In Mexico there’s a popular tourist stop called La Bufadora. It’s billed as the world’s biggest blowhole. The tide rolls in to an underwater cave, and pressure blasts a huge geyser to the surface. Then the water subsides until the next surge.
Oohs and ahhs abound.
No two eruptions are alike. Sometimes the geyser is big and splashy, other times it’s more subdued.
The quiet parts are pretty much the same, though, as we wait until the next surge, anxious to see what it’ll be like.
This oceanic performance is a good picture of what the writing life should feel like. Outbursts of creativity—sometimes big, sometimes little, producing oohs and ahhs of discovery—followed by a mellow assessment of what you’ve got.
One mistake authors make, however, is to turn off the geyser of imagination completely during those quiet revision periods. Methodical analysis takes over, and there’s very little spontaneous spray.
But the best self-editing happens when you can put a little more Bufadora into the process. Here are some ways to do just that.
1. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF LOW TIDE.
You’ve finished your first draft of a novel or short story. You’ve written hot. Now you’re ready to revise cool with the help of creative spurts.
I advocate that you wait at least two weeks before you do a first read-through of a draft (in hard copy). Then, go through it as fast as possible, as if you were a reader, resisting the urge to tweak anything just yet.
Once that’s done, now it’s time to begin the planning stage by jotting some notes to yourself on the biggest issues you saw.
Did the overall story make sense? Is there enough at stake in the plot? Did the characters jump off the page? Are there obvious dull parts?
And so on.
Make a list of those issues and prioritize them. This is the analytical half of your brain taking charge. Let it. It has been waiting a long time to help you with all that fun you had writing the story.
Now you can plan your revisions accordingly. As you go through the draft, looking to cut and add, be ready to turn on La Bufadora.
2. INVITE THE FLOW TO RETURN.
As Ray Bradbury says, don’t rewrite—relive. Your fiction is about creating emotion in the reader, and you can’t do that well without feeling it yourself.
If you did your job right when you were writing the first draft, you opened a vein many times. You didn’t just write the story—you felt it. Then, as you were assessing your first draft in the previous step, it was necessary to achieve distance from your work, to let your quiet, analytical side take over as you decided what needed to be done. But now, to do the best revision possible, you need to recapture the feeling you had while writing your draft in the first place.
One way to do this is through music. Find several pieces that move you to feelings consistent with your book. Movie soundtracks are an especially fertile option. Compile a playlist of songs that evoke the mood—or, better yet, a medley of the various moods—you hope to convey in your story, and use it as background each time you sit down to self-edit.
For example, if the scene I’m working on is one of great heart and emotion, I have songs from one of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives, at the ready. I’ve found the haunting strains of the To Kill a Mockingbird soundtrack equally effective at these times. But when, as is often the case, I’m working on a suspenseful section, I favor a slew of scores I’ve compiled from Alfred Hitchcock films and other thrillers.
Music reaches a part of your mind that you usually have inactive when analyzing. So wake it up and put it to work with tunes.
Another way to recapture the feel of your book is to create a visual representation. Some writers I know compile a collage of pictures on a big board using downloaded images or clippings from magazines. One look at this creates a feeling, and the feeling translates to the page.
Experiment with various ways to relive your manuscript. It was alive as you wrote it. Keep it running around as you revise.
3. CHANNEL THE POWER AS IT BUILDS.
In the old railroad days, a stoker would shovel coal into the engine fire to keep it burning hot. There are a number of ways to get fresh heat into your revisions. One of the best is to analyze each scene in your manuscript and determine if it’s strong or weak. A strong scene will have the following:
- A single point of view
- A clear objective for the character
- Opposition (conflict) to the objective
- A struggle that is felt emotionally by the POV character
- An outcome that forces the reader to read on.
A weak scene will usually manifest itself by lacking one or more of these elements.
Once you’ve made a list of strong and weak scenes (with complete honesty!), you have decisions to make. Start with the weakest scene and cut it. Cut it even if you think you can’t do without it.
How’s that feel? Painful? Don’t worry, your book is better off without that scene.
Now move on to the next weak scene. Should you cut that too?
If it’s too much for you, and you want to keep it, then stoke the fire. That means you find the heart of your scene and heat it up.
Every scene should have a heart, the moment that gives it a reason to exist. For example, say you’ve got a scene in which Dirk walks into his supervisor’s office to ask for a raise. The first draft of the scene includes discussion of work, Dirk’s satisfaction with his job, and the supervisor’s challenges with the division.
