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Dharma Buds: Revision Road with Buddha and the Gecko

I have just spent two-and-a-half years revising my novel.* The odds on getting it published feel, well, long. My writer friends (published and in-the-queue) tell horrific tales of editors** who do not buy the manuscript, but offer advice, “What if you told the story through the pet lizard’s point-of-view?” (Tales told by pet dogs being now passé.)

The writer thinks, Well, I would like to be published, and a tale by a reptile, well that is new, that is different, that has potential.

She buys a reptile—an Eyelash Crested Gecko, if you must know—studies it lying heat-stunned under the fluorescent light. She spends four months or twelve writing from the lizard’s perspective. She re-submits. “Pass,” says the formerly mildly intrigued editor. “All life is suffering,” says Buddha.

I tell you this by way of saying, I can’t recommend myself as a guide. This is road trip by wayfarer-sending-postcards.


I recommend these—actual, virtual and metaphysical. Actual friends will write alongside you, buy you a coffee—or a bourbon. They will, after many months of respectful silence, lay a concerned hand on your shoulder and say, “What do you mean by ‘structural issues?’”

Travel Guides

There are more erudite treatises on narrative structure, but for my money, Robert McKee’s Story works. In it McKee deconstructs movies at the macro level (acts) and at the micro (beats).

True story: I took a weekend seminar with McKee. He was built like his book—thick. He entered class striding, as if through Grecian columns. The class was a little like EST. He urged us to forgo food and bathrooms. Sunday we spent 13-hours watching the 1.25-hour Casablanca. Great swaths of it frame-by-frame. All life is suffering.

Each gesture, each line of dialogue, McKee argued, moved Bogie closer to or further from Ingrid. Where my novel slackened—everywhere—I applied McKee’s beat-by-beat analysis. Any sentence that failed to move my protagonist closer to or further from his objective was on the chopping block. Not necessarily chopped, but on the block.

Did that. My scenes were tighter, but the novel still sucked. Things happened, but it felt like nothing happened. All life is suffering.

I blundered down side-paths before discovering Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method. He taught his concept of “series,” that is anything that repeats and varies—a setting, an object, a character, a relationship—in your novel is a series. Identify your top five or ten series. Map where they occur. Check that they evolve, and, that taken together the items in the series constitute an arc. A setting arc. A character arc. An object arc. A relationship arc. If McKee tightened my pacing, then Horwitz made my novel feel like a novel rather than a bunch of disconnected short stories.

Scrivener software, by the way, is very good for revising series. You can use the “Key Words” function to identify every passage where a certain character, object, setting, etc. appears. Then you can check your math and ensure that each time the object appears, it evolves and therefore accretes meaning with each scene. (For a terrific how-to on Scrivener, see Kelly Ford’s Scrivener: NaNoWriMo Power Tool.)

I revised all the series. This was a time of many color-coded folders.

The novel still sucked. All life is suffering.

I maundered down several more dead-ends before landing on Margaret Zamos-Montieth’s penetrating interview of novelist Celeste Ng. Ng shared an exercise from Bret Anthony Johnston’s book on writing, Naming the World.

Exercise: Try explaining a story with cause-and-effect statements. “X happens. Which makes Joe feel Y. Which makes him do Z. Which makes A happen. Which makes Jane feel B. Which makes her do C.”

I reviewed cause and effect. Humongous problem lit up: the sub-plot. In cause/effect terms, the subplot caused zilch in the plot. (Novel Incubator instructors Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover had told me that, and kindly, a year ago. Third time’s the charm!!!) I fixed that.

If You Go…Don’t Follow Me

I had gone down Revision Road in the dumbest way possible, backwards. Micro to macro. Thus guaranteeing the necessity of re-re-re-revising the acts, series and beats. All life is suffering.

A Final Postcard

I can’t say enough about Buddha. We keep a bobbling statuette in our car on the dash. He steadies us when the jerk crosses over our lane to make an illegal left turn. All life is suffering. But navigating traffic is as nothing compared to novel-revising. And yet, the Buddha is wise. Repeat All life is suffering until depressed. Consider the depression a milestone of progress. Keep repeating All life is suffering until it has lost all meaning. You are getting somewhere. Repeat until the essential comedy is visible.

So not Enlightenment, not Nirvana, but maybe a whisker, an eyelash, of detachment from the novel’s ultimate resting place: bookstore shelf or desk drawer. Who cares? All life is suffering.

And, at the end of the day, there is the adorable Eyelash Crested Gecko.


*Lisa Birk’s novel, The Rehabilitation of Maria LaHaye, is spending a month in a drawer, sulking.

**The writer hereby acknowledges that there are many fabulous editors, some of whom are her friends.

Originally appeared on Dead Darlings.

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