About Michael Bigham: Raised in the mill town of Prineville in Central Oregon beneath blue skies and rimrocks, Michael Bigham attended the University of Oregon and during his collegiate summers, fought range fires on the Oregon high desert for the Bureau of Land Management. He worked as a police officer with the Port of Portland and after leaving police work, obtained an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Vermont College. Michael lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. Harkness is his first novel.
And Now, Michael Bigham Shares Tips About Revision
Revision By Michael Bigham
“Anyone can write—and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro.”
William C. Knott—The Craft of Fiction
To succeed as writers, we must master the craft of revision. Not an easy task, as creation and revision require two completely different frames of mind. To create well, we must let our creative self run free and lock our internal editors in a little room, not letting them know what we’re doing. If not, they’ll stifle our process or block us. More than once I’ve rewritten a scene again and again, never being satisfied, never moving on because my internal editor knows I should do it better. So now, I lock her away until my creative self has expressed herself. When I revise, I unlock the door and let my editor out. She hacks and slashes, criticizes my word choice and works to smooth out my narrative.
Everyone’s revision process is different. In my process, I hammer out a scene or maybe half a scene and let the piece perk over night. I go back the next day and add bits as necessary. At this point, I’m still more in my creative mode than a critical one. For example, here’s a first pass of the end of my opening scene from my novel-in-progress, Thunderhead:
“No disgruntled employees?”
He laughed. “Disgruntled enough to jump in a log grinder? I think not.” He waved his hand as if dismissing the idea. “But we did fire a couple of folks last week. My lead foreman, Karl Hanke, can tell you who.” That was as far as I was going to get with Dutch, so I thanked him and went in search of a telephone to call the State Police Crime Lab.
Most people write too much in the first draft and have to cut back, but I’m the opposite. I write too little and need to fill in the holes. I realized the scene ended too abruptly. It needed more. Here’s what I added to flesh out the scene.
After calling the lab and letting the local telephone operator know what was going on and where I’d be, I sat down on the floor of the grinder room, legs out straight and my back against the wall. The room was a decent-sized space, 20 by 20, with rough wood plank floors and a ten-foot hole cut out in the middle, the opening for the grinder. An iron track on the ceiling ran from the hole into the mill proper. The logs for the grinder would come in through there held by some affair that looked like a giant hook looking like something you’d see in a penny arcade. Had that been involved in the death? I pulled a spiral notebook out of my shirt pocket and wrote brief summaries of my interviews with Ollie Binam and Dutch, then I added a to-do: Have the crime lab check the hook. I pondered a bit and made two more to-dos: Interview – Merle Cameron and Brightside Office – who’s missing? The notebook only had two pages left. I’d have to start a new one for this case and copy what I had written over to it.
By the time Jackson from the Crime Lab arrived, my headache had kicked into second gear. I’d need coffee soon to soothe the pain. After Jackson photographed the body and worked up a rough crime scene diagram, we packed up what was left of a human being in four large buckets and toted them to my pickup. Jackson promised me his preliminary report in three days. I wasn’t thrilled, but it would have to do.
When Doc saw the buckets in the back of my pickup, he, being a Nazi death camp survivor, didn’t seem shocked, merely just shook his head with sadness. “Let’s get the mournful soul inside. Downstairs in the basement.” There was just enough room for all the buckets in a large fridge once he’d pulled out the beef he’d been storing there. “Good enough,” he said.
“Good enough.” But it wasn’t.
After finishing the entire first draft of my piece, I craft my first revision. Before starting, I reread the whole piece and review the notes from my writer’s group. I retype the whole piece again, not only fixing the typos and grammatical errors, but also rewriting entire scenes or chapters from scratch if needed. Be bold when you revise, be fearless. To succeed as a writer, you must be willing to toss out your best prose if it doesn’t fit with the narrative. In the first draft of Thunderhead, a visitor surprises Sheriff Harkness:
I opened my mouth to ask a question of Solus, but someone interrupted me.
“Matthew Harkness, you son of a biscuit eater.”
I turned around “Why as I live and breathe, Prudence Knight, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Put on a little weight haven’t you?” She looked like a garden snake that had swallowed a grapefruit.
She wound up and slapped me. “You bastard. Thanks to you, I’m knocked up.” Her eyes spit venom.
“Mr. Swift, let me introduce Prudence, the mother of my unborn child.”
“Ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat, but didn’t bother to hide his grin. “I must bid adieu, this is where I came in.” Swift strode off, looking more than a little amused.
“Knocked up? It was supposed to be a roadhouse rebound weekend with no strings attached.”
“You may have thought that, but things change.”
I love this interaction, but I realize it doesn’t fit with my narrative unless I’m willing to have Prudence a player in the mystery. Alas, I have too much going on as it is. I plan on cutting out Prudence here and maybe introduce her after the climax as a set up for the next book.
After the first revision, I set the piece aside for a couple of weeks and then revise again with my internal editor fully engaged. Now, I’m intent on fixing technical errors. This process may take a couple of passes and I usually cajole one of my writing buddies to read the succeeding drafts. We can become blind to our own errors. Fresh eyes help. Finally, the draft is ready to ship off to a professional copy editor. There’s more revising to be done, but at this point it’s restricted to copy editing and proofreading.
Creation and revision exercise different writing muscles. When you create, lock away your internal editor or you may end up blocked. If you’re blocked, try freewriting; prepare a character sketch or work up a bit of dialogue. Get those writing juices flowing. When you revise, be daring, be willing to make wholesale changes. Don’t assume that you can revise by yourself. New eyes are important. Join a writer’s group and when your draft is finished, invest in a professional copy editor. It’s money well spent.
Experiment, explore and find a writing process that works well for you. Julian May once wrote that she outlines extensively and then writes just one draft before sending her novel off to her editor. More power to her, but I could never do that. Remember that everyone’s process is different. Good luck.
|Harkness: A High Desert Mystery|
by Michael Bigham
About Michael Bigham's Release: In this thrilling debut novel, by Michael Bigham, Sheriff Matt Harkness faces a perilous challenge. He isn’t your typical Western sheriff. Cowboy boots make his arches ache, he’s phobic of horses, he drives an old battered pickup and his faithful companion is a wiener dog named Addison. Set on the Oregon High Desert in 1952, life in the small town of Barnesville has been easy-going for Matthew until a star-crossed teen-age couple disappears. Harkness is the keeper of secrets in his little town and to solve the crime, he must decide which secrets to expose. One secret involves Judge Barnes, the county’s most powerful man. But Harkness has a secret of his own: he’s in love with the Judge’s wife. How much is Harkness willing to risk to catch a murderer?
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