On Knowing What You Don’t Know

Today finds me working on the fourth quarter of the Oath of Blood rewrite. I am about halfway finished with this part of the manuscript, and my goal for the end of the week is to have all of the fourth quarter of the story in that state.

As you might ascertain, I have solved my plot woes for the most part. Having done so, I’m now working my way backwards from the end, making sure things pan out as they should. That means, in some cases, yet another rework of earlier material, but that’s just part of the game. And as I’ve finally—finally—settled on the retool of the plot, it strikes me that I am over the worst of the bumps. It’s just a matter of applying the hands to the keys with consistency.

This can’t be entirely attributed to my own persistence, however. I have had a great deal of help from other people, and the solutions would not have presented themselves without that help.

Outside perspective seems to come up often in the discussion of indie writing, and for good reason. When an author chooses to pursue publication outside the realm of traditional publishing, he or she leaves the dedicated infrastructure of that world behind. Unfortunately, that seems to mean that critical aspects of the process sometimes get left out, especially when it comes to revising.

I suspect (hope) it doesn’t need to be said, but self-editing, running spell check a second time, and asking your friends for general input is not a revision. It might be a start, but it will never catch the major problems that afflict a narrative for several reasons.

First, you can’t see what you don’t know is there. In my case, I’ve had Oath in my head for over a year now, and I’ve had the characters in my head for much longer than that (the hero, in his very first incarnation, dates back to 2000). By now I’m so comfortable with the idea of both the characters and the story that a lot of things make a casual kind of sense to me that would never pass muster with a reader. So as a writer, I’m mostly blind to problems arising from these things.

Second, as much as we enjoy knowing someone likes our work, “I liked it!” isn’t helpful feedback in most cases. For a work to be at its best, you have to know the specifics of both what’s wrong with it and what’s right. Which parts really grab the reader’s attention? Which parts bog the reader down? What doesn’t make sense? What seems out of place? And—above all—why?

Third, proofreading is not the same thing as revising. While a solid copy edit is a must, even if your grammar, syntax, and such is perfect, if the content of the text isn’t what it should be, you haven’t eliminated the worst of your problems. They’re just…pretty problems.

No amount of self-justification or soliciting of thoughts from friends and family will help that—well, unless your friends and family are writers or editors and have no problems shredding your work, at any rate. The bottom line is that addressing these things requires an experienced and uncompromising outside reader who will pull no punches about what’s actually on the page and who will hang your darlings up by their heels and gut them without mercy.

As horrible as that sounds, it’s a good thing. Consider:

Back in the spring, I was very confident I had Oath of Blood nailed down. I was sure of myself and of my work—and to be fair to that earlier draft and to Me-Of-The-Past, it wasn’t really the most horrid thing ever written in the English language. But it did have more than its fair share of problems, and they were things I had never even imagined were problematic. They seemed solid and straightforward to me, but to others, they were confusing or disjointed or just flat-out wrong.

Once I knew this, though, I couldn’t let those issues pass by unaddressed, so the ongoing journey through Rewrite Hell began. I’ll cop to having been resentful at first—I mean, I made good grades in English. I’ve been to grad school (for English) and I made good grades there, too. People have always told me, “Hey, Lisa, you’re good at writing.” So how could my work have been problematic?

But I also tutor and proofread for a living, and I’ve had clients make the same protestations to me about work that was plainly troubled. So, in spite of my bruised ego, I (somehow) trusted my editor and outside readers and dug in.

As a result, Oath of Blood has shaped up to be a wholly different beast. It still features the same characters and carries the same general theme, but there have been major changes. The ending is very different, some characters’ fates are radically changed, and the plot is far more coherent. These changes, while they were hard to enact on account of my attachment to the earlier draft, make it much more the story I wanted to tell than the story I originally told could have ever been.

And it’s only because I have sought outside help that this has come to pass.

I cringe now to consider how things would have gone if I’d dashed off a couple of grammatical corrections, polished my word choice a bit, and called myself done. Yes, I would have completed the book “on time,” but in light of the experience I’ve had rewriting, I believe the end product would have been a heap of garbage.

Harsh? Maybe, but also true.

And the manuscript is not out of the woods yet. It may go to a trusted fellow writer in the near future and come back cut to ribbons. It may make it to my editor and experience a similar fate. But even so, if it does, that will be because it still needs more work, and I’ll not be shy about doing that work.

Cranky, perhaps, but not shy.

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