Tag Archives: The second draft

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:


  • 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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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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#amwriting: Taking the #NaNoWriMo novel to the next level

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareYou took a leap of faith. You’d had this idea for a novel rolling around in your head for years. Someone told you about Nation Novel Writing Month, and on the spur of the moment you joined.

Then you were committed. Every day, no matter what disaster was occurring on the home-front, you sat down and wrote at least 1,667 words.  Some days it was hard, the words just weren’t there. But you persevered and some days you were on fire–everything flowed. Your story took you places that amazed you.

Now it’s November 30th and you have your 50,000 word manuscript, and the all-important winner’s certificate from NaNoWriMo dot org!

But now you don’t know what to do next.  Whatever you do, DON’T SHOW IT TO YOUR ADORING FANS JUST YET. This is not the time to ask for feedback unless you want to be lied to. They’ll look at you with a possum-in-the-headlights smile, and say “Wow…this is really…different.”

What they’re really thinking is, “Holy s**t. This disjointed, hokey mess sucks.” That friend will poke needles in their eyes before they read another piece of your work again.

What you must do is put it in a drawer for a month or two. Write some short stories, or start a new novel. You have to step back from this in order to see what need to be done with it, and you can’t do that right now. SO–in January or February:

First let’s talk about that manuscript.

When you were writing it, you were concerned about increasing your word-count. Someone told you not to use contractions, as the word ‘doesn’t’ counts as one word while ‘does not’ is two. Foolishly, you did just that.

LIRF Global Search all steps

Global Search Print-Screen

Now you must go through and make that awkward, stilted phrasing into contractions. Do a global search:

  1. press control+F
  2. type the word you are looking for in the search box
  3. click on options
  4. click on replace
  5. in the ‘replace with’ box type the word you want to replace the wrong word with
  6. DO NOT replace all. Go to each instance of the words individually and replace them after you have seen the context of the sentence they are in.

Second, let’s look at how we are telling the story. In the rush of the first draft, of getting all our thoughts about the story-line down, we use a kind of mental shorthand and write things like:

Erving was furious.

Martha was discouraged.

Readers don’t want to be told how the characters felt—they want to see.  When you come across this in your first draft, now is the time to follow those road signs and expand on the scene a little. Instead of telling the reader that Martha was furious, you will show this emotion.

Martha stamped her foot.

Erving’s face went white, his body shook with rage.

When you go back through your manuscript, change each ‘telling scene’ to a ‘showing scene.’ When you show the reader the emotions it deepens the story and enables the reader to be involved.


Third: too many dialog tags. When only two characters are in a scene readers should be able to keep track of speaker ID with ease. In those situations, speech tags are rarely, if ever, needed.

Instead of using a speech tag, consider inserting an action beat (a burst of action) before a line of dialogue. This identifies the speaker and offers opportunities for you to deepen character chemistry, conflict, and emotions.

Annie felt something trickling down her cheek. She wiped it, and her hand came away with blood. Her companion was covered with gore, but at least he was in one piece. “John, are you okay?”

 “Of course.”

 She reached toward his shoulder, toward the torn shirt, the ugly gash—but something held her back. “Your arm. I thought maybe ….”

 “You thought it was bad.” 

 The look in his eyes forced her to glance away. “Well, yes. But if you say you’re okay….” Her face burned.

John bent down, digging around in the medical kit, hiding his grin. His thoughts ran wild, but he said only, “Let’s get ourselves doctored up. We’ve a long way to go.”

Replace those empty speech tags with an emotion-infused narrative. However you must remember that the reader needs to have clear direction as to who is speaking to whom, otherwise you will lose them. Don’t make more than a few exchanges without dialogue tags, and make those you do use simple. Said, replied–we really don’t need to get fancy.

dump no infoFourth: Too Much Information. This is my personal bugaboo. As I am writing I spill my guts and write all the background as I am thinking it. The reader doesn’t need to know everything up front. These passages are really notes telling me as the author what direction this tale is supposed to go.

My beta readers always tell me the reader doesn’t want to read the history of the world–they want to get to the action. THEY ARE RIGHT!

Fifth: Make sure you have a good story arc:

  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

SO before we show this novel to anyone, we have a lot of work to do.

  1. Check for contractions
  2. Check for scenes that are telling and not showing
  3. Take a look at the dialogue tags and make action speak for you.
  4. Carve back the info dumps–keep what moves the story along and save the rest in a separate file.
  5. Make sure you have a good story arc.

Let this nano novel rest for several months before you do anything with it. Start a different novel, and come back to this one later. When you look at that original first draft with fresh eyes and begin looking for these things, you will be amazed at how well your novel will begin to come together. During this rewrite, your characters will grow and develop, and your plot will really begin to move along. This is when you really write your novel.


Filed under Humor, Publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

Book- onstruction-sign copy

In the rough draft, the goal is to get the work out of your head, and the concepts onto the page. To that end, I advise you to just write, and try not to self-edit as you go, because you may lose your train of thought.

