Polishing the Bones: What Home Remodeling Taught Me About Story Revision

After months of paint, plywood, and plaster dust, we’ve almost finished the renovations on our first house! Home wasn’t the only thing I’ve been remodeling: while sawdust swirled, I also revised Syzygy IV: Escape Velocity, which publishes on June 27. Rearranging words on a page may be less visibly messy than installing cabinets and putting up drywall, but I discovered many similarities in the two processes. With red pens or keystrokes instead of hammers and crowbars, we tear down paragraphs and rebuild entire scenes. It’s a feat of literary engineering to determine which pieces of the manuscript can change without destabilizing the entire story. So what happens when you remodel a story?

Visual representation of my rough drafts. Watch your head–lots of dangling participles.

1. You’re working within the limitations of an existing structure

We bought an imperfect house. Thanks to constraints of budgeting and geography, we didn’t have the option of building new. So we chose the house with the best “bones”. Under the worn cabinetry, alarming saffron interior paint, and tarnished brass fixtures lay a solid outline. Rough drafts are imperfect, too, but a writer must be able to see promise in the underlying structure. Sure, you could re-write your entire manuscript from page one, just like some buyers tear a house down to its foundations and rebuild from the ground up. But in both cases, it’s a tremendous undertaking and may not be an efficient use of resources. If the bones are solid, chances are you can make something great out of it with a little effort and imagination. Just remember…

2. It’s always a bigger job than you anticipate.

It’s a key plot element in every episode of every home-remodeling “reality” show: the builders discover some horrific flaw that could scuttle their design, destroy their budget, or both. The project is never as straightforward as it appears going in. Our kitchen renovation, projected at two to three weeks, took more than a month to complete. “I can have Retrograde Motion edited in two weeks,” I scoffed last year, and it ended up taking twice that long. Life factors can draw you away from writing, or the dreaded writer’s block can leave you banging your head on the keyboard for weeks, unable to resolve that one part. Don’t let setbacks discourage you. And for certain tasks…

3. Sometimes it’s worth hiring a professional 

Raised a frugal DIYer, I’ve always done my own painting, so when my Laddie suggested hiring a crew to paint our towering foyer and stairwell, I resisted the idea. But he made a compelling case that we lacked the proper equipment to do it ourselves and probably wouldn’t be pleased with the results. Indie authors are DIYers, too: we often act as a one-person publishing house, trying to manage every element of a project singlehandedly. If skills and resources permit, that’s great. For example, I have some experience with graphic design, so I enjoy creating my own book covers. But I would never dream of proofreading my own work. That requires an outsider’s eyes. There’s no shame in professional help for a task beyond your ability to do well. Your pro may tell you things you don’t want to hear, but weigh their input carefully and…

4. The result is always a little different than you imagined it.

Our original plan for the main level involved removing the wall between the kitchen and living room for a completely open-concept space. But, uh-oh—turned out that wall contained a lot of essential plumbing, and relocating it would have entailed tearing half the house apart. So we opted to keep part of the wall to accommodate the pipes and cut a large bar window between the two rooms. Although not what we’d initially envisioned, it turned out marvelously well. Storytelling is full of surprises like this, even for outliners like me. When I finished drafting Blue Karma, my first novel, I confided to my Laddie that the story turned out very differently than the vague impression in my head at the outset. His reply has become one of my guiding axioms for fiction writing: “just because it’s not the story you meant to tell doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.” Don’t be so fettered to your blueprints that you can’t flow with the inevitable surprises of the writing process. Scenes don’t always align the way you plan, irresistible new plot twists will emerge, and characters will exercise their notorious habit of evolving beyond authorial control. No matter how the story ultimately goes, take time for multiple rounds of revision, because…

5. Small changes can make a big difference.

Most of our house didn’t need drastic overhaul. With just new fixtures and fresh paint, we transformed the rooms from dingy and dated to a bright modern space.  I never knew the right lamp or a colorful accent wall could make such a tremendous impact. Final edits can have the same effect on your manuscript. One of the many apocryphal quotes attributed to Mark Twain states that “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Streamlining prose, shaping language in a striking way, and ensuring the storycraft is competently executed can elevate the completed work from solid to stunning.

Revision, whether of a house or a book, entails a lot of labor (and quite a bit of cursing). But if a story has “good bones” like our house does, polishing those bones will create a space that visitors won’t want to leave.

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