Tag Archives: revising the first draft

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: SW Washington Writers Conference, What I learned from @RobertDugoni

This last weekend I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. I was also privileged to attend a class called Creating Plots for Page Turners, given by the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni.

I say privileged, for this reason. Robert Dugoni is a bestselling author of thrillers, My Sister’s Grave being the book that caught my attention several years ago. Dugoni understands what makes a gripping story.

As I sat in the class, it became clear to me that attention to writing craft is integral to his work, but he also sees it from a slightly different angle. While he covered many things which I will discuss in my next blog post, several things pertain to recent posts of mine, regarding the first draft.

Bob asked a question I found intriguing: “What is your purpose as an author?” There were several different replies. He said, “Your characters must entertain the reader. Never stop entertaining.”

That was my thought, exactly. So how do we entertain our reader? What should we avoid?

One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are mostly for you, the author, and are meant to set the scene in your mind. You know the rules, and don’t want them in the finished piece, but they slip into your work in insidious ways:

  1. Is the information you are about to dispense relevant to the character and his/her immediate need? Does it advance the story?
  2. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  3. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  4. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.
  5. Opinions about the scene or the character, or anything—author intrusion is to be avoided.
  6. Don’t be lazy—show the story, even when it is simpler to tell it.

Points 3, 4, and 5 were concepts I consider in my own work, but never really thought about and hadn’t articulated them. They are critical and do bear mentioning here.

A question Dugoni asked was one I have often considered and discussed here. “What is a story?” The answers varied, but the one he wanted, and with which I agreed, is the story is the journey.

Frequently, stalled creativity is the result of the author having lost sight of the character’s journey, both the physical and the emotional journey.

Dugoni offered a solution for when that is the case: Ask yourself, “What is the character’s physical journey/quest?” You must ensure each character has a journey, a quest, but Dugoni adds third aspect–a dream. That idea that the journey/quest is also a dream that must be fulfilled resonated with me.

Then, consider the emotional journey. Why do these people continue in the face of great challenges? Is it love, anger, fear, duty, greed, honor, jealousy, or some deeper emotion that drives them?

Find that emotion, and you will find your character’s motivation.

Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t succeed? What are the consequences of failure?

  1. What is the public risk?
  2. What is the private risk?

Something important is at stake, or there is no story. Once you discover what it is and how it affects the characters’ emotions, the story will come together.

Classes like this are why I attend writer’s conferences. Robert Dugoni, Scott Driscoll, Cat Rambo—these people have the knowledge I need, and they are wonderful, accessible people who freely discuss all aspects of the craft in seminars, frequently at conferences I can afford and which are near me.

The companionship and support of other authors has been invaluable to me, and I have made every effort to repay their many kindnesses by supporting them in their endeavors. The friends I have made through this career are as dear to me as any I grew up with, and that circle widens with every conference I attend.

You may meet writers who are local to your area, and they will know of good writing groups near your home. They will also know about resources you can draw on, reference books you may not have heard of. If you are serious about the craft, you will seek out the company of other writers.

Find a conference in your area, and see what turns up. You may find yourself learning from a master.

Robert Dugoni’s most recent book, Close to Home launched Sept 5th and has garnered well over 65 customer reviews on Amazon in the first week alone and maintains a 4.5 star rating.

THE BLURB:

New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy.

While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice.

When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home.

As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.

*

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. He is also the author of the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction. His books are sold worldwide in more than 25 countries and have been translated into more than two dozen languages including French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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#amwriting: The External Eye

Quill_pen smallI’m in the depths of revisions on two manuscripts. Both are set in the same world. Both manuscripts had flaws that were caught by my friend Dave, who reads my work before I bother an editor with it. Addressing these flaws was not a problem, as I had someone to help me brainstorm it.

Dave has great ideas, but his mind doesn’t work the way mine does. While they are excellent, his fixes usually don’t fit what I envision my story to be. However, his suggestions fire my own inspiration and show me the way I need to go to quickly resolve these issues. Without his insight, I wouldn’t have thought of the right fix.

In the process of rewriting certain events to remove  fatal plot-holes, and then going through and altering later scenes to make them match, I found several places where I meant to change the wording of a scene, so it reflected what I wanted for my protagonist(s). I had noticed these places earlier but was sidetracked, and the intended alterations were never made. Thus, their motivations were murky and didn’t ring true.

Now I am also making these changes, and checking the manuscripts to make sure I have removed any inconsistencies.

My original view of my protagonist, Billy Ninefingers, was more callous, more of a pirate than he is today. His story was begun in 2010, but I ran out of steam on it, and nothing seemed to make sense. I decided to scrap it and move on to writing Huw the Bard, which was set in that world, with many of the same characters, but which was a more intriguing story to me at the time. (I’m still in love with Huw.) Billy appears toward the end, much as he is today. But, instead of going back to Billy, I wrote three more novels in the Tower of Bones series, and many short stories, both contemporary and fantasy.

