44. Revising with spine and ribs

Michael Crichton says “books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It’s one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

As promised last week, I’m devoting this post to the feared and hated topic of revision and a great approach to revision that I learnt from the University of Iowa course that has now finished. The take-home messages were:

  • Writing is only the beginning; where the real work and the real fun of it comes is in the rewriting
  • Let time pass between edits – part of writing is not writing
  • Build the rewrite in “layers” – focussing on one thing at a time for each edit
  • Enjoy the problem-solving – failure leads to mastery – the more problems you solve, the better you get at it

I got really excited about a method for structuring the revision process, which I’m going to call the spine and ribs method. It was proposed by one of the teaching assistants, Christa Fraser. But this is my own adaptation of it, for whose faults no blame attaches to Christa. The method involves two passes, and each is structured as a set of questions. I’ll lay out the questions here. Then I’ll illustrate its use with the revision I made of a story about a shoe shine guy who has an encounter with a mysterious customer.
Pass One

  1. What is the “soul” of the piece?
    What are you trying to convey and what concerns were working there of which you were not fully conscious?
  2. Who are the main characters and what is the setting here?
  3. What are the primary obsessions, preoccupations, desires, fears, obligations, etc. of our characters?

Once you’ve answered these questions, in what ways are these things driving or pulling the narrative forward? These are the long lines or spine of the story

4. What are some of the short lines of narrative tension that are already there?

Now that you have identified the spine of the narrative, are some of the existing short lines of narrative tension now incongruous with the re-aligned story? Are there new short lines, or ribs, that are opening up and wanting to align themselves along the spine of the story?

You revise the piece using these questions. After the story has been realigned so that you feel that you can see the true shape of the story as it wants to and ought to be, you return for Pass Two.

Pass Two
1. Record and adjust the timeline
The story’s timeline may extend earlier than the earliest point of present moment action and later than the last moment of present action. Can you explore references to the backstory, or hopes and plans that extend beyond the action?

2. Adjust the arc of understanding.
Are you explaining too much? Too little?

3. Polish the mirrors in the mirrored hall of infinity: moments that endlessly reflect
What are the motifs? Where do they repeat? Which parts should mirror each other? Which parts should be prefigured? This is where you play with structure.

4. Polish the burrs off
Read the piece aloud and listen to the rhythm. You’ll hear the false notes, unnatural syntax, incorrect words or phrases, repetitive elements, and anything else that will disrupt your reader’s experience of the narrative at a sound and language level.

5. Share the work with friends whose feedback you trust

6. Repeat all these steps until you think the story is ready

7. Put the story away for months.

8. Repeat all of the above until you think the story or longer work of fiction is ready for submission or publication.
The spine and ribs revision method applied

I used this method for the last assignment of the course, which was to revise a story we had already written. I revised a story about Horacio, a shoe-shine guy. Horacio has a simple moral worldview that good people are recognisable by the care they lavish on their shoes. He has an encounter with an enigmatic drifter, who he sees initially as a devil and then as an angel. An apparent miracle occurs which forces Horacio to question his morality.

I was really pleased and surprised by the result. In pass one, I came to recognise that in addition to Horacio’s worldview there was another idea lurking: an exploration of the way we try to fit events to our worldview. I considered whether I needed to give Horacio more of a backstory, to explain his morality. I also considered whether I needed to give a clearer explanation of the drifter, and whether he really was a messianic figure, or whether he was manipulating Horacio. The main conclusion was that I needed to give the story more room to breathe – to draw out the conflict between Horacio and the drifter. I also moved the devil/angel definition of the drifter from the narrator’s voice to Horacio’s voice.

In pass two, I had a lot of fun. At this point I layered in a lot more complexity that had been lurking in the story as subtext without me being aware of it. In particular, I saw that the events which challenge our worldview with good outcomes need not themselves be good.
I gave Horacio a backstory, tracing his morality to his flinty mother who scoured him of religious doubt. I considered, and rejected, extending to story to what happened after Horacio’s revelation.

The work on structure and motif in the second pass was really the glory of the thing for me, perhaps because playing with structure is the bit of revision I enjoy most. I recognised motifs not only of devils and angels, and good shoes/good men, but also of burnishing/scouring and aridity that I hadn’t been conscious of. I saw how I could connect them more clearly. I saw that I could prefigure the climax (hopefully, without it being obvious). I gave Horacio a more explicit revelation that good shoes did not necessarily imply a good person. I altered the ending so that it echoed the beginning. Interestingly, this changed the story but not the subtext. In the original version, Horacio leaves his shoe-shine stand and follows the drifter. In the revised version, he refuses. But this didn’t matter because it still underscored Horacio’s revelation.

I shared the rewrite with two other writers on the course before submitting it. One wanted a tighter structure and deletions, and the other a greater opening up. I tried two different approaches to structure and I now had two different versions of the piece! One was narratively more straightforward but eliminated some of the backstory. The other was more convoluted but denser. My head opted for the first version, my heart for the second. In the end, I went for the first version when I realised that my heart was attached to a piece of descriptive writing that didn’t really move the story forward.

I’m really pleased with the result. One reader said “you have deepened and expanded this into a lovely parable”, and another described it as a “richly intelligent read, full of a kind of tenderness”. Now I just need to leave it to infuse and mature in a deep recess of my hard drive before I return to it.

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