Tag Archives: revisions

Revisions part 3: The Detour #amwriting

We who write fantasy and other genre fictions are story-tellers.  We write about invented people living in invented worlds, doing invented things. Unfortunately, there are times when we realize we have written ourselves into a corner, and there is no graceful way out.

This happened to me in 2019. I took one of my works in progress back from 90,000 words to 12,000.

That was the point where I began fighting the story, forcing it onto paper. I hated to admit that I had taken a wrong turn so early on, but by the 50,000-word point, the story arc had gone so far awry there was no rescuing it.

But I’m no quitter. No sir, not me.

I spent 40,000 more words refusing to admit I had “gone off the rails.”

Fortunately, much of what I had written can be recycled into a different project. NEVER DELETE months of work. Don’t trash what could be the seeds of another novel. Save it in an outtakes file and use it later:

HA_outtakes_29Dec2019

I had accomplished many important things with the 3 months of work I had cut from that novel.

  • The world was solidly built, so the first part of the rewrite went quickly.
  • The characters were firmly in my head, so their interactions made sense in the new context.
  • Some sections that had been cut were recycled back into the new version.

Writing the failed novel wasn’t a waste, just a detour. This sort of thing is why it takes me so long to write a book.

At the 12,000 word point, I needed a new outline. I spent several days visualizing the goal, the final scene, mind-wandering on paper until I had a concrete objective for my characters.

I finally realized that Alf had two quests, both of which were core plot points. I was unable to visualize a final scene because they had merged in my mind.

Beginning the novel with no definitive resolution was how I had lost my way.

So I separated them, and now I had a concrete goal to write to.

That was when I realized this book is actually two books worth of story. The first half is the personal quest. The second half resolves the unfinished thread. Both halves of the story have finite endings, so the best choice is to break it into two novels.

With that in mind, I outlined the first half, made a loose outline of the second for later reference, and began writing.

I was near the end of part one when I saw the flaw in my outline. This was 4 days into NaNoWriMo 2020, and I had just finished writing the ending to my serialized novel, Bleakbourne on Heath. I planned to finish Heaven’s Altar, and dove right into it.

I began to make good headway.  If you are a regular visitor here, you know what happened.

In trying to resolve the logic for the antagonist, I had to know the path that a tainted relic had take through the years. I needed to know where it originated and how it had survived for centuries, and why it had the power to corrupt my antagonist.

I accidentally wrote a completely different novel with a completely different cast of characters and plot. I finished November 2020 with around 90,000 words on three projects.

That accidental manuscript is in the final stages of my rewrite and is nearly ready for my beta readers.

For those of you who are keeping count—that’s 3 novels in progress in that world, and one almost complete stand-alone novel set in a different world entirely.

And it’s all because of one core plot-point and the logic of how it comes into my original, still unfinished, novel.

There are times when we must accept that we are forcing something and it’s not working. That’s when the best course is to look at it dispassionately and pare it down to the bare bones.

The sections you cut can be better used elsewhere.

I believe in the joy of writing, the elation of creating something powerful. If you lose your fire for a story because another story has captured your imagination, set the first one aside and go for it.

We who are indies have the freedom to write what we have a passion for.

True inspiration is not an everlasting fire-hose of ideas. Sometimes there are dry spells, and that is when you come back to the original work. You will see it with fresh eyes, and the passion will be reignited.

Yes, that is also when the work begins, but I think of Patrick Rothfuss and his struggle to write the books in his series, the Kingkiller Chronicle. The first two books, The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) have sold over 10 million copies.

Rothfuss’ work is original and powerful, but though his work is highly regarded, he struggles to put it on paper just as the rest of us do. Despite a decade having passed, the third novel titled The Doors of Stone has not yet been released, and some fans are highly critical of him for that.

The two published books are work I consider genius, and I am willing to wait for him to be satisfied with his work.

