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

Are You a Mid-Career Writer? (If Yes, Here’s a Survey for You!)

I’ve created a survey that attempts to gather some data regarding topics of interest for mid-career writers.

A few weeks ago, a fellow author and I were discussing on Twitter a dilemma of mid-career writers: many resources tend to focus on beginning writers.

We brainstormed topics we would want to see at a conference specifically targeted toward mid-career writers, and the topic got me thinking about what kind of source book or classes could come out of that as well. When I wrote The Writer’s Habit, I focused mostly on beginning writers, but the rhetorical approach I presented throughout can be adopted by any writer at any stage of their writing and career. That said, the notion of a specific resource for this specific target group has intrigued me.

What is a mid-career writer?

This is by no means an operational definition (not yet; that can certainly come out of this survey and discussion), but I characterize a mid-career writer as someone who, as an author, as published 3 or more books, as a freelance writer, has been working in the field for at least five years, or individuals who have devoted a significant portion of their lives writing, regardless of their place or level in the professional realm.

I’ve created a survey that attempts to gather some data regarding topics of interest for mid-career writers.

I’ve left out typical items such as age and sex because I know more women writers than men (and this survey will likely see a majority of familiar faces) and because I’m not sure if age can be quantified when it comes to career length (many authors, myself included, didn’t begin their professional writing careers until their mid-thirties, for example; my husband’s journalism career spanned 20 years, which meant he was “mid-career” at age 28). There are four questions, multiple choice (you can check more than one item in each question), and you can add in your own responses if there’s something missing from the list.

Also, please provide feedback in the Comments section if you think the survey can be improved.

Finally, please share this survey with as many of your fellow writers as you can. And thank you for your participation.

 

 

survey time

 

The Writer’s Habit “Introduction”: Read It Here for Free!

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based.

Here is the Introduction to my book The Writer’s Habit, on which this blog and website is based. I hope it will make you want to read more. You can buy it here. You can also go to elisalorello.com to learn more about me as well as my other books.

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If you liked what you just read, please consider subscribing to The Writer’s Habit mailing list for updates on course information, spin-off books, and more!

What’s It Like Being Married To an Author?

We love this story. We don’t ever want it to end.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, Twitter, or this blog, then you know that I’m married to an author.

We’re still newlyweds, in fact! We got together a little over two years ago, evolving from a friendship that followed our meeting at a publisher’s party in New York in 2011 (we also share the same publisher).

Craig Lancaster is best known for his Edward series. In fact, quite the fan following has developed in the UK thanks to some rather devoted followers of #TeamEdward, as they say.

Earlier this year, I had put out a call for “Ask the Author” questions to respond to on my author blog. One of my husband’s most loyal fans asked me this:

What’s it like waking up with a literary genius each day? Do you have to pinch yourself?

I never answered it on my author blog, so I’ve decided to respond here:

What literary genius?

Oh. Right. My husband.

Yes, of course I’m kidding. Is he a really literary genius? It depends on how you define that word. I don’t see him as such, nor do I believe he sees himself that way either, and he’s OK with that. That said, the truth is that my husband is one of the most talented writers I know, and I know a lot of them.

I like being married to a fellow author because he understands both the process and the business of writing. He understands the core philosophy of The Writer’s HabitKnowledge + Skill + Desire—and, like me, believes in the importance of craft. Like me, he believes it’s not just about the words, but the story. It’s about the truth that lives in the heart of the lie—the “lie” being the fictional world we create and, for a time, live in either as a writer or a reader. I like that he understands the struggles. I like that I never have to go far to get help on a scene, a sentence, or a conflict.

It’s also rather nice that I get to spend most days with him. Even when we’re both holed up in our offices, he’s just a door away. We’ve even started a freelance business together. Our combined skills pack a good punch.

Plus, our own conversations ultimately end up as novel dialogue. It’s inevitable.

But here’s the really awesome thing: One of my favorite pastimes is when Craig and I read our books to each other prior to publication day (we’re currently in the middle of my new novel, Big Skye Littleton, which launches on August 22). In fact, this is the first time we “read” each other’s work in its finished form. I’ve written about the intimacy of such an act, and how we became close because we told each other our stories over time. And as we continue to grow together, our story develops. New chapters. New scenes. New snippets of dialogue. New conflicts and resolutions. We love this story. We don’t ever want it to end.