Is any of this material dull? Cut it.
Then comes the heart of the scene:
Dirk cleared his throat. “Sir, the main reason I came in was, well, I really was hoping I could get a raise. You see, my wife is expecting and there are challenges, as I’m sure you’re aware. Plus, I’ve been here over a year now.”
“I understand, Dirk,” Roger said. “But I’m afraid I have some distressing news.”
“You see, the word has come from upstairs that everyone is going to have to increase their productivity by 25 percent. Those that don’t will be eased out.”
“Oh my,” Dirk said. “Well, I guess that’s that.”
What can we do to fire this up? Try this:
Look at the moments just before and just after the heart of the scene. How can you ratchet up the emotional intensity? Feel it. Feel it with the character.
How can you increase the conflict in the encounter? Close your eyes and relive the scene in the movie theater of your imagination. What actions can the characters take that are just more?
Dirk cleared his throat. His palms were sweating and his heart kicked his chest. He was sure Roger could hear it beating, like he was some Salvation Army drummer parading outside the office.
This was ridiculous. He had to ask. They needed the money. With the baby on the way, he just had to get this raise.
“Sir, the main reason I came in is, well, I really was hoping I could get a raise. You see, my wife is expecting and there are––”
“You think I care about your home life?” Roger said. “This is a business. If you can’t hack it––”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t hack it.”
“I mean, I’ve been here over a year now.”
“Hand me a violin. Look, you might as well know. The word from upstairs is that everyone is going to have to increase productivity by 25 percent. If you don’t, you hit the bricks.”
Dirk tried to say something but his mouth was too dry. His tongue lay there like a tree sloth. He started to shake. He looked for something to stab Roger with.
Fire. Keep looking for it and feeling it.
4. LET THE GEYSER LOOSE.
Sometimes you find areas in your book that need expansion. You might require more description, or a deeper exploration of an emotion. Maybe you need to stretch the tension in a scene.
Wherever you need to add or spice up material, channel La Bufadora by overwriting. Gush out the words this way:
- Identify the place where you need to add or rework prose. Mark it with a notation such as a letter or number in the margin that will uniquely identify this scene.
- Open a new document, or take out a fresh page. At the top, put the same notation to show that this file corresponds to the place marked in your manuscript.
- Now write for five to 10 minutes without stopping, concentrating only on creating as much new material as you can. Overwrite.
Let’s say I’m writing a hard-boiled detective story with a private investigator as the narrator. He’s come to an apartment building in L.A. to question the manager about a woman who’s gone missing. Here’s the original scene I’d flagged for a rework:
I knocked on the door. A moment later it opened and a man filled it. A very large man.
“Yeah?” he said in a deep, scratchy voice.
“I’m looking for a woman named Song Li,” I said. “She used to live here.”
He gave me a hard look. “Who are you?”
Now, in rewriting this particular section, I’ve decided I want to focus on the description of the man. So on a clean page, I overwrite for a few minutes without stopping, and let my imagination go where it wants to:
He was a large man, a big man, a blimp-sized guy in a T-shirt that cried for mercy against his massive gut, and shoulders that seemed like roof beams and eyes the exact shape of pizza ovens, or manhole covers or truck tires. He could’ve doubled for Rhode Island or cast a shadow across the city at sunrise. Lay him on his back and float him, and you could take a party to Catalina on him. I’m talking big, and massive and enormous and all those things.
And so on. The great thing is that intentionally overwriting brings up all manner of surprises, most of which you’ll not use. But in the pile you’ll pull out a gem that you will want to keep. It might be only one line or word, but that’s enough.
In this case, for some reason, I like the Rhode Island reference, and comparing the eyes to pizza ovens (I’m not sure the latter is perfectly logical, but it’s fresh, at least to me). So my scene would now begin:
I knocked on the door. A moment later it opened and a man filled it. He could have doubled for Rhode Island. His eyes were the size of pizza ovens.
In this way, the geyser approach can lead to revisions that are much stronger than text you might have reworked while working in your original document and from an analytical frame of mind.