In the back of my mind, I always intended to get back to Billy Ninefingers, but never really did until just this last year. Over the course of six years  I used him as a character in several other works set in his world, which set him and his circumstances more clearly in my mind. Through that process, my protagonist became less two-dimensional, less of a cartoon. Four years after writing the first draft of Billy’s story, a short story featuring him was published. It was written for a themed anthology, and adhering to that theme changed Billy and his motives for the better. The short story for the anthology fired me up, gave me ideas as to what had to happen to make the real story be what I knew it could be.

I went back and pulled the original manuscript out of storage and rediscovered a character I had always loved, but didn’t know well. With a new goal in mind, I began rewriting it.

Thus, some of what I had already written didn’t dovetail with the story as I now see it, and Dave pointed that out. Having a trusted reader who will tell me where I have gone off the rails is critical to my writing process.

In my experience, when I read my work after having written it, if there is something that doesn’t ring true, a reliable first reader will be able to identify it for me.

Every Tuesday morning I meet with a group of published authors, and we talk about everything, from what we are writing to how our children are coping with the slings and arrows of modern life. These authors give me support when I need it most. I regularly Google-chat about life, the universe, and writing with Dave, who lives in another state far from me. Dave and I have never met in person, but we’ve become close friends through the wonders of the internet.

Talking with fellow authors, both in my area and from around the world, is the most important thing I do for me—it’s a “spa treatment” for my writing craft.

Writing is a lonely craft. I recommend you go to Writers’ Conferences and Workshops. The networking is important, as are the workshops, but I have made lifelong friends through the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, and also the Southwest Washington Writers Conference.

If you need feedback but don’t know where to turn, sit in on local critique groups to see if they might be a good fit for you. You don’t have to share anything until you feel you can trust them to be fair and honest with you. If the group you are visiting doesn’t seem like a good fit, you’re under no obligation to return, and you can move on to a different group. You can find these groups usually through the local newspaper, Google, or even find their public pages through Facebook by searching for your town’s name and adding the word “writers.”

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013One of the surest ways to find these local groups is by joining NaNoWiMo, and searching out your local region. Look at the threads of conversation, or message your local Municipal Liaison to ask where these groups might be.

Having an external eye to help me see my work with a less jaundiced view is the most exhilarating part of writing. It never fails to rekindle the fire I have for a particular story. Right now, thanks to my friends, I wake up every morning, chafing to get started writing.


Attributions:

Quill Pen, PD|by its author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

My Favorite Cup, Author’s Own Photo

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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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#amwriting: The second draft: effective revisions

My Writing LifeI am in the process of making revisions on Valley of Sorrows, the third book in the Tower of Bones trilogy. I’ve had trouble with this manuscript, not because I fell out of love with it, but because so many great characters have emerged that I lost the thread of the story.

Because I knew I had lost my way, I sent it to a friend, Dave Cantrell, who has done a structural edit and given me the pointers I need to get this back on track.

What happened to derail VOS is this: I lost track of the original story arc.

This is not an uncommon problem–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 have floundered for two years on this novel.

What Dave did at my request was far more intensive than a beta-read. He really went deep, looking at it from the standpoint of a reader and an editor, and asking himself what worked, what didn’t, and analyzing why.

So right now I am taking each chapter on an individual basis and looking at Dave’s comments. Every comment is designed to let me know why a particular plot point did or didn’t work, and where it became confusing. He was able to see where I lost the overall story arc and his comments give me a road-map to guide my efforts in building tension and ending this series with a strong finish.

I’ve said before that making revisions is not editing. Revising the first draft is a necessary part of the process that will get you to the editing stage.

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.

The Story Arc

As I said, most of us understand this arc, but we can easily lose track of it when we are in the throes of writing our first draft.

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.

The Novel Meme LIRFSo as I am revising I am keeping 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.

I had lost the plot of this novel, so first I had to remind myself just what the series was about:

  1. This series deals with Edwin’s story.
  2. He is separated from his wife and child because of his task on behalf of the Goddess Aeos.
  3. Completion of his task takes us to the 3rd plot point of the novel
  4. Hunting  the acolyte of Tauron and the final battle in Aeoven resolves the story
  5. No conversation can happen unless it advances the plot of this story. EVERYTHING that does not pertain to this story can be cut, saved, and used later.

I have a goal of finishing this by the end of February. When I submit this to my editors, there will be more revisions–that is a given. But because of the work Dave has done, it won’t be the arduous rewrite it would have been.

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