The Revision Cycle

Literary masterpieces are whittled from crappy first drafts.

The question arises from the murky and harrowed depths of revision: how many times is enough? It depends and however many is needed are all standard answers, but that doesn’t really help, does it? Nor does, You’ll know when it’s time carry any weight whatsoever for the writer with depleted sleep and frazzled mindset.

When asked how he created the sculpture of David, Michelangelo reportedly remarked he would “just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” Elmore Leonard spoke of revision when he said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Caught between revising so much that the freshness that once existed has now staled, to a sloppy offering sent out to the ridicule of the masses, writers wonder, at what point does The End really mean the current project is completed. (A hint: it’s not even close to the first time you type, The End).

For me, the completion is different for each short story or novel; there are, however, certain processes I follow and particular sign posts I search to tell me when my “child” is to be released to the world, or at least a part of the world larger than my desktop.

The first draft will be lousy—can we take that as a given? Good, we can move on.

Once I have finished the first draft, I print out a hard copy. At this point, I have gone through the piece at least once on the computer to correct the obvious typos and spelling errors; when in the throes of first draft, I pay attention to little but shifting my thoughts to fingertips to the document blaring white on my computer screen.

This first revision follows the initial read-through after having let the manuscript cool over the last month or so in order to distance myself as writer to become the reader.

This printed copy will be the map that will evolve into the final draft, and to make room for the field of forthcoming corrections, I set up the document either 1 ½ spacing or double spaced, and I use a pencil for all annotations. (Many writers attack revisions only on the computer, but I’ve found that using a printed copy catches mistakes I read-over and miss on the screen).

There are three phases to each revision cycle, each phase encompassing a specific purpose and goal because, quite frankly, the crappy piece of writing just printed has too many problems—structural and otherwise—to be dealt with in a single way.

The first revision process is Structural. Think of it as an overview of the piece, as if you are in a plane looking down on the world and the part your characters play. During this process, I look specifically at characterization content, flow, plot consistency, and readability.

The second part is Scene correction where I fly lower over the story, say just above the treetops, breaking down each scene’s purpose and answer to the question, “What do I want this scene to reveal in terms of characterization and forward plot movement?”

The third is the Line-by-Line, Word-by-word edit. Many writers jump right into this, landing on the ground right off, and are thereby so focused on each sentence they miss the wider ranging plot errors or shallow characterizations.

My wife and I have owned and operated several small businesses (I have managed others), and when looking at a job or task to be completed—whether it be growing the business or adding another level of efficiency—it was always mandatory to look at the “Big Picture” first, then tackle the details.

It is no different when writing a story and critical when writing a novel—using these three different phases of revision will make correcting the manuscript easier and more manageable. That is not to say you will go through these three steps just once during revision; no, doing each of these three parts is one revision cycle. At times during later revision cycles, these phases may overlap.

How many times will you have to read your novel during the revision process? The number of times will be different for each person, but during the entire revision process from first draft to Final, be prepared to read your story a half dozen times or more. Of course, each story has their own unique problems so it’s impossible to give an exact number. The number of revision cycles needed will be determined by how well each phase is handled. Accosting the first revision phase (Structural) will be the topic of the next blog post, Revision Again and Again — Part I.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fun Writing & Beating Writer’s Block

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So, I’m sitting at the park as I often do on the weekend, my mind fuzzy and my focus like the last bit of a candle’s flame sputtering in its own wax. I open my laptop and stare at the blank new document, but instead I grab the book I brought for times such as these.

When my mind glazes over, I do what I call Fun Writing, that is, creation without a goal. I harbor no intent to “do” anything with the writing such as turn it into or a blog post, short story, or novel; however, there are times when gems float to the surface of otherwise unpalatable prose.

This is how it works: I read a favorite author, and after a chapter or two, I set out to create something, anything in that author’s particular style. While typing the author’s words, I pay close attention to the length of the author’s sentences, the phrasing, and the flavor of the yarn.

Why, you ask? Study. By imitating a favorite writer, I gain a sense of how they use language, at what point they show versus tell, and how they accomplish pulling emotion from the reader.

I first did this many years ago while a reporter at a newspaper. Over the course of a month, I went into Dickens Mode: I read Tale of Two Cities followed immediately by Great Expectations. I noticed my sentences lengthened, the aura of what I wrote took on a dark and foreboding tone. (The sports editor was not amused when my weekly article began, “It was the best of games, it was the worst of games . . . .”).

I then read several Edgar Allen Poe stories and did same. At that point I coined the name Fun Writing and occasionally partake to this very day (I’m currently reading The Hobbit).

