Updates about my book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and a funny story about revision and creative control. I’m still in the middle of line edits as I post this, so the adventure continues!
Updates about my book, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and a funny story about revision and creative control. I’m still in the middle of line edits as I post this, so the adventure continues!
Sometimes I win NaNo, and sometimes I fail.
This year is a bit different.
I have a book deal for two books (THE NAMELESS QUEEN and a sequel), and I’m in the middle of doing edits with my editor.
I haven’t heard back yet on the first round of edits, and I’m already about 79k words through the sequel.
Things standing in my way of being productive this NaNo:
Things that will not stand in my way of being productive this NaNo:
Because even though these things take up my time and are important, they are just a part of a given day.
Then again, the biggest test will be today, the first day. Typically Day One of NaNo is one of the most productive, so if I set a good tone with today, I’ll get a good sense of if I’m in a good spot to keep moving forward.
And hey! If anyone else out there is doing NaNo this year, let me know!! We can be buddies!
*yes it can be anonymous!
This is perhaps a much-too-long post about revisions, so here are some quick links to jump to the interesting sections:
“…revision is the hardest thing to practice because it’s at the end of the writing road, which is a very long road on its own.” (x)
Is that true? Is it really hard to practice revisions?
Practicing writing is pretty straightforward: write. Write some more. Write a lot. Write all the time. Write when you don’t want to write. Write when you’re inspired. Write until your fingers fall off in an extended metaphor gone terribly wrong.
Then, since you’re your own first editor, revise that last catastrophe of a metaphor so that you still have all of your fingers.
THIS IS THE POWER OF REVISION. You get to give people their digits back! (There’s even a joke somewhere in here about giving someone the finger, but let’s not and say we didn’t.)
The question is: How do you practice revisions? If you want to practice overhauling an entire plot thread and merging characters and doing massive line edits, you have to have written something first. That’s fair. It’s not as easy as writing new material and trying new writing formats.
OR IS IT.
A lot of us do basic revisions with everything we write. We read over something and frown at a bad image or a funky word choice. Then we fix it and move on. We do this to make our stories better, but it also makes our writing better. By that I mean our first draft writing process, not just the final product. But both, really.
Revisions are a natural part of writing in their smaller form. We do them in our efforts to make the story better. Sometimes, however, they can feel completely unnatural.
If you’re like me, you might have hated revision (you know, back in the day when your teacher/professor tells you to revise something, but you got an A on the first draft, so what’s left to change, really?). And even when there were issues, it wasn’t clear how to fix them.
I never had a good sense of what was wrong with the draft. I wasn’t taught how to fix something, just showed what (if anything) was blatantly wrong.
I had a teacher who used to say “As a part of this writing project, you must do a major revision, like get rid of a character or change the ending or alter the POV.”
The goal of the revision was to substantially change something in the story and to still make the story good. But she was having us make changes that fixed problems, and she hand’t pointed out any specific problems in my work. I didn’t how to determine if a change would help my story. Basically, it’s when you get an A on the draft and don’t understand how to get an A+.
There were flaws on both sides. Namely, my ego.
My teacher said, “This part of the project is difficult for students whose work is farther along and more complete. But it’s still important. It’s an important skill to develop.”
Even though she didn’t have any suggestions or guidance for what to do (and I didn’t score very well on the revisions part of the project), I still learned an important lesson about revision.
It is important to develop the ability to make big changes, to read your work critically even when no one else does.
If my teacher really just wanted us to have a chance at practicing revisions, she perhaps could have explained the assignment differently. Consider this advice that would have worked for me:
Choose one key aspect of your story. Change it. Just for fun! Just to see how it changes the story! Just to see how you can improve the story!
This is how you practice revisions even when you don’t know how to fix a problem or when you don’t even know how to identify the problem.
Then it changes the stakes of the game. Instead of trying to identify and fix some unspecified issue, you’re toying with something in a fun way. Half the fun of creative writing is experimenting with something new. If you look at revision as “try something new” as opposed to “fix what you don’t know is wrong,” then it can make revisions easier to try.
Then, of course, it’s the question of did this change fix the issue. Beta readers and critique partners come in handy for that! A change won’t always fix a problem, and that’s almost always because we’ve either misidentified a change or miscommunicated the change. We either tried to change something and we didn’t change it in the right way, or we’re trying to fix the wrong thing.
