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.
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.
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,