Monday, May 27, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, May 27, 2013 12 comments
Photo by kakisky, morguefile.com
Many approach revision as if it were the literary equivalent of housecleaning. You sweep away redundancies, throw out excess adverbs and dialogue tags, donate some unneeded subplots to charity, polish lackluster sentences, and voila, a shiny manuscript.

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?

12 comments:

  1. Ooh, I like this. I've used similar methods for rewiting scenes, but it really frees up your creativity when you think of it as improvisation instead of rigidly fitting into what you already have.

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    1. I think Lyon is right on the money with this one. So often in draft, we're busy attending to the plot and fail to flesh out the characterization, setting, voice. And this method adds so much enjoyment to the revision process.

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  2. These suggestions are all great! As I read one to the next to the next, I was going to choose one to highlight and agree with you, but they're all really important. Thanks so much for sharing these. I'll share for you.

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    1. Glad you found them useful. Lyon's entire book is really excellent. But by far, this tip has taken my writing the farthest.

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  3. Great tips! I just finished a book and sent it out to my CP, so I have a feeling the revision phase is about to start very soon for me :) I like the idea of finding a point of entry in a section that needs revising. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. You're welcome. It sure makes the revision process seem more inviting, don't you think?

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  4. I like your tips! I like that idea of just taking one portion and focusing on that instaed of overwhelming myself. Thanks!

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    1. Lyon's book is fabulous for organizing how you revise, one layer at a time. The very last thing is the nit-picky copy editing.

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  5. I LOVE riff writing. I've been doing it for years, ever since reading Elizabeth's book. Because of that, I don't edit directly on the printed form of the manuscript. Actually now I don't print it off at all.

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    1. Isn't it FUN? I love it too. My very earliest stories were a mix of too thin and too lush. Lyon has great tips to help with both.

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  6. OOOH, love this idea. I need to go and read the book. Thanks for the tip!

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    1. It was certainly an eye-opener for me, especially when the prevailing wisdom it that revision = cutting material. Lyon's tips are fabulous all around.

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