Elements of the story: making effective revisions

puppy happy dance via pinterestThere is no feeling of accomplishment like that of having completed a novel, or a shorter piece. Once that final sentence is written, there is that happy-dance moment, where we are shouting and the world is singing.

Following that, we have the urge to immediately look the finished manuscript over and see where some revisions could be made.

I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it. We need to gain some distance from our work in order to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

But when we do get back to it, where do we start?

Stephen King said it so eloquently in his book, On Writing: “I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this note: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’ — Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

This means we must cut the fluff.  If your 1st draft is 100,000 words, try to cut 10,000 words out of it, making it 90,000. The following is a list of things to consider:

  1. Dialogue pitfalls: Search for clichés. Speaking as a reader, do a global search for the word alabaster. If you have used it to describe a woman’s skin, get rid of it, and find a different way to describe her. It’s an overused word that has become cliché. Find different ways to say what you want, unless you have a character who uses clichés–if so, he’d better have a good reason. Even then, don’t go overboard. Click here for a looooong list of common clichés: ProWriting Aid.
  2. Try to make your sentences do without these words: very, that, just, so, and literally. There will be places where they are the only words that will work, and you will use them in that instance. Usually just cutting them out of the sentence and adding nothing makes the sentence stronger. Fluffy, over-blown prose weakens the narrative.
  3. Flowery prose, even in a medieval setting, is off-putting to a reader. Do a global search (Cntrl F) for two letters: ly. This will bring up all the adjectives  (oops adverbs, thank you David Cantrell) because they end in ly. Look at each instance and if it is possible, get rid of them. Often the sentence is stronger without that extraneous word. Find a way to show the idea without flowery prose. This is where you grow as a writer–you give visual clues that enhance the story.
  4. Alfred Hitchcock quote re dialogueExamine the ms for conversations that are opportunities for info dumps. Info is good, but don’t dump it–dole it out as needed, and only when needed.
  5. Are people long-winded, and ranting on and on, with nary a pause for breath?  Decide what is really important in what they are saying and cut everything else.  Conversation in literature must have a purpose, or it is as boring as hell. Cut those marathon speeches down to where they sound like normal people talking, not like orators.
  6. Conversation must pertain to and advance the story. Small talk and verbal tics are obnoxious, and should be avoided at all cost. DO NOT have your characters preface sentences with “Hmmm…” and DO NOT have them use the name of the person they are speaking to, unless there are more than two characters in the scene. You can avoid things like “Well, Bill, it was like this…” just by having the speaker turn to Bill, and say it.

And now for my pet peeve: People do not smile, snort, or smirk dialogue. I mean really: “That’s a lovely dress,” snorted Clara. (eeew. )  Stick to simple dialogue tags, such as said and replied. In fact, it is often best to do away with speech tags (attributions) altogether for a few exchanges every now and then, if:  A. you have only 2 speakers, and B. you have clearly established who is speaking. You can also show who is speaking in other ways:

  1. Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John fell quiet and stared out the window. Halee turned and walked out the door. Used sparingly, these pauses serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They’re best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, because they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters.
  2. Don’t over do the action within the conversation. If your characters are rattling pans, slicing apples or staring out the window between every line of dialogue, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact of the conversation can be lost entirely.

leonard elmore quoteIn our first draft we are trying to make our point, and we inadvertently repeat ourselves. A good way to find where you are repeating yourself is to read a chapter from the bottom up, one paragraph at a time. My editors frequently  tell me, “You said it once, that’s enough.”

In my own work, I hear repetitions and other things I need to cut, if I read it aloud to someone else. I think that’s because when another person is listening, we are more aware of how a given passage sounds.

Also, consider not including a prologue. About half of the readers see the word “prologue” and assume it will be a boring info dump, so they skip it.

This begs the question, “Why go to the trouble of writing it if they aren’t going to read it?” If you must have a prologue, consider calling it Chapter 1– and make it clear that is occurring twenty years before the present day (or whatever). Make it immediately exciting, make it a true first chapter. And don’t do an excerpt from a Holy Book as your prologue. I did that once, and it flew like an iron kite. So I moved my Holy Book to the appendices, and if a reader is interested, they can read it there.

These are just a few things to look for when you begin revisions. And just so you know, revisions are not editing, they are rewriting. If you are “editing” your own manuscript, you have a fool for a client. There is no such thing as self-editing–the best you can do is make revisions and admire your work. You may do very well at that–some people do.

You must make revisions before you hire an editor. Then, ask other authors who they might recommend as an editor and see if you can work well with that person. Your editor will likely point some things out that you didn’t see, but that a reader will. At that point, you will make revisions again. But the results will be so worth it!


Filed under Humor, Self Publishing, Uncategorized, writing

5 responses to “Elements of the story: making effective revisions

  1. Methinks this is timely!


  2. David P. Cantrell

    Well said Connie. Did you mean Adverb instead of Adjective in you “ly” search suggestion?


  3. Thanks for sharing the list of clichés – great tool!