The Two Types of Revisions (and my experiences with them)

This is perhaps a much-too-long post about revisions, so here are some quick links to jump to the interesting sections:

my experiences with revisions in the past – my experiences now – Content vs. Execution – my recommendations

 So I recently said this thing:

“…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.

 

Revisions In General, back in ye olden days

School and Teaching and Learning

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+.

  • The flaw, of course, was that the A was just saying: “Great first draft!” It wasn’t saying “Perfect first draft.”
  • And the revision instruction was saying: “Change something big.” It wasn’t saying: “Here are the macro-aspects of the story that need to be strengthened.”

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.

 

How to Make it Fun (and what I suggest to you)

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?

 

Revisions Now (ahhhhhhhhhhh)

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?

 

What Kind of Revision is it?

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.

Content vs. Execution

What’s the difference?

  • Content Issue: A story-level issue (like plot holes and structural inconsistencies).
  • Execution Issue: A writing-level issue (your idea didn’t come across clearly to the reader).

Content Revisions

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.

Execution Revisions

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.

 

Fear of Change

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.

 

Moving Forward

Don’t just change it. Make it better. This is your mantra.

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.

 

Before you start making changes, identify the underlying issue.

Oftentimes, when someone suggests a change, they are trying to give you a solution instead of identifying the issue.

  • “I don’t like Character X.”
  • “You should make these characters fall in love.”
  • “I don’t understand why this happens. Make this event happen.”

What are they really saying?

  • Character X needs stronger characterization, or the voice isn’t jiving, or the tone doesn’t match the actions…
  • The relationship between these characters feels unfulfilled, or they spend a lot of time together but their dynamic doesn’t evolve (or maybe they just don’t like stories that don’t have romantic sub-plots)
  • The cause-effect relationship between Plot Point A and Point B doesn’t flow, or the character decisions don’t seem to have a strong enough motive, or the pacing and tension are lagging here.

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.

Pitch Wars Revisions #1

Things I Struggle With and How I’m Fixing Them

(I’m outlining my revisions process during the September and October of Pitch Wars (which is what again?). It’s not just me! Other mentors are blogging, too.)


*

I have a first person present narrator.

This is ironic, because I used to hate first person AND present tense. Then I read some really awesome books where the character voice snapped me up like an on-sale-snack. It wasn’t the POV or tense that I disliked in books, it was getting put into a story where I didn’t connect with the speaker. I began writing THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and it just flowed in first person. HOWEVER. It took me a while to get the hang of it.

The risk of a first person narrator is that you delve into the story (and into that character’s mind) before you as the author even have a perfect sense of who they are. If you’re like me, it won’t be until the guts of the story are on display that your character really comes into their own.

*

Make sure the first chapter dive into the POV is smooth and fulfilling.

If we don’t get the sense that this story needs to be in first person or that we’re benefiting from it in some way, then what was the point?

One of the methods (as explained by my lovely mentor, Laura Salters) to really dig into that first person POV is to make sure the reader has access to their thoughts.

You need to find a balance between internal monologue and external conflict. No one likes reading a three-page monologue on how your character feels about their own backstory. At the same time, no one likes to be so consumed by action that your MC is just along for the ride.

A story needs both because those things connect us to the plot (why we care about what’s happening) and the character (why we care why this particular thing is happening to this particular person).

My mission (and yours!): Go through the first chapter (and all of the ms, really) and make sure the MC’s voice shines through, that we get a sense of how they’re dealing with all the crazy chaos of The Story.


*

Want more writing tips?

Mentees Blogging During Pitch Wars

I plan on blogging throughout the next two months while I work on my manuscript with my lovely mentor, Laura Salters. I want to share tips, hints, progress, types of changes, things to look out for in your own novel, and to share the frenzy!

I know I’m not the only one!

If you’re a mentee and you want to share the wisdom you garner from your mentor, let me know! Send me a message @Mcrebecky on Twitter or comment here or email me!

If you’re a Pitch Wars hopeful that didn’t make in this year, but you still want to dive into revisions, check out these blogs! We’ll be posting about the types of changes we’re doing, the tricks we learn from out excellent mentors, and the methods of madness we’re learning to navigate!

Mentees Blogging

  1. Rebecca McLaughlin (The Nameless Queen)
  2. Lynn Forrest (The Measure of a Monster)
  3. Brian Palmer (A Silence Worth Breaking)
  4. A. S. Olivier (Chalk Circles)
  5. Jenn Brisendine (Under the Dust of Ransom)
  6. Michelle Tran (Diamond Queen)
  7. Vanessa Barger (Learning Space)
  8. Taryn Bashford (Game Face)
  9. Heather Murphy Capps (Spooky Jane)
  10. J.R. Yates (Unspeakable)
  11. Joan He (Hesperia)
  12. Jeigh Meredith (Resonant)
  13. Monica Hoffman (The Atlantic Bond)
  14. Megan England (Space Academy Rejects)
  15. M. C. Vaughan (The Reluctant Princess)
  16. Gretchen Kaup (The Mirage Shifter)
  17. C. L. McCollum (Traces)
  18. Elizabeth Leis-Newman (Callback)
  19. E. S. Wesley (The Outs)
  20. Sarahlyn Bruck (Fit)
  21. Jamie Manning (Out of the Ashes)
  22. Amanda Christine Donegon (The Zer0 Maker)
  23. MORE COMING SOON! (If you want to be on this list of blogging mentees, let me know!)

