Michaeline: New Year, New Writer — Revision

Revision is not what I thought it was.

It's about taking a look at the deep structure.

It’s about taking a look at the deep structure.

When I started the romance writing program at McDaniel College, I thought I had a basic grasp of what it took to write a novel. I had several thousand words, all lined up in a way that made a crazy sort of sense, and I fondly thought that it would be a matter of cutting a few plot threads here, tying up a few lines there, and polishing the words that I had chosen in a NaNo rush.

I wasn’t thinking revision – I was thinking proof-reading.

The biggest thing I learned is that story is only loosely related to the words on the page — at least in a first draft. I know that sounds bizarre, but what I mean is that the story can be told with a million different word choices. It can be told with these characters or those characters. Point of view, tone of voice, time, date and place . . . all are choices that can be made to tell the story. And of course, some choices work better than others. But there are many good choices out there. Words convey those choices, but they aren’t the whole story.

It just about killed me that I had to “throw away all of my story” once I started working with it, but to tell the truth, I wasn’t throwing away story, I was throwing away words that no longer served the story. The story was there, being shaped by thought and writing exercises and structure. It took me at least six months to accept that story is something more than the words. I still fight against the concept of “wasting words”. It’s not wasting words if it is bringing me closer to an understanding of what the story is really about.

So, what I learned is that revision is about working with the underpinning of the story. This year is all about finding new words to reflect the things I found when I dug deeper.

The “re” part of revision is like a wrecking ball, and I suspect it’s mostly made up of conflict. It passes through those words and that book, and leaves the words, carefully built up into scenes, pulverized into letters again. You keep building up your scenes again (if you are brave), and (if you are brave), you let the wrecking ball travel through your work again at full speed. Eventually you wind up with bigger, more usable chunks. And I fondly imagine that one day, the wrecking ball passes right through the scene without clunking on a single serif. Then you know you are ready for the closer work of proofreading. Or at least, that’s how I imagine it. A lot of very good writers talk about just abandoning their work when they can’t stand to work on it anymore.

So, back in the second workshop at McDaniel, here’s what I did with my lovely, “finished” first draft.

  1. Identify the characters. (They changed during the course of the book, so one clear vision of who they were was important. Jenny wanted us to name what archetype they were: fixer, nurturer, some sort of one-word description of who they were.)
  2. Define their goals. Super-hard and here’s where I made a huge mistake. My heroine is just out of school, and she has no clear idea what her goals are except to become debt-free. That’s not her true goal – and trying to define her true goal was too hard. (It took me months!) My hero, on the other hand, has always had a clearly defined goal, and it happens to butt against the bad guy’s goal. So, I took the easy way out and called the hero the protagonist, and the bad guy the antagonist. This is actually true for one of the subplots, but it isn’t the main plot. Taking the easy way out WAS throwing my story away. Define their goals, be honest, take your time. Work on the subplots if they are easier. But don’t try to shoehorn the story into some system because it seems “easier.”
  3. Do conflict boxes, and figure out who is in direct conflict with whom. You may be surprised that the story doesn’t belong to who you think it belongs to. OTOH, if The Girls in the Basement are fighting against your choices, you need to spend some more time first drafting and learning more about your characters.

Doing this, I went from a crazy mess with a cast of hundreds (well, OK, 76 characters) to a crazy mess with perhaps two dozen named characters. I lost a love triangle, and a bunch of Greek god relatives currently living in Florida. I lost an homage to Jennifer Weiner (the heroine originally got pregnant, and this was supposed to be one of the major plot-drivers of the sequel). George Diaz, my “bad guy,” gained a huge personality, and great reasons for why he’s doing what he’s doing. Hadiz, my hero, gained a mother from hell, and a fantastic backstory that won’t make it into the book, but will inform the book. And my heroine, Perz? I know who she is, and why she does what she does, even though she herself does not. I’m going to be working with her for the first three months of 2014 — no backing off, no trying to shoe-horn her into box that doesn’t fit. I can’t wait to see what she does on the page.

That’s not proof-reading. That’s re-visioning.

19 thoughts on “Michaeline: New Year, New Writer — Revision

  1. This was a huge shock for me too, Michaeline. I thought that finishing a first draft would get me (say) 80 per cent of the way to a finished book. I knew there was a process called ‘revision’ but I thought it was more about tweaking and polishing than taking a long, hard look at the underpinning of the story. That’s why I kicked so hard when I realized that I like my story but I had to ‘throw away’ (say) 80 per cent of what I’ve done and rewrite. I’ve made my peace with it now and I know the next version will be stronger.

