First Revision Complete: Now What?

During the last month, I have written about the way I revise a completed 1st Draft using the Revision Cycle: Phase I, Structural; Phase II, Scenes; Phase III, Word-by-Word, Line-by-Line Edit. Using this procedure helps me focus on different aspects to fix the work, one piece at a time. Once I have completed the first cycle (there may be two or more before sending the work into the world), I am confident the major character, plot, and flow problems have been resolved. But how can I be sure I have done the best for the reader?

A Difficult Decision

Now it is time to let another read the story. This can be an unnerving decision and one  where great care must be taken.

My wife, Linda, is my First Reader. Although Linda has read sections and even complete chapters during my first draft, I do not recommend this approach in most cases; we have been married a long time and she has a good eye for faults such as over-writing, consistency, female characters, and logistical issues. She is the exception. In most cases, letting someone read during the sloppy work-in-progress first draft can extinguish the flame so necessary when in the throes of developing characters and plot—no negatives allowed.

Instead, after the first revision cycle find another writer (preferably one who either reads or writes your genre—better yet, both) who is familiar with the art of creation. Writers have a keen eye for slight nuances missed during the whirlwind of writing, and a good first reader will pick up items you missed.

There are also critique groups which can help with this process. Here are two I have found helpful, both concentrating on Speculative Fiction, and especially fantasy:

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com

http://www.fantasy-writers.org/

Check each for particular requirements in order to have your writing critiqued.

When I present my story to another following the first revision, I ask them to watch for specific aspects, staying away from word usage at the most basic level (though that may come up during discussion) and focusing on the overall story. The questions—modified from James Bell’s book, Revision and Self-Editing—I ask the reader are these:

Beginning:

Does the story start quickly and hold interest into next section?

Is the Viewpoint character firmly established at the outset? Are his/her struggles–both internal and external–real, logical, and clearly stated? Is that true of all Viewpoint characters (if using multiples) ?

Do you empathize with the Protagonist?

Middle:

Does the plot flow smoothly, one scene easing into the next? Is there anyplace you felt like stopping?

Do character relationships deepen?

Do you care about what is happening in the story?

Is there a sense of death (physical, professional, or psychological) that threatens the characters?

Is there a strong bond keeping the characters together on their individual quests?

Do the scenes contain conflict and/or tension?

Are secondary characters active and important to the story line, rather than simply “spear characters” whose only purpose is to relay information?

End:

Are the conflicts leading to the end believable and difficult enough?

Does the final battle and/or the final choice set up the end?

Are there any loose strands hanging? Any questions not answered?

Is there a feeling of resonance at the end? Do you have a sense that life goes on after the last page? Do you want to read more about these characters?

Any additional thoughts, observations or suggestions?

A pretty simple yet complete list that gives me an idea how a reader perceives the characters and story I have created.

Understanding the First Reader Feedback

As the creators, we have intimate relationships with the characters, but does that come out on the page? This is critical. Because we spend so much time creating and fine-tuning who our characters are, we have a wealth of information about their lives, their background, interests, fears, and hopes. Of course, not all information about them can or should go into the novel, and sometimes what we deem a “given” is either missed by the reader or so vague as to not make the impact we intend. A good first reader will help us see where we either gave too much information or left out critical elements.

Expectation and Disappointment

Giving the reader the above list will allow them to focus on the important points and help us fix them. However, every reader (agent and editor) undertakes the reading with individual sets of likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Understanding this can help monitor the pain when a reader just doesn’t get it, and it will happen. Expect your reader to be honest, and be prepared for disappointment because it will come.

I suggest choosing two or three people to read the story so as to balance the individual impressions: this gives a more well-rounded reply to the questions you posed.

Many say paying a professional editor to do a detailed edit of a novel manuscript is necessary: costs range from $1,500 into the several thousand dollar range, something out of my and most new writer’s price range.

I was fortunate to find a retired English teacher to edit my work at no cost because she loves fantasy. It is not often one finds such a kind-hearted helper, and my gratitude and thanks seem woefully meager compared to the time and effort she put into the task.

My point is: after the first revision, it is important other eyes take a look at the story. Why tackle the second revision if there are major issues you did not catch the first time around? While other readers have the manuscript, take the time to sigh deep, but not too long—other stories await your attention.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Revision Again and Again — Part III

The third and final phase of the Revision Cycle is the word-by-word, line-by-line edit, perhaps the most critical to the story’s success, and one often undertaken too early in the process.

