9 Key Points of Revision

Revision is where the magic happens.

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The following is an excerpt from The Writer’s Habit. It also appeared this past spring on the Lancarello Enterprises site, the freelance business my husband and I co-manage.

We have arrived at my favorite part of the writing process: revision. It’s what I call the blood, sweat, and tears of writing. It is simultaneously the sandbox and the mudpit.

Revision is where the magic happens. Revision is, literally, re-seeing. It’s the opportunity to see your manuscript with new eyes and to make it better. Like a piece of clay that’s been molded into the basic shape, revision is where you take a step back, look at your writing from different angles, and use all your tools to reshape, refine, and add the intricate details that bring your story to life.

Writing is rewriting.

Whereas drafting can be somewhat carefree, revision is more methodical, although recursive. Some rewrite as they go along, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence. With each one they stop, read, and rewrite, reread and rewrite again. There’s no wrong approach to revision, but a writer who doesn’t revise is selling the writing short.

Revision is where the decision-making gets done. Have I chosen the best words? Should I begin a new paragraph? Does the fragment achieve a rhetorical effect, or is it just bad grammar? Do I have enough description? Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Is the dialogue authentic and fluent? Does the action move too slowly? Too quickly? Are the stakes high enough? Am I telling the truth? Have I persuaded my reader to care? To laugh? To respond? To keep reading? Revision gives us the opportunity to keep making it better, to hone our craft and sharpen our skills, and to keep writing.

The number of revised drafts are limitless. Some revise a couple of times, others get into ten or more revised drafts. Revision is never really finished—in just about every book I’ve published, I’ve since found something that I wish I could tweak a little bit more, make a little bit better, be it one word or one sentence or even a scene. But if you’re a contracted author, a weekly television series writer, a student, or a journalist, you have a deadline. At that point, you have to call it finished. Even if you don’t have a deadline, at some point you have to call your book finished, otherwise you’ll never get it published or write another one.

What follows is a sample of revision choices to take into consideration. They don’t have to be addressed in order or one at a time. Chances are some of these are always in the back of your mind at any stage of the process. Some writers even make a checklist (see Nathan Bransford’s revision checklist in How to Write a Novel). Do whatever works best for you.

 

Revise for Meaning

I often don’t know what my novel or memoir is about until after I print out the manuscript, sit down with a pen, and begin to read, making notes in the margins usually in the form of questions or insights. Sure, I’ve just drafted a 55,000-word story. But I still find myself asking, What is this really about? Sometimes that question doesn’t apply to the entire manuscript, but a scene or character’s behavior. I may ask questions like: What does she want? Why is she so afraid? Why are they fighting? Sometimes the answers come right away, and other times I need to dig deeper. Revising for meaning isn’t about explicitly spelling out everything your characters say and do and why. It’s about keeping your reader invested in their journey. Above all, you want to respond to the reader’s foremost question—Why should I care?—with a story that engages the reader through dialogue, description, and all the other ingredients of storytelling we discussed. It’s about getting to the heart of the matter.

 

Revise for Audience

Earlier I said that I don’t think about audience when I’m the drafting stage. However, when it comes to revision, audience plays a role because once your book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. It’s theirs.

When Duran Duran wrote the theme song for the James Bond movie “A View to a Kill” in the mid-80s, singer Simon LeBon said, “It had to be a James Bond theme. It also had to be a Duran Duran song.” In other words, there were two audiences to consider. (This example also applies to style. And interestingly, the popularity of the song well exceeded the popularity of its namesake.) If you’ve already established a readership, you might have an idea of what those readers love and expect from you. Does that mean you have to give it to them every time? No. But in many cases what they love aligns with what you love. If you haven’t yet built a readership, then I recommend you take a cue from Mr. Rogers and imagine one reader. Stephen King’s one reader is his wife. Mine varies, but I choose one and then stick with him or her. Thus, when you’re revising, read your story through their lens. Will they find this character likable? Will they understand what’s happening? Will they react emotionally? You also need to keep readers in mind when it comes to sentence structure. Long, eloquently worded sentences may be beautiful, but will too many of them interfere with your reader’s ability to process what they actually mean? Likewise, will a succession of short, choppy sentences be too blunt?

Also, keep in mind that you’re not going to be able to please everyone, so don’t try. My mom reads all my novels, but she doesn’t like my use of profanity. Some might think your love scenes are too explicit; others may think they’re not explicit enough. Beta readers help you gauge all of this, which is why it’s important to enlist their help, or the services of a developmental editor.