And that makes me want to pinch myself. Because this love story is very real.

Think You Don’t Have Time to Write? Think Again!

I kept a time journal. I made just about every minute of the day accountable—mealtimes, showering and dressing, running errands, and—the one almost everyone doesn’t want to admit to—time spent using my phone for Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc.

Every job and teaching position I’ve held has had one common denominator: when it comes to evaluation and assessment, my superiors all said the same thing: Elisa needs to improve time management skills.

Don’t think I haven’t tried over the years. I’ve kept fancy datebooks and planners. Used alarm clocks. Read books on the subject. I have success for a week or two, and then everything falls apart. I like to use my Italian heritage as an excuse—we’re stereotypically poor planners and organizers. But regardless of the cause, it’s something I’ve simply come to accept about myself.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep trying to improve, however.

It’s been even more of a challenge since becoming a full-time novelist. Never one for a traditional nine-to-five schedule, I don’t keep “regular” hours, meaning sometimes I put in a few hours of writing at night, and sometimes I take weekdays off and work through the weekend. It’s especially easy to succumb to distractions from people who either don’t realize or who take advantage of the fact that just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re not busy working. And I confess that I like to schedule certain appointments and socializing during prime work hours because it’s simply more pleasant and convenient.

In the quest for better time management, I’ve come to accept some things along the way. One is that multitasking is overrated. If you Google the subject, you’ll find that the research agrees with this. The other is that less is more. I no longer attempt to check off all twenty-four items on my to-do list. Rather, I find the most important tasks and do my best to complete them. Usually, this is no more than one or two tasks per day.

But sometimes even completing those two tasks is a challenge when I’m faced with distractions, family responsibilities, and migraines.

Of those things, the one that’s most within my power to change is distractions. So I took a step last week and kept a time journal.

How? The same way you might keep a food or spending journal. I made just about every minute of the day accountable—mealtimes, showering and dressing, running errands, and—the one almost everyone doesn’t want to admit to—time spent using my phone for Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc.

I kept this journal for one week, and what I discovered was eye-opening:

In short, I spent more time on social media and/or email than I did writing.

On one hand, I can make a case for this. For instance, last week I ran a special promotion for Duran Duran Appreciation Day and my memoir, Friends of Mine, that required me to interact quite a bit on social media. Thus, on August 10, social media was my job and my priority, and I’d planned accordingly. Also, as a novelist, part of my job requires marketing and promotion, and that involves social media and email campaigns. Creating graphics, drafting and revising emails or media posts, and interaction (I like to follow up and connect with readers) all falls under that umbrella and can be time-consuming.

But, as I learned the hard way earlier this year, if I spend all my time on social media (even if it’s directed) and little to no time on writing, then I’ll have nothing to market or promote. What I had realized was that writing always needs to come first.

And yet, when it comes to the clock, I still haven’t made it the priority it needs to be.

 

The time journal is, I hope, the first step toward my making changes. Here’s what I think needs to happen:

 

1. Abandon my phone during meals

 (Especially when my husband and I are together). Doing that alone would free up 10-20 minutes per day. Think that’s not a lot? Set a timer for twenty minutes, write non-stop, and see what your word count is at the end!

 

2. Check emails after the first task is completed or after lunch

 I already failed this one yesterday because my first task involved an email. Once again I allowed myself to get sucked into my inbox rather than wait until I either finished my first task or my lunch. Not only that, but I want to allot myself a limited amount of time to respond to email. I think up to one hour is reasonable. That means no checking the inbox after that hour is up until the second task is complete.

 

3. Time-blocking

This is a concept I learned after reading The ONE Thing. I have yet to make it a habit, but when I time-block—two hours uninterrupted (that means door closed, phone off, and no internet access) goes a long way. For example, I can get up to 3,000 words written in a manuscript when I time-block those two hours. If I could schedule two 2-hour time blocks per workday, imagine the possibilities! If I devote both to writing, that’s up to 6,000 words. If I devote one to writing and the other to marketing, website maintenance, email campaigns, etc., then I still come out ahead.

