Category Archives: Revision

Rewriting Is A Good Thing

Dip_PenNo two writers are alike, and I dare say, no two writers work alike either. However, in contrast to what some writers say and what others do, rewriting is a good thing.

Of course the depth of writing will vary, but pre-planners will benefit from rewriting and plan-as-you-go writers will benefit from rewriting.

Prolific author Dean Wesley Smith disagrees, and gave his rationale why the need to rewrite is a “myth.”

Among his reasons, he stated

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less. Research is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. Talking to other writers is not writing (“Killing the Sacred Cow of Publishing: Rewriting”).

Strictly speaking, Mr. Smith is accurate, I suppose, but that’s why professionals refer to the writing process and not just writing. Any kind of writing is much more involved than what the finished product leads readers to believe. What someone can read and absorb in a matter of minutes, may have taken the writer hours to put together.

Why? Because details need to be checked, story structure needs to be hammered in place, characters need to be developed, voice needs to be created, dialogue needs to be constructed, and on and on.

According to Mr. Smith, thinking through these various aspects of fiction simply kills creativity. Rather, Mr. Smith’s own process works like this: first he lets the story pour out of him, then edits for punctuation and does a spell check, then gives the manuscript to a reader and does a touch-up draft based on what the reader has said. Next step, mail that sucker off to the agent or editor who’s waiting for it.

I suspect there are seasoned novelists who may have once upon a time, revised and revised and revised in order to produce a publish-worthy manuscript, but as time has worn on and their skill has improved, they may now need to do half as many revisions.

There’s no doubt that the more we write well, the more we write well. However, Mr. Smith has fallen into a trap:

And what you will discover is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. With each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories.

It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Apparently Mr. Smith didn’t take lessons under the great college basketball coach John Wooden who famously said, it isn’t practice that makes perfect; it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.

In other words, if we keep making the same mistakes over and over, there is no progress toward perfect.

Ironically I didn’t believe in rewriting or revising when I was in school. I had wonderful English teachers who reminded us of the importance of reading our work and making necessary changes. But I didn’t see the point. After all, I’d written what I wanted to say or I wouldn’t have put it down! Why go back over it and rethink the whole thing if I knew I’d said it well the first time?

Such hubris.

When I finally got a couple teachers who required us to rewrite after our papers were graded, I got the picture. I had many more things wrong than I’d imagined, some that I could have corrected myself if I’d only taken the time to think a little more.

Mr. Smith’s idea is that the critical evaluation of our creative work “ruins” it.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

I have two observations about this thinking. First, Mr. Smith started his article just as I did mine—by saying no two writers are alike. If that point is true, then how can he make this sweeping statement about writers and what’s in the critical side of our brains?

I have no doubt that had Mr. Smith revised this article, he would have seen the inconsistency himself.

My second observation is this: Mr. Smith uses input from a reader and then does his third draft, which seems to me a way of saying he’s fine with someone else’s critical side of the brain—just not his own.

Mr. Smith makes one final argument against rewriting—creativity is always ahead of our knowledge of technique. I think that well might be true for some people. But all the more reason to study our craft and catch our technical knowledge up with our creativity.

On the other hand, some of us imagine our story (creativity) but express it in rather pedestrian ways until we get to the revision stage. I’ve heard this termed “prettying up the story,” a thoroughly creative part of the critical process.

I do think some writers fear revision. I know I used to. I didn’t want to go through the whole, entire manuscript again once I’d finished. So much work. Could I do it?

That’s a little like saying, I washed the dishes yesterday; do I really need to wash them again today? If we want them to be clean, yes. If we want our stories to be as good as they can be, then yes, rewriting is part of reaching that goal.

I think there are two extremes when it comes to rewriting. One is to do too little. Especially with the ease of self-publishing, it’s possible to slam out a story, then put it into the digital world for anyone and everyone to read. Except, the anyone’s read the sample chapter, and they’re not buying.

Isn’t it possible that a couple rewrites could have made the story better so that readers would want to keep reading instead of clicking over to another book?

The second extreme is the never-ending rewrite. Some writers are unwilling to let their story go. Rather than move on to a new premise, they continually and obsessively tweak the one story they’ve been working on for years.