 

Revise for Genre

Every genre—mystery, science fiction, romance, horror, suspense, action/adventure—has certain distinguishable traits. And although you don’t want to be too formulaic in your application of those traits, you don’t want to stray too far from them either. I remember a writer who branded his novella as a romantic comedy. When I read it, I thought it was well-written and I liked the story. But I saw none of the characteristics of a rom-com—no overt chemistry, especially in a dueling way; no humorous situations spurred on by character flaws; no witty dialogue or banter; no high concept. In his case, rather than rewrite the story, I would simply rebrand it as contemporary or literary fiction.

Genres can be combined—paranormal romance, mystery horror, science fiction fantasy—and those can be quite fun to write, if not to market. Above all, you want to best serve the story and not the genre. If you’re writing mysteries because you think mysteries are trending or will sell better than, say, science fiction, most readers will see through the insincerity of that. However, if you write mysteries because you can’t get enough of reading them yourself, or you have an idea that won’t let go of you, or you simply want to try it for fun, then your reader is likely to join you.

I say it again: write the novel you want to read. Sometimes it’s not so much about finding readers as it is about them finding you.

 

Revise for Organization

In just about every draft of this book, I’ve re-organized either in terms of dividing and classifying the book into sections, determining which chapter comes first, second, third, and even at the paragraph level of individual chapters. (I even rearranged this list of revision choices.) In my latest novel, Big Skye Littleton, I made a big revision at the beginning: Whereas I had originally started with Skye stranded at the Denver airport, recalling a conversation she had on the plane, I revised to begin the story midflight, the conversation taking place in real time, and moved the Denver airport scene to another chapter.

Whether it’s at the paragraph level, chapter level, or scene level, make sure your readers can follow the sequence of thoughts and/or action.

 

Revise for Detail

Have you provided enough or too much? Have you given readers glimpses into the characters’ inner lives, or are they left needing more (something my developmental editor always flags me for not doing enough)? Have you painted a clear picture or is it murky? Did you change a character’s name mid-story without realizing it? (Yes. I’ve done that. Several times.) Check all of these things. Your reader will thank you.

 

Revise for Voice

Regardless of whether you’re writing novels or nonfiction, there must be a distinct voice, be it a character’s, narrator’s, or writer’s. It is equally important to consider tone, especially if you’re writing something like a letter seeking support or action. Tone can be easily misinterpreted in electronic communication, such as a text, social media comment, or email. Even something meant to be friendly can be interpreted as belligerent.

 

Revise for Clarity

Clear, concise, fluent—that’s what I encouraged my students to achieve at the stylistic level. The first one, clarity, is making sure your sentences are properly constructed—no dangling modifiers, bad fragments (as opposed to the good ones that add emphasis or lend to voice), or endless prepositional phrases (another flaw of mine, as are too many parenthetical phrases). Clarity also applies to the story you’re telling, whether a plot point or a conversation between two characters or just the complexity of the story in general. That’s not to say that stories can’t be complex. Stories may have puzzle pieces that readers attempt to put together along the way. However, if your reader has to stop reading, go back to the beginning of a sentence or someplace else in the paragraph, chapter, or book to gain clarity, you’ve taken that reader out of the story. You’ve disengaged them. You’ve made them work harder. And you’ve undermined the story you’re trying to tell.

Reading out loud will help you quite a bit with revising for clarity. A sentence that looked perfectly fine on the screen may be a mouthful out loud or not make any sense at all.

 

Revise for Pacing and Direction

Is your story dragging in some places and racing in others? Are there too many things happening at once? Does the climax come too soon? (No one likes that.) Is your story anti-climactic? Is your timeline accurate? Your beta readers will be essential in determining whether your story’s pacing and direction work. So will reading out loud.

 

Revise for Style

I have to be careful with co-opting someone’s style if I’ve been reading their books or watching their movies or TV shows while I’m working on a novel. For example, I watched a lot of The West Wing at the time I was writing Faking It. I got into Gilmore Girls while I wrote Why I Love Singlehood. And at the time of this writing, I’ve been reading Nora Ephron’s columns and articles from her journalism career.

Revising for style is about making sure every word belongs. My ultimate goal would be to read a final draft of my manuscript and say: “It’s perfect. Every word that needs to be there is there. Every word is the right word. The best word. Every sentence is the perfect length. The perfect depth. The perfect rhythm. Every word, sentence, paragraph, and the sequence of dialogue fulfills its purpose.”

Until then, I’ll keep re-reading and re-writing.

 

revision is where the magic happens

6 Screenwriter Storytelling Tactics that Made Me a Better Novelist

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of the best lessons I’ve ever applied to my novel writing craft came from television writers and screenwriters. That’s because television and screenwriters’ chief aim is to tell a good story.

I assure you that if you apply each of these tactics to your novels, regardless of genre, you will see a marked improvement. Or perhaps you’ve been applying these instinctively. If so, good for you!

