How to Revise

Here’s the problem. I’m writing this story about four girls at a school for witchcraft. And one day, when I’m too tired to do anything else, I describe that school for witchcraft. And I look at that description and think, that’s boring.

And I look at the plot so far, and I think, what happened to all the magical stuff? Because the magical stuff happened in the earlier posts, when I was just randomly describing the Other Country, where Thea was encountering Mother Night, and The Gentleman, and Morgan, and Merlin (those green eyes . . .), and the obnoxious cat Cordelia. That was the interesting part. When I was writing in fragments, my writing was better, more interesting, more poetic. As soon as I started to write a connected plot, my writing became less descriptive. It became โ€“ I’m just being honest here โ€“ sort of blah.

If I were writing a book, I would get the plot down first, and then I would go back through each scene and make it more interesting. I would revise everything. I can’t do that here.

But there are some things I need to rethink.

Here are the principles on which I want to rethink them:

1. I need cool stuff. What did I do with all the cool stuff? Well, the problem was that all the cool stuff, the house made with dragon bones, the white-haired librarians noiselessly walking its corridors, the automata tending the gardens, were all in the Other Country. Everything magical happened there. That’s stupid.

2. I need pretty prose. I need to write the way I write, the Theodora Goss way. Well, all right, a Theodora Goss way, because there are different ways I write. But I need some poetry in that story. It’s there in the shorter, experimental segments. Not in anything I’ve written recently.

So what to do? Well, I have a couple of ideas. First, I could move Miss Lavender’s into the Other Country. Just move the whole school, playing fields and all. You would still open the wrought-iron gate and walk down Hecate Lane, but you would emerge in a field, with the school and its gardens in front of you. So I could make the school less ordinary. It would be stone, and shaped like a castle with peaked turrets, and I could add in some dragon bones. And then it would actually make sense that Miss Gray hid Mouse at Miss Lavender’s, because Samael Sitgreaves was banished from the Other Country. I could also create a brother school, a boys’ school called Paracelsus Academy. It would be up in the mountains. One of Emma’s brothers, the older one, could go there.

Then, I would need to differentiate between the girls, get a better sense of who they are. Emma is a Gaunt, but a sort of anti-Gaunt, not at all like her family. Kind and considerate, in an automatic sort of way simply because that’s who she is, a romantic, plump and the prettiest of the girls, with long blond hair. Mouse is thin, pale, with white hair because her mother is one of the Wild Women of the Forest, who wear white dresses and shoes of bark. She is timid, diffident, smart. But she can be fiercely proud. Matilda and Thea. There’s the problem: I wasn’t originally going to have Thea. But I started writing about the Shadowlands, which was really about depression (since I was dealing with it at the time), and then Mrs. Moth and Miss Gray came into it, and then it was obvious that Thea had gone to school with the other girls. Matilda was originally my mouthy, athletic narrator. A brunette, short hair. So who is Thea? I think she has to be a sort of me, I don’t think I can avoid that. Red hair, bookish, sensible. (Of course, they’re really all me. They have to be, otherwise I couldn’t write them.)

They’re teenagers, so I need romantic complications. Everyone has a crush on The Gentleman, that raven-haired trickster. But he’s not available, he’s the companion of Mother Night. He has been since before the dawn of time. Of course there’s Merlin, and he’s part of Thea’s story. I already have some lovely complications there, because if you remember, he gave his heart to Mother Night for safekeeping after having it broken by a certain medieval princess. The question is, where has she put it? And what can he do without it? I think he’s just going to be trouble for Thea, at least until the end of the story. And she’s going to spend a lot of time thinking she dislikes him, and he’s going to spend a lot of time teasing her, while the other girls look on exasperated. (“Why do you like him?” said Matilda. “I don’t,” said Thea. Matilda snorted. “Yeah, right.”) Someone has to have a crush on Emma’s older brother, and I think that will be Mouse. But he will flirt with Matilda or Thea for most of the story. I think I might have to do something fairly traditional, like have him be wounded and have Mouse rescue him, for him to finally notice her.

Matilda will need someone really quite extraordinary. Really as obnoxious as she is. What I need is some version of Loki, I think. Lucas? Emma’s brother’s friend, who turns out to be โ€“ you know, I don’t know what yet. Lucas Grimm. I do like the names, I have to say. Gaunt, Tillinghast, Mandragora. Proper witch names.

And what about Emma, the romantic? I was sitting here thinking, finishing my Brown Rice Teriyaki (see yesterday’s post about never having the time for a proper meal), and it occurred to me that her love interest should be dead. A ghost? Or something like that, because I don’t think death means the same thing in Mother Night’s world as it does in ours. Death is certainly not an end, merely a transformation. And the thing about witches is, they make that transformation knowingly, voluntarily.

