Tag Archives: making effective revisions

Sculpting the second draft #amwriting

The end of NaNoWriMo approaches. Many novels have been written, and many are still incomplete. And when we do finally write the last words, we will get that happy-dance feeling, that moment where the world is singing.

Following that burst of joy, we have the urge to immediately share it. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it.

We need to gain some distance from our work 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.

Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometime this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel, only to have it never be published.

So, when we do get back to our manuscript, where do we start so we can avoid the failed novel syndrome? I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is clear when you look at that old ms.  I didn’t know that we are like sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product–it really is our block of clay.

I know—you see a complete novel, but trust me, others won’t see what you do in it, just yet. When a sculptor sees a block of clay, she also sees what it can become. She begins scraping the layers away, and that is what we must do.

We scrape the layers away scene by scene. As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
  5. Strung together, these scenes form the entire story arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

If somewhere near the middle you discover that you have lost the overall plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happens to me for several reasons.

First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I can

  • Go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
  • Try to figure out why the plot has failed.

More often, I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin?

Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a quest for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the name “MacGuffin” in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The Maltese Falcon is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown. The true quest is not for the object. It is for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence.

As we are peeling back the layers of our rough draft, what symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story that we can work with? Once we identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we must amplify it. Symbolism is a powerful tool and is part of the subtext that pushes the story forward. In my opinion, one of the most masterful uses of symbolism happens in the film, The Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.

Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we are sharpening the final product, scraping away from this part and adding over here, rewording and redefining as we go.

Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become clearer to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not just anyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the true story that needs to be told. It also takes practice. Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.

A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

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Final Revisions #amwriting

The question came up in a professional Indie writers’ group I frequent on Facebook: Do I need to get an editor for my final manuscript or is a good proofread enough?

The overwhelming answer was a resounding “Yes!”

I am an editor but I always have my final manuscript edited by a professional editor, and I get a final proofread by members of my writing support group before I hit the publish button. As authors, we never see all our own mistakes although we catch many. We see what we intended to write rather than what is written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row. Our brain fills in the missing words and doesn’t notice when we use ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s,’ or ‘their’ rather than ‘they’re’ or ‘there.’

Also, we tend to overlook clumsy and inadvertently awkward phrasing.

  • Her eyes rolled over her host’s attire.
  • Delicious sounds assaulted his eardrums.

We overlook little things like those examples in our own work because we are visualizing the scene as we read it, and to us, they convey what we are thinking. We can’t see our own work with an unbiased eye, any more than we can see our children with an unbiased eye.

If you are unable to afford a full edit, and they are not cheap, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript, but it is time consuming. If you aren’t going to hire an editor, you should consider investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers for questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure.

To do a thorough revision of your manuscript:

  1. Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.
  2. Turn to the last page. Cover the page, leaving only the last paragraph visible.
  3. Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
  4. With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.
  5. Look for
    • Typos,
    • Missing quotation marks,
    • Punctuation that is outside of the quotations.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

  • Words that are spelled correctly but are the wrong word – there-their-they’re, etc.
  • Look up “comma splice” and eliminate them from your manuscript.
  • Remove repetitions of entire ideas. If you explained it once, that was probably all you needed.
  • Check for repetitious use of certain key words and phrasing.
  • Eliminate all timid phrasing and remove unnecessary words. That and very are two words that can often be cut and not replaced with anything. Often cutting them makes a sentence stronger.

An editor points out and encourages you to correct all instances of timid phrasing. Timid phrasing leads to wordiness, and we really want to avoid that. Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) also lead to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages rife with compound sentences turn away most readers.

To avoid wordiness, use action words (verbs) in place of forms of to be. In active prose, our characters don’t begin (start) to move. Instead, they move. They act as opposed to beginning or starting to act.

  1. Open your manuscript on your computer and make your corrections.
  2. Repeat these steps with every chapter.

If you notice a few flaws in your manuscript in your final pass but think no one will be bothered by them, you’re wrong. Readers always notice the things that stop their eye.

In my own work, I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it. But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there. This is why this editor always has a professional editor go over her manuscripts.

Once you have finished revising your manuscript in this fashion, have it proofread by a member of your writing group. If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors as proof readers—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

Editors do more than point out comma errors–they will make a note of incongruities, and contradictions.  They will also note inconsistent style and usage. When a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a style sheet.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or  keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and past every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale. My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to!