I had such a writer in one of my critique groups. No matter how many of us urged her to walk away from that story and work on the new project, at every turn she was going back over that first story she loved so much.

Another writer I know wrote something like 190,000 words and still wasn’t finished and couldn’t let anyone read her work. She continued to tweak and add and add and tweak. At some point we writers need to put our stories down and work on a new project. We can apply all the cool things we’ve been learning to this brand new story instead of trying to patch up the old.

The truth about fiction is that it’s never going to be perfect. Pretty much every writer can rewrite their story and find something to improve, no matter how experienced you are. Perhaps the only writers who think their story is perfect are beginners.

Of course beginners might benefit more than any other writers from a thorough rewriting process.

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How Important Are Details?

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details—Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were played at the home of the two-seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly—on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in houses by the Sorting Hat in one book and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point—why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

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Filed under Description, Research, Revision

Evaluating Criticism

writing groupEvery writer can benefit from feedback, but not every bit of criticism is equal. Some may come from readers who can tell writers little about how to improve a story. Primarily they can point to what they liked or where they lost interest or what rubbed them the wrong way.

Those bits of feedback are still helpful, but a writing group is the best way to get useful information about how to make a story better. However, a writer needs to evaluate the feedback coming from their group because all criticism is still not equal.

When I first joined an online critique group, I discovered this problem. Some critiquers would write how much they loved a piece I submitted, and others would tell me how bad it was. In fact, both might point to the same line, even the same word. How can a writer know which voice to listen to?

Author and writing instructor Nancy Kress pointed out some years ago in her Writer’s Digest article “Critiquing the Critics” that there are basically four types of criticism: line editing, story structure, character development, and prose. The feedback a group gives in each of these areas needs to be evaluated differently.

Line editing, which many writers key on, is the easiest to validate or disprove. The kinds of problems uncovered in a line critique include factual errors, repetitious words, inconsistencies, and proper word choice.

If, for example, a quote is attributed to Shakespeare but it was actually from the Bible, a line critique will make that correction. Or if the protagonist is six feet five in the first chapter and six feet four in chapter ten, a line critique will point out the discrepancy. If the word turn shows up four times in two sentences, that’s a line critique issue. As is using words properly, according to any nuanced meaning rather than a strict dictionary definition.

Because these line issues deal with factual information, a writer should accept most suggestions. If there’s a disagreement, a good style book or dictionary can verify or refute a critiquer’s suggestion.

Story structure criticisms involve things like the direction of a scene, its pace, its necessity, whether or not it accomplished what the writer intends, whether it’s properly set up, if it’s confusing.

These criticisms are easy to evaluate when more than one person mentions the same issue. Even then, the members of the group may not suggest the best possible way to fix the problem. They may think the scene is redundant, for example, but you, the writer, know there’s some necessary information embedded in it. Consequently, you may wish to change key components to eliminate the similar elements rather than cut the scene altogether.

If only one member of the group identifies a problem area, then it’s important to weigh the source. Is this bit of criticism coming from an experienced writer who has studied the writing craft and completed several novels, or is this the idea of a beginner?

Of course, beginners can spot problems, too. It’s important to give the criticism consideration, but to be validated, it should not hinge solely on preference. Beginning writers and beginning critiquers sometimes critique based on how they would write if this were their work. In other words, the scene is not actually confusing—it’s just different from the way the critiquer would have structured it.

The third area of evaluation has to do with character development. Unfortunately not every person in your group may like your main character. In that case, it’s important to know if the problem is in your portrayal of the character or in the character himself.

In other words, did you mean to draw the character as clever and innovative but your critique partner perceives him as sneaky and untrustworthy? In that case, you haven’t portrayed him as you intended and you need to revise accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you meant to create a sneaky, untrustworthy character, and your critique group sees that, understands that, and doesn’t like him, should you make changes? Your decision here is tricky.

One point to consider is whether or not your target readers are similar to the people in your critique group. For instance, members of your group may say they don’t care for your protagonist because he’s a mind reader and they only like characters that seem realistic. Criticism like that misses the mark.

