Just a reminder as we proceed: Writers work differently. All I am willing to state is that every writer I know has a process that seems to work for her/him. Sometimes that process is the same across all their writing projects and sometimes specific to the course of one project. My comments about revising will focus, naturally, on my own process. Pick and choose what is useful to you.
Do I use beta readers (friends and colleagues who are reading an early draft and giving the author comments on it) and am I given often extensive editorial requests by my editor(s)? Yes.
(I’ll get to them in another post.)
But my first eyes and my last eyes must always be my own, because ultimately I’m responsible for what is on the page and I’m the one who knows the story, characters, and world best.
How do I know what works and what doesn’t work?
To my mind, it’s always worth considering what works, because what doesn’t work will be the stuff that doesn’t have the intangible or recognizable qualities of the stuff that IS working.
Some of this is instinct, as in “wow, that’s really effective,” and hard to describe. Sometimes I just know. Sometimes the scene just wrote itself because I so fully understood the needs, details, and emotions that all I needed to was put the words down. Yet often I’m wrong. A scene or encounter that works for ME may be a scene that stops a beta reader in her tracks, usually because she’s not in my head and what was in my head didn’t get down on the page.
So, here’s a way I do it (not the only way it can be done).
#1 Divide your consideration of the draft into three (or more, if you wish) scales.
Small (details) scale.
1. Large scale.
Large scale might also be termed the wide angle lens. This is the big ticket vision, the thematic, overall plot and structural element.
If necessary (you don’t have to do this and I usually don’t but I sometimes do), you may want to make an outline of the already written story as a means to judge the structural flow of the story. The outline will deal with how the parts fit together, how they increase or decrease the speed of the pacing, how the opening unfolds, and how the narrative arc pulls together toward the end of the novel.
If you’re a structural or architectural writer, as I am (seeing things within an intellectual framework on this level), elements of the plot that don’t make sense or that belong elsewhere will show up pretty clearly in an outline.
Even if you don’t use an actual outline, considering the story on a large scale--does Jo need to find the magic sword before or after the flood?--helps shape revision.
Thematic considerations come in here, too. If the book seems to be about accepting your new super secret power, then a sideline plot about a demon-hunting assassin may seem out of place thematically unless it ties into what the super secret power is going to be used for in the next book or has some other actual function within the theme of acceptance (etc) or it might be revealed as a sideline that can either be cut entirely or refocused (repurposed?) to illuminate the main story.
2. Medium scale.
Medium scale is what I call a medium angle lens, in which you’re working on the chapter by chapter and scene by scene scale.
Does this chapter flow or drag?
Does the chapter have an internal structure (in the way scenes in a theatrical play have a structure and internal flow)?
Does a scene have its own timing and rhythm? I have some musical training, not a lot but enough that I tend to envision or even “hear” scenes in the same way, for instance, I might hear a piece of music. A scene has a natural length and its own specific rhythm or speed. Not all scenes have the same tempo or pitch or volume. I like to vary the rhythm and length of scenes, and I particularly like to vary the emotional pressure of scenes. I personally can’t take a steady diet of, say, accelerated action or heavy emotional angst; I need some breathing space as I move forward.
Does the scene, an extended conversation between characters, drag, repeat information, or repeat confrontations? Does it build to a natural and exciting pause point or dramatic flashpoint? Having finished the scene, will you want to turn the page to see what happens next, and not just because the albino dude with a gun has just shown up and pulled the trigger?
Do scenes flow together or do they kind of jerk along randomly?
Are scenes from different points of view linked in some way, if one comes after the next, even if that way is simply in a visual or emotional or contextual way that makes it easier for the reader to make the transition from one to the next? That is, how does the end of one scene lead into the next? Huge jarring leaps can often be smoothed out with a little attention to how the scenes relate.
Is there continuity in terms of how scenes are deployed? Are all the scenes the same length? Do you want them to be, or do you want variety in length? Are there always only two characters talking? Is that what you want? Or do you want something else? Does every scene start the same way, in the technical sense--say with a line of dialogue or with a paragraph of scene setting--and is that what you want, or do you want to change it up?
Does every scene feed into what you’re trying to achieve on the large scale?
Does every scene do more than one thing?
“Things” that scenes can do include but are not limited to:
Character revelation or deepening
Understanding or revealing important background or world/story information
A scene really should do more than one thing at a time.
