Tag Archives: 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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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!

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