On the other hand, if your group reflects your likely readers, their reaction to your character gives valuable feedback. Do they not like the character but feel invested in his journey and want to see what will become of him or do they not like the character and want to stop reading? In many types of stories, the character needs to be plausible, interesting, well-motivated and not necessarily likable.

The fourth area of evaluation is prose, or style. Because style is a personal signature of an author, it’s not easy to critique and just as hard for the writer to judge the feedback. Ms. Kress explains:

Perhaps the most difficult criticism to evaluate—and to sit through without anger or despair—is stylistic criticism. You can rewrite scenes in your story, strengthen characters, fix line gaffs. But what do you do when you’re told that your style has problems—that same style in which you wrote not only this story, but all your others? (“Critiquing The Critic,” italics in the original).

When confronted with stylistic criticism, start by determining if there’s a group consensus. Next read the work with the suggested stylistic changes (fewer adjectives, for example, or more concise dialogue) and see if you think the piece is stronger. Third, ask you critiquer to explain why he is making a suggestion. Have you fallen into a common stylistic error—“head hopping,” using cliches, passive voice, incorrect use of participial phrases, overly descriptive to the point of interrupting the story, too much telling, and so on. A good critiquer should be able to give you a reason for any stylistic changes they suggest.

In the end, the story is yours. You need to decide what changes to make. Critiquers are there to reflect to you what they see. As the author, you must then evaluate what they’ve suggested. Keep things that make your writing and your story stronger; ignore whatever doesn’t accomplish that goal.

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Filed under Revision, Writing Process

Redundancy And Sleep

Falling asleep readingHave you ever read yourself to sleep? I have. Of course, there’s always that great book that makes me want to keep my eyes open, that causes me to fight my own inclination to sleep. But then there are those novels that work better than any over-the-counter sleep-aid you could buy. I suspect few writers would rejoice if they knew their book had achieved such status!

There can be any number of problems with a novel that reduces the interest level—slow pace, uninteresting characters, low stakes, a lack of compelling action. And yet, I suspect redundancy might be writer enemy number one when it comes to creating a story that lulls people to sleep.

Redundancy can occur at the sentence structure level or at the scene level. To be clear, it may include repetition, but the two are not synonymous. In short redundancy means “superfluity,” or too much of a good thing. Or a bad thing. Mostly, just too much. The greatest reason something is “too much” in fiction is because it’s already been done. Or said.

I believe there are three basic reasons a writer allows redundancy to creep into a story.

First a writer has not learned to trust his reader—or, perhaps, to trust his own ability to be clear. Consequently, he puts safe-guards into the story “so readers get it.” This type of redundancy shows itself in a combination of showing and telling.

In reality actions—showing—should replace the telling narrative rather than complement it.

    Example of redundancy: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.

In the illustration above, the phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger. To eliminate this type of repetition, the author should omit the phrase that explains what the action is supposed to show.

However, the temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.

    Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.

To improve this sentence, the author must strengthen the action, making the narrative phrase unnecessary.

    Example: She danced into the room behind him.

A second reason a writer may allow redundancy to seep into her work is because she has forgotten her own lines or plot points and replicates them, or perhaps she hasn’t stretched her creative muscles enough to develop new and fresh dialogue, description, and events.

As a result, events may take on a similar shape. For example, the character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from . . .

Either the writer has forgotten she used this same last-second distraction earlier to save the character, or she hasn’t dug deep enough to find something unique.

Finally, characters themselves create redundancy. Well, of course the writers do, through our characters, but in an effort to be true to the people we have created, we allow them to struggle with what they’re experiencing, often through internal monologue. Nothing wrong with using characters’ thoughts.

However, those thoughts must move the story forward, not recap what happened in the past. If their musings bring nothing new, nothing the reader doesn’t already know, they are redundant and therefore sleep inducing.

At one stage of my writing, I was good at lots of rehash internal monologue. My character needed to understand what was going on. He needed to analyze and come up with a motive that would explain his next decision. The latter is true, except in many cases his thoughts stated the already stated. At one point I realized the particular chapter I was working on was boring me! That’s a sure sign that something needs to change.

