In a painting workshop with Carol Marine I learned this trick: At the very end of a painting, add the bling. The bling is that tiny, bright detail that makes a painting come to life. It’s the highlight on the rim of a coffee cup, the dark shadow under the tires of a car, the traffic light way down at the end of the block, glowing green. You can’t paint these details earlier in the process, because you’ll obliterate them with the broad brush strokes that have to come first.
Here’s a video of Carol painting apples. Watch her drop in the bling layer at the end. See how the painting pops right at the end?
After the workshop, I started to do this with my writing, too. At the very end of the process, right before I send the manuscript to my editor, I print out the entire novel and scramble the pages so they’re out of order. (Or, if I don’t want to print it out, I make a list of page numbers, pick pages at random, edit on the computer, and cross out page numbers as I go.) It’s important to read the manuscript out of order, so that I don’t get distracted by larger story questions. This revision is all about language.
This legal pad is on my desk right now, as I do my bling layer revision for the fifth Kopp Sisters novel. I pick a page at random, read it aloud (this part’s important–you must read your books aloud, because you’ll find every awkward, inauthentic bit of writing), and I look for the most drab, clunky, clichéd, boring bit of language on that page–and I turn it into the best piece of writing on that page.
Maybe it’s just a matter of swapping out a single flat, unimaginative word for something unexpected and beautiful (or horrifying).
Maybe a predictable line of dialogue can become something much more specific and true to the character.
Maybe an easy, obvious description can be changed so it tells us something we don’t already know.
The bling layer is all about adding delight, honesty, specificity, and surprise. You’re dropping in treasures for your readers to find. It’s not just line editing, although I do that, too. This pass is very much about adding something wonderful.
If you’re doing a bling layer revision, ration those pages so you don’t run out of juice. You might find that you can only come up with ten brilliant ideas per day. Fine. Do ten pages a day. Put on some music first, dance around the room, take a walk, read a page of Dickens—whatever it takes to get yourself in the right mindset to sprinkle a little magic into your manuscript.