    I love the way you’ve described revision here. I wish somebody had told me this five years ago. I’d still have had to experience it for myself, but at least I’d have been a little bit prepared.

    I can’t wait to read the new version of your story. It sounds really fun.

  2. Ditto on reading the new version, Michaeline. I read your first scene waaaay back in the first or second class (whenever we started reading each other’s scenes) and it was very exciting and action-packed. I’d love to see what you’ve done with it.

    I’m still struggling with Luke’s goal. Genny’s is solid and necessary. But Luke is floundering around the pages, avoiding a lot of conflict, and as avoiding something is a negative goal, it isn’t working. Sigh.

  3. LOL, and I’m sure all the more experienced writers were nodding sagely during our learning curve and saying, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” There’s a reason why it takes a year of daily work for my favorite writers to produce my favorite books. I’ve only begun dipping into the surface of what that hard work is . . . .

    Michille, I know what you mean. In your story, Genny is such an interesting character, and Luke’s got this incredible character arc ahead of him. He’s got to grow up if he wants to have this lovely, smart, capable woman. But if he doesn’t KNOW he wants this lovely, smart, capable woman (or if he lets his fear bury that desire), then it’s really hard.

    In my story, I feel like Hadiz’s main character arc happened back in the backstory . . . his arc in this story is learning to love and possibly to include love with his goals — but his work will always win over his personal life, and that’s not a very romantic situation, so that’s why he’s just a subplot. Perz has a lot of growing up to do. And I’ve finally figured out what motivates her. George is going to grow by losing — at least, that’s the plan right now. The conflict between the two of them is my main plot. (I think. George’s wife Janine may wrestle this away from George as I write the second draft . . . .)

    • Ohhhh, Michaeline. Any chance Hadiz’s heart might rule his head by the end? He’s a hottie, and I was sooo hoping for a love story sub-plot. Your story, your rules, just a little wishful thinking 🙂

      • (-: I do think there’s a love story there. It’s just that if I’m realistic, while Hadiz would sacrifice himself for Perz in the end, he wouldn’t sacrifice the lives of his people for Perz. (And that gives me a bit more to think about. Perz will “sacrifice” her people for Hadiz, but maybe only because she thinks they will be better off? She doesn’t think the whole thing will harm them. Hadiz has thought deeply about all this stuff . . . Perz hasn’t had to, yet. Hmmmm.)

  4. I also equated revision with proof reading. We were all so young and innocent then. Reading how far your story has come made me realize I was never fortunate enough to be one of your McD readers–and I’ve never read one scene. I’m looking forward to remedying that. Put me on your short list for beta reader, Michaeline!

  5. I guess I’m slightly fortunate in that being a technical writer my whole life, and doing copy editing for other writers, I know there’s a difference between revision editing and copy editing. It allowed me to be a little free when writing my first draft, knowing that I’d be able to add in later all the things I knew it was missing. Still, the list of things I have to do are long, and a lot of them revolve around shoring up the foundation of my story, rather than adding on description or fixing dialogue.

  6. Hello – you ladies are too prolific:) Here I am, still thinking about what I want to say and ask about the conflict post, when another fantastic post pops up, diverting my attention. As I’m just (as of today) starting the revision phase, this post was perfect timing for me. I think the thought about working out which words will serve the story best, rather than being about throwing away words or story is particularly useful. What I am trying to do, right now before I read the story through for the first time is to write down everything that I think the story is about (eg character arcs, themes, synopsis etc but also tone and style) and only once I’ve done that to read the thing again.

    • It’s a great idea to do that—to know just who your characters are, where they should go, what themes they present, and all that—before you start to revise. That way you can be a lot more on point about what you need to polish and fix. Good luck with your revisions! And congratulations on finishing the book. What a fantastic way to start the new year!

    • (-: I think at least half of us are where you are at, Rachel — revising the first draft of our first real book. So, the stuff on our minds is probably on yours, too. Feel free to go back to any of the old posts and comment — we see all of the new comments on the Secret Black Dashboard of the blog, and we can go back and talk with you when you are ready.

      What I did before class started was prepare spreadsheets — Timeline, Atlas, Characters and Magical Powers Used. Obviously, that last spreadsheet is optional! But someone writing medical dramas might use Procedures Used, or Patients and their Illnesses, or something else that helps track continuity. It took a very long time to compile, but it has been useful. I tend to add characters to my first draft in order to goose the plot into some sort of escalation. But, it’s better to use one character for several purposes, if the story permits.

      I always swear that I will make “bookkeeping” part of my writing discipline, and finish up a session by noting new characters, places and events . . . but I don’t. So, my Girls in the Basement gave me a story for NaNo 2013 with two main characters, Trouble Via Skype, and two German tourists with a dog. A story that for once, I can mostly contain inside my head! It’ll have to wait until I’ve done my best with The Djini and Ms. Jones.