Be aware that it is not an edit if you have done it yourself–it is only a deep revision. The best we can do with our own work is to keep revising it until it is as clean as we can make it. (See my article of June 20, 2018 – Thoughts on Revisions and Self-editing.) Only an external eye can see our work with an unbiased eye and properly edit it. But with diligence and the assistance of your critique group, it is possible to make good revisions yourself and you can turn out an acceptable book that a casual reader will enjoy.

I hope these suggestions help you in your revision process. We want our work to be enjoyable by the casual reader, and if we are conscientious in the final stages, we can turn out a readable manuscript that is not rife with easily fixable errors.

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Thoughts on revisions and self-editing #amwriting

New and beginning authors often (loudly) assert their ability to edit their own work. 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. For that reason, we need other eyes on our work.

As authors, we see what we intended to write rather than what was written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row.  If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

The first draft of any manuscript is the story as it flowed out of your mind and onto the paper. Yes, there is life and energy in your words, but your manuscript is not publishable at this stage, no matter how many times you go over it.

You need an unbiased eye upon your work, or your book will be published with typos, awkward sentences, dropped words—the list of inadvertent errors goes on.

Every author needs someone to read their work before it is published. Just because I can see six instances of the word ‘long’ in one paragraph of someone else’s work does not mean that I will spot it in my own.

To the author in the first flush of victory, the completed first draft of his manuscript is a thing of beauty, a flawless diamond to be cherished and adored.  It is the child of their creative muse and is perfect in every way.

Let us consider the word ‘that.’ The following passage is from one of my original manuscripts as it emerged from the first draft in 2008, ten years ago.

 Jeanne was not upset over something that he had not done or not said. Now he sensed that it was a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt that she was feeling.

In just two sentences, my stream-of-consciousness writing included 3 instances of the word ‘that’ and 3 of ‘not.’  Yet, in my own mind, it was as good as I could make it. I didn’t see those unnecessary words.

This is how that paragraph read in my mind and is how I would write it now, ten years on:

Jeanne wasn’t upset over something he had done or said. He sensed she felt a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt.

I began working with an editor in 2012, and that is when I truly began to grow as an author. Each time they showed me where I had gone wrong, I learned from it and gradually, my stream-of-consciousness writing improved. I use fewer unnecessary words, and my prose is leaner.

Better writing habits are learned over time by writing regularly and by consciously applying the tricks and tips you learn from other authors.

Once your writing/critique group has given you their best opinions on your manuscript and you have revised it to your best ability, you need an editor. 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 might be slightly shocked and hurt, but if you’re smart you’ll consider each comment and make your revisions accordingly.

Once you see your work through someone else’s unbiased eyes, you will be able to take your story to the next level.

The fact is, unless you can accept criticism, your work will never be what you want it to be. You must be open to viewing your work the way the reader will see it. You’re not obligated to follow every suggestion an editor makes, but 9 times out of 10 I make changes along the lines they suggest because when I look at the problem area, I can see exactly what they meant.

Writing seems like a solitary craft, and much of the time it is. However, joining a local writing support group or a critique group will give you a sounding board that costs you nothing, but from which you will reap many benefits.

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#amwriting: Revisions

Book- onstruction-sign copyI am in the process of making revisions on my next novel, Billy Ninefingers. This book was partially written in 2013 during NaNoWriMo, but was only recently completed. Now I am deep into revisions.

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

We can easily lose track of that arc when we are in the throes of writing our first draft.

Underpinning the larger story arc is another, more fundamental arc to consider. At the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is a scene.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.

If you discover that you have lost the plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happened to me in 2015 when I was trying to finish the book, Valley of Sorrows. The book was to wrap up Edwin’s story, but I became sidetracked with his father’s story. I ended up separating John’s story out of the book, and giving him his own novel, The Wayward Son.

In order to write Valley of Sorrows, I had to re-connect with what the story really was about, and place it in the context of the overall series:

  1. In the case of my derailed book, the series dealt with Edwin’s story.
  2. What was his problem? He was separated from his wife and child because of his task on behalf of the Goddess Aeos. He had endured losing a man who was a brother to him while he was in Mal Evol. However, things had happened in Aeoven during his absence (an attack on his family, his wife’s miscarriage and subsequent breakdown). Unfortunately, he had a task only he could do,which kept him away from his wife and son.
  3. Completion of his task took us to the 3rd plot point of the novel.
  4. Hunting  the acolyte of Tauron and the final battle in Aeoven resolved the story.
  5. What I had to remind myself was this: No conversation could happen unless it advanced the plot of Edwin’s story. Because the World of Neveyah is an ongoing series, anything that did not pertain to Valley of Sorrows could be cut, saved, and used in a later story.