Here they are, in no particular order of importance, but as I list them here, they do follow a somewhat logical sequence:

 

  1. Intention and obstacle

Emmy and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Network, preaches intention and obstacle as the backbone of everything he writes. “Someone wants something, and someone or something is in the way of them getting it.”

Without intention and obstacle, your story lacks conflict, and your characters lack an opportunity for development. More detrimental, the reader doesn’t have a purpose for being there. It’s one thing for a protagonist to want her dream job that’s just come on the market. It’s something completely different when her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is going after the same job. (And it just so happens her ex-husband is her ex-husband because he slept with her arch nemesis.)

Intention and obstacle is the stimulus for your characters to make choices and take action. It’s even better when this next tip happens…

  1. Always put your characters somewhere they don’t want to be.

Larry Gelbart, co-creator of the television series M*A*S*H and writer of movies such as Oh, God! and Barbarians at the Gate, dispensed this advice. It especially applies to comedies, but I find it works in every good story. Either take your characters out of their comfort zone, or put them where they’ll need to react rather than respond. For example, our protagonist (I’ve decided to name her Ruthie) sits in front of the hiring committee and the air conditioning has gone out, so they move the interview to a room without windows, and Ruthie is claustrophobic. Plus she’s allergic to a committee member’s perfume. And Mr. Ex is looking especially handsome, the rat-bastard.

 Notice that a little story is unfolding here? This leads me to…

 

  1. “But/Therefore”

As I had mentioned in my previous blog post, South Park creators and writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s advice is so crucial to storytelling that I devoted the previous blog post to it. Connecting scenes with “and” or “and then” will make your story drag and offer few consequences for your characters’ actions and behaviors. Connect them with “but” and “therefore,” and your story lights up with conflict and consequences.

Ruthie’s dream job is hiring, but her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is also after it. Therefore, Ruthie needs to ally herself with someone else on the committee. But the arch nemesis has already beat her to it, therefore Ruthie needs to discredit the arch nemesis. But during the interview, the A/C goes on the fritz, therefore they need to move to a room with no windows. But Ruthie is claustrophobic and allergic to someone’s perfume, therefore she needs to get through the interview without having a panic attack or wheezing…

Connect the same scenes with “and,” and watch the story turn into an insomnia remedy rather than a page turner.

 

  1. “The antagonist always thinks s/he is the protagonist.”

This advice came to me courtesy of instructor Will Chandler at the Stony Brook Southampton Summer Screenwriting Conference on Eastern Long Island, and I still remember how hearing it was like an epiphany.

Think about some of your favorite antagonists: Annie Wilkes from Misery. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men. Heck, even Voldemort. Each one of them is a compelling antagonist because they believe themselves to be the good guy. Wronged. Misunderstood. Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be villains. But they do need to be… well, antagonizing.

How might Ruthie’s arch nemesis make her case for protagonist status? Maybe she thinks she’s worked twice as hard as Ruthie and thus deserves that job. Maybe deep down she’s twice as insecure as Ruthie, or felt threatened by Ruthie, and that’s why she went after Ruthie’s husband and now her job. Maybe, when they were kids, Ruthie somehow wronged her. Whatever it may be, we don’t just have a mean girl anymore. We have someone who is formidable and challenges us as much as she does Ruthie.

 

  1. Story Structure

During that same screenwriting conference, I learned two different story structures. One was the traditional Three-Act structure (which I’d discovered I’d been instinctively applying to my novels). The other was a character arc based on Nine Key Scenes (also taught by Will Chandler). I detail both of them The Writer’s Habit. I also know of many novelists who use Blake Synder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat.

And finally…

 

  1. Words with a k in it are funny.

Walter Matthau as Willie Clark tells his nephew Ben this in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. But I suspect it’s Mr. Simon’s assertion. And dammit if it isn’t true. Cookie. Chicken. Ketchup. (I’m not sure what my using all food words says about me, other than I’m writing this before dinner.) Think about it.

 

Activity/Discussion: Of these six storytelling tactics, which is your favorite? Why? How do/would you apply any/all of them in your novel?

 

tell a good story graphic

When You Write, Keep These 5 Things in Mind

Writing is always a series of choices.

There are certain aspects of writing that, like driving a car, have become instinctive. You don’t need to think too much about what words to use when sending a text to a friend (if you even use words at all!), nor do you need to proofread a shopping list. Other kinds of writing, however, may need a great deal of care and consideration: a technical manual for how to build or use a piece of life-saving equipment. A science fiction novel or a murder mystery. A screenplay or television series pilot.

What all these kinds of writing have in common is that, whether consciously or not, the writer is applying the rhetorical situation, and some do it more successfully than others.

Here’s the definition of rhetoric I always supplied my English 101 students (and family members who were perplexed about what I was studying in graduate school):

The art and skill of using language to communicate and/or persuade.