      NaNo (http://nanowrimo.org/) recommends giving the book a cooling off period before you read it again, but there’s more than one way to write a book. If you are ready to dive in, there are a lot of us working on this as well.

      • Yes, I am going to do some maps, which might be on scribbled bits of paper or Scapple, which is software that lets you work as if you’re on a flipchart (from the Scrivener people – very good and cheap, worth trying) rather than spreadsheets. Started reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers this morning – something I picked up from the McDaniel reading list Jenny put up on Argh Ink. It made me feel rather daunted and depressed – are there any parts in there that people found particularly worthwhile?

        • Revision is hard enough without letting it get you down, Rachel. I’d say, if Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is making you feel daunted and depressed, put it away for now. You can always come back to it later. That one wasn’t my favorite, though some of the other Ladies may have a different opinion.

          One of the best things that Jenny had us do was outlining – the way we did it gave such a clear overview of the story. One line per scene. Scene protagonist v scene antagonist, what’s the juice of the scene, who wins. Use a contrasting font color for each POV. Use a different font for the main plot and one for each sub-plot. Put love scenes in italics, high-energy scenes in bold, turning points in a larger font size. Sounds complicated and messy, but it makes sure you know what every scene is there for, and what you get over 80 or 100 lines is a picture of your book. You can see what kind of story you have, how it’s balanced, how the flow works, where the energy sags.

          I’ve made so many changes to my ms, I’m basically re-writing from the ground up, but when I get to the end of the new draft, I’ll have a few days off and then this is what I’ll do next.

          Good luck!

        • Maps are a good idea. Helps you cement spatial relationships, and also something may come out while you are drawing those maps.

          You know, that book was on the reading list — I think it was optional for us, though, and while I am sure I have it, I haven’t opened it yet. What part makes you feel daunted and depressed?

          Bird by Bird might be a better place to start, if you are feeling a little overwhelmed. Also, I’m pretty sure Jenny’s got more than one conflict box post up. Ah, here you go: http://www.arghink.com/2010/06/21/the-basics-of-fiction/. And then she talks about conflict boxes again on the 24th of June of that year, I see by my google.

          A more recent Crusie post talks about “just do all the fun stuff, then your book will be filled with nothing but fun stuff!” So, if you like maps, do the maps first. The important thing is not to be scared of the manuscript. If you are going to put it away for a few weeks, make a date with yourself to pull it up and re-read it. If you are going to work with it, do fun stuff that’s a reward by itself.

          (-: And on that note, I’m off to do my first writing of the year. I think I caught the influenza (does influenza even take a definite article in the 21rst century? Sounds like something Granny Weatherwax might say), and while I could have written yesterday, if I don’t write today, I will feel definitely discouraged and slothful.

  7. I love sound of the outlining technique you mention Jilly and I’m going to give that a go (as well as maps). I think the problem with Self-editing for Fiction Writers was probably that I tried to read too many chapters at once and ended up feeling rather weighed down by all the technical things I was supposed to be remembering at once – it’s not a fun read like the Debra Dixon book, which was chock full of good advice, but in a way that felt like tools in your armoury, rather than millstones round my neck – just personal preference I think.

    Michaeline – I hope you’re feeling better and managed to get some writing done:)

    • Thanks (-:. I am a little better, and I did get my quota in yesterday. Now to do it again today (-:. I wish blogging counted . . . .

      The problems you are having with S-EFiction Writers sound really familiar. I felt the same way going through Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Oh, goodness. So much stuff that I knew I hadn’t mastered yet.

      The only way to do it is to plunge through to your second draft, I think. Pick one thing you are going to concentrate on this pass; you can choose a different area in the next pass. And, you don’t have to read those things in one go (although, for me, I read a self-help book all the way through — I gotta know how it ends, LOL — then read it again, a little bit at a time).

      • I also tried reading Burrows Writing Fiction, but she and I were not in the same universe, let alone on the same page. I’ve gone sideways to do a bit of character stuff outside the story to refresh me on the characters themselves (rather than their function in moving the plot forward etc), then going to try to write a synopsis, to see if I can get down what I think are the key plot points, and THEN going to plunge in and read the first draft.

        • Seems like a smart plan, Rachel. This might sound like semantics, but I think plot exists to move the characters along, not the other way around, at least in romance writing. Or as Chuck Wendig memorably put it on his blog a while ago (hope I remember this right) ‘characters poop plot; plot does not poop character.’

          Right. Off to try to persuade my characters to poop some plot now 🙂

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