Tag Archives: Revision

Rewrite, Revise, Repeat

As you can see from the progress bar on the right I had a pretty decent first week of final revisions on Surreality. For those who aren’t word count inclined I’m done with two chapters out of twenty.

It hadn’t really hit me until I was a couple of days in that it has been a little while since I’ve been dealing with fiction. A month or so prior I did a complete reread of the book, taking notes on every chapter on changes I’d like to make, and on what I’d like to keep mostly untouched. But actually getting going took some doing.

This rewrite has a number of subtasks that require varying degrees of rewrite, reworking, or just touching up scenes. For starters I’m changing the main setting of the book from one city to another. I’m making tweaks to the mystery aspects of the story to make certain motivations clearer and to hopefully throw the reader down a couple of rabbit holes. And I’m removing references to a certain noir detective movie of the 30s and 40s but trying to maintain a noir feel to the work.

Here’s my one piece of writing advice learned from the first week of revision (and countless hours before this):

Nothing is sacred.

Put another way, you can change anything, and should feel free to do so with the important caveat that the change needs to actually make the story better. Now I have definitely experienced the phenomenon of tweaking a work repeatedly to keep it fresh for myself, even if it is already working. Sometimes random new ideas need to be poured into the next book and not the one you’re working on.

But in general I think it’s a good idea in revision to be open to the idea of significant changes, even in what you think will be your final draft. Otherwise, the book would already be ready to send out.

And I’ve been trying reading the book out loud to myself as I work. This is more effective at correcting mistakes and flow of dialog than I’d care to admit, though I have not always been a big fan of it. I think the main reason is that I don’t do a very good job of differentiating characters and narrative with my voice and so everything sounds to me kind of robotic even if the prose is great. I need to work on that if I want to read stories to my children (or record any audio books). It might get a bit tricky to read passages back to myself while the wife’s around (not because of her but because of me being a little self-conscious), but I’ve got a few tech tips I might share for turning your book into an audio book you can listen to anywhere.

I do think the slower pace, 800-1000 words a night, is helping. Partially I’m not up to my fighting weight when it comes to punching out prose in a matter of minutes. But more importantly writing a little less each night gives me time to really think about what I’m doing, even to correct work from the night before.

Let’s see how week two goes.

What’s your revision process?

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Dusting Off Old Stories

Unless everything you write is divinely inspired, breathed onto the page straight from your thoughts, you’ve probably got something sitting in a drawer.

These days that drawer is an old folder on a hard drive, a buried but not forgotten document of a project that once captured your imagination, and which perhaps someday you will bring into the light of day. What day we are waiting for can vary greatly. Sometimes we are waiting for the skill to tell a better story, other times we are waiting for a story’s moment to arrive, and sometimes we’re just exhausted, burned out from years of work with little payoff.

For me stories get put in a drawer not because I don’t love them, but because I only have a fixed amount of time to work, and I need to spend my efforts pretty ruthlessly on the projects I am passionate about, and that I can finish. I have rough drafts from two years ago or more that I realistically won’t be able to work on for at least another eight months. It bothers me, and those stories fill my thoughts often, but as I’ve been turning my attention to one of those works I’ve really come to appreciate the freedom that comes from a little distance.

My current project Surreality was first conceived shortly before my wife and I met, about seven years ago. Its first draft was finished shortly after we were married, and its revisions have been carried on in the midst of a cat running up on my porch on beggars night (and not leaving since), the marriages of several of my friends, and across at least four computers. But since about July 2011, during a summer of furious writing for the first draft of DM, Surreality quietly faded into the background, subsumed entirely by the fractal book, gone but not forgotten.

You can’t just dive back in to an old project. You need to warm up to it, get to know the world again, which in my case meant re-reading the current draft. Reading with an editor’s eye, or as close to an objective one as I can get, I could see the sections that were working, and more importantly those that weren’t.

We fight passionately sometimes about scenes, about characters, about clever lines we’ve written. We don’t like to think that our first idea is not our best idea, because so much of writing relies on instinct. We know where to carry the story forward, we know the next thing we need to say.

At least we do the best we can with the skill we have at the time.

But there’s a danger that we can get locked into the story as it is, without seeing how we can make it better, make it clearer, and still get across the point we were trying to make. Time spent in a drawer makes both writer and story more humble. What’s the worst that can happen if you change a chapter here or there? It can just go back to the drawer, but if the change makes the story better, it might just see the light of day. And you might be pleased to discover how much of the story still holds up.

After finishing reading my draft last week I’m writing an outline to plan my rewrites. I’ve been a guy pretty resistant to outlines, more of a fly by the seat of my pants writer. I know the destination, and a few of the stops along the way, but the rest is a mystery to me until I write it. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good habit for rough drafts, but for this project anyway an outline seems warranted. It will help me to formalize what I’m keeping, and what I’m replacing, and hopefully serve as a bit of a spur to action.

