Listening to Voices
Looking over my shoulder the other day, my son asked me if the scene I was revising was the scene I’d revised most in the entire novel, because, according to him, every time he looks over my shoulder, that’s the scene I’m on. Frankly, at this point, I have no idea which scene I’ve revised the most. All I know is the scene needed more work.
Here’s how one of my scenes evolves through revision. At first, the characters say somewhat random things that I write down, just grateful to get something on the page. If the scene doesn’t end up cut, I revise so that the characters convey information and emotion I need to build the plot, connecting to elsewhere in the novel, regardless of how heavy-handed the questions and answers can be. The scene still might get cut or moved, so I use the tinkering as part of the process of getting to know the novel.
Then, eventually, I reach the point where I know a scene is staying for good. We’ve reached a new level of understanding now, my characters and I, so when I slow down to listen to them, they speak like themselves. They’re direct in some places and sarcastic in others. The silences land where someone is taking time to figure out how to reply to an uncomfortable question. I hear the thinking of my narrator, and how her thoughts are different from what she says aloud. Sometimes her thoughts needs to be spelled out, but more often I pare back the thinking so that the pace of the conversation can reach my ear at the right tempo. I take risks with the humor, and experiment with those off-hand pings when a character accidentally drops that something matters more to him than he can say. I keep revising and fine-tuning and rereading until the scene feels right. Then I leave it for another time when I can come back to it with fresh eyes and ears.
It’s an interesting phase of revising, this time when I’m listening to the voices closely. I really do sit there, staring at the words, testing the different effects of replying “I don’t know,” or “It’s remotely possible.” I’ve always liked this phase, fortunately, because there’s a lot of it to do.