Today I have the pleasure of being the guest of Art Taylor and his First Two Pages blog. I discuss my goals as a writer for the opening pages of “Moe’s Seafood House,” published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #4. I hope you’ll check it out!
This was the question my short story writer friend asked after learning that I—a fellow short story writer—had written a novel. After some thought, I decided on the following 8 basic questions.
Definition of REVISE from Merriam-Webster online:
b British : to study again : review
There are as many approaches to revision as there are writers with manuscripts to revise, but the goal is universal: to review a draft with the goal of making it stronger, tighter, and clean. The approach below is a task oriented system of reviewing a manuscript to achieve that goal. It requires three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish.
Why three steps? Can’t you revise in one intense, comprehensive manuscript review?
Of course you can, if that works for you and if you are able to juggle multiple mental tasks at the same time. There is no one correct way to revise.
However, measuring a manuscript’s story power, language use, and effectiveness while simultaneously checking for grammar and correcting typos can be overtaxing. And overwhelming. If you are trying to evaluate too many things at once, it’s easy to become frustrated and to miss problems. You can get mired in the same spot of your manuscript. By the time you move on to the next section, you’ve forgotten the details of what you’ve read before.
What’s the quote about doing one thing well, or a lot of things halfway?
Doing multiple intense passes on your manuscript will require time and focus. This is not a quick-fix approach. You will need to draw upon patience and dedication, but your manuscript is worth it, right?
Revise, Edit, Polish
The following approach employs three steps: Revise, Edit, Polish. If you like acronyms, you can call it the REP system. Ideally, you have a completed draft that needs to be reviewed. To get it into shape for submission or publication, you will read and rework it three times, from beginning to end.
Today’s post will discuss Step #1: REVISE
The first pass is to examine the manuscript as a story. Some writers call this a global review. Others call it reading like a reader. The point of this first pass is, foremost, to make sure the story works. You will read with the goal of finding weaknesses and/or omissions, and make notes on how to repair them.
For the Revision pass, you’ll need to view it as your Internal Storyteller and read without stopping to edit. Turning off your Internal Editor may be difficult, but it is temporary. You can indulge the itch to delete, fix, correct, in Step 2. Your Editor is waiting in the wings, but this is your Storyteller’s crack at the manuscript.
How to do a Revision pass:
A Revision pass will take on the big picture questions:
~ Does the MS have all the necessary parts to insure the plot makes sense?
~ Is there conflict-climax-resolution?
~ Do characters act consistently?
~ Is every scene grounded in a specific place?
~ Does the reader have all necessary background info on place, character, events?
~ Does the plot move forward in a logical way?
~ Do all subplots and secondary storylines support the primary plot?
~ Does every scene have a purpose pertinent to the plot?
~ Does the story make sense?
~ Is the story saying something?
Reviewing for the big picture items means you ignore smaller issues (typos) and mechanics (grammar and style.) Every time you stop to correct a typo or rewrite a sentence, you pull yourself out of the story. Your focus moves out of the world you have created back into the real world. So, ignore the writing. Those typos won’t dissolve on their own. Those sentences will still be poorly constructed or dull tomorrow. That’s the next task. You may have to grit your teeth and sit on your hands at first but, with practice, turning off the Internal Editor is a useful skill.
To Revise, stay in the world of your story. Pretend you are hearing the story and can’t see the errors. Be a Storyteller.
For the Revision pass, first I recommend you read through without making any changes to the manuscript. You can do this on a screen or paper. Keep a notebook or document and record concerns as you go along; use Track Changes to record your questions/concerns in comment bubbles; color highlight parts that clearly need to be reworked.
Read through from beginning to end, noting what you need to note as you go along. Don’t stop to make changes. Read it as a story.
Some questions will be small scale: Do I clear up why she asks about the motel receipt (page 4)? Do I explain how he got this fear of heights (chapter 11)?
Some will be bigger: Is what happened to her when she was 7 traumatic enough to affect her adult decisions? Does his abruptness to his sister make him look like a jerk? Do I need to explain the history of the mill? Does my killer have a valid revenge motivation? Is this detective incompetent because I’ve developed him as hostile and close-minded, or is he bumbling around foolishly because I need to give my amateur sleuth time to sneak around? Are clues glaringly obvious?
Some will be about structure: Is the inciting incident big enough to set up the climax? Is there a constant increase of tension? Does my plot flat line in Act 2? Is the plot too linear? Does this need some umph or humor or a second focus? Do all events happen in a sensible order, or are my scenes bouncing around in time?
After a read-only pass with notes and highlights, go back and make the necessary changes. That question about the motel receipt on page 6? Maybe you resolved it after all on page 229. Your character’s surprising ability to use a welding torch reads like a Hail Mary skill because, oops, you forgot to show earlier that he worked repairing hulls when he was in the Navy.
This making changes part is hefty work. Your Revision read-through may take a couple of days. Your Revision work may take weeks. Nobody said it was fast or easy.
As an independent editor, I read dozens of manuscripts a year. I depend on that first story-only read to let me see what the author is trying to achieve, and how well he/she achieves it. As an editor, I read once for story, viewing it from the Storyteller’s perspective. I focus on the story and only the story. I make notes as I describe above. After that, i go into the manuscript and make revision notes. With my own writing, I use this same process.