Patrick Rothfuss’ battle to write the book he envisions gives me permission to keep at it, to not just push out a novel that is almost what I wanted to write.

When a book that gave you so much trouble turns out to be one of your best efforts, it’s worth it.

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Revisions part 2: Efficient self-editing #amwriting

In the new millennium, the traditional publishing world has changed and evolved in how they do business. In some ways, they haven’t changed enough, and in others, they’ve gone too far.

All authors must create a social media platform to promote their work. In most cases, the amount of help the Big Four publishers (Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Hachette) offer their new, unknown authors is minimal. So, whether you go indie or not, you’re on your own.

Whether you intend to publish your work independently or try to go the traditional route, you are responsible for editing your work.  Unedited work shouts “amateur” to an agent or editor, so never submit work that isn’t your best effort.

If you can’t afford a full professional edit, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript. However, it is time-consuming, which is why an editor’s services are not cheap.

Open your Manuscript. Save a copy of your original manuscript in its bloody, raw form with a file name that denotes exactly what it is.

If you are using MS Word, your manuscript title will look like this: Book_Title_version_1.docx. My current work is: Gates_of_Eternity_version.docx.

Do save the original draft in a separate file on a thumb drive or in a file storage service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive. You will have a fallback manuscript in case something happens to your working files.

Break it into separate chapters and save them in a new master file labeled with the word ‘revisions.’ I would name the master file: Gates_of_Eternity_revisions_02-17-2021.

First, I divide my manuscript, saving each chapter as a separate document within the master file. Clearly and consistently name each chapter. Make sure the chapter numbers are in the proper sequence, and don’t skip a number.

For a work in progress, Gates of Eternity, I labeled my individual chapter files this way:

  • GoE_ch_1
  • GoE_ch_2

The reason we divide it into chapters for the editing process will be made clear further down this post.

The next step requires pencils, yellow highlighters, a printer, paper, and a good supply of ink, which may be a cost outlay. Another, more affordable option is to save your work to a USB Flash Drive, take it to an office supply/print shop, and print all the files at one go. In the US, FedEx Office, formerly known as Kinkos, provides printing and copying services.

I am currently in need of a new printer, so I feel your pain. My ancient thing is still limping along, but soon it will go to the recycling center. Once you have the required equipment, print out the first chapter.

Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.

Step 1: Turn to the last page of that chapter. Cover the page, leaving only the final paragraph visible.

Step 2: Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.

Step 3: Look for typos and garbled sentences.

Step 4: With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction. In the margin, pencil in notes of how you want to correct them.

Some things you should consider in this step: consistency in spelling, consistency in punctuation, crutch words, repetitious paragraphs/ideas, and long, rambling sentences.

Step 5: I use a recipe stand for this step. Take the corrected printout and lean it where you can easily read it while you make corrections. (Amazon sells copy stands, but recipe stands are cheaper.)

In your word-processor, open the chapter file. Save as a new file:  GoE_ch1_edit1. It’s important to clearly label it as edited, so you don’t mix edited with unedited files. Reading from your corrected printout, make your revisions.

Step 6: At the end of it all, reassemble the corrected files into one manuscript, again making sure you haven’t skipped a chapter. Save that manuscript with a new label: GoE_manuscript_edit1_16-Feb-2021.

The date at the end of the file name is essential as you will know what the most recent edit is (not the most recent time you saved the file) and will have the previous version to go back to if needed.

For this method to work, YOU MUST UNDERSTAND AND OBEY THE BASIC RULES OF GRAMMAR.

First, you need something called a style guide. As an editor, I regularly refer to my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are an author writing fiction you someday hope to publish and have questions about sentence construction and word usage, this is the book for you. Another option is the online version: The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living, changing language. When generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

A less expensive option you might consider investing in is Bryan A. Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers to questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure. It takes the CMOS and boils it down to just the grammar.

