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Agents and editors are looking for more than tidiness, and so are readers. They all want a story that grabs them by the throat and won't let go. A story that sings.
It's easy to let the fear of making mistakes put your creative gift into a straight jacket, especially when revising. One of the ways to unleash the raw energy your manuscript needs is to take a lesson from the jazz world: improvisation. Once you've done the work of smoothing out the plot--equivalent to a musician laying out the key, tempo, and where important shifts will happen--it's time to go back and make lackluster sections sing. In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon calls this "riff-writing."
Riff-writing is a very focused kind of freewriting. Lyon says it "helps you expand your imagination around a particular problem or need--to lengthen a section, to add images, or to develop more characterization, for instance" (10).
Here's how to approach riffing:
1. Find a section (sentence, paragraph, scene) that feels thin, underdeveloped or emotionally flat.
2. Find a point of entry to explore further--the setting, an object, a character's feelings or memory or attitude.
3. Start scribbling--start at your entry point and follow the thoughts and feelings wherever they lead. As with rough drafting, don't edit or censor yourself. Let any and every idea flow. Push past your comfort level and really explore every dark cave, every windy mountaintop. Remember that in improvisation, "there are no wrong notes, you work them and they become part of the riff," Lyon says, quoting a musician friend (11).
4. Let the riff "cool off" while you work on other sections.
5. Come back and edit down the riff material that works best in your story. Set aside bits that might be useful elsewhere for expanding other sections of the story.
Lyon notes that in her twenty years as an independent editor, she has rarely seen consistently overwritten fiction. It's far more likely that drafts are too thin, a shell of what they need to be. Revision is where you can pump in more life and fully develop your characters, plot and voice.
Quoted material from: Lyon, Elizabeth. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. New York: Penguin, 2008.
What sections of your story could benefit from riff-writing? How might you move from tidy draft to fully developed story?