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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why CTRL-F is an important tool for revision

I took a break from revising Vanishing Act this week to revise "Cabrón." Yeah, I know, the logic doesn't make any sense there. Revising is horrible, tedious work no matter what it's on*. But I had three short stories lying around the house, getting fat, and I decided to send them on their way. I had to spiffy them up a bit first, though.

I finished my first draft of "Cabrón" after finishing the first draft of Vanishing Act and before beginning the revision process. So it's several months old, but it's actually the most recent thing I've completed. I haven't looked at it since August or so, and I'm actually pleasantly surprised, coming to it now. I had convinced myself that it wasn't very good, but it's actually not bad at all. I was shooting for horror and really ended up more at dark fantasy, but it's not a bad dark fantasy. This my completely made-up origin tale for the chupacabras, featuring a teenage Cuban girl at a Catholic boarding school in Puerto Rico in the 1960s, and the creepy Brother ("temporal coadjutor," if you want to get technical) she has a series of increasingly alarming run-ins with.

Anyway, I've made a list of phrases which recur in the text, and then I've been searching for them using CTRL-F, to see if I'm falling into language ruts of using the same phrasing multiple times for the exact same thoughts, or if I'm repeating words too close together. (I don't think I'm explaining that well, but it's two separate problems I'm looking for. One is a problem of unoriginal phrasing, which needs to be solved by coming up with different ways to say what I mean. The other is a problem of word repetition in a short space, which I can solve by using pronouns or alternate phrasings.) Repeated words and phrasing is a bugaboo of mine, and I rarely spot it without the aid of technology. The text basically becomes invisible to me, as the context sucks me in. A lot of people have the same difficulty when it comes to finding grammatical and syntax errors, as well as typos or misspellings. For some reason, those surface errors tend to jump right out at me, while repetition doesn't. When I use CTRL-F to jump from phrase to phrase, though, I rip the text out of its context. I can see how often I'm using the same words, and how closely together, and make a judgment call.

Today, though, I spotted an entirely different kind of mistake thanks to this technique. Again, though, it comes down to being able to take myself out of the spell of the story so I can see the mechanics more clearly.

In this scene, Cristina, the protagonist and narrator, is calling her mother on a payphone and asking her to take her out of the school. It's relatively early in the story, and she has a sense that something is wrong, but, of course, it's still too vague for the adults in her life to put any trust in it--especially because she's been trying to get out of this school for weeks. And she's somewhat hysterical and not doing the best job of explaining herself either.

I answered her in English, like I’d been doing since that first summer we spent in America, ten years ago. Eventually, she’d switch to English too, without realizing it, just like she always did. “Mami, you’ve got to take me out of here. I can’t stay.”

She sighed before replying. “¿Ahora porqué?”

Because something isn’t right here.”

¿Qué cosa?”

There’s a brother who spilled hot wax on me and was smelling me, and that girl who died in my room, and another girl passed out in the same room tonight.” Christ. It sounded weak even to me. Was I grasping at vague coincidences, trying to assemble them all into some sinister delusion? Was this all a product of my unhappiness here? No, it couldn’t be. “There’s something going on here,” I concluded weakly, trying to lend strength to my meager examples by naked assertion.

Several paragraphs further down--do you see what I'm doing? Now you don't have the context either, so you can see what my Alpha Reader and I missed on multiple read-throughs:

You said the same thing your first month at Brookshire Academy in Nueva York, but then you made friends and you got used to it. Have you made friends yet? Have you tried?”

Sí, Mami,” I said, wondering if Elena and Clara counted. “I’m not homesick. Something is really wrong here.”

Brothers smelling you and spilling wax on your hand,” she said. Even over a phone line, I heard the skepticism in her voice.

It's too bad I'm not writing an Encyclopedia Brown-type mystery here, no? "Who said anything about the wax being on my hands, mom?! ZOMG, you're in on it!!!1!!1!!ELEVEN!!!"

* That's why I've been slow to update. I haven't had much to say besides "Revising. It sucks." Over and over again.

EDIT TO ADD: In the above post, I use the phrase "using the same" twice. I use the phrase "but it's actually" twice, in consecutive sentences. I also have two consecutive sentences that begin with a single word, a comma, the word "though," and another comma.

See what I mean?

EDIT TWO: And in a meta-example of repetition, some of you may have noticed that the protagonist of Vanishing Act is named Chris, while the protagonist of "Cabrón" is Cristina. Um, yeah. That. I'll need to stay away from that name like forever, now. I chose the name Chris for VA pretty much randomly, as I recall. In "Cabrón," which, again, came later, I chose the name on purpose. There's a clinical vampire and, of course, much drinking of blood, and, near the end, Cristina uses her own blood as bait. The temptation to echo the Roman Catholic mass with Cristina saying, "Tome. Bebe." like some sort of twisted Christ-figure was too strong to ignore.

(And yes, the phrasing is anachronistic, because at the time in question, the mass would have been in Latin. I'm inclined to think it doesn't matter, since the reference is not intended to be overt.)


rebecca said...

Yep, I can now see why. Story sounds good.

I'm home today finalizing a short story for a class submission. Sat at my computer at 9:30 this morning, it's now 1:30. Four hours. Where does the time go when you're having fun =)

Joe Iriarte said...


Revising is a biatch, isn't it? I've now spent longer revising Vanishing Act then I spent writing it. This is a three day weekend for me, and I know tomorrow night I'll be asking myself where all the time went!

Good luck with your class submission!

lotusgirl said...

revision is what makes it good though. I think it's not unusual for it to take way more time than the actual writing. I don't know of anyone who can get it all down right the first time through. I know I've sure spent more time revising than I spent on the first draft. It's in the rewrites that we make our stories work.

Joe Iriarte said...

I think you're right. I cringe when I think about the state in which I sent out some works when I was n00bier and stupider. :)

Ann Aguirre said...

I actually enjoy revision. First drafts are harder for me. Like good friend and uber-talented author Jeri Smith-Ready said, "writing the first draft is like shaping air."

Once you have that foundation, however crappy it may be, you can start refining it into something wonderful. You can add to it, take away, rearrange scenes until everything is perfect.

Congrats on the story! It sounds really intriguing.

Joe Iriarte said...


You know, as I was nearing the end of the first draft, I kept looking forward to how much less work revising it would be. Hah!

Part of the problem, though, is that I learned so much while I was doing it. My writing after chapter eight or so is pretty smooth, I think, and I'm pretty happy with the beginning too, but there's some stuff around chapters six and seven that really needed a lot of work. I bet your first drafts are a lot cleaner than this one! ;)

Hopefully my next first draft will be as well.

Thanks for stopping by--I'll see you next month! :o)