Here is a list of links to articles I’ve previously posted on the basics of grammar:

Those who think the common rules of grammar don’t matter to readers are doing their work and their reputation a disservice.

You don’t have to be perfect, but readers want to enjoy the book, not struggle through rambling, garbled sentences.

Self-editing is not an easy task. You will still want another person, perhaps from your writing group, to read your work before you send it off or publish it. Then you may need to make some revisions.

However, all that hard work pays off when you put your best product possible in the hands of a reader, and they like what they read.

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Revisions part 1: Spotting the Code Words and Mental Shorthand #amwriting

When we set the first words on a  blank page, our minds begin forming images, scenes we want to describe. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker notes that we are not born with language, so we are NOT engineered to think in words alone—we also think in images.

It follows that certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words will be used with frequency in the first draft as they are efficient. We write as fast as we can when we are in the mood, and these words are a speedy way to convey a wide range of information.

Because we use them, we can get the first draft of a story written from beginning to end before we lose the fire for it.

One code word that slips into my first draft prose is the word “got.”

It is a word that serves numerous purposes and conveys so many images. “Got” is on my global search list of “telling words.” The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to make it a “showing” scene.

Got:”  He got the message = comprehension. He understood.

Some other instances where we use “got” as a code word for our second draft:

  • He got the dog into the car.
  • He got the mail.
  • He got

Code words are the author’s multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys a myriad of mental images.

Every author thinks a little differently, so your code words will be different from mine. One way to find your secret code words is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way.

Another code word on my personal list is “felt.” Let’s go to Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus:

Synonyms:

  • endured
  • experienced
  • knew
  • saw
  • suffered
  • tasted
  • underwent,
  • witnessed

Words Related to felt:

  • regarded
  • viewed
  • accepted
  • depended
  • trusted
  • assumed
  • presumed
  • presupposed
  • surmised

It’s natural to overuse certain words without realizing it, but that is where revisions come in. Anytime I’m working on showing interactions between characters, certain words will be hauled into play over and over.

As you go along, you’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.

Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. Synonyms for “smile” are few and usually don’t show what I mean:

  • Grin
  • Smirk
  • Leer
  • Beam

When I come across the word “smile” in my work, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I look for a different way to convey my intention, which can be a frustrating job.

Our characters’ facial expressions display happiness, anger, spite, and all the other emotions. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump, and hands tremble.

I refuse to drag the reader through a long list of ever-moving facial expressions, lips turning up, down, drawing to one side, etc., but sometimes the brief image of a smile is what you need.

When done sparingly and combined with a conversation, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more boring than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. We must be more concerned with what is happening inside our characters than about the melodramatic outward display.

When you discover one of your first draft code words, go to the thesaurus and find all the synonyms you can and list them in a document for easy access. If it is a word like smile or shrug, you have your work cut out, but consider making a small list of visuals.

Think about the expressions and body language an onlooker would see if a character were angry.

  • Crossed arms.
  • A stiff posture.
  • Narrowed eyes.

A little list of those mood indicators can keep you from losing your momentum and will readily give you the words you need to convey all the vivid imagery you see in your mind.

Literary agent Donald Maas has good advice in his book, the Emotional Craft of Fiction.

If you don’t have it already, another book you might want to invest in is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Some of the visuals they list aren’t my cup of tea, but they do have a grip on how to show what people are thinking.

This aspect of the revision process is sometimes the most difficult.  It takes time when we look at each instance of our code words. They don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile and that is okay.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Victorinox Multitool.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Victorinox_Multitool.jpg&oldid=484117422 (accessed February 14, 2021).

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Revisions and Plotting the End #amwriting

Many authors who finished NaNoWriMo with a complete story are now beginning the revision process. This year, I wrote most of an unplanned novel, one I had no intention of writing, and therefore I had no outline.

In the rush of laying down those ideas, I wrote many scenes that will need to be moved to a more logical place in the story arc or cut altogether. Still other scenes don’t yet exist and will need to be written so that the ultimate outcome makes sense.