Some of the loves should be hopeless: I think Emma’s will be. Some of the loves should be a very bad idea: Matilda’s, since I think that after all, Lucas isn’t really Lucas Grimm but Lucas Grimsby, Leonora’s nephew. And one thing we need to find out is that the weak, whining Leonora is stronger and sneakier than she seems. (I know, I’m giving away the plot here. Or maybe not. I mean, I haven’t written it yet.) Some of the loves should be true and sweet and strong: Mouse and Whatsisname Gaunt. Alasdair, named after his grandfather, I think. And some of them should seem impossible, but be possible after all: Thea’s, because nothing is ever impossible, with magic. Although sometimes you have to accept that the love of your life will go off before breakfast to fix the timestream.

So what to do next? Well, next, the girls have to go to the studio of Tollie Mandragora. Which is going to be all steampunked out. Where shall I set that, in Boston or the Other Country? I don’t know, I’m still trying to figure all these locations out. But I know that I have to make the whole thing weirder. Because blah is not an option, you know?

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12 Responses to How to Revise

  1. I loved this line: “Although sometimes you have to accept that the love of your life will go off before breakfast to fix the timestream.” Yeah, isn’t that the way. And blah is not an option. This whole entry kept me turning pages, even though there was only the one page. I like the school in the Other Country. I like the studio in Boston, for contrast, but maybe there is some kind of a leak between in there. It sounds like a lot of fun.

  2. Sofia says:

    This is timely for me, since I spent the morning revising the first 50 pages of a novel!

    The poetry/plot dichotomy intrigues me. On the one hand, I agree that it’s usually best to bash out the plot and fix the language later. On the other hand, sometimes I get stuck because my blah writing is bumming me out, and I have to cut and start again. The only golden rule seems to be that no matter how convinced you are that you’ve finally “got it,” revision will make your work stronger.

    Thanks for being so open about the process–for letting total strangers in on the experience. (Think French for a sec: experience and experiment in one word.) You are brave.

  3. JV Mallory says:

    All I can say is, I’m really looking forward to whatever you do with this story, because it’s stolen my heart and carried it off.

  4. Herbert West says:

    The problem is you’re writing a novel, not a story. Take heart and write the novel.

  5. Thanks, all! I’m so glad you like what I’m doing. The problem, of course, is that I don’t have time to write a novel at the moment. (I’m actually taking a few minutes from revising a 100-page chapter to write this comment.) So what I’m doing here will be narrative and meta-narrative, in fragments I’m afraid. Until May 1st, and then the bulk of what I’m working on will be done, and I’ll start a novel for real.

    And then hopefully there will be many novels. But this is the one I’m learning on, and I’m glad that it’s providing inspiration to some of you. (And I do like my characters. Thea my alter ego, the mysterious Mrs. Moth, that incorrigible Merlin, etc. So the story will continue . . .)

  6. Darin says:

    I really like the way you approach revision. I’ve never thought of it that way. For me it’s always been about language.

  7. Thanks, Darin! Holly Black once posted something that really hit home for me: think about what you like to read in stories, and then put that into your own stories. That’s the problem I was having with this one. I thought, would I actually want to read this? What in here would capture my attention? I think I’m pretty good at making up cool stuff, like in a story of mine called “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold.” Mother Night’s house is actually modeled on the house in that story. So I knew I needed more cool stuff. And I knew I wasn’t really getting my characters across.

    It sounds as though you’re a writer too. Hope your own writing is going well! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. p.s. I do know what you mean about language, though. That’s important to me as well. My favorite writers tend to be wonderful prose stylists, the John Crowleys and Jeff Fords, etc. (I’m sure you’re heard of them . . . )

  9. Darin says:

    Crowley is a favorite. Do you know his story “Missolonghi 1824”? I missed it somehow until a dear friend pointed it out to me.

  10. I love that story! My absolute favorite Crowley, and one of my favorite stories of all time. You have good taste. (And so does your friend.) ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Maery Rose says:

    Iโ€™m going through one of your difficulties with my book – the separate pieces are not playing nice with each other. I like the sounds of your story. Iโ€™m interested in Theaโ€™s escape from Shadowlands (Iโ€™m assuming there is an escape).

  12. Hi Maery! The Shadowlands are the reality we live in, our world, or at least that’s the way I’m thinking of them right now. I don’t know, perhaps I’ll rethink the term as I write the story. I’m already changing things on the fly. Like, I think there need to be two keys . . . So, I’m not sure there’s an escape? I’ll have to think about that.

    I understand those difficulties, when the parts of the book don’t play well together! What I’m finding is that characters drive and change my plot, so I have to go back and replot. Which is hard to do when I’m writing in serial form. But this is just an experiment, as much a series of posts about how to write a story (or novel, as Herbert points out) as it is a story or novel itself.

    I think I’ll always be including metacommentary along with the narrative . . .

    The best of luck with your book!

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