As a corollary to this last point, some writers utilize “echoing” dialogue, which amounts to redundancy. Often times the writer wants to reflect an emotion such as surprise or disbelief, so he has one character repeat some part of what another character just said.

Such interaction may be true to life, but restatements don’t tell the reader anything new:

    Example: Tyler shook his head. “You can’t go, John. Didn’t you hear Mom?”
    “I can’t go? What do you mean, I can’t go?”
    Tyler stared at his brother. “Just what I said. You can’t go.”
    John’s tone turned to the whine he’d used as a little boy. “Did Mom really say I can’t go?”

This example may stretch the point, but clearly echoing dialogue isn’t necessary to move the story forward, and there are better ways to show surprise, anger, or dismay.

I can only think of one instance in which writers appropriately used redundancy. In the TV program Monk, the title character suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and did many things redundantly, helping to establish his quirks and foibles. There may be other proper uses of redundancy, but for the most part, writers would be wise to eliminate them from their fiction. Unless their promotion plan includes something about inducing sleep. 😉

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Filed under Revision, Writing Rules

Heart Surgery

Pig_heart_bypassWhat mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?

Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.

How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.

Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.

Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.

The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.

The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.

What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.

  • Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.

Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.

Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.

In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?

  • Characters also need to be properly motivated.

Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.

The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?

  • Finally, characters need to be unique.

Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.

A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.

In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?

Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.

sunglasses by-the-poolThirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.

The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?

By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.

This article is a re-post of the  original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.

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Filed under Action, Character Developmet, Motive, Revision, Voice, Worldview

Revisions Make All The Difference

1402994_hidden waterfallFrom time to time a novelist needs to change something in a story. Perhaps a minor character is flat or comes across as a stereotype and needs to be fleshed out with his own personality or backstory. Perhaps a scene needs to be added to do the work that a piece of telling narrative had done. What writers should remember is this: these changes make a difference, not just to that one scene or character, but to the entire novel.

I’ll speak from personal experience to illustrate this point. In one of my earliest drafts of my journey-quest fantasy, I realized that all my characters were single. It’s not a realistic scenario, and it’s a problem I’ve noticed in a number of TV programs. Hence, I decided to give a couple of my characters spouses. In one instance the man’s wife even joined the team on the quest.

Immediately everything about that character changed. He had a new motivation–not just his own well-being but that of his wife. He had a new relationship to cultivate, not just the one he’d established with the protagonist. He had new behavior patterns, new interests, and . . . more people in his backstory. There were his in-laws, of course, but what about children? Yes, I decided, it would be natural for he and his wife, given their ages and how long they’d been married, to have children. But what became of them? Suddenly I had a new plot point to go along with this revision.

And speaking of plot points, I recently made a change in my manuscript that added a point of view and several chapters. This addition seemed like the best way to get rid of a chunk of narrative summary that wasn’t working. Except, when I fleshed out the events and created a scene, I expanded the point of view character as well. The scene required it.

It also required that I kill one of the minor characters in those chapters, someone the point of view character had been close to.

Could I simply insert those chapters into my manuscript and leave my point of view character unchanged the rest of the way? Not if the story is to seem realistic. When someone we know well dies, we grieve, and the grief often lingers and surprises us when we least expect it. My character, therefore, can not soldier on as if nothing significant happened in those add-on chapters. She needs to respond differently to certain lines of dialogue. She needs to have changes in her motivation and behavior and countenance.

One revision leads to many more. Or it should. If we are simply giving a character a wife without changing him in any other way, our revision isn’t real. It’s simply window dressing. We can’t give a character a new motivation without it playing out throughout the rest of the novel in her actions and speech.

We can’t promote a character to a higher rank without it affecting how he talks to those who are now his subordinates. We can’t give a character a rebel father without it influencing his politics, his choices. We can’t make a character power hungry without having him struggle to control his desire, or succumb to it.

In short, one change needs to start a cascade of change if revision is to work.

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Filed under Backstory, Characters, Revision

Love What You Write

disappointed_manI don’t generally use this space to write inspirational pieces. For the most part, I assume someone who is reading a blog offering writing tips is probably already motivated and doesn’t need too much sideline cheerleading from another writer.