For me, working on the outline is a form of brainstorming. If you haven’t already done so, this is an excellent time to draw up a brief outline that shows you at a glance what you have written. If you are beginning from scratch, writing this outline will take the better part of a day.

However, having an outline to work with will speed the revision process up by a month or so.

I did make an outline in an Excel Workbook as I went, so I have the basics done, but many things didn’t get noted. I have two major events to plan and write, and then the first draft will be complete.

I know what has to happen, but I’m not sure how to begin this push to the end. So, this week I’m planning what needs to be done next to carry this tale to its conclusion.

Using a spreadsheet program like Excel, or the free program, Google Sheets, allows you to cut and paste events, moving and rearranging scenes up and down the story arc, so they flow logically. There are programs like Scrivener out there that also help you do this, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to use them. I stick with the simple, cost-free options.

When I make the decisions first on a small, easily manageable scale rather than the larger manuscript, I don’t get confused. This makes cutting and moving scenes forward or back along the timeline a lot easier.

So, what do I need to look at first? In this case, it is the timeline: as I wrote, I noted most of the decisions my protagonist and the antagonist made on their way to this point, such as this scene in my antagonist’s thread:

  • Kellan shares relic w/Eriann.
  • Eriann possessed, goes mad.
  • Kellan terrified, casts sleep. Not sure what to do when she wakes.

In the rush to write during NaNo, some scenes didn’t get noted. I’m adding them now, and this is how I will brainstorm the chapters leading to the final scenes.

If you choose to do this, I recommend that you list every decision they made that triggers an event. You need to see the ripple effect of how their actions affect the other characters’ storylines.

Ivan, Marta, and Kellan all made decisions that affected their journey to this point. I need to ensure that I have written them in a way that follows a logical connective evolution. My mind sometimes thinks too far ahead while I am writing.

So, if these choices don’t seem to follow a logical path, I will use my spreadsheet program’s cut and paste function to rearrange the order of events. Then I will go to the manuscript and move or delete them.

Are the choices they made all necessary to achieve the final goal? Does every scene move the plot forward? Does the action reveal aspects of the characters to the reader that were hidden before?

We all write fluff, but it can be hard to recognize it. Are the scenes you wrote background or word-wandering for word count? If so, they don’t advance the plot. I will cut them and save them in a file labeled as background.

Next, I will look at the outline of the story structure again. In every second draft, I ask these questions:

  • Who is the story about now? Are the main characters still the original protagonist and antagonist, or have side characters stolen the show? If so, I would need to rewrite it so that the characters who best serve the story are the center of focus.
  • How high are the stakes if the protagonist fails? Why should we care?
  • How high are the stakes for the antagonist, and why should we care?
  • What do these two characters want most now that they have had a chance to evolve? Did the quest remain the same, or has a new goal emerged?
  • Did the protagonist grow and evolve as a person? If not, why not? Or did they turn to the dark side, becoming an antihero or an antagonist? Is there a new hero?
  • Where are the pivotal places where something important to the logic is missing?

I am going to examine my outline to see what doesn’t need to be included. What should I remove to make the ultimate ending feel more logical? I will write new scenes into the outline, events that push the plot to its conclusion.

I have read many stories that weren’t told in chronological order. Some were successful, but others failed.

Suppose you are going out of chronological order. The plot should still be the same logical chain, but the story might contain flashbacks or memories. I suggest you make a note on your timeline of where these occur so that you don’t repeat information the reader already knows.

Some authors use “flash-forwards,” which can easily make the story arc feel clumsy and unbelievable. I don’t use them myself but have read plenty of books that employ them.

I will tell you now that inserting a flash-forward requires good planning to fit seamlessly into the story and not ruin the mystery.

Good foreshadowing doesn’t tell the story in advance. It offers small clues hidden in the overall picture, hints in the scenery that all is not what it seems. It tantalizes the reader and makes them curious.