Show Don’t Tell (#5)

The best way to learn is by example! You’ve all heard: “Show, don’t tell”, right? This example illustrates the difference between showing and telling (plus helpful editing/writing tips).


BEFORE

I wasn’t sure what to do next,(1) everything in my life was telling me to move forward, to go off to college and learn amazing things, to get a job in a big city somewhere, to live a life they’ve only dreamed of living, (2) and everyone tells me that it’s what I should want, but the truth is hard to say sometimes.(3) I didn’t want any of those things, not the margaritas before midterms, not the gorgeous NY skyline, not the dreams they have for me, because everything I wanted was right here.(4) Right here in the(5) town with the library, my family, and the simple things I’ve come to love.(6)

1. Comma splice! A comma splice is when you use a comma where there should be a period. This happens sometimes when two sentences are closely linked, so you don’t pause as much between them when you’re writing it. Even though commas are where you pause when reading, that doesn’t mean you put a comma everywhere you pause. Most word processors will let you know there’s a problem. Easy fix! Just change it to a period.

2. See how each list item starts of with “to”? This is called parallel syntax (also sometimes called parallelism or parallel structure). It’s basically the repetition of the first part of list items, such as “I like to swim, to bike, and to run.” But if you add other list items that don’t match that pattern, it’ll break the rhythm and the reader will notice. wrong: “I like to swim, to bike, and running.” The parallel syntax of this sentence gets broken after this point, so it’s best just to start a new sentence here. In fact, let’s get rid of the parallelism here.

3. Out of breath? That’s because this humdinger of a sentence is 62 words long. Ouch. Part of that problem is the comma splice. Part will be solved by breaking the sentence in half (see note 2). Long sentences have their place. That place is not every page/paragraph. [sidenote: a variety of sentence lengths is important to having a good flow while reading. This is called “sentence fluency.” At least it was when I was in 5th grade.]

4. This is another case of broken parallel structure. We’re going to fix it a bit different than the first one though. This time we’re going to fix the parallelism in addition to breaking the sentence with a period.

5. Word choice is important. The article used here (the) should really be “this” instead. Partly because it matches with the specific “here” used a couple words earlier, partly because it gives us that sense that this is where the character is right now. That’s important in this scene especially, where the character is making a decision about where to be/go.

6. This sentence goes from vague (here) to specific (library) to vague again (things). Compared to the specific details we get of NYC, it would make more sense for the speaker to give specific details of the place s/he WANTS to be. More and better details than how she describes the place she doesn’t want to go.

AFTER

I wasn’t sure what to do next. Everyone in my life was telling me to move forward, go to college, learn amazing things, get a job in NYC(1), live the life they dreamed of living.(2)

But I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want the margaritas before midterms, the gorgeous big city skylines(3), or the life of adventure. Everything I wanted was here in Talon Township: the crooked library shelves, the wobbly curves of Hawken’s Creek,(4) and the pot roast family dinner every Saturday evening just before dusk. (5)

1. NY is the state. NYC is the city with the skyline.

2. In this format, the language makes it feel like these things are being phrased as orders, which is how the character is feeling. He/she is being told to go to college, learn things, live life a certain way.

3. It’s subtle, but we see in the first paragraph that the speaker is being urged to go to a specific place (NYC), and in the second paragraph, the speaker says s/he doesn’t want to go to a place with “big city skylines”. It’s subtle, but this intentional vague reference shows how s/he doesn’t care about the specifics of other people’s dreams.

4. Giving names to these places adds a level of familiarity. Even if we don’t know what they are, we know the speaker is familiar with them, and that makes a huge difference.

5. This last detail shows us a specific recurring moment in time in addition to the two locations preceding it. Given that the speaker is struggling with moving forward (into the future), it’s good to end on a detail that shows us the familiar repetition.

Additional Notes: OK, so Note 3 of After talks about how NYC is more specific than “a big city skyline,” which can be seen as rejecting the specificity of other’s dreams. However, to be fair, the speaker gives more details (margarita midterms) that are more specific than the vague dreams others have for her. So you could move the NYC reference to the second paragraph to imply that the dreams people have for her are vague, she rejects them with specificity, and chooses home with even more specific details. That would be a good escalation. It all depends on what you want to say and if it feels right to you.


What do YOU think? Every opinion matters! How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph differently? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better? Any thoughts on the changes to the After paragraph?