If we let ourselves drop into the zone, in the first draft we are in story-teller-mode, which is where our best work happens. Yes, our prose is uneven and may contain things we wish had been written by someone else, but all we were doing was getting the idea down:

Thus it was that On departing Billy’s Revenge on this particular job, Lackland and Mags had kept the conversation cordial and polite, but little of substance passed between them. Oh, They joked and laughed, and said all the things that as they would say to with any Rowdy that they were on a job working with, but it felt all wrong. Still, Even so, Lackland did not press for anything more from Lady Mags, although he was full of questions and desperate for answers. 

It’s okay write crap when you are just getting it on to paper. You have to get the basic ideas down before you can craft them into a proper novel or short-story. (That drivel was from the rough draft of my 2010 nanowrimo manuscript. I can get rid of at least 24 words in that paragraph, and although I did replace several words, losing the fluff made it stronger.)

Remember, the rough draft–the first draft–is the proto-story, the just-born infant that is the child of your creativity. You do the shaping when you come back to it in the second draft. Some will stay, and some will go.

This weekend I discovered that one of my works in progress is not really a novel after all.

It was at 85,000 words, but it has occurred to me that it is a novella, because in the first half of the book, 4 chapters don’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I am done weeding it out, the ms may only top out at about 50,000 words.  In some circles that is a novel, but in fantasy, it is half a book.

Still, I’m not going to try to force it to be any longer than it is, because I have nothing of value to add to the tale. I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, this book must become a novella.

Those four cut chapters total about 16,000 words. Add to that the words that will be weeded out in the second draft and I would say its going to lose a lot more weight–perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 words. But why do I think this? Because I am just finishing the rough draft and I have realized several things:

  1. __Hell's Handbasket__400 1Besides the four chapters that must go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters are mostly background that doesn’t need to be in the finished product. When I went in and removed large chunks of exposition I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Add to that the fact that in the rough draft we will always have a lot of words we can cut (or find alternatives for), words and phrases that weaken our narrative:
  • There was
  • To be

I will also make some contractions, ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not becomes hasn’t,’ etc.

It’s amazing how many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is stronger without them. Many times they need no replacement.

Sometimes we use what I think of as “crutch” words. You can really lower your word-count when you look at each instance and see if you can get rid of these words. These are overused words that fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to one of my current works-in-progress: why am I cutting an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgA lot of what I have written is good work, but as I said, several long passages don’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertain to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of this tale. However, those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I am saving them in file labeled “Out Takes.”

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But now that you are seeing it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it is bogging things down, and NO–Sometimes there is no fixing it. Just because we wrote it does not mean we have to keep it.

In genre fiction, no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter does not advance the story, it must go. The story arc must not be derailed, and sometimes amputation is the only cure.

The Story Arc copy


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10 Things to Do—Part 1, The First 5 Speedbumps


There are things that happen in the natural course of writing the first draft that make it painful for people to read. DO NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR ADORING FANS JUST YET. This really is NOT the time to ask for feedback unless you want to be lied to. They will look at you with a possum-in-the-headlights smile, and say “Wow…this is really…nice.”

What they really are thinking is, “Holy s**t. This disjointed, hokey mess sucks.” That friend will poke needles in their eyes before they read another piece of your work again.

Just sayin’.

But even though the first draft is always stinkaroo, don’t try to edit as you write because it interferes with your creative processes and blocks the flow of ideas. While you’re writing the first draft these bloopers should be allowed to just fall where they may, because you just need to get the ideas down.  You will reshape them in the 2nd draft. So, today I’m posting the first half of a two-part series on 10 Things to Do in the second draft of your manuscript.

Before you do anything, just put it to one side. Forget about it for a while.

A month or so later, after you have gained a different perspective is when you begin to look for these problems.  Fine tuning and rephrasing will settle most of them, and a good flamethrower will take care of the rest!

First we will look at:

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svg1. The Info Dump (my personal failing)

Often new authors feel they need to dump a lot of back story at a novel’s beginning before readers will understand the main story. I did this in my first novel, and I have regretted it ever since! It seems like logical thinking: “Before you get this, you need to know this.” But the problem was, I gave the info dump in the first five pages.  Those are the pages that acquisition editors look at and decide whether or not to continue reading the submission. For those of us planning to go the indie route, those pages are also the pages the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option on Amazon dot com.

While back story is important for character and plot building, too much outright “telling” freezes the real-time story in its tracks. And for modern genre fiction, beginnings must be active—they need to move.