I learned something very valuable during this exercise: mimicking another writer is a great way to beat the dreaded Writer’s Block. After having exhausted every trick to add to a blank page, and getting no where, typing another writer’s words inevitably leads me into my own creation. If I am in a quandary about a piece of dialogue, I’ll concentrate on a special interaction between two characters, or if my problem is description I’ll find a favorite section where I can “see” a particular scene. See more about Defeating Writer’s Block here.

You will probably not match the favorite author you choose (they are in all likelihood a best-selling author or prose master), but you may uncover a gem from the stony writing associated with first drafts. The gem may even be a clever turn-of-phrase suitable for a current work in progress.

I have done the Fun Writing with several different writers: John Jakes, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, Jim Butcher and a host of others.

A side note: there is a website entitled, I Write Like, which uses a few paragraphs of your writing to determine who you write like among famous authors. It’s fun, but don’t put too much emphasis on it. I posted six different writing examples and it gave me four different writers (Poe was one of them, oddly enough).

I challenge you to take a few minutes and do some Fun Writing; you never know what you might find during this exercise.

Comment and let the Knights of Writ followers know how this mini-challenge helped you be a better writer.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Voice of a Story

During my convalescence, I retrieved from one of the many bookshelves in our home, The Hobbit, a novel I have not opened in decades. As I remember from previous readings, I am again drawn into the book by Tolkien’s use of language, the Voice imbued in the telling of the tale. I notice tiny nuances within the delivery, lovely little humors and sentence twisting that adds to the joy and charm of the English Professor’s masterpiece.

Tolkien describes “the poor little hobbit,” Mr Baggins, flummoxed by the arrival of the dwarves. I love how the little fellow is “bewuthered” and the way he “puffed along the passage.”

You won’t see Robert E. Howard describe Conan as flummoxed: angry, yes, and not afraid to say so, and the only time he may puff is from exertion when swinging his two-handed broadsword; Conan could never be described as bewuthered (since J.R.R. invented the word) because doubt does not enter Conan’s thinking—he knows he can exact heavy casualties on those thirteen dwarves, and a wizard is not an unknown adversary to the barbarian. You also won’t see Conan described as “the poor barbarian” in any context other than not having two coppers to squeeze together.

The use of language speaks to the Voice (or tone) of the story and character. In The Hobbit, the story’s narrator is telling the story through the eyes of poor Mr Baggins, but knows things the hobbit does not, giving a unique viewpoint to the recounting. Tolkien is by most counts the master of modern fantasy, but unlike the darker and more epic Lord of the Rings, the introduction to Middle Earth was written with a different Voice and a particular audience in mind—children. The Hobbit is written in a fairy tale style, and is every bit as enchanting as the follow-up trilogy is dark.

I bring up the differences between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy (and the style difference with Howard) to show how Voice is used, but in entirely different ways, ways that are determined by the character: Bilbo Baggins, an easily frazzled and unassuming hobbit, Conan a strapping, muscular barbarian who’s thought process rushes from an adrenalin-charged brain to strong hands clenched around the hilt of his sword.

There are several things to decide when you begin a story or novel, and Voice is one of the first. Several questions come into play, such as viewpoint by which the Voice is expressed and through whose eyes the reader views the world; first person or third, or something different? But Voice is more than that. The Voice is also the words chosen, what the character sees and what they do not, what they think and what does not even cross their minds. Voice is the “feel” of the story and the intimacy one shares with the storyteller.

While building my Submission Circle (those stories which are now in the pipeline to editors of various magazines), it was interesting how much the Voice played in each story, and how each story gained a unique perspective determined by the words the characters chose.

Here are two opening scene examples from my own writing. In each story, the Voice sets the tone of the story to follow. As it so happens, both are first person even though I normally create in third person limited.

Boys ‘N Berries

Momma always said grandma has a green thumb. Well, I looked plenty of times; her nails are yellow, for sure, but not green, and wondered if momma was colored-blinded.

I stood on the porch that circled the big-ole ranch house, momma and grandma rocking in the two-seater swing behind me. Chewing on a piece of straw, I wondered if Juliette would be at the county fair next weekend, and thinking of the brand-spanking new Schwinn in Rucker’s window. I had to have that bike; then Juliette would let me kiss her. I’d ride up like a prince on his golden stallion and take her for a ride to the river. She couldn’t help but be impressed, and heck, that Schwinn put Eddie’s three-speed to shame so I’d be the talk of the school-yard.