Additional ADDITIONAL Notes: This is the 5th one of these, and the excerpt got smaller, and my comments section is getting bigger and bigger. Hmmm…  I don’t know if this is a good thing or bad thing, but it’s happening. If you like these Learn by Examples excerpts, let me know! (so I know if I should keep doing them or not)

100 followers = 100 WRITING TIPS!

As of February 6, I officially have 100 followers here on WordPress. That’s not counting people who benefit from the blog through Facebook/Twitter. Too me, that means that there are a hundred people who read something I wrote (writing advice, complaining about Ninja Car, or extolling the value of language). Not only that, but those hundred people thought that they might like to hear something else I had to say.

Well, as a reaction to my surprising level of excitement, I’ve decided to toss out 100 writing tips. Take a deep breath! And, go! (There’s also a video version of this list, complete with props and a nerf gun!)

  1. Drink coffee.
  2. Make your coffee more exciting.
  3. Drink water so you don’t dehydrate on all that caffeine.
  4. Plan a reward for when you reach a goal.
  5. Know you’re apostrophes.
  6. Try outlining at least once.
  7. Be as organized as you can be!
  8. Try NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)!
  9. Write at least a little every single day.
  10. Give yourself permission to suck.
  11. Be OK with a sucky first draft.
  12. Don’t forget to read!
  13. If you have good advice, share it.
  14. Don’t be superstitious.
  15. Have a healthy ego.
  16. Know how to be self-critical.
  17. Know who to go to for encouragement.
  18. Encourage other writers!
  19. Seek out beta readers.
  20. Do your research!
  21. Do more research.
  22. Keep researching.
  23. Don’t let research keep you from writing.
  24. Figure out what your crutches are.
  25. Color code your revisions/edits.
  26. Try out different word processing programs.
  27. Find a good writing area.
  28. Try out a variety of writing areas.
  29. Expose yourself to new places.
  30. Don’t write in bed late at night under the covers with the heater on.
  31. Don’t fall asleep.
  32. Don’t end a chapter in a spot where you’d feel comfortable ending.
  33. Read your writing out loud.
  34. Don’t depend on spell-checkers.
  35. Get something from what you’re writing: emotional catharsis, learning from research, scratching an itch.
  36. Keep track of important small details.
  37. Don’t forget about characters.
  38. Back up your work!
  39. Archive your work.
  40. Expose yourself to visual stimuli!
  41. Draw maps, pictures, flowcharts, and doodles.
  42. Talk to other writers.
  43. Try different forms of writing (dictation, handwriting, typing).
  44. Try different styles of writing (poetry, stories, memoir).
  45. Read critically.
  46. Find what inspires you.
  47. Observe the people around you.
  48. Observe the world around you.
  49. Track your word count.
  50. If you can’t find the time to do what you love, make the time.
  51. Listen to music.
  52. Write in the company of natural light.
  53. Be fearless, but thoughtful.
  54. Be determined to improve.
  55. Know how to format dialogue.
  56. Don’t forget about other things like… other human beings and food and stuff.
  57. Be comfortable while you write.
  58. Don’t be afraid if your writing makes you uncomfortable.
  59. Read the types of books you want to write.
  60. Know what the cliches are.
  61. Know how to appropriately subvert cliches.
  62. Feel what you’re writing (emotionally).
  63. Feel what you’re writing (physically: print it off to get a different view on it).
  64. Talk it out when you’re stuck.
  65. Rant from tabletops!
  66. Jump in without any idea.
  67. If you get stuck preparing, then you’ll never make it off the first page.
  68. Don’t fall into the cyclonic pit of editing when you should be write write WRITING.
  69. If you burn out, it’s okay to take a break.
  70. Keep your life balanced.
  71. Let yourself fall down the rabbit hole, but make sure you know how to climb back out.
  72. Take a look at paragraph length and chapter length.
  73. Find a balance of exposition and narrative.
  74. Find a balance of summary and scene.
  75. Know the limitations of different POVs.
  76. Avoid taking the easy solutions
  77. Surprise yourself.
  78. Keep your audience in mind.
  79. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
  80. Be empathetic.
  81. Explore new and different psychologies.
  82. Never resist the flow of new ideas.
  83. Don’t be afraid to multi-task.
  84. Find people who will encourage you to do what you love.
  85. Love what you do.
  86. Ask yourself: who is the last person I expect to see come through that door?
  87. Know your own repetitive styles and tricks, styles and tricks.
  88. Always learn.
  89. Keep trying to invent.
  90. If you start to stagnate, it’s your responsibility to get yourself unstuck.
  91. Incorporate your other interests into your writing.
  92. Experience things passionately.
  93. Take a break before delving into revision.
  94. Write a list of questions that you don’t have the answer to.
  95. As you write, find the answer to those questions.
  96. Revise multiple times.
  97. Proofreading is not revision.
  98. Writing is hard work, and it can be a huge pain.
  99. Writing should always be fun.
  100. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Or it’s a Thursday. Or it’s a Sunday. Or you’re revising.

And, breathe again!

There’s no reason this list can’t grow! If you have any of your favorite writing tips, leave them in comments!