Tuesday, October 21

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 8 comments
Photo credit: infinitetrix from morguefile.com 
In a previous post, I shared some of my favorite resources for copy editing (line editing, sentence-level revision, call it what you will). Today I'd like to share two favorite resources for revision--the big-picture changes one makes once you have some material drafted.

Despite the order in which I'm talking about resources, revision should happen before copy editing, otherwise you'll waste a lot of effort on material you don't ultimately keep. Most of you are pretty savvy in these matters, but for any beginners, some clarity on that point seemed necessary.

Revision is what truly separates the amateurs from the pros. Even a middle schooler can do a quick edit and correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But it takes tremendous skill and indeed wisdom to evaluate what isn't working in a scene, chapter, section or character arc, then actually fix it. Here are two books that offer some great training.

Fiction First Aid

Raymond Obstfeld's gem Fiction First Aid is one I first discovered in my local library and quickly realized I needed to own. Using medical metaphors of  symptoms, ailments and treatments, he examines typical writing problems and their causes, then suggests a number of approaches to revise the problem away. Most sections have an application exercise he calls "physical therapy."

The first two chapters, on plot and characterization, take up nearly half the book. He covers everything from developing great plot structure and suspense to remedying predictable, cardboard, and unlikable characters. His examples are drawn from both books and film across many genres, which I found particularly helpful.

The middle chapters on setting and style can help you build a more compelling fictional world from the outside in. He helps you determine how much setting detail you need and how to better ground scenes without bogging down the story. The style section has great advice on finding a balance between bland or monotonous writing and overwritten purple prose.

I found  the theme chapter especially useful. Because so many English teachers theme us to death in high school, it can be tempting to tell yourself that theme is for dull classics of yesteryear. Obstfeld argues quite convincingly that ignoring theme can lead to pale, thin stories that don't stick with readers. To have a theme is to write a story that means something, that puts forward a sort of emotional and intellectual thesis, then proves it. His case study of the film Groundhog Day illustrates well what a theme is and how one operates in fiction.

Manuscript Makeover

Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is a book I turn to again and again. Her approach is a rare mix of methodical and somewhat freewheeling creative. Every section ends with a checklist for revision that alone is totally worth the price of the book, it's so well organized and thorough.

Lyon opens with giant-picture items--the overall style and presentation of your story. How do feel when you read aloud? Is it captivating? Is it full of your deeper truth? She suggests a number of really helpful exercises to write more deeply in revision. Her concept of "riff writing" is revolutionary, because it challenges you to go broader and deeper, not simply cut, cut, cut when you revise.

Rather than simply clumping together disparate plot concerns, she divides plot issues over several chapters: whole-book structure (2 chapters), Movement and Suspense, and Time and Pace. Her concept of developing "mattering moments" is incredibly helpful for building well-paced plots.

Roughly a third of the book covers characterization concerns: Viewpoint, Character Dimension and Theme, Character-Driven Beginnings, Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense, and finally Character Personality and Voice. I found her information on voice--especially how to make characters sound unique from one another--quite revolutionary and paradigm-shifting.

The book wraps up with chapters on copy editing and querying manuscripts, with those fabulously helpful checklists I mentioned earlier.

Do you enjoy revision or dread it? Why?
Categories: , ,


  1. I absolutely dread it. If I take too long I can go cold on the story. I find line editing tedious even though I know I need it, And I hate having to tweak my precious plot. Conjuring up the story and reaching a satisfying ending is my thing and I hate all the other necessary stuff!

    1. You would probably enjoy Lyon's book, then. She really takes the scariness and surgery feel out of revision, emphasizing how to make a story world and characters feel fuller. She notes that most first drafts are more of a skeleton outline, so revision often means filling in with new material all over--a kind of second-layer drafting, which is really quite fun.

  2. Those both sound like great books. I'm going to have to see if I can check them out from my local library . . . or check to see if I can fit them into my book budget. I struggle with the desire to "cut everything" when I revise and have left important scenes on the cutting room floor without realizing it (first novel, agh!) which then left me with some scary decisions to make in the second book in the trilogy. Revision is where the tough work is for me.

    1. You might benefit from outlining AFTER you draft, to give you a better sense of which scenes are pulling their weight, and which need to be combined, expanded or cut. Sometimes a dragging scene only needs some inner trims rather than wholesale chops. Both of these books have really helpful information on pacing that would likely help you overcome the overzealous cutting habit.

  3. I like it 'cause that when the story starts to make sense. ;P

    1. I guess it depends on how rough one's drafts are, eh? :-D

  4. This is so helpful. I tend to become overwhelmed with revisions and these tools make it more organized and manageable. It also seems as though these authors made checklists to make sure that the revisions are thorough. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    1. You're most welcome. Glad you found this information helpful. Staying organized is definitely a tough thing when revising. It can be so tempting to try to fix too many issues all at once.