The best part of this “try changing things for fun” is that it’s not homework, it’s a creative exercise. It makes revision seem less dull and more interactive! So practice! Practice revisions and see what types of changes you are capable of!
But there’s a larger issue we have to look at. Now that we can practice revisions and get a sense of how to propagate large changes through a story, how do we figure out what the issue is?
If I hadn’t shouted it loud enough from my kitchen floor: I’m getting published! Two books! Book 1, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, out in Spring 2018! Yowza! That means I have an editor. And I just sent in my first round of revisions recently. Scary? Yes. Exciting? Absolutely. So how do I approach revisions now?
Step One: A person (beta, CP, editor, etc.) complains/critiques/notices about something in your story. An inconsistency or a confusion. A minor issue or a explosion-level event.
If a reader is unclear about something in the story, your gut response will be to get defensive and explain it. But don’t.
Step Two: DON’T explain the right answer. DON’T invent an answer on the spot. You want your story to speak for itself, and you want the reader to pick up on the fixes as opposed to you explaining what they should see. I know—I know—how hard it is to NOT explain the plot when someone is confused. But trust me. Don’t. Instead, revise the story and have them reread it.
Step Three: Figure out what type of revision it is. Is it a content issue or an execution issue? See if you can let the story give them their answers. Because in the end, the author can’t hover over the readers’ shoulders while they read, correcting misunderstandings.*
*When I say “authors can’t hover over readers shoulders while they read,” I’m talking in general about most authors. I can and 100% will be hovering like a semi-transparent phantom just. behind. you. while you read my books. So when you feel the shudder on your arms or your heart races, there’s no need to freak out and hide the book on your ceiling fan; you’re just reacting to my ectoplasmic presence. I am with you. It will be all right. Enjoy the book. You’re welcome.
What’s the difference?
Content problems are story-level issues. Plot holes, inconsistencies, thematic and structural integrity problems, etc. These are the big problems.
Content revisions require lots of effort: re-rooting the plot, re-threading the threads, moving big things around and really taking a look at macro-scale issues. Maybe your sidekick is unlikable. Maybe your editor/CP/beta suggests getting rid of them. Maybe your heart goes into double-heart-attack mode at the thought of slashing the character you love so much. This is a big content change.
Maybe the issue is on a story-level. Maybe the character is affecting pace and they are dragging the story into the mud. The solution could be to ax them. Take them from your story, remove any mention of them, figure out how to get your character into that duet singing competition all alone… and wait a second. How will your main character realize the villain’s plot if that second character isn’t present?
Content changes have a way of propagating through the story. Removing a big scene or an element of the plot might fix a lot, but it could break other things as well. So you have to make sure you look at the change from the perspective of the entire book. Evaluate how that change might cause other problems, and then figure out how to fix those problems too.
For execution issues, the idea for the story is already in your head, but never quite made it clearly onto the page.
That character your CP wants you to ax? Maybe the story doesn’t need that character, true, or maybe the issue is that one scene where your sidekick says something rude, and the reader just can’t forgive them. Strike that scene or tweak the tone, and it’s all rainbows and butterflies again. If someone comes you with a problem and your gut reaction is to tell them the solution, then the chances are that you have an execution issue. You had the right intention, but the message didn’t make it across to the reader.
So you have to find where in the text it wasn’t clear, and fix it. Tweak the phrasing, maybe restate something that was mentioned once 50 pages ago so that the reader can remember it, and take an extra step to make sure it makes sense.
Then go back to that person and see if they understand it now. (Can you tell that I’m nervous about sending my first round of edits to my editor? NERVOUS.)
So as long as you’re dealing with writing-level issues and not plot hole, story-level issues, you can probably fix these issues pretty easily. The risk, of course, is that the issue needs to be addressed on the macro scale.
It reminds me of when I would tell my sister this idea I have for a story. She’ll look at me, eyebrow cocked, and say, “I don’t think that makes sense,” or “It doesn’t sound reasonable.”
My response to my sister is always: let me see if I can make it work.
