Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, January 20, 2016 7 comments
In a previous post, How I do it: keeping revisions organized, I discussed my method for tracing particular revision threads throughout a  novel manuscript, tracking them, developing a running list of changes, and methodically tackling those changes.

One of my young writer friends, after reading the post asked, "but how did you figure out what the problems actually were?"
Image credit: clairer at morguefile.com

I rely a good deal on my intuition when it comes to writing decisions, but I also have a pretty strong analytical side that I call on when editing especially. So when it comes time to revise, I have to get these two impulses to play nice.

Once I've wrapped a piece, be it a short story, poem, or novel, I take a break from it for a bit. Catch up on chores. Read. Stream TV shows or movies. Not too long a writing vacation, mind you--just a few days to week.

Then it's time to do a critical read through, scene by scene. The critical read has several components: gut responses, intellect responses, craft concerns. As I read scene by scene, I contemplate the following questions.

Gut responses


  • Is this scene boring? 
  • Does it feel silly or improbable?
  • Am I engaged? Do I feel something or think something after reading it?
  • Does the scene feel too slow in spots? 
  • Does it feel too quick, not escalating naturally, but blowing right past natural reactions and sequences of events? (More on escalation HERE.)
  • Do I buy what the characters do? Do they seem needlessly stupid, thoughtless, malicious, overreacting, under-reacting, etc.?    (Note: The adverb "needlessly" is important, because bad behavior is a key component of dramatic storytelling, but unmotivated or out of the blue behavior that can't be accounted for is more often a sign that something needs to be fixed.)
  • Does the scene feel like I picked the first idea that popped into my head, rather than the best one?
  • Does the scene feel cowardly, like I've written away from a difficult or controversial reality?
  • Does the scene give me a sense of deja vu, like it's a rehash of something I've seen somewhere else? 
  • Does the scene make me want to keep reading?
  • Does the scene as a whole feel on target?

Intellect responses


  • Are the actions here natural? Do they make sense?
  • Am I certain I have the facts straight? Have I adequately researched this to be sure?
  • Are characters acting in a way out of alignment with how I've conceived them?
  • Do the characters' responses connect with what came before?
  • Are the characters' responses and actions the best ones to lead toward my climax and resolution?
  • Is the protagonist blowing his/her chance at being likable?
  • Have the relationships shown change and growth?
  • Have any new characters shown up? Is this the best place to introduce them? Have they appeared out of nowhere late in the story and need to be "seeded" in earlier?
  • Are the characters acting at their maximum capacity (more on this concept HERE)? If not, does their reason for holding back or messing up make sense and do something useful in the story?
  • Is there tension? Is it only one kind (say only romantic, or only physical danger)?
  • Are characters using different tools to negotiate to get what they want (more on negotiation tools HERE)? Or is the interpersonal conflict too much of the same scene after scene?
  • Is the scene pulling its weight? Do the actions here add enough forward motion? 

Craft concerns


  • Is the protagonist's emotional pulse (the driving desire behind his/her arc) coming through?
  • Is this scene happening at the right moment in the overall story arc? Would it work better somewhere else?
  • Does the scene have a discernible beginning, middle and end--a mini arc? If not, what's missing?
  • Is there too much "stage business"--unnecessary descriptions of boring movement here to there?
  • Have I given enough detail to ground where and when the scene is happening?
  • Is there variety in the settings where scenes occur?
  • Has a new subplot popped up here? Does it add anything?
  • Have I missed any opportunities to more deeply develop theme or symbolism?
  • Have I missed opportunities to develop existing conflicts?
  • Have I used too many of the same kind of scene in a row? Am I regularly mixing dialogue scenes with action scenes and narrative summary scenes?
  • Does this scene deserve to be dramatized? Would it work better as summary?
  • Are the most important moments given the most page space? Are there unimportant bits running too long, out or proportion to their importance in the overall story?

As you can see, these three levels or layers of thinking draw on one's emotion and intuition, one's natural intellect, and finally the "best practices" advice of writing craft books. At times, it takes more than one read-through to engage each part of one's self--the feeling reader, the thinker, and the trained craftsman.

How do you identify major threads of revision needed in your work?

7 comments:

  1. Great post--and very timely for me. I revise similarly, but I always find myself forgetting that just because something technically works doesn't make it the best choice--my husband is a great critique partner, though, and reminds me all the time. :) Not just good choices, but the strongest choices...

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    1. Indeed correct isn't always best. It's cool that your husband is able to call you out of that stuff. I don't think any crit partner or beta reader so far has been as hard on me as I am on myself, especially on the "cowardly" choices. To a degree, no one really knows what parts of ourselves we innately strive to protect, so I suppose that aspect in particular takes a degree of self-knowledge.

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  2. Wow, this is very thorough and very helpful. I bookmarked it so I can reference it the next time I revise. Some of these things I do already, like checking for slow/boring places and making sure the reader would likely want to read on. But I'm not always good at detecting other things. I'm thankful I have critique partners.

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    1. Good critique partners will see these things, and it's through being a CP for others that your skill looking for these issues really improves. I highly recommend also Self-Editing for Fiction Writers as well as Manuscript Makeover, two revision craft books that have helped me tremendously.

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  3. I'm impressed. My analytical brain turns off when I'm reading and editing - so hard to make it function and not get caught up in the story. I've improved a lot in the last couple of years, but I'm not where I need to be yet! :)

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    1. It might take multiple passes to edit well. The first time through you'd just mark basic gut responses: love this, boring, get on with things, what just happened? The next pass, you'd go deeper first with structure, then sentence level.

      My work as an editor makes it easier for me to switch on analytical mode, since I edit almost every day. For me it's generating imperfect material to shape later that's hard! As I mentioned to Shelley, doing beta reading for others will improve your skills at self editing. It's easier to see others' mistakes, and once you grasp the concepts of particular weaknesses, you more clearly see when you commit them.

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  4. Very well written. Great list! Thanks for this.

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