Here is the opening paragraph of my next novel in the Tower of Bones series, Mountains of the Moon. It is a prequel to the first two novels, and this is the way it currently reads in its second draft stage. It may be changed once the editor gets her hands on it, but right now this is how it stands with the info dump removed:

Wynn Farmer discovered his old boots had holes worn in the soles when he heard the soft, squishing sound, perfectly in sync with every step he took. If he’d known he would be dropped into some strange world when he left the house, he might have planned ahead a little better and slipped some new cardboard into his boots, just until he could get them resoled. Now he trudged along a faint path through a dark, eerie prairie with wet feet, shivering in the cold, misty rain and completely lost.

In the second draft we alter the original words we wrote, subtly slipping little details into the narrative while showing the real-time story, and doing it in such a way that it is part of the action and the dialogue, fading into the background.  The reader will understand what you are showing them without feeling bludgeoned by it.


nausea42. Telling Instead of Showing in Prose (heh, heh–my own personal failing)

In the rush of the first draft, of getting all our thoughts about the storyline down, sometime our minds go faster than we can write. We use a kind of ‘mental shorthand’ and write things such as:

Erving was furious.

Martha was discouraged.

These are really just notes telling us what direction this tale is supposed to go. Modern readers don’t want to be told how the characters felt—they want to see. When you come across this in a novel, it is clear the author has published a first draft.

Thus, when you come across this in your first draft, now is the time to follow those road signs and expand on the scene a little. Instead of telling the reader that Martha was furious, you will show this emotion.

Martha stamped her foot, and clenched her fists.

Erving’s body shook with rage, and his face went white.

Show the reader the emotions. It adds word count, but you will also be taking word count away in other places in the manuscript as you go along.


cover_art_Billy_39_s_Revenge3. Using Dialogue to Tell, Not Show (oh yeah–my personal failing)

“I’m simply not going to do it,” Vivian hissed. (Reader: “What, is she a snake?”)

“Why, oh why, did I ever trust her?” Greg said dejectedly. (Reader: “Aw, that’s sad. Boring!”) (Closes book.)

Please, OH please, avoid attaching adverbs ending in “ly” to speech tags. They are the devil!

If you want to convey an attitude in dialogue, the words themselves should communicate it.  Greg’s words already communicate dejection. If you need more, add a line of action:

In low tones, Vivian said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that.” She turned and walked away.

Greg threw up his hands. “Why did I trust her?”

This gives readers the opportunity to see for themselves the scene you painted with words.


4. A Lack of Contractions in Dialogue (Wait–this is my personal failing too!  What’s going on here?)

“Arrabelle, I do not want you to leave me!”

This is one of the worst NaNoWriMo manuscript flaws BECAUSE when we are in the midst of November, we are desperate for word count. “Don’t use contractions” is one of the prime directives of Chris Baty’s  “No Plot? No Problem” and if word-count is all you are in the game for, then fine.  However, IF you ever intend to publish your work you should use contractions in dialogue. Depending on the type of story you are writing, you may want to use them elsewhere, if that is the style of your work.

This problem may also be a throwback to those days in your high school English class, when teachers deducted points for the use of contractions in term papers. But contractions are effective at conveying realistic speech.

You want dialogue to sound natural? Use contractions.


Dialogue Tags © cjjasp 20145. Too Many Speech Tags in Dialogue (Hey–I have that problem too! What the heck…?)

“Jake, are you okay?”  Vaia wailed.

 “Of course I’m all right,” Jake groaned. “What a silly question.”

 “But your arm,” Vaia said. “I thought maybe you…well, the way you’re holding it…I guess I thought—”

 “You thought I’d injured it,” Jake said.

 “Well…yes,” Vaia said.

Especially when only two characters are talking, readers should be able to keep track of speaker ID with ease. In those situations, speech tags are rarely, if ever, needed. In fact, doing away with tags entirely, unless they are absolutely necessary, is frequently suggested to be a great strategy, although I don’t go that far. Instead of using a speech tag, insert a burst of action before or after a line of dialogue that identifies the speaker and lends opportunities to deepen character chemistry, conflict, and emotions.

Vaia felt something trickling down her cheek. She wiped it, and her hand came away with blood. Jake was pale, and held his arm at a strange angle. “Jake, are you okay?”

 “Of course I’m all right. I’m always all right.”

 She reached toward his shoulder, toward the torn shirt—but something held her back. “But your arm. I thought maybe ….”

 “I’m hurt, but I think it’s fine. You thought maybe I had broken it.” He willed her to admit that she cared.

 The intensity of his gaze forced her to look away. “Well…. I did think that. Can you still fight?” 

Trade in empty speech tags for emotion-infused writing that can do so much more. HOWEVER—Remember that the reader needs to have clear direction as to who is speaking to whom, otherwise you will lose the reader. And I do recommend you don’t get too creative with them.  Said, replied–those are usually all that is required. If you throw in hissed, or moaned, once in a great while for specific circumstances, fine, but not too much please. It’s too distracting for me as a reader.  I close that book and move on to the next when the  characters do too much hissing and moaning. Just sayin’.

This covers the first 5 things to look for in your second draft. Items 6 through 10 will be covered on Wednesday!



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