Novel Aesthetics & Revising a Novel

Being that my background is in interior design and visual merchandising, one of the things that inspires me most and drives a lot of my storytelling choices is visual aesthetics. Looking back, this has especially been the case with my WIP, TEROH.

For better or for worse.

I like the subtle complexity of dark espionage stories, the suffocating sense of paranoia, and the way this genre looks on the big screen. I like elemental magic and the larger-than-life way it can be portrayed. I also like the look and sound of old black and white movies like melodramas and film noir—fedoras and glamorous femmes fatales, chiaroscuro lighting, mid-Atlantic accents, psychological drama…

And that’s what drove a lot of my choices while developing TEROH.

The strange thing is that, when I first started writing, I really hadn’t watched very many black and white movies. Just a few. So for them to have such a big influence on the style of my novel seems almost…disproportional, in retrospect. Nevertheless, it’s this very combination of elements that helped determine the spirit of this story.

notorious1946
Notorious, 1946. Image by RKO Radio Pictures (corporate author), The Kobal Collection. Photographer: Ernest Bachrach. – Chicago-Sun Times, Public Domain. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9571484

What got me thinking about all of this in the first place is because not long ago, I watched the 1946 movie Notorious with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman for the first time—and I realized something: the style of this film is almost exactly the blend of elements I’ve been trying to channel all along with TEROH. Not directly in a studied, intentional manner but in my own loose but inspired way. (There’s also some romance, I suppose, but it’s by no means the main story.) Granted, I tossed in some fantasy/occult elements, too, which is suited to a more gothic tale. Still, I feel like noir draws some things from the gothic genre, which I’m also drawn to at times. (Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea anyone?)

So why does any of this matter?

Well, at the moment, I’m in the “reflect on beta reader feedback and revise” phase. Most of what I plan to revise in my manuscript has nothing to do with style or aesthetics. (I actually decided to cut out a substantial chunk at the beginning and downplay one of the plot threads it catered to in order to make the story tighter. Good times!) However, if there are any parts of the novel that aren’t really in sync with my vision, now is pretty much my chance to fine tune them. (See my thoughts on a related topic: “Using a Blurb to Shape Your Novel.”)

Revisions, revisions, revisions... | The Chandra Tribune

In other news, I started printing out my story. Since it’s divided into five parts, I’m just focusing on one part at a time. Part I was easy to get through because, well, the vast majority of it is getting cut. I love one of the main characters I introduced there (Milia, who is a diplomat with unique abilities), but I’ve had this creeping suspicion that focusing on her role so much and so early is actually detracting from that of the protagonist, Voi—mainly because Milia champions the more political aspects of my story, which some of my readers are having a hard time following in the way I’ve presented it. (I had one person compare it to the politics in A Game of Thrones which, funnily enough, I actually haven’t read before; I’ve only seen the TV show.) Obviously, political intrigue isn’t for everyone, but there are different ways to handle it.

My solution: tone it down—at least initially—and focus more on Voi’s initiation into that side of her world. (Is it any wonder I named this part of the novel “The Initiate”?) That way, readers can learn along with her rather than the narrator having to fill in a lot of things through a more “initiated” character who knows a lot more about what’s going on and wouldn’t necessarily bring up what she knows in dialogue with other savvy characters. (This is a common thing to do in the fantasy genre especially.) In any case, the politics will still play a major role in the story because they constantly challenge Voi’s point of view and attitudes; I just won’t be starting the narrative so heavy with them.

My personal key to revisions. | The Chandra Tribune

To help me suss out what parts need toning down or trimming, I came up with a key using different highlighter colors to help me visually see how much page space I’m devoting to certain aspects of the story. I also jotted down some notes about the novel’s main story arcs and themes to help me keep the story focused. (This is where having a story blurb already written can really be beneficial.) So far, I can already tell that this is making the process of parting with words a lot more of an objective thing and less driven by style or emotions, which is something I was missing the first time I was revising the story. #n00b

Of course, there’s very well a place for things like style and emotion. Just not during revisions. These things come later during editing, which is a bit different… Revision is more like “big picture” stuff (structural changes and whatnot) and editing is more like fine-tuning what’s left.

Now, some people can do a one-pass revision and editing process altogether; I’m not one of those people. I’ve done this enough to know that just doesn’t work for me. My story is too complex and I’m too one-track minded not to separate the two. I’d also be more apt to overlook a lot more things if I tried to combine these. (Confession: I’m not really a multi-tasker.)

Anyway, I also typed up condensed notes on feedback I’ve been getting from beta readers and referencing them as I go along. So after I do this whole highlight-and-slash routine with the rest of the story, I’ll go back and make the changes and then do an editing pass.

Lots of work, sure, but nothing I haven’t done before…

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4 thoughts on “Novel Aesthetics & Revising a Novel

  1. Love seeing your process in revision! I’m also a big fan of those polished, noir black and white films–they have such an amazing aesthetic! Capturing that kind of style for your own thing isn’t easy, lol. Your story sounds right up my ally, though! Can’t wait to see more on your progress!

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    • Thanks! Yeah, capturing a noir feel has its challenges. If it’s done badly, it just comes across as cheesy and like you’re trying too hard! I mostly attempted it through visual cues–the way the characters dress, mood and tone, painting a picture of noirish lighting in certain scenes…

      However, I really like the melodramatic dialogue style the women used with their mid-Atlantic accents as well as the style in the Philip Marlowe stories (at least the ones I’ve heard on the radio shows and some of the movies). Problem is I don’t feel I can imitate them spot-on with all the lingo from the period. (Doesn’t feel natural to me, heh.) So I suppose I came up with my own loose, somewhat contemporary interpretation of those styles rather than an overt attempt to do classic noir.

      Anyway, I hope it works! 😀

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