It’s easy to shoot down someone’s idea, because it lives mostly in their head, and it’s difficult to try to explain it. Communication is key.
So you just have to try. You just have to see if you can fix the issue, make the story better, and, essentially, make it work.
The most important thing to do when making revisions is to keep this in mind:
You’re not just making a change, you’re making the story stronger. Focus on that.
When you’re getting rid of a character or changing the setting—whether it’s a content or execution revision—make sure you’re focusing on strengthening the story and not just making a lateral move. Every revision should enhance the story.
Oftentimes, when someone suggests a change, they are trying to give you a solution instead of identifying the issue.
What are they really saying?
There’s no tried-true solution, but that’s where your job as a writer comes in. Interpret their suggestions and find a solution that works for you.
One way writers get trapped in revisions is that they keep changing something without fixing the underlying issues. So make sure that everything you’re changing is coupled with an aspect of the story that is being enhanced.
And always, always, always remember to make the story stronger.
If someone says the setting doesn’t feel right for the story, maybe you consider moving the setting from rural plains to a humid swamp? Maybe the impetus for this change is that your main character’s dad lives down there and she needs to visit. But make sure you’re weaving the setting through the plot (instead of tall cattails, you get the buzz of flies). Don’t just do a global find/replace on “plains” to “swamp.”
Ask yourself: How does this change benefit your character and the themes of your story?
And if the benefit isn’t apparent, then maybe the change isn’t fixing the problem.
Show Don’t Tell! That means I’m going to provide a bad writing example and show you how to fix it!
THE BEFORE PARAGRAPH
Akira stood motionless at the base of the sixteenth tower.(1) It was(2) an immaculate structure(3) with reflective metallic siding. There was(4) no possible way to scale it due to this very reason.(5) The sides were sleek as ice, and the tower loomed(6) in ever-present luminosity(7); it was radiating(8) in a facade of light.(9)
1: This throws us into the story with a couple key pieces of information: Akira is the main character (or she better be—I hate it when a story doesn’t start with a main character). There are 16 towers.
2: This is but the first of 3 sentences in the first paragraph (in which there are only 4 sentences) that are passive tense. Not good.
3: An immaculate structure? What does that mean? It was clean? Conceived by a holy creature? Sure, it goes on and says metallic siding, but that’s only marginally more descriptive.
4: Passive Points: 2
5: Whoa. Yikes. Passive horror. This sentence is giving us a lot, but poorly because it’s raising more questions (and flags) than answers. Sure, you can’t scale a skyscraper. Obviously. But this sentence implies the main character was trying or wanting to do so. But why? And why can’t we see that thought process (or associated conclusion)? Plus, saying “due to this very reason” is clinical language that has no place in the action of a first paragraph.
6: Finally, an active verb! Even though it doesn’t tell us much.
7: Aaaand it’s ruined. If a reader has to take a step back and say “what the hell does that mean,” then there are a few options of what terrible mistakes were made. 1.) You were trying to be fancy and original, and you fell flat. 2.) You used words incorrectly. 3.) You used the wrong words. This shiny sentence screwed up all 3 of those things. Because 1.) ever-present luminosity is needlessly wordy and doesn’t give us any details beyond “consistently shiny” which was already told to us in the second sentence, and 2.) it isn’t “loomed in luminosity,” it’s “loomed with luminosity.” In is the incorrect preposition to use here, because it denotes positional relationship, when really the brightness of an object is a quality it possesses. And 3.) saying “ever-present” is not just garish, it’s not correct. Unless there’s some magic juju going on, that tower is not going to be luminous all the time. To me, “luminous” means an object is generating light (probably a consistent tone of light), not reflecting it. When I picture a reflective metal building, luminous is not the word I would pick. (Passive points: up to 3)
8: Passive points: 4! This could easily easily be “it radiated light.” Make your verbs do the hard work in a sentence!!