If your slam bang action sequence has no other quality except slam bang action, the chances are that it will read a bit dull.
If it reveals something about a character in the process (Hank is really a coward although he talks big), if it illuminates, sets up, or creates a new character dynamic (in the excitement of the chase, just after they’ve gotten across the bridge before it crashes into the chasm and pause for a second to catch their breath and laugh with that kind of heightened sensitivity midway between fear and relief, Jo and Anna kiss for the first time), that heightens your action.
Humor reveals character and also can lighten cranked up tension or simply make things flow better.
Surprise plot points rachette up tension or make a good break-off for the end of a scene.
World building “reveals” or additions help deepen the sensory and emotional surround in a way that can make the action pop off the page.
These are all ways to look at and consider your scenes.
3. Small scale.
Small scale refers to both the intimate close up shot, as it were, and the actual details you use, how many, and with what purpose and where they come in on the timing and rhythm of a scene. It also includes the actual verbiage, what one might call the line editing, the style, the language, the sentence and paragraph level.
I’ll break this down using three categories.
A. The Intimate Close Up
This can refer to things like character thoughts and moments where the narrative voice is so tightly pulled into the point of view that you’re inside the character really almost or to the exclusion of anything but their immediate thoughts, emotions, needs, and immediate sensory queues.
In this case, revising consists most often of asking yourself: Do I need this information? Does the reader need to know? Does it help elevate or intensify the emotional tension or the physical plot?
And the all important: Can I make this internal material more dramatic by externalizing it?
If Character A thinks “I really hate that guy,” can I have her state it aloud instead of think it? And if so, to whom?
The intimate close up is a useful tool, but it’s not the only vehicle to express thoughts and emotions.
B. Details details details.
The details you choose illuminate your world. They drive your plot. They reveal your character.
Details show what the character sees and considers important. They help create an emotional relationship between characters or between characters and their surroundings.
A reader’s view into your story is through details as well as the action and revealed character.
Now I’m about to say something, and please don’t laugh. Please understand that I tell you this out of bitter experience.
Don’t use five details when two will do better because they will focus the point you’re trying to make or cast a stronger light on the cultural or societal element you wish to reveal at that moment in the plot before you’re not diffusing the impact.
Don’t use two details when one will hit harder and stick in the mind.
And let me be clear: the longer I write, the more I understand that even in a huge long novel, you can use the right details at the right time, and every detail used should be specifically chosen for the place it rests in the story because it does its best work there; it needs to be there.
I know, I know. It’s an obvious statement, but harder to put in practice. Think about WHY that detail, and WHEN.
At the same time, sometimes two details are better than one. Less isn’t always more, although it often is.
One other thing about details:
If you are writing omniscient, then the details you choose will at all times be the ones best deployed at that moment in aid of character, plot, or world-building.
But if you are writing in first person or in tight third person, then the details you choose should always reflect how your character sees and observes the world, what matters to them, and what catches their attention. You can get other things in as well, but it has to be within that framework.
C. The Words.
Figure out what your personal writing faults are. I know some of you have none, but you lot aren’t coming to me for advice on actual writing style on the sentence and paragraph level anyway because I’m not that kind of writer.
I have worked massively hard in the last five years on the line editing level. Just as examples, these are things I work on constantly (you’ll find your own set):
Doubled actions that aren’t necessary: “He turned and walked to the door.” Except in rare circumstances, you don’t need “turned.” He really can just walk to the door.
As above, five details when the two best and most evocative make your point more clear.
On the scene level, mooshy conversations that can be tightened up by examining what the actual point of the conversation is and then sculpting it to that point.
The squoogy words that I take out incessantly but of which there are always more than I can possibly eradicate: like almost very a little but then and so, and so on.
And then, once I’ve done a thorough cut through all the clutter, by having cut through all that, I open up the thicket of words enough that I can find MORE to cut that wasn’t visible before.
I personally probably am not capable of working on all three scales--small, medium, and large--at the same time. I tend to have to settle my large scale issues over the course of Alpha and Beta Drafts before I can tackle the medium and small scales, although the truth is that to some degree I’m always working on the medium and small scales as I read back over things I’ve written and make constant changes as I go.
Next up: I answer two questions re: debut novelists & working with an editor.