Every rhetorical situation consists of these three elements:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Text

We may talk about them as if they’re separate entities, but in the rhetorical situation they’re inextricably linked, each one playing off the other.

Two more elements determine the effectiveness of the first three:

  • Style
  • Stance

 

rhetorical situation graphic

I like to demonstrate the rhetorical situation by using something ubiquitous: a Facebook status update.

Here’s one I recently posted on my personal Facebook page:

Funny/not funny how when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

The kitchen is a disaster. Which means some kick-ass blog posts are gonna happen.

 

So let’s examine the five elements by conducting a rhetorical analysis.

  1. Purpose

When we talk about purpose, we’re asking is my call to write, my reason for writing? What do I want to achieve by writing this?

  • In the case of my status update, any/all of these defined my purpose:
  • To communicate something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
  • To express a truth.
  • To express disinterest in cleaning.
  • To communicate that disinterest in a humorous way.
  • To inform readers.
  • To make readers laugh.

 

Some of these were conscious, others less so. I definitely wanted to make my readers laugh. And writers especially know that when writing becomes difficult, the temptation to do something else becomes very strong. I also made an observation by noting that the temptation/distraction stimulus works in reverse.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about informing my readers, “Hey, I need to clean my house,” but Facebook is typically the vehicle for posting the mundane. Was this information, they absolutely needed to know? No. And thus, because of that, I had to find a way to make it appealing, and so I made it funny. (Or tried to.)

 

2. Audience

I am quite conscious of audience when I’m posting on Facebook. I think many are, and that’s what figures into what they will and will not post. My Facebook audience on my profile page consists mostly of family and good friends. It also consists of former students, and people I have yet to meet in person—namely, fellow authors and friends of other friends.

As a wordsmith myself, how do I want to reach these readers/viewers? For one thing, I want to convey humor and wit. I also, at times, want to convey the courage of my convictions. Sometimes I share snippets of dialogue between my husband and me. And sometimes I just want to share photos of my cat or my meals, like most people.

And, of course, I want them to read my books. Thus, rather than say, “Buy my book!” I’d much rather embody the qualities of my books in my status updates. Storytelling. Dialogue. Humor. Relationships. Love.

Do I do this every time? No. Sometimes I’m just being me, speaking directly to the people I most care about. However, no matter what I post I am aware, at all times, that my message has a reader.

 

3. Text

When I say “text,” I mean the medium or genre that houses the writing—a text, tweet, status update, email, open letter, blog post, essay, term paper, dissertation, short story, screenplay, novel—all of these qualify as a “genre.”

Facebook status updates can sometimes run the length of a blog post or an article, or it could be as brief as a text or a tweet. In the case of the above example, I didn’t need to write something lengthy. It’s Facebook, after all. Not a novel. And my subject was mundane. Brevity was best.

 

4. Style

I’ve taken and taught classes devoted entirely to writing style. When I’m talking style, I’m talking word choice. How am I going to put the words together in a way that not only communicates my message, but also identifies and represents me as the writer? What words to I use to establish credibility, to stir readers’ emotions, to persuade them to see my point of view or take action? If I want to make readers laugh, then what words do I use? How do I write in a way that readers know the status update is from me, Elisa, before they even see my name attached?

The word “kick-ass” (is it one word?) is a giveaway, for one thing. The colloquial “gonna” is another; its intention is to make the reader not only read the words but hear my New York accent, my voice. And the use of “antithesis”—putting opposites together: when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

 

5. Stance

Stance refers to attitude or viewpoint in approach. If I were taking a position on a political issue, then my stance would be impassioned, but not angry. A desire to embrace readers as co-thinkers rather than shout them down or belittle them for having a different position. If I’m writing a comedic novel, then my character might be sarcastic or dry in his or her delivery.

When I’m writing novels, I don’t think consciously about stance; rather, I think the characters, story, and characteristics of the novel’s genre (mystery, chick lit, etc.) all play a role in determining stance.

In the case of my status update, my stance was to simply take a humorous approach rather than outright complain about how much I was dreading cleaning my kitchen.

 

Good writing is the result of good choices. Bad writing is the result of bad choices.

Good writing is also a well executed rhetorical situation. And the good news: regardless of what level you’re at in terms of craft—beginner or seasoned—you engage in rhetorical situation, and you can make it work if you take the time to make those choices. And if you are a beginner, remember what driving a car was like: at first, you need to think of everything at once. But the more you do it, and the better you get, the more those decisions and actions become second nature.

 

I did clean my kitchen, by the way. And my next status update?

Cleaning is a love letter to your home.

 

Activity/Discussion: Conduct a rhetorical analysis on the follow-up status update. What was the reader’s purpose? As a reader, how do you respond or react to it? How does the stance differ from its previous status update? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!