Friday, April 16, 2010

Radical Revision - Expanding Your Fiction

Radical Revision is one of the quickest ways to jump-start a story which may be hard to write.  One reason we assign this exercise is because it encourages you to view your work from multiple angles, and this in turn will give you more ways to approach writing in the future.  I've adapted this exercise to help overcome a common issue that writers face: insufficient detail.
For more examples of revision at work, please check out these articles from my science fiction blog: "Maria Villanueva - Story Openings for Happy Ever After" and "Selonge Naita, the Martian Spy."

Radical Revision Expansion Exercise

For this exercise, you'll each choose one or two sentences from a story you've already written during the semester and expand those lines to a full page.  There are two key considerations here:

1. The line itself should imply more than you've already written.

For example, let's say you have the line "The flying saucers arrived the day after Grandad passed away."  This is an evocative line, but the temptation is to jump right into dealing with the flying saucers.  However, for this narrator, Grandad's death is a pretty big deal.  In the radical expansion, we might want to put those flying saucers on hold for a moment:
Grandad passed away in the afternoon.  The nurses came in quietly to take back the lunch tray and the empty juice boxes.  I sat there and just stared.  I couldn't believe he was gone...(add in more about how the narrator feels, what he does that night, etc).

I was still dreaming about grandad's hospital room when the bed shook me awake.  (this is where we add in details about how we know something strange is going on).

It wasn't until I stumbled outside that I realized how dark it was for nine a.m. At first I thought it was a storm. Then I looked up and I saw it.
Note here that we're dedicating a lot of narrative time to events which take place before the mention of the flying saucer. And even when it does appear, it isn't mentioned directly - it's simply it. This is because we want to track our text as close to the narrator's perspective as possible. And someone who wakes up to a sky darkened by a circular flying object the size of Cleveland won't be thinking "oh, there's a flying saucer parked over my city today." His thoughts would actually be closer to "WTF?" And this is one reason why we need to spend more time on grandad's death beforehand. We need to learn something about this narrator before all coherent thought is lost.

2. The expansion does not need to become an entire story by itself.

Note that in the flying saucer example, we've barely gotten to the flying saucers arriving.  We've had no time to really develop the conflict, let alone the rising action or the climax.  With one or two pages of text, we might still be solidly planted in the exposition phase of a novel.  And this is all right.  For the radical revision, I want you each to focus more on language and style than completion.  This assignment is about taking care of the fundamentals of writing:
Short sentences
Clear paragraphs
Correct dialogue syntax
Minimal use of adjectives and adverbs
From there, focus on character and conflict:
What does the character want? (needs, desires)
What will prevent the character from getting this? (antagonist)
How do we see this struggle? (voice, setting, dialogue)
Now let's go back to the flying saucer. What's this character want? He want's his grandad back. What will prevent this? Well, the laws of biology, for one thing. Worse that this, now he won't even get time to mourn - aliens are parked right overhead, demanding attention. And we're going to see this in the way he describes the aliens, in the way the toothbrush falls from his mouth and onto the lawn, in the way that pesky neighbor kid runs up and says "Dude! I have got to get a camera!"
I knew it wasn't an earthquake. Or, if it was, I didn't care - the house wasn't falling down. But the doorbell kept ringing. So I pulled on a bathrobe over my pajamas and jammed the toothbrush into my mouth. I figured it was Mrs. Dody from next door, and I just didn't have the patience for her this morning. It was bad enough dealing with Mom and Dad all week - I didn't need madame "I love cats and Earl Grey" also telling me how to schedule a funeral.

I got to the door. Sure enough, there was the puff of white hair. I unlocked the deadbolt, and the old woman practically knocked me down trying to get inside.

"Do you have a phone?" she asked. Those old hands were hard as claws as she shook me. "Where is it? We have to call the police, the fire department, the governor. Please, where is your phone?"
Right away, we have stress from neighbors and loved ones mixed with the conflict of sleeping in versus being polite. And yet the story turns. Mrs. Dody doesn't say the kind of things we expect to hear from the local area cat lady. We see the first real hints that something isn't quite right.

This said, note that this expansion contains lines which could be expanded further. Why, for example, does he think of Mrs. Dody as madame "I love cats and Earl Grey"? What have his parents been telling him about funerals? These details hint at larger stories which could be further expanded, if desired.

Where to Start

Even knowing how to revise, you still need to find a good place to begin. For this assignment, here are a few pointers for beginning a good expansion.

Choose Your Sentence

The first step, of course, is choosing which piece to revise.  Ideally, you want writing to be fun, so pick a story you'd like to work more on.  Then pick out a phrase which hints at something you feel is important to the story. A sentence like "I chewed on my pencil" probably won't give you much to work with. Ideally, something which reveals the deeper (possibly even darker) side to the protagonist is the best way to do. By showing us the protagonist, you'll reveal the conflict he or she must face.

Write Quickly

Don't spend too much time thinking about whether you've chosen well or not - just write. If you've chosen something that grabbed your attention, you'll find there's a reason for that interest.

Don't Be Afraid to Start Over

So you start your revision. And you find out your character seems kind of dull. And you really think the only redeeming quality left for this character is an affinity for well-chewed pencils. Go ahead and run with it:
I'd been gnawing on pencils ever since I was a little kid. It drove Mom nuts. She complained every time I bit off an eraser. Dad got in on the act after I got braces - he was afraid I'd snap the brackets off my teeth. And he was right, I did.

Ever since then, I've chewed my number-two's in private. I also took the corner desks in a classroom so I could turn to the wall and gnaw when no one was looking. And I wanted to do that now. But the light from the flying saucer illuminated everything. I had nowhere to go. And, checking the pockets of my bathrobe, I found no pencil.
Is it dorky? Sure. Aliens are here, and all this guy can think about is chewing a pencil. But it reveals something about him - we see here that he's shy, and that he has learned to hide his fears from his parents and friends. Metaphorically, we can see that the aliens are something else entirely - he can't hide his fears when they have their spotlights turned on. And this problem is so big that there's no way to let go of the fears. He's been caught unaware in his bathrobe - hence, he has no pencil.


I hope this answers some questions you have about revision and provides helpful direction.  For more examples of revision at work, please check out these articles from my science fiction blog: "Maria Villanueva - Story Openings for Happy Ever After" and "Selonge Naita, the Martian Spy."

If you have any questions, please let me know.

Happy Writing!


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