To reiterate, Step 1 – Revise is the Storyteller’s turn at the story. Immersing yourself in the story and the story world – without the distraction of technique or technical errors – will help you to see the full landscape of the tale you’ve written. Was it enjoyable to read? Did you get bored? Did it meander? Did it end too quickly? Did it end twice? Did the beginning and the end mirror, contradict, or have nothing to do with one another?
After you’ve read through, made notes, and gone back in to revise, your manuscript is ready for review on the next level: Editing. The Editing pass reviews the manuscript for language—how it is written. That means grammar, style, syntax, and finally, typos. Your Internal Editor will get to come out and do his/her happy dance.
Tune in tomorrow for Step #2 – Editing.
What is a World Changer?
A World Changer is a phrase or sentence that alters the reader’s perception of the story world.
When a writer begins a story, he introduces the reader to the world of the story. That world can be today’s reality; it can be a specific, faraway place in the past; it can be today’s world with magical or supernatural elements; it can be the future; it can be a new and fantastical creation; it can be today’s world with an unexpected element.
It is the writer’s duty to reveal the rules of the story world. A World Change happens when a twist or revelation exposes the reader to a specific, unusual aspect of the story world. A shift in what the reader thought they knew about the story world is the result.
Here’s an example:
Harvey stopped at the edge of the field and listened for Mama and Pa. After a moment, their voices lifted over the freshly plowed field. Harvey slouched against the fence post. They were arguing, again. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned around and ran toward the tree line.
What does this tell you about this story world? Harvey is a child who lives on or near a farm. His parents argue, a lot. This bothers him. Now see what happens in the next line:
Harvey ran over and between the clumps of dirt thrown up by the plow, his quills bouncing as he picked up speed.
Quills? Harvey has quills? Okay, so now we know Harvey is an animal. A porcupine? Hedgehog?
He ran toward the bushes beneath the trees and dove into his favorite dugout to hide. He rolled into a ball and tried not to cry.
Chances are, we’d know from illustrations or cover copy that Harvey is a hedgehog. Without these aids, however, Harvey sounds like any child who gets upset by his parents’ arguments. He just happens to be a hedgehog child. Quills or no quills, his emotions are real.
Now consider this:
After a little while, Harvey unfurled himself and shook off the dirt from his spines. It was almost dark and tonight was The Coronation.
He reminded himself of his duty as prince. No matter how much his parents argued, he had to be present–and presentable–when the responsibility of the kingdom was placed upon him.
Oh. So Harvey is a hedgehog, and a prince, so his parents must be the royal family.
This is a somewhat absurd example but you get the point. With each sentence, we learn a new detail about Harvey that alters what we think we know about the world of this story.
Here’s something different:
Jacqueline walked along the boardwalk, wondering if she should touch up her sunblock. Her shoulders felt tender and hot. She glanced around the crowd, stopping at a handsome blond guy with no shirt leaning against the beach fence. He was licking a chocolate ice cream cone. Slowly. For a moment, Jacqueline swayed, imagining his cool, chocolate flavored tongue licking her hot shoulder.
The voice cried out a micro-second before a woman slammed into Jacqueline’s side. The woman grabbed onto Jacqueline’s arm for balance, and Jacqueline gasped. Violent images shot through her brain—a pipe crashing down from overhead, over and over.
She pulled away, her arm as hot as if she’d stuck it in a bonfire.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and wince at the scars running from the woman’s hairline to her temple, where the pipe had come down.
Jacqueline is a woman at the beach on a hot day, made hotter by her quick fantasy about a handsome guy. But the world changes when a strange woman crashes into her and Jacqueline gets hit with a scene from this stranger’s past. Now we’ve learned Jacqueline is an empath, a person able to feel another person’s emotions or experiences through physical contact.
Now, what if their quick encounter had ended this way?
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and stare at the woman’s head. No scars. No bruises. It hadn’t happened–yet.
Now we know a new rule of the story world: Jacqueline can see the future. This is a character skill Stephen King used so effectively in The Dead Zone.
A final example, to show how a World Change can be used in a contemporary story that doesn’t include quills or special powers. This is from Catering to Nobody, the first in Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz mystery series. Book one opens with Goldy in the kitchen. We learn through narrative she has a jerk of an ex-husband, her new catering business is struggling to stay afloat,and she has a best friend who calls to complain–humorously–about this, that and the other. In the world of mystery novels, the response to those three story elements might be, well, who doesn’t? And then comes this line:
I looked down at my right thumb, which still would not bend properly after John Richard had broken it in three places with a hammer.
Ah. This is different. We just learned Goldy was an abused wife. The jerky ex, the struggle to be independent, the reliance on a good friend–all of those details got kicked up a notch with that world changing line.
How do you write an effective World Changer?
1. Weave it into the narrative in an organic fashion. That means show, not tell, in a live scene.
2. Do it boldly. Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran. Don’t over explain, “As a hedgehog, Harvey had quills. They bounced as he ran.” No. Keep it quick and dirty: Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran.
3. Sprinkle changes in to give readers time to process. First we see Jacqueline get hit with the violent images. There is a break as she pulls away and the woman apologizes. Then we learn something new, that Jacqueline sees the past (or the future). That little break gave the reader time to digest one new story element before being tossed another one.
4. Make sure the World Change does its purpose in exposing or refining the unique aspects of the story world and is important to the story. If you are writing a World Change because it’s fun but it doesn’t affect the plot or the character, why are you making me work harder to learn something I don’t need to know? Don’t toy with your readers.
Have you changed your story world today?
Tomorrow’s topic: How to Avoid Overpopulation