5. USE THE BEST OF BOTH TIDES.
Your main job as a writer is to transport the reader to a fictional world, as in a dream. Enable the suspension of disbelief by creating a story world that is every bit as vivid as the one we all inhabit. In shaping your manuscript into something that accomplishes all this and more, embrace the ebb and flow of a revision process that maximizes both creative surges and quiet analysis. Start with these two methods that use the best of both tides to your manuscript’s advantage:
A crucial part of the revision process involves making sure all your details are as strong as they possibly can be, that no word is underutilized or wasted.
Take, for instance, this paragraph of vanilla backstory:
Some time after his father’s death, Bobby fell in love with a bike in a store window. He hinted to his mother about the bike in every way he knew, and finally pointed it out to her one night when they were walking home from the movies.
That’s fine as far as it goes. It’s not going to hurt anybody. But look how much more alive and real it sounds when Stephen King does it in Hearts in Atlantis:
Eight years after his father’s death, Bobby fell violently in love with the 26-inch Schwinn in the window of the Harwich Western Auto. He hinted to his mother about the Schwinn in every way he knew, and finally pointed it out to her one night when they were walking home from the movies (the show had been The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which Bobby didn’t much understand but liked anyway, especially the part where Dorothy McGuire flopped back in a chair and showed off her long legs).
Note the specificity about the timing of his father’s death, the kind of bike, the name of the store. And then King not only mentions the name of the movie, but also a particular scene that got to Bobby and thus characterizes him a bit, too.
It’s this feeling of richness that King adds to the prose that makes his fiction seem more substantial than many other works in the same genre.
To achieve this, you can use a combination of the overwriting exercise from the previous section, and your analytical brain via research. For example, if you’re writing about a car from 1988, go do some research on popular makes and models, get details from websites or experts, and then layer in those details in a natural way.
And always be on the lookout for another kind of detail—the telling kind.
Find the telling detail.
A telling detail is a single descriptive element—a gesture, an image, an action—that contains a universe of meaning. Such details can illuminate, instantly, a character, setting or theme.
In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been dispatched by the head of the behavioral unit, Jack Crawford, to interview the notorious killer Hannibal Lecter.
Lecter, in his cell, asks to see her credentials. The orderly slips in Starling’s laminated ID card. Lecter looks it over, then:
“A trainee? It says ‘trainee.’ Jack Crawford sent a trainee to interview me?” He tapped the card against his small white teeth and breathed in its smell.
The tapping of the teeth is a telling detail, relating of course to their use in eating people such as census takers. Also, the smallness of the teeth gives off a feral vibe, adding to the menace.
But it’s the smelling of the card that really hits home. It tells of Lecter’s longing for a previous life, on the outside. It is a whiff of freedom.
Not only that, it signals his strange power to get to know people intimately without really knowing them at all. It’s creepy, touching and dangerous all at once.
In Raymond Carver’s story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” a husband and wife are having an intense conversation in the kitchen. The wife is reluctantly going over details of what happened at a party years ago, when another man took her for a ride in his car and kissed her. Observe the husband’s reaction as he listens:
He moved all his attention into one of the tiny black coaches in the tablecloth. Four tiny white prancing horses pulled each one of the black coaches and the figure driving the horses had his arms up and wore a tall hat, and suitcases were strapped down atop the coach, and what looked like a kerosene lamp hung from the side, and if he were listening at all it was from inside the black coach.
What is going on in the husband is revealed completely in the images and in how he relates to the images. There is no need for Carver to tell us how the husband feels.
That’s the power of telling details.
How do you find them? Follow these four steps.
- Identify a highly charged moment in your book.
- Make a list of possible actions, gestures or setting descriptions that might further reflect upon the scene to make it even stronger.
- Let the geyser loose and list at least 20–25 possibilities, as fast as you can. Remember, the best way to get good ideas is to come up with lots of options and then choose the ones you want to use.
- Write a long paragraph incorporating the best details from your list, then edit the text until it’s lean and potent. The telling detail works best when it is subtle and does all the work by itself.
And that’s how you get the best of both worlds of your brain. Use the powerful ebb and flow of La Bufadora as you revise, and your fiction may well make a splash.
Also, try this four-draft plan by James Scott Bell that takes your writing from an organic draft to polished story by considering:
Write Great Fiction: Revision And Self-Editing
Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Beginnings, Middles & Ends
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Conflict, Action & Suspense
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint
Writer’s Digest No More Rejections
Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner
Writer’s Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer’s Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer’s Digest 10 Years of Writer’s Digest on CD: 2000-2009