Wednesday, July 21, 2010

David Michael Kaplan, Revision

We’ve seen editing tackled by professional editors (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) and by a literary agent (The First Five Pages). Both perspectives are useful. But David Michael Kaplan’s Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction (Cincinnati, 1997; 226 pp.) is a book on editing written by a creative writer.

The result is an excellent volume, which adds an important dimension to the discussion: while editors and agents focus on what to edit, Kaplan also tackles how and when to edit. These may seem like trifles, but they aren’t: you can revise before writing (by planning), you can revise while writing (for instance, I’ve chosen midway that another point of view was better, so do I go back and correct everything I’ve written?), and of course you can revise after you’ve written (even after you’ve published). Kaplan goes through all these issues, and offers both encouragement and knowhow. He’s been down that road; he knows it’s hard. He often proves his points by showing you how he has revised his own short stories (several of which are quite good). As I said, an excellent book.

Unlike most writing books these days, Revision focuses specifically on short stories. Sure, sometimes Kaplan refers to writing novels. But short stories are his real concern, and this directs his approach and informs many of his suggestions.

Perhaps the most helpful of all the lessons of the book is the order in which he suggests writers should revise. As Kaplan says, “many beginning writers assume” that the whole of revision is “stylistics, or fine-tuning prose for power and punch” (175). He has interesting things to say about that, with a list of errors to look out for (Kaplan’s Laundry List of Stylistic Glitches, he calls it). And stylistics is important: choosing the right words, avoiding the clutter that flags a text as amateurish. Recall Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, and remember how easily an editor can reject a manuscript just by looking at the use of adjectives and adverbs. Kaplan doesn’t deny that. What he says is that writers should worry about it at the end, after revising other things, like “character, conflict, plot, pacing” (175). It’s a waste of time to spend hours on a paragraph only to cut it because it no longer fits with the revised plot. Go through all the other stuff first, and turn to specific language last—even if editors can pick at the language first, with a lasting effect on your manuscript.

It’s a great book. While other books on revision help writers and at the same time assist editors and agents, this is a writer’s book for writers. If you don’t take revision seriously, Kaplan explains why you should. If you do, Kaplan offers a sympathetic but critical tour through what revision entails.

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