While you are doing all of this, consider the length of your chapters.This is where pacing comes into play. Remember, pacing is the rise and fall of the action, the ebb and flow of conversations.

Courtney Carpenter, writing for Writers Digest, says “Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story.”

How long are the chapters in your novel?

lessons-from-a-lifetime-david-morrellIn his book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, action/adventure author, David Morrell (creator of the Rambo character, among others), says he tries to write short chapters, so that a reader can complete one chapter (or structural unit) at one sitting.

He bases his ideas on two essays by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle.”

Part of this is about pacing, because it’s about keeping the reader’s attention. Morrell says he keeps his structural units small in order to accommodate the reader’s bladder, TV interruptions, phone calls, a neighbor who drops in, etc.

Each chapter should be as long as it needs to be for your novel. Write what works for you, but as a reader I suggest you consider shorter chapters which can be read at one sitting.


For an excellent article on pacing, go to:

7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace, Courtney Carpenter, WritersDigest. com Apr. 24, 2012 (accessed Jan 29, 2017)

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#amwriting and #amrevising: weeding the garden of words

Free-range pansies by cjjaspersonWhen I write a novel, I always end up with a lot of back story. These are details that are important for me to know, but not meant for the actual novel. It’s more a way for me to mentally talk my way through the first draft.

I think of my manuscript as a garden of words, and by the time the novel is complete, it will have been weeded, dug up, and replanted many times.

Every author has their own style, their own way of getting the story down on paper. My style is not the usual way, but it works for me.

The way I do a first draft is this: First, I put together an outline listing all the characters and plot points.  Second, I write the ending and then write the scenes for the large events and turning points. Once those are in place, I start at the beginning and write the story in a linear form, connecting the large events and finally meeting up with the end.

Along the way, my story evolves. A lot of fluff gets added in because I need to sort the story out in my head and writing it down is the way I do that. This fluff is all written in a passive, telling voice, and is part of my road map for creating the first draft–it was put down in that fashion so I would remember it later when I came back to rewrite the scene and turn it into an action sequence or cut it entirely.

I’ll give you an example of a telling sequence from Julian Lackland’s story, which is set in Waldeyn, Huw the Bard’s world. It was written down in this way so I would have a mental picture:

“In Port Lanque, the harbor itself was accessible only by one broad cobbled street, Quay Street, snaking down the steep cliffs to the piers. This wide boulevard ran through the center of town, twisting and turning in a sharp descent down to the piers, and had been kept in good repair by the pirates as it was the only way to move carts and drays down to the ships for off-loading loot. At the very top of Quay Street, in the worst part of town, an immense, rundown palace loomed. Now less than a filthy slum, it was once the home of generations of kings.”

Little or none of that passage will make it into the final manuscript because it doesn’t advance the plot. It was originally written to set the scene in MY mind. But I didn’t throw it away–I kept it in my file of outtakes along with some useful conversations further down the page that may come in handy in a different story:

“You’re wearing a dress, madam, not a crown. How can I be sure you’re the real king?” King Harry eyed the pirate. “You could be any old thief claiming to know how to sail a ship. I happen to like this ship, and I’m not disposed to give her away to some random old man in a dress.”  

That above passage is why I say you shouldn’t be married to your prose. I love the scene and the conversation, and the action that follows, but the plot thread it is part of does not advance Julian Lackland’s story. However, I intend to turn it into a short story set in Waldeyn.

By the time I finish a manuscript, I will have written the beginning three different ways, some names will have changed, and relationships will have evolved. But the major plot points and the ending will usually be the same as I had originally envisioned.  I say ‘usually’ because that was not the case for Valley of Sorrows. I ended up completely rewriting the end of that manuscript.

prnt screen 1 never delete cut passagesI can’t say it often enough: never delete any passage that you have cut from your manuscript. Save it in a separate file labeled ‘outtakes,’ because you may need that information later, or you may be able to turn that work into a short story.

A lot of authors use Scrivener for this, and it seems to work for them. I find it simpler to just copy and paste the work into a new file and save it in my outtakes for that particular novel. That way it’s out there in my dropbox or google drive and available no matter where I go or what happens to my computer.

Short stories are the bread-and-butter of many authors. You get paid a small sum for them, and your author name is published in one more place. The small story you toss out there could attract new fans to your other work.

Our work starts out full of passion and promise. Like a garden, it can grow wildly out of control. When you can’t see the flowers for the weeds, the garden must be cut back and pruned. The wild weed-words must be pulled in order for the reader to enjoy the real story.

Sometimes those weeds produce beautiful flowers when you get them into a different garden.

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