But for most of us, there comes a time when we start to wonder what it is we’re doing. Whether it’s agent rejections, tough critique group responses, contest failures, low sales, a scathing review, few blog post comments, dwindling followers–need I go on?–there will come a time in our experience that we might get discouraged and wonder why we’re writing.

It’s at those points I believe that we writers should focus on what we love. We should write what we love, but more than that, we should write it so that we love it.

Most often the writing advice we receive is helpful, but there can come a time when it all seems conflicting or vapid or repetitive.

I’ve been in groups before in which one person praises the very thing that another person rips apart. So which view is right?

I’ve also seen critiques that are so bland, they are meaningless. “This is nice” might be the worst comment of all. Or “It’s fine.” How is a writer to learn, grow, improve from that?

Then there are the comments that continue to be the same no matter what your write. “Needs more description,” or “the character’s voice isn’t strong enough”–week after week, no matter what changes you make, the comments remain the same.

It’s possible, after a time, for us to write ourselves in circles, trying to fix all the problems others point out in our work. And it gets discouraging, so much so that some writers might consider stepping aside and letting go of their dream.

It’s at that point that I think we need a little inspiration, and it comes from what we love. We writers generally made the decision to tell a story we love or discuss a truth we believe in. In other words, we had a passion for communicating something with others. In times of discouragement, then, it’s important to focus on that story we love, on that truth we believe in and ask if we still want to communicate it with others.

But that’s really writing what we love. This post is about loving what we write.

In those times of discouragement, it’s important to love what we write. That can be hard to do when we have the voice of critics running through our heads as we read our work. But at some point, we need to decide if the critics are right or not. If they’re right, then we need to do the hard work and revise our story or our article until we love it.

What if the critics are not right? One thing I’ve learned about writing feedback–well, two things: no piece of writing is ever perfect and if someone says there’s a problem, they may not be right about how to fix it, but they’re probably not wrong about the fact that a problem exists.

I think there are far too many writers out there who simply have not done the hard work and yet think they are ready for a publisher. After all, I was one of those writers. I went through the process of joining a critique group, growing from their feedback, and eventually receiving glowing comments. I was going to conferences and placing in contests. I was ready! Except I wasn’t. There was still more hard work for me to do.

But here’s the thing. Even as I am doing the hard work to become a better novelist, I still love the story I’m writing. That, I think, needs to be the baseline to which we return. Some stories can get so gummed up by all the changes this agent or that editor or critique partner has suggested, that we stop loving them. Maybe those need to be put aside for a time. Maybe we need to pick up something else, something that expresses our passion, and tells the story we love in the way we love.

Maybe then we will remember why we write and we’ll recognize our own voice again.

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Revision Is Your Friend

I’ve heard some writers say they hate revision almost as much as they hate rejection. Sure, we think, who doesn’t hate extra work.

Excuse me. Extra?

Is icing on the cake extra? Is the glaze on the donut? The butter on the bread?

Finishing touches may feel like extras, but they are the difference between stories that are OK and ones that sing.

Note that revisions must come when the loaf is out of the oven, not while you’re still mixing the dough. The first draft, in all its glory, must sit with “The End” predominantly marked either virtually or actually on the last page.

The end, of course, means the end of that first stage–the getting-the-story-down stage. Now comes the part that many writers hesitate to take. Now it’s time to pretty up the story.

Let me pull up that icing on the cake analogy again. I worked for a time in a boarding school. The woman in charge of the kitchen and other domestic affairs made a big deal of each child’s birthday. One of her specialties was to create cakes that were masterpieces–artwork related to the interest of the particular child whose birthday we celebrated.

I remember watching her work from time to time. After the cakes came out of the oven, her creativity took over. She carved off pieces of cake here, shaped it there, frosted, strung lines of licorice, popped in M&Ms, and before long, or sometimes after long, arduous work, from sheet pans of ordinary yellow cake emerged trains or space ships or puppy dogs or … you name it. Her creations were masterful.

Extras? Not to the child at the center of the attention.

All that to say, revising a story takes it to the next level. Writers, therefore, would be wise to embrace the process, not shy from it.