From this paragraph, the reader understands the character (a boy), the setting (porch) and problem (wanting the Schwinn, which hints at the time period, the mid-1960’s), but it’s the character’s descriptions—colored-blinded, big-ole ranch house, chewing on a piece of straw—that gives the story (and the character) its Voice.

In The Company of Demons

The long table stretched into the eternity of the Great Hall. I sat down at the feast table, tucked my wings behind me, trying not to arouse attention. The Master’s minions loomed all about me, forever into the distance. Some were terrifying—even to me—an assortment of strange, misshapen beasts from the Master’s many realms.

The smell of sizzling flesh intermingled with oily smoke, swirled occasionally by a companion’s fluttering wings or sweeping tail. A thousand different noises and grating voices hummed, halted by shrieks of agony in the distance; the minions laughed and regained the conversations. I did neither.

 I reached a clawed hand to a platter of writhing entrails, pulled them into my mouth, hoping to hide that I no longer found humor at the suffering of the poor souls whose screams, even now, still echoed in my hearing.

Again, character (a demon), setting (A Great Hall), and a problem (he does not find joy as he once did), but it is his view—Some were terrifying–even to me–an assortment of strange, misshapen beasts from the Master’s many realms, smell of sizzling flesh intermingled with oily smoke, A thousand different noises and grating voices hummed—that gives Eligos and the story its specific Voice.

When starting your new story, do not ignore how important the Voice is, how your character’s observations and thoughts are intertwined with the plot, how each word sets the story’s tone and gives each its own unique flavor.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Characters Must Struggle

Life, like a well-plotted novel, can jolt one from the expected journey along a path never considered nor conceived, a place of pitfalls and pratfalls, of modesty and no time for it, battling fears and anxieties, moving forward, always forward.

And so it should be for our characters as well.

As writers, a large part of our job is describing circumstances and character emotions in a way to help a reader feel the pain, the terror, the indecision, the last hope dashed. A character’s struggle and vulnerability—as well as our own—often dictate personality.

My life’s path recently took me to places I never considered, and through the experience, conflicting emotions tore at me, sent me to my knees amidst tears and crying out. As a writer, my job is to write about such things.

I never thought I would push a long piece of plastic up my penis, and I certainly never thought I would be grateful for the opportunity to do so. When first explained of the eventuality by the urologist, my mouth dried up, hands shook, my mind a tempest.

The experience started out as expected, a simple outpatient hernia operation. I had undergone a similar “procedure” five years before to repair the left side; this time, the right side had broken loose. Nothing unusual expected: ten days off work to recuperate, the first few days fogged by pain medication until the discomfort eased.

Life’s plot chose another direction.

Three days after surgery, my wife, Linda, rushed me to emergency because I could not urinate no matter how much I tried or begged for it to be so (rushed is an exaggeration since the hospital is 45 miles away). Think of the growing urge to go, increasingly uncomfortable until you reach the bathroom and find the only stall occupied. Seconds waiting turn to squirming, when finally, you hurriedly push past the person exiting the stall (or urinal) and sigh with relief. Only relief didn’t happen.

I staggered into the emergency room; immediately the nurses realized my distress, sat me in a wheel chair, and at my request, pushed me to the nearest bathroom. I tried yet again, a dribble of no consequence despite the monumental effort.

An eternity later, a catheter was pushed up my manhood: sharp pain followed by relief as I lay back, knotted shoulders slowly untied, panting returned to normal breathing.

Three days later the catheter was removed, and two days after that I was back at the emergency room, another catheter rammed up my personal parts. Once more, warm relief followed burning pain.

Thoughts of suffering and death played through my mind.

Two days later, I learned to appreciate that sticking a long piece of plastic tubing up the narrow passage into my own bladder every six hours is a good thing.

Anybody who knows me will agree that I am a private person, that I do not share details of personal hardships except in passing or as anecdote to a more appropriate story. Why now with relative strangers who follow my blog?

As an anecdote for the larger picture—your characters must suffer!

As creator, you must climb into the character’s psyche, live their thoughts, and show the frailty of what it means to be human. We have all ran the emotional gauntlet, simultaneously confident and rattled by doubt, excited and terrified at the same time.  As writers, our experiences ignite ways to describe and define the actions of our characters. The internal emotional battles we face daily are examples we can use to give our characters well-rounded personalities, traits that make a character real and life-like—it is important we show those competing emotions to our readers.

Dig deep and you will find the dichotomy of your own emotions, and within those opposed feelings, a character can evolve from a mere skeleton to a fully fleshed out person that readers can call a friend.

See you on the next page,

Rick