Revision is probably the single most difficult thing a writer must do. Now, I know some of you are going to remind me that there are those who advise not to revise, except to editorial demand. I believe there are some writers out that who have so internalized the process that for them there is little or no revision needed. I’m not one of those writers . . . yet. So I have studied and developed my own process. I call it re-visioning your story.
Am I an expert on revision? I don’t claim to be an expert. Or to know THE ONE WAY to revise. But, I have done a lot of revision – the wrong way. I have also read tons of how to write books and blogs, and taken more than a few classes. I’ve had a few stories published and I have taught a few writing classes. So I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.
Many experts say the best thing to do is let your manuscript cool before you begin to revise. How long you ask? As long as it takes, they say.
Can’t wait that long? That’s okay, but gear up for some hard work.
Before you begin, put your life in order. Okay, not really, but you do need to have long stretches of uninterrupted time, a notebook or computer file for notes, a large stack of self-stick notes, and colored pens for marking up your manuscript.
Put your pencils down. Hey, you with the red pen! You, too. Not one pen scratch or computer keystroke should be made for a while. Just one correction of a typo and your mind will shift into edit mode. That will not be helpful at this stage. Put your reader’s cap on.
Now, put a copy of the manuscript in front of you. I prefer to have a printed manuscript for the first stages of revision. If you are one who can read the electronic screen and SEE what’s written, then go for it.
What do I mean by see? Multiple studies have shown that most people scan electronic information. All electronic information. And most of the time, that’s good enough. For revision purposes, scanning is not good enough.
In revision, you need to step back from your novel and analyze how well its parts work with all the other parts. Once you’ve analyzed how well (or not) the parts of your story work, you will be able to see where it needs improvement, re-Vision your story, and make all the parts of a strong story come together.
What parts, you say? Hook, Protagonist, Antagonist, Conflict (aka Plot), Setting or World Building, and Resolution are the major parts I’ll be discussing in these posts. But there are additional parts like transitions, point of view, details, and identifying your reader that I will cover as well.
Okay, so you have printed your manuscript? Onward.
Read your manuscript in one sitting. Read it as a reader would. Remember no writing, no corrections of any kind. Just read. Let the story wash over you, notice how it affects you emotionally but don’t write just yet.
Finished? Now you can pick up your pen and paper (or turn on the computer). Do not write on the manuscript. This information goes in your revision notebook or folder. Write down only what you FEEL. Some questions to get you going:
-What overall feeling did your story convey to you?
-How did the opening of the book make you feel?
-What feeling did you experience at the end of the book?
-Were there scenes that made you feel so strongly that it formed pictures in your head that you can still see?
-What impressed you the most? (Yes, it’s okay to be impressed by your own writing.)
-Where did you disconnect from the story or characters?
If you’re like me, at this point you’re going holy inkblots! There are parts that you loved, but there are parts that you cringed while reading. That’s all right. It can all be fixed.
Revision Your Story
Before you can improve your writing you have to know where you went right and where you went wrong. You have to know story structure and you have to pull your book apart bit by bit.
So, if you’re ready to start, put your thinking cap on and write your overall story sentence. If you think the story you wrote is not what you had intended to write, write your story sentence for the story you want. Its purpose is focus. You can’t hit a home run if you can’t see the ball.
The story sentence, if you recall, is a hook, a protagonist with a need versus an antagonist with a need in an interesting setting. If you need more information about the sentence, please read my article “The Best Writer’s Tool.” If you’ve already mastered the sentence and were smart enough to have one before you started your novel, it’s time to move on to the next step.
What is a Scene?
Again, before you can begin to analyze a scene, you need to have a definition of what a scene is.
According to Robert McKee in his excellent book, Story, “A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a perceptible significance.” Whew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Can you analyze your story based on that? If you’ve read his whole book and understand what his terms are you can. But to me, it’s a little high concept.
Let’s try another definition. According to Donald Mass in Writing the Breakout Novel, “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end.” That’s pretty good as far as the structure of a scene. But how do you put that together or take it apart?
The above definitions are all well and good, but my favorite definition of a scene was supplied by Dwight V. Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer. His definition is, “A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.” I would only add to that that the scene ends with a change – the character attains his goal (or not) or acquires information which propels him into the next scene. In other words, a scene consists of a viewpoint character making an effort to achieve an immediate goal in direct opposition to someone or something and that effort results in a change. Now that’s a definition I can sink my teeth into.
Analyze Your Scenes
Finally, it’s time to analyze your scenes. For each and every scene in your book write down who the viewpoint character is, what the immediate goal is, who or what opposes that goal, and what change has occurred. Again, don’t fix anything. Don’t write on your manuscript. You are just looking at the structure at this point.
It’s a slow, sometimes painful process. But trust me, it will help. It will identify weakness and strengths. It will inspire your muse to make your story stronger. If ideas on how to fix your story come to you at this point, make a note in your notebook – but keep moving forward.
Next week we’ll look at goals.
ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story
2: Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?
4: Do Your Characters Play Well with Others?
6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?
7: From the End to the Beginning