After having completed Phase I (Structural) and Phase II (Scenes), I now focus on specific language,  which includes foreshadowing, and of course, adding more depth to the characters. This is the phase where words, sentences, maybe even entire paragraphs or scenes are ripped from the manuscript because they do not move the story forward. It does not matter that I love a particular description or word usage: if the content does not move the story along or in some way enhance the characters, out it goes. Of course, I keep those sections to use in another work, or I might find a place to insert where they will enhance the current story.

Much of Phase III will entail replacing weak verbs with stronger examples, mixing up nouns and pronouns for clarity purposes (essentially replacing he/she with specific character names or descriptions—the king, the younger boy, etc.—or vice-versa), in each instance watching for the syntax and overall flow of the story-line.

The third phase is the “polish” section where I strengthen the weak prose, making sure each sentence and paragraph contains value. Paying special attention to rambling or too much backfill, if necessary I will break sections and sprinkle necessary details throughout so as not to overload the backload information.

Another revision aspect I concentrate on during Phase III is to make sure I do not have any “spear carriers” appear, those inconsequential characters whose only purpose is to relay information that should otherwise be included within the normal story flow. Also checking for consistency (blue shirt on page 10, green shirt on following page within same scene) is an important concentration at this stage of revision. In fantasy and other speculative venues, watching for a character’s items (sword, shield, dagger, pack) to make sure that something—say a bow and quiver of arrows—does not suddenly appear because of a need when the actual having of the item is not previously mentioned.

The third phase is all about the details, both large and small, and I do not catch all the problems the first time through. If a part strikes me as either odd or lacking in some way I cannot pinpoint, a note in the sidebar will bring it back to the forefront during future revision cycles.

I have found that making a note of an apparent flaw in a story, regardless of the type, starts my subconscious working to resolve the short-coming; there are times when the problem is completely fixed (seemingly by itself) when I return to the section later. Essentially, I believe that once something is written down, that something becomes a tangible entity rather than the haze of an idea floating around in my mind—the very reason I always have a pen and notepad to catch those fleeting thoughts which so often appear at inopportune instances.

Revision is all about taking a crappy first draft and turning it into a viable story. There are writers who claim they do not revise: I do not believe them. In some way they edit and revise their original copy, though it might not fit into the cycles or format described here. All writing will improve with the proper attention and edits—deciding if an idea and story are publishable is altogether different than revision, and one best left to people other than the writer.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Revision Again and Again – Part II (Scenes)

The second phase of the Revision Cycle deals with Scenes. After having gone through the manuscript during Phase One—making brief notes about additions and changes needed, while adding color-coded flags for more detailed section work—I now move closer to the story’s action.

Scenes

Scenes encompass all stories regardless of length, and I look at each Scene to make sure they accomplish three things:

  1. Character Development
  2. Growing Conflict
  3. Plot Movement

Character Development

Since my protagonist and their changing emotions are paramount to the story, I want to show something of their personality within each scene; this can be as simple as describing an attitude (he does not like weak-minded people who won’t stand up for themselves or others), or something more dramatic such as a life-altering decision they are contemplating. Whatever the personality insight might be, the peek inside the character’s head gives the reader a deeper view into the character’s psyche, thus strengthening the bond between the two.

I want to show my character mostly through actions and dialogues with other characters (more on this below).

Growing Conflict

Scenes normally involve more than one character (your protagonist/viewpoint/main character) and an antagonist. The antagonist can certainly be the POV’s primary adversary, but does not have to be. The antagonist can be a loved one who disagrees with the main character’s current decision (or vice-versa), a trusted friend and ally, or any other character you choose with a differing view or attitude; the important aspect is the underlying conflict between the characters during a particular scene.

Note: A Scene can involve only the main character battling internal conflicts; such self-absorption can be tedious, so use this technique in small doses and sprinkled throughout the manuscript.

Each Scene should include a scene goal (often tied to the encompassing story goal), conflict, and resolution, which many times will be failure—the failures mount, adding urgency as the protagonist battles more obstacles to reach his goal.

Plot Movement

Each and every scene must move the story forward. Although this seems obvious, many scenes tend toward writer self-indulgence where they tell the reader things thought to be important and necessary, when in fact they bog down the story and should be spread out, if added at all.

Paragraphs or pages of “information” relayed to the reader is often the problem of Back-Fill overuse. The writer has this great idea about the magic within the created world, and thinks the reader needs to know the nuances and steps to create a particular potion. No, not normally, and if you want to include such description, it better be important enough that if left out, confusion results. Otherwise, make a brief mention and move on.

Having a Scene Goal, coupled with conflict, will move the story forward. Often the scene’s resolution (as in failure) moves the characters from the present to future scene.