Many authors reject the outline process in the first draft because they prefer to “wing it.” The novel I am working on right now was written that way and was fun to write. However, my story has wandered and skipped its way to this point, and now I need to drag it to the conclusion. I will find many places to cut and other areas that need expansion.

This will require more work than if I had planned it and written to an outline, but I am glad I wrote it the way I did. NaNoWriMo 2020 was a good experience. It’s been a long time since I had a novel that insisted on writing itself.

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Goodbye NaNoWriMo2020 and Hello Revisions #amwriting

Today is the final day of 2020’s NaNoWriMo. Many writers have passed the hurdle and already collected their winners’ goodies. They have ordered their winner’s T-shirt and are embarking on revisions.

Others have decided they’re never going to finish, it’s a waste of time, and they’ll never do this again.

But some will.

The real storytellers, people who can’t completely stifle that dream of writing, will return in several years with a better idea and a realistic plan. They’ll conquer it, and writing will become their passion.

This year, I have so far written over 90,000 words. I wrote the final scenes of Bleakbourne on Heath, the alt-Arthurian serial I lost momentum on and couldn’t finish. Also, I made headway on my other unfinished novel, focusing on my antagonist’s story. In discovering the logic of a tainted relic, I accidentally wrote a backstory that became a novel. It is ¾ of the way done.

Participating in NaNoWriMo for the last ten years has taught me discipline.

It makes me do what is the most challenging thing for me—I have to ignore my inner editor to get my word count.

For that reason alone, I will most likely always “do” NaNoWriMo, even when I am no longer able to be a Municipal Liaison.

I love the rush, the thrill of having written something for myself, something I alone will see and enjoy. But more than that, I love knowing that some of what I have written is good and is worthy of sharing with readers.

When I finally write the last words of my accidental novel, the work will have only begun.

I will set it aside, as I need to gain some distance. I’ll go back to finalizing Bleakbourne on Heath, which will take a couple of weeks, or even a month or two. By the time that book is ready for the editor, I’ll be able to see my other work with fresh eyes.

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

I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is apparent when you look at that old manuscript. I didn’t realize that authors are sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product. It’s only a roughly shaped block of clay.

In that glorious moment where we write the final words of our novel, we see it as a precious object, as if it were complete.

Trust me, others won’t see the story the way you do just yet.

A block of clay is only a lump of sticky dirt, but a sculptor envisions what that mass of soil can become. They begin by scraping the layers away until the real shape emerges. That is what we must do.

We scrape away, scene by scene, removing the extraneous fluff in one place and adding more substance in others.

Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together, but these scenes have an arc to them. They’re shaped by action and reaction.

These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.

Strung together, these scenes give form to the narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Often, the middle is where you discover that you have lost your novel’s overall plot. 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 go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.

We try to figure out why the plot has failed. I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin? The MacGuffin’s importance to the story is not the object or goal itself, but rather its effect 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.

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

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

We peel back the layers of our first draft. What symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story, clues that we can work with?

Authors always leave hints and symbols in their work, signs of who they are and what they believe. Sometimes it is intentional, but often it is our subconscious writer-mind in action.

If we can identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we have the opportunity to amplify it.

I have often used the film, The Matrix as an example of how symbolism, intentionally applied, is an underpinning of world-building. When it’s done right, it can show the story in a more focused light.

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 sharpen the final product, scrape away from this part and add some 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 more apparent to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not everyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the core of the plot, the 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. November 30th has arrived, and NaNoWriMo 2020 is over.

Now the real work begins.


Credits and Attributions

David Monniaux, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Auguste Rodin (French, 1840-1917): Bust of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, 1882, terracotta, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University Campus, Palo Alto, United States Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rodin Carrie-Belleuse p1070141.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rodin_Carrie-Belleuse_p1070141.jpg&oldid=451362532 (accessed November 29, 2020).

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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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