I’ve taken pages of notes on what to cut, what to keep, and what to tweak. And best of all, I’ve been having new thoughts. I’m seeing the old characters in new lights, learning things I was unwilling or unable to learn years ago.

How have you revived old projects? What’s kept you from looking at a story for years?

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Removing “pink slime” from your novel

How do you recognize and remove “filler” from your novel?

I’ve hit a patch like this in my current draft. It’s not that the writing is especially bad (or at least not worse than anything else around it), but it doesn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or enrich the characters. Plus, it’s in the middle of a section of the book that my alpha readers thought went on too long. A temptation is to toss the whole passage out, but there might still be valuable bits to be saved. How do you identify what’s working and what’s not?

1) Does the passage advance the plot? – Does the passage reveal anything new about the situation your characters find themselves in? Does it introduce a new crisis that they must face? I’m working on an action story right now and one of the temptations is to throw my characters into crisis after crisis, then leave them to fiddle their way out. This led one of my alpha readers to comment that my book reads a little like a video game in places. Action can be one of the most exciting moments in a book, but good action needs good setup, and even a good action scene needs to pertain in someway to accomplishing a goal.

2) Does the passage grow your characters? –  Do the characters interact in a way that reveals more about themselves, their past or their relationship? Do their actions in the scene change the interaction in any way? A scene where two characters are having coffee might not do much to advance the plot, but it can illuminate how they communicate with one another, what they like to do to relax, and also provide a break from the action. It might be tempting to cut out these beats, but if they enrich your characters they might be worth saving.

3) Does the passage describe the environment, or explain a technical detail? – A large part of my current story takes place on a large spacecraft, adrift in space. The location of certain assets, the bridge, engineering, the main computer, and places to eat, factor into some of the decisions my characters have to make. Where possible I’m trying not to use the “techno-babble” approach to solving problems, which means the ship is governed by a set of rules, an interaction if systems, and a specific layout of decks. While I don’t want to take 50 pages to describe all of these in detail, I want the reader to understand where they are.

4) Does the passage show my work? – It aggravates me when characters are dumber than I am, or possesses knowledge that has been hidden from me. I want my reader to have the same understanding of the environment and the current situation as my characters do. Sometimes I cut a passage where a character is thinking about the crisis because I think it is redundant, but it may be the kind of review that’s helpful in putting the situation together for the reader. While novels aren’t TV, where you need to summarize what happened before the act break, it is still important that there be a sequence of actions, one action affecting the next. A story in which a character makes random decisions with no thought for what has happened would not be a very good one.

5) Why did I write this? – This is the broad question that encompasses the first four. If the reason was “I needed to write 1800 words today” then cut it.

6) Can I rewrite this? – Even if a passage has valuable qualities like the ones above, it may not be the best implementation. The details revealed, and the character interactions might all be valuable, but their current goal is flawed. Other sections can be sprinkled into parts of the novel that are working but need a little flavor. I’ve encountered this a couple of times in this draft, and extensively on my previous book.

7) Don’t be too ruthless – One value of alpha and beta readers is external feedback. We aren’t always the best judges of what people like about our work, and it never hurts to get a second opinion. The final decision is always yours, but input is incredibly valuable (and has already saved a large portion of the beginning of my book I was inclined to cut). And keep your old drafts around, even the ones you edited by hand. You never know when something might be useful.

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This Won’s Four Yew, Dad

And yew two Brian.

As you may have guessed, one of the most common mistakes I need to correct in revision is homonyms, or more accurately homophones.

As some quick Wikipedia research points out, homophones are two words that sound the same, and homographs are two words that are spelled the same.

  • Wind (the breezy kind) and Wind (the thing we used to do to clocks) are homographs. (It would be somewhat difficult to run like the wind (the clock one), unless one were to run in place spinning round and round).
  • Fare (the thing you pay cabbies) and Fair (as in the world’s just not) are homophones.

Homonyms refer to words that are both homophones and homographs but have completely different meanings, though in non-technical usage homonyms are used to refer to words that have either or both properties.

  • Fair (the concept of fairness) and Fair (the place with chickens and roasted corn) are homonyms.

I think I make this mistake a lot because of how quickly I was drafting. At my peak I was writing 1800 words an hour with no time to slow down and make the distinction between “would paneling” and “wood paneling“.

Of course I also make the typical mistakes of they’re, their and there and unnecessarily adding apostrophes to thing’s.

Friday’s Harold Emmet sat in his chair smoking a cigar.” Though in this case I did mean the Harold Emmet who comes in on Fridays (clones), as opposed to “every Friday Harold Emmet sat in his chair and smoked a cigar“.

And before “damn you auto-correct” there was “It had been 10 years since man had set food on Mars“. I’ve been paying for that one with my parents for years.

Ultimately this is just one of the things that makes revision both challenging and fun, both for me and my beta readers who hold the more amusing mistakes over my head. To them I say:

“It take’s won two no one. So their!”

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