 

Finally, the most difficult change I’ve had to make is:

4. Get out of bed earlier

Those who know me well know I am not a morning person (my husband, on the other hand, is quite chipper at the crack of dawn; it makes for a lot of cursing on my side of the bed). Last week my husband and I recommitted to going to the gym. I knew that if we did, then I wouldn’t be able to stay in bed until 8:00, which was my happy rise-and-shine time. I considered how important exercising was to us, and made that commitment. I still curse and complain in the morning, but seeing how exercising gives me the energy I need for the rest of my day, it’s worth losing the extra minutes of comfort in bed, and it’s prompted me to power down and go to bed earlier.

And that’s really what you need to ask yourself when it comes to your writing goals:

How important is this to me?

 

The ONE Thing says any action or behavior change requires 66 consecutive days of practice before it becomes a habit. I have yet to achieve this, but I’ve made it my new goal. How important is it to me? Very.

So, if you think you can’t find or don’t have the time to write, think again! Start by keep a time journal for one week–in fact, make it this week’s Writer’s Habit Activity. Log everything, from minutes spent checking your phone, checking email, social media, running errands, rise and sleep times, meals, and work-related tasks. . I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at what you find.

 

time quote

What is The Writer’s Habit?

Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

Knowledge, Skill, and Desire

It took me at least seven years to finish my book The Writer’s Habit. I knew I wanted to write a book predominantly for aspiring novelists using a rhetorical approach rather than a literary one. (That is, focusing on elements like audience, purpose, genre, stance, and style rather than plot, theme, symbolism, climax, and exposition.) That’s not to say one is better than the other. But, given my training in rhetoric and composition, it made more sense for me to approach novel writing from that perspective.

What I struggled with, however, was how to put the information together in a way that neither felt too textbook-y nor too I’m-trying-to-be-OnWriting.

It wasn’t until this year, as I was finally finishing the book, that I found the angle, the way to tie everything together. I had unearthed my copy of Stephen Covey’s renowned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and read the first pages as a refresher. Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

And so, I organizing the book accordingly.

Knowledge (what to do)

In this section, I give a basic overview of the definition of rhetoric, its origins, and how to apply the rhetorical situation. I also discuss into writing for audience (and when to ignore them), writing what you know (and its sometimes misunderstood meaning), and the assertion that “writers write.”

 

Skill (how to do it)

Here is where theory meets practice. The most comprehensive section of the book, I introduce the craft of storytelling in which I feature these key components: narration and description, intention and obstacle, story structure, character development, dialogue, and setting. Many of this blog’s future posts will highlight lessons or features of each.

Additionally, I discuss the writing process, including drafting, organization and arrangement, stylistics, revision, and editing.

As with music and sports, the more you practice, the better you get.

Desire (wanting to do it)

The more I speak to aspiring writers, the more I believe that desire is what holds many of them back. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they’re afraid to do it. They’re afraid of not having the time, not being good enough, or old enough, or young enough, or rich enough, or smart enough, and so on. They fear failure. They fear success. They’re unwilling to persist. They’re unwilling to learn. They’re unwilling to commit. I say that not as a judgment, but as the reaction to that fear. I’ve been there, if not in the creative or the writing aspect, then certainly in the commitment as an entrepreneur.

This section of the book also touches on the business of being a published writer. I’ve learned even more since publishing The Writer’s Habit, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

Desire is the aspect of The Writer’s Habit that I tend to be most passionate about (although I definitely geek out when talking craft, process, and heck even just simple rhetorical situation stuff). And you’ll see why when I begin unveiling the online courses.

Overall, I aim not to teach writers to write, but to develop and master the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire so that writing becomes a habit, regardless of the scope. And what I love is that its lessons are quite versatile.

Moreover, I don’t want to only share my successes, but also my mistakes. Like anyone else, I’ve made them, and I’ve come to see them as necessary stepping stones on the path toward actualizing my goals as a writer and an author.

 

The bottom line: I want The Writer’s Habit—and this companion blog—to convey the joy that is inherent in my writing as well as my process. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean the happy-feel-goods. Writing—especially as a job and a profession, can be arduous or laborious at times. In fact, sometimes it can be downright tedious and discouraging. But I can think of no better gig than one that allows me to use my imagination, connect with readers and other writers, and navigate through this life journey with humor, depth, and wordsmithing. I’m a lucky woman.

 

 Activity/Discussion: Do you see writing as a habit? How do you combine knowledge, skill, and desire? Do you think you need more practice or development in one of those components? Please respond in the comments!

Have you seen my author website? I invite you to visit and sign up for my author mailing list. You can also sign up here for The Writer’s Habit mailing list!

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