But what exactly goes into the process? Are we looking for typos, spelling errors spellcheck didn’t catch, punctuation problems? Not at this stage. How about word choice or repetition or sentence structure? Not yet. Not that it’s wrong to fix those things as you find them, but the focus needs to be on big picture issues first.

This is the stage where you look at the foundation of your story and see if it has what it needs to stand on its own outside that cake pan.

Author Kristina McBride, writing a guest post on revision for Writer’s Digest said one of the key steps in the process is to question everything:

* Does the book start with an inciting incident that will force your MC [main character] to act, and challenge your MC to grow?
* Is there enough emotion, tension, suspense, etc.? Or too much?
* Is something too obvious? Does something come too easy because you need it to advance the plot?
* What can you do to make each scene stronger?
* How can you weed out your cliched sentences and/or ideas?
* Is there a motivation for each event? What about a purpose?
* Are you keeping your MC from attaining a goal? This is a must until the ending.
* Will your reader wonder about or hope for something pertaining to your MC as they progress through the story?

Well, yes, it will be work to ask all those questions about the entire story and go in and fix every single page where you find something lacking. Writing is, despite all the fun parts, still work.

For someone satisfied with plain, unadorned sheet cake, I suppose this revision business seems like fluff. But for those who want to give readers the full experience of laughing, crying, hoping, fearing right along with the protagonist, for those who want readers to become immersed in their storyworld and to walk in the shoes of the main character, then revision is really the best part of writing.

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Make It Better Than Your Best

How many times have I finished a revision, settled back, and said, “There! That’s as good as I can make it.” But surprise, surprise, after a critique session with my writing group or a go over by one of my writing partners, suddenly I see new things that can make the story better.

The truth is, I think too many of us writers are too easily satisfied. We are content with our “first best.” In fact, our articles, stories, and novels will improve if we refuse to be satisfied with what we initially believe to be our best effort.

First we need to set our work aside so we can gain some distance and perspective. After two weeks, four, or even six, we aren’t as in love with that scene or character or line or word choice. We can see things a bit more realistically.

Too many contracted writers working on deadline don’t allow themselves this vital step. Too many pre-published writers don’t believe it’s necessary.

The first group must learn to plan for this needed distance. The actual manuscript deadline, the date the editor sets, should be six weeks ahead of the deadline a writer gives herself. That allows her to walk away from that particular project for a month, then come back to it with fresh eyes and work on changes for another two weeks. Of course times may vary, depending on each person, but there’s value in coming back to our work after time away.

The pre-published writer may actually need a self-imposed deadline or a particular goal just to finish the work, but sending it off to an agent the next day is not be the best approach. Perhaps time researching agents or learning about writing query letters, then hammering out a good one can be on the agenda. Maybe it’s time to pick a new concept or research a new location. What about developing a new character?

Then after weeks have gone by, it’s time. I tend to think if a writer without a contract can get used to working in this way, it will be easier to do so when operating on deadline.

But what is a writer looking for in this revision, now that he’s gained some distance and objectivity? I’d suggest two things that apply to both fiction and non-fiction: clarity and structure.

The first has to do with word by word clarity, but also clarity of thought. For the non-fiction writer, this means a basic logic and progression throughout. For the fiction writer, clarity means proper motivation of each character and each action, proper set up of each scene, a fully realized story world.

Structure for the non-fiction writer means overall structure with a proper introduction, key points, supporting detail, and a “bring it home” conclusion.

Fiction requires a character desire, inciting incident, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. Along the way the character should experience development leading to a change, for the better or worse.

After the writer examines these big issues, it’s time to do another revision on the sentence level, fine tuning word choice and variety in structure.

Next is the paragraph level followed by the the section or scene level, then the chapter level. These need to be scrutinized for redundancy, consistency, and variety. All “dead weight” needs to be cut out. This may mean words, but it also might mean scenes or characters. If it isn’t contributing to the forward motion of the story or to the overall point of the article, then it needs to go.

Please note, these revisions should come after all the other edits and revisions the author makes on that earlier version of the manuscript — the one he read through and said, This is the best I can do.

Time and distance give us writers the ability to tackle our manuscripts with an unbiased eye. If we do the work, we’ll discover that revising will turn our best writing into something better.