9: I don’t know if this sentence is trying to be punny or what, but it’s using “facade” incorrectly. A facade can mean two things: the front of a building or a ruse/mask. If this sentence is trying to tell us that the tower itself has a fake mask of light, then I don’t know what genre we’re in anymore. If this sentence is trying to say the front of the building is shining, then… sigh… a few things. 1.) This paragraph has told us the tower is bright about a million times. Make sure you’re using the real estate of your page (especially your opening page) to describe multiple things. Keep an eye out in your writing for when you are over-explaining or when you’re explaining/describing the same thing in multiple ways. Cut back. Let one or two descriptive sentences do their job, and move on. 2.) This sentence uses the wrong preposition again. It can’t be radiating with a facade of light if it’s the facade itself that is glowing. And 3.) Freaking semicolons.
THE AFTER PARAGRAPH
Motionless, Akira stood at the base of the sixteenth tower.(1) Its sleek metallic siding caught the cold moonlight, like sparks hovering on every curve of glass.(2) She couldn’t scale the tower like she had with the others.(3) The metal would be like ice beneath her fingertips if she could even find a single handhold.(4) She’d have to go inside.(5)
1: Did a slightly switch to offset the sentence with “motionless,” because I think it gives it more rhythm.
2: Not the best simile, I’ll grant, but it gets the job done. We get the sense that light is reflecting off the tower without being beaten over the head with it. I did make an assumptive leap and decided it should be nighttime. This gives us time/setting.
3: Now that we’ve deleted extraneous description/language, we have more real estate to play with in the opening. Here we get a bit of history: Akira has stood at the base of 15 other towers, and she climbed them. That takes strength and strong motivation. No, we don’t know what that motivation is yet or what is gained by doing it, but we get a sense of that movement and history.
4: Here we find out that she free-climbed the tower. That takes strength and guts. We’re starting to get a sense of Akira, which is where the focus should be. Early on, the priority is learning about the main character—what they’re doing and why—not to extensively outline the physical surroundings. A few sharp details are better than a page of dull details. Plus we’re getting some more tactile details other than the fixation on light (visual) that we had before. Ice on her hands is a physical detail that’s important.
5: And lastly, we have direction. We know a bit about what’s going to happen next. Sure, we don’t quite know what the tower is, why she’s climbing them, or even how old she is. But we have some good details, a sense of previous and next steps, and a smidge of motivation. She’s done this before, so we can infer it’s a part of a longer goal.
What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?
Check out the rest of the Show Don’t Tell series!
Looking at any process from the outside is simple. I come at this from two perspectives: having explored a hefty portion of the “Writing a Book” process and having made my first real “Process Tree” for my job as a Technical Writer.
The process I’m making at work is how our team handles documents that we are rewriting and remodeling. Outsiders think the process goes like this, a one-step process:
Our team makes stuff more awesome.
And even I was fooled by its outward simplicity. I thought it went like this:
Draft > Layout/Design > Final Proof > Publication
It turns our the process vaguely (and pixelated) looks like this:
As you can see, it’s way more complicated than it first seems. It goes more along the lines of:
First Draft > First Proof > Content Consult > Design/Layout > Final Proof > Interactive Test > Storage
So I figured, what other process in my life did I at one time think (oh-so-naively) was simple? Only to then discover, en medias res, that it was anything but?
Writing. A. Book.
I thought it was a one-step process. Like “update documents” was a one-step process, right? Write a book. Easy peasy. Well, easy until I was in the thick of things. Then, of course, it got more complicated. I figured, okay, it’s a FIVE step process:
Write book > Revise book > Get representation > Get published > Write more books
I thought it was straightforward. Let’s explore how wrong I was. Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s see what this process actually looks like.
This is what the process looked like after about an hour of process-mapping. And I only made it up to the “querying” stage before it all exploded.
Here are the basic stages (probably): Drafting Zone (orange) > Revision Hell (blue) > Query Trenches (purple) > Agent Land > On Submission > Editor Land > Pre-Publication Stuff > Publication Destination > Post-Publication Road
And because I love a good terrible-rendition of my process, here’s a brief idea of what my person journey through these stages looked like for the first book I wrote/trunked. Note that this process took me a culminating of 4 years.
And here’s the one that actually made it (purple), when I finally got my awesome literary agent. I spent a good deal of time in the Revisions, and you can see a bunch of other trunked or unfinished books along the way. You should always be spending more time in revisions than anywhere else, I think:
I’m thinking maybe I’ll do a flowchart for each major stage (at least the first four, since those are the ones I have managed to get through) and post them separately. Thoughts?