Transition

Moving from one Scene to another requires a transition, some indication that the situation has changed and time has moved on. There are many ways to have a naturally flowing transition:

On the third day of the journey, the travelers reached the town of Death Walk.

Two hours after leaving the banquet, Bob and Trudy sat alone in their car watching the fog roll over the lake.

The next day . . . you get the idea.

Even if you change chapters or add the # to separate one paragraph from another, a slight mention is required to move the reader from one time and place to another; an example may be that “the clock struck midnight” when the preceding section stopped just after dinner. Be brief, be clear, but let the reader know that something has changed.

Although this approach may seem antiseptic and formulaic, it follows the inspiration of the first draft and is intended to fix problems like a scene that seems forced or threatens to throw the reader out of the story. In many ways, scenes are intuitive and are fine the way originally written (with minor tweeks, of course), but some need work, and the examples are what I concentrate on if a scene does not work. After all, we are talking about revision.

For a more detailed view on creating scenes, see Jack M. Bickham’s book, Scene and Structure.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Knights of Writ’s intent is to open conversations between writers. Muse with me by leaving a Comment—add your thoughts, insights, ideas, and yes, even disagreements so that, together, we can all grow as writers.

Revision Again and Again — Part I

As mentioned on the previous post, The Revision Cycle, the first phase of revising my novel (or any writing, for that matter) is Structural, its intent to give me an idea of where major faults lie. To review: Structural Revision is like looking down on the world as if from a plane—in the case of fantasy, perhaps from the back of a winged griffin—focusing on Character Development, Plot Consistency, Flow and Readability.

Character Development

I have mentioned this many times: character is all important. Wonderful prose can weave together complex plots, well-defined descriptions can help the reader see the world the writer creates, but without a character or characters that engage, the story will fail. Because of the importance of character, each phase will focus on character development in one way or another.

During the first phase, I pay special attention to Character Arc—how, when, and why a character changes—and specifically the nuances of emotional growth. (Within a short story, change often lacks the multi-faceted emergence necessary in a lengthy novel, but the techniques can and should apply to shorter works also, just less).

Changes in characters, as in real people, can be slow, and often with the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progression. One needs to be careful not to jump back and forth too much, though, or the reader will be left wondering if the character changed at all.

Another problem I look for during this structural phase is too much repetition, the kind that leaves the reader saying to themselves, “I already know that. Does he think I’m stupid?” Readers are not stupid; don’t insult their intelligence by brow-beating them with information already forcefully stated once or twice. A subtle reminder can be brought in, say fifty or a hundred pages after the initial topic breach, but should be shown through action or dialogue with another character.

A point I would like to make here: internal dialogue has a valuable place in developing a character, but too much will frustrate the reader by pulling them out of the story action. A sentence here, no more than a paragraph there, and space them out with action, description, or by interaction with other characters. Pages of internal brooding cannot be saved by competent writing.

Plot Consistency

The plot is the series of events that move characters through the novel terrain.

I work with a simple outline developed prior to writing the first draft, which includes the important points of the story, particular attitudes and instances I want to highlight. As I write, I add the details as they reveal themselves. An example of the initial outline might be something like:

Ch. 1 — intro of POV character, his/her problem, and objective.

Ch. 2 — POV meets friend at inn; friend is nervous and talks in hushed voice; they are attacked and friend is mortally wounded; POV barely escapes, plagued by questions hinted at by friend before the two strangers attacked.

When within the Structural Revision phase, I use the outline as a guidepost, deciding if those twists and turns are necessary and if they are consistent with where I want the story to travel. At times, I have eliminated scenes and/or secondary characters which did not move the story toward the perceived outcome.

Flow and Readability

During the first revision phase, I make cursory corrections: misspellings missed during the computer “read,” interchanged names, perhaps a note that I used “sword slashed” too many times in Chapter 3, or that I need to show a character’s pain rather than telling it.

It is important that I do not get hung up making too many changes during this Structural Phase because my main goal is to get a feel for how the story moves, that which the reader will experience. To make that possible, I go through the story in 3 or 4 sittings, jotting notes in the margins—things I want to pay more attention to during subsequent revision phases. Over time I have developed something that helps me refocus during the next two phases: I “flag” sections that need later attention, using a color-coding for easy review.

Using Post-it colored flags, I attach them to the manuscript hard copy during the Structural Phase: green for character problems, yellow to indicate plot holes or errors, orange for sections needing a major rework, etcetera.

Again, this first revision phase is to get a feel for how the reader will perceive the story, the goal to find the obvious problems before I delve into the “meat” of the tale—the individual scenes—that comes next with Revision Again and Again, Part II.

See you on the next page,

Rick