the other voice said.
“And more than doubled our success by doing so. This piece is exactly as the legends describe, and the companion piece…”
“The companion piece is legendary. The research is firm that legend was added hundreds of years later with the intent of creating a wild goose chase. We can’t put a legend in a museum, Gunter. The pieces you have are spectacular, but they’ll be two years of study at least before we can display them. I need you here for the rest of the year, teaching and putting your work in writing. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”
The door opened and the president of the university passed Stella and headed down the hall.
In his office, Gunter Blackwood was staring at a collection of objects spread out on a black museum cloth on his desk.
“You’re three weeks late,” Stella said to the top of his head.
Her father looked up. His face was deeply brown, but his eyebrows had more white in them than Stella remembered. He had been away more than five months, on expedition with a small group of students in Mesopotamia, collecting artifacts.
“My dear Stella,” he said, “how you’ve grown.” He stood and quickly embraced Stella. His shirt smelled of cloves and sunlight, she thought.
“I will not be left behind again,” she said. Her father met her gaze, and Stella felt an uncomfortable lightness in her chest. She was glad to see him, and afraid she might cry. Stella blinked. She looked at the objects on his desk. “What are those?” she asked.
There appeared to be several rocks scattered about with two gold rings, a gold coin, a black box, and a statue that looked like the torso of a woman, without limbs or a head. The gold objects were beautiful but the statue was freakish and bizarre. Stella reached for one of the stones and picked it up.
So, what did I change? Most obviously, I moved the conflict between Gunter and the University president to the front. I cut down the description of Gunter at his desk, because it doesn’t move the story. I got bored writing it, so I know you’ll be bored reading it. As I read over this, though, I still see verbs that I’ll revisit in future revisions in order to bring Stella and her experience closer to the reader. For example, I expect to delete “she thought” after “cloves and sunlight,” because without “she thought” we’re just there in Stella’s experience of smelling the shirt, and that is where, as the writer, I want the reader to be. I make a habit of looking for what I think of as “distancing verbs” – “thought,” “noticed,” “observed,” “saw,” “heard,” and verb phrases like “could see,” “could hear,” — in my work, and I cut, cut, cut them to the best of my ability. I also notice three adverbs in the typed version above – “slightly,” “deeply,” and “quickly,” two of them preceded by “was.” Adverbs are a sort of shorthand that is effective for moving the story along in a first draft, but usually can be eliminated or unpacked into more specific description in later drafts.
I skipped the description of the door – all we need to know is that Stella can hear what’s happening on the other side, we don’t need to know what the door looks like. But I had to write it that way at first because I was visualizing it and writing that down helped me into the story. At the time that I’m finding it, details like the color of the hallway walls, the glass in the door, and the hardware are part of the story. Knowing when to keep those details in to inform the reader, and when to get them out of the way because the story is actually elsewhere – in this case, in the relationships between Gunter and the University president, and Gunter and his daughter – is an ongoing part of my process. The objects on Gunter’s desk, that Stella is about to pick up and hear the stories of, are objects that Stella and Gunter’s story will be built around, so they stay in. The brass door handles and frosted glass window can go.
Already I’m looking at places where I can further tighten the scene. The second sentence – “As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside,” contains two verbs: approached, heard; and a gerund: having. Are they all necessary? Maybe. Or will the same information be conveyed even if they aren’t there? Maybe. Here are other options:
A) “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.”
B) “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella’s father and another man were having a heated discussion inside.”
What’s the difference? In (A), Stella is the one the verb refers to, and (B), the verb phrase “were having” refers to Stella’s father, and is a weak verb form at that. I want my reader to experience the story from Stella’s point of view, and I want the verbs to keep the story moving, so I’m going to choose (A). The reader is still aware that Stella is approaching her father’s office door, but that approach is happening invisibly by moving with Stella, and thus the reader, through the experience.
In my fiction, letting the lady scream is all about getting the right verbs in the right places, but even more so it’s about getting the wrong verbs out of the way of the action.
Kristi Wallace Knight has been writing Dangerously in Portland, Oregon since 2000. She has been published in Stealing Time Magazine, where she was the founding Fiction Editor in 2012. She is currently writing a Young Adult adventure series and does freelance editing. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2011 and can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/KWallaceKnightEditor