Here's another half-baked essay about revision — since I'm in the middle of revising a novel right now! (If you missed it, last week's essay was also all about the joys of revising fiction.)
I feel as if a big part of revision is going from the general to the specific. My first drafts, at least, always include a lot of details that are kind of fuzzy. Sometimes, a piece of information changes every time it comes up, because I haven't made up my mind yet what the actual real version is, and I'm just hedging my bets. Sometimes there's a highly specific piece of backstory, front story or side story, but it's just really a placeholder — a supporting character is a stock character, or someone's job is merely a sitcom job that doesn't feel like a real employment situation. And sometimes, things are just left so vague that they could be anything, or there's no information whatsoever.
So when I revise, I try to nail things down more. On one level, this is just a process of deciding on stuff. Where did this character grow up? Who were their parents? What kind of job do they have, and what specifically does the job ask of them? And so on.
But for me, it's not just about making things more concrete or less hazy. It's about finding details that feel lived in, and like part of the fabric of someone's life. A detail tchat is "specific" is one that tells you something interesting about the character, or the place where they live, and you know that it couldn't be any other way. So honing your details is partly a process of getting closer to the characters and understanding who they really are and how they got that way, and then making sure all the details of their life help you to see them more clearly. (And, as I alluded to above, this goes for places as well as people.)
There's also the fact that for me, "specific" means "odd." Or "quirky." I'm always drawn to details and artifacts that feel a little unusual, because I'm a weirdo — but also because a bit of weirdness feels realistic to me. I'll always gravitate towards details that are a little bit surreal or silly, because those things stand out in my mind better, and because that's kind of how my mind works. And you know what? Real life is frequently kind of weird, if you peel back the surface a little.
A good example of something going from general to specific in my work is the magical school where Patricia goes to study in All the Birds in the Sky. I know for sure at one point, all I knew was that Patricia was going to a random magical school, and there wasn't much to it. Even in my first draft, I sensed that I needed to do more than just borrow from The Magicians and other famous stories about magical schools, but early on, it was just a boarding school with some nice buildings and stuff. I had to do a lot of thinking to come up with Eltisley Maze: a fusion of two older magic schools that represent two ways of doing magic, and two communities that are often in conflict. In order to make Eltisley Maze feel like an interesting place, and one which actually could exist, I had to do a lot more thinking about how magic works in my world and the history of magic.
But honestly, specificity doesn't have to be that surreal or strange. Recently, I realized I needed to figure out more about the childhood of a major character in my upcoming adult novel. I had a very vague notion that this character had had an unhappy childhood, but I didn't really know the details. Their unhappy childhood was just a stock thing, with strict parents and an un-loving environment.
So recently, I sat down and figured out the details of this character's childhood. And I ended up with something that was a little bit more distinctive than just "they had mean parents." In my new version, this character was the youngest of ten kids, and they were a surprise extra child who was born a long time after their older siblings. Their father died when they were pretty young, and they ended up being raised by their resentful siblings as much as by their elderly mother. It's still the same basic idea — their childhood was not super happy, and things felt precarious — but it feels more interesting to me, and more specific to this character, than just some replay of the spoken word segments from Pink Floyd's The Wall album. ("How can you have any pudding if you haven't had any meat?")
In my current gig as a book reviewer, I find that I am drawn to stories where the details feel rich, where small aspects of the characters' lives and the places they live or visit stick in my mind. I often read late at night, before bed, and it's easy for me to forget characters and places unless they're distinctive and somewhat unique. If a character is gone for forty pages and then turns up again, I'm not going to remember who they were unless they made an impression before. But also, I'm remembering how much pleasure I take when an author sprinkles in interesting facts, attributes and observations about places, people and things. So one of the things I'm really focusing on in my own revision is trying to create that same feeling for my readers.
One final thought: another way I try to make things more specific in revision is by getting all the characters' dialogue, emotional reactions and personality as distinctive as I possibly can. If I wrote a scene where people are arguing in the same way I've seen people argue in a hundred television shows recently, maybe that can be swapped out for something a little bit more fresh. And it all helps! The stuff I talked about earlier, making people's backstories and jobs and surroundings as memorable as possible, makes it way easier to give those people unique personalities as well. Freshness breeds freshness, because my mind gets engaged and the people come more fully to life.
Usually this part of my newsletter is where I talk about music I've been listening to, which I recommend. But today, I'm going to beg for help tracking something down: an album called Blues in my Sunshine by SueAnn featuring Jesse Johnson. SueAnn Carwell was Prince's first "protegée" back in the late 1970s, but the songs they recorded together never saw the light of day. She released some great R&B albums in the 80s and early 90s. (I'm a huge fan of Blue Velvet and Painkiller) and she recently appeared on the incredible group project Detroit Rising: A Cosmic Jazz Funk Adventure, which I highly recommend. Meanwhile, Jesse Johnson was the guitarist for the Time, but also he's released some incredible solo material. His rock album Bare My Naked Soul is a must-listen, and I love a lot of Verbal Penetration. Johnson has been playing a lot with D'Angelo and other giants lately. Anyway, Carwell and Johnson collaborated on this blues album back in 2010, but it's now impossible to find. Not on any streaming services, not for sale anywhere. You literally cannot score a copy of Blues in my Sunshine. So if anyone has a used copy and wants to hook me up, I would be super ridic grateful.
Hey, I'm coming to New York! There are so many people I miss in the Big Apple, who I haven't seen since 2019 in many cases. So if you have time to come to one of my events, I would dearly love to see you.
On Thursday, June 8 at 7 PM, I'm going to be at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn, 126 Franklin St., celebrating twenty years of Tor Teen with Terry J. Benton-Walker (Blood Debts) and Mark Oshiro (Into the Light). This is gonna be awesome. RSVP here.
And then the following weekend, I'm gonna be at the Bronx Book Festival at Fordham University. In particular, on Saturday the 10th., I'll be on a panel, once again with Mark Oshiro and Terry J. Benton-Walker at 2:30 PM called "Flaunt Your Fandom: Celebrating 20 Years of Magic, Mischief, & Marvel." RSVP here.
Seriously, I would be so sad if I went all the way to NYC and didn't get to see any of my favorite New Yorkers. Yes, I am emotionally blackmailing you. I hope it works!
ICYMI my entire young adult space fantasy trilogy is complete now! You can get the whole Unstoppable trilogy, and the first two books are in paperback. I feel like these books tell a coherent story about queer chosen family, people searching for their own identities, and fighting fascism without losing yourself. But I wanna hear what you think!
The latest episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast I co-host with Annalee Newitz, is out now. We talk about our feelings about all the recent wave of Star Trek television. And I got to have a pretty in-depth, lovely conversation with Mike McMahan, creator of Star Trek: Lower Decks.
Also, the fourth issue of New Mutants: Lethal Legion comes out on June 21. As you can tell from the cover, it features an all-out drag-out fight in a cherry orchard, with petals flying everywhere. Also, longtime villain and occasional hero Moonstone does TWO very shocking things. (Cover by the wonderful Javier Fernandez.)