One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Landscape of Revision

A few weeks ago, after finishing another draft of my work in progress, I found myself once more at the edge of the forest, resisting the next leg of a seemingly unending journey, unsure of what kinds of confidence-gobbling monsters were waiting for me. Sometimes the landscape of revision smells too strongly of fear.

 But after spending last weekend with six like-minded Bay Area writers at a novel revision retreat workshop led by Darcy Pattison, I am now looking forward to the terrain.

I have to admit that I went into the workshop with my doubts—would I really hear anything new? I was ready to clench my jaw and roll my eyes when asked for the twelve-hundredth time; what does your character want? What stands in her way? What does she try and fail and try and fail and try and fail to do to get what she wants? (Isn’t it obvious? She wants…you know, love, happiness, the same thing we all want. Life gets in the way. Right?)

But Darcy didn’t ask these questions. Instead, she led us through a systematic and uncompromising process—a series of steps I’d never taken. An unexpected revision landscape, new and different from any I had walked before.

She wisely started out telling us what to expect in the learning curve department, describing the stages of learning as: unconscious incompetence (you don’t know and you don't know you don’t know) conscious incompetence (you know you don’t know) conscious competence (you know and you know you know) and then the ultimate goal which is unconscious competence (you know but you don’t know that you know because the skills and knowledge are automatic and at work in your subconscious.)

Well. That’s different. And hearing it, we all knew it was true.

The next eye-opening step was to analyze our shrunken manuscripts—we had all followed directions and arrived with our 250+ page novels shrunken down to 30 pages through reducing the type face and in some cases, dividing it into two columns per page. From there we went to work with brightly colored markers tracking narrative arc, macro and micro plotting, emotional arc over the entire story and by scene, and dialogue.  Standing back and taking in this map of our stories revealed some surprising unconscious incompetence—in other words, the places that needed work. Now we knew what we didn’t know. But never fear; Darcy reminded us that the first step to fixing something is figuring out what needed fixing.

Besides strategies for strengthening plot and developing scenes, her method offers many new and powerful tools for deepening and texturing. One tool involves using word connotations to add depth. Word connotations help you make word choices that reinforce the story and deepen meaning.  Darcy suggests having word banks and regularly depositing words that fit your story. They will be invaluable when you start considering narrative patterning and progressions.

Wait, what? I cannot explain here what it took us the whole weekend to understand but for any writer looking for a fresh and useful way to revise, I highly recommend going to Darcy’s wonderful website to see what she has to say about these tools and more. Then buy her workbook and use it. Or better yet, gather a group of like-minded writers and have Darcy come for a weekend writer’s retreat.

The landscape of revision is a rocky one. But with a goodie bag, a compass and a readable map, the crossing doesn’t look so bad.

Take Good Care,



  1. I've been SO wanting to take Darcy's workshop! I just got her book but haven't cracked it open yet. I hear nothing but raves about her workshop and hope to find my way into one some day soon! Glad to hear you found it helpful! Here's to writing, here's to revision, here's to new landscapes! (Miss you!)

  2. Miss you too Debbi! I'd love to hear more about your new landscape and if and how it's influencing your writing and revising.

  3. Replies
    1. It was! It's so great having new tools.

  4. I'm so glad you touched on the competence point Darcy made at the workshop. I love your writing and how you shared our wonderful revision retreat weekend!

    1. Thank you Annemarie. And thanks for framing the levels of knowing with the word competence. So often it takes me time to hear something and I have finally come to see that we can only understand what we're ready to understand, that we have to reach a certain level of competence before some of the advice and tools we've received are of use.

  5. Brava, Sharry! I too, loved the narrative patterning Darcy spoke of, especially while she narrated the patterns while watching the movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. I pay attention to these in my writing, but did not have a name for it. Sometimes that helps... to be able to "name" what you are doing. It's like an endowed object, but how it travels throughout your story adds depth and dimension.

    1. Yes! Yes! Having the name makes it a conscious tool. I need those names to write down and then check off my to-do list.

  6. Thanks you, Sharry, for this accurate description of the feelings surrounding re-revising: mainly fear. Darcy was a fabulous guide through this landscape and I was so fortunate to have great travel buddies to help me "name" the new terrain.

    1. Fear is the greatest source of writer's block, at least for me. Fear of getting lost. Fear of being gobbled up. That's why we need each other, need to remind each other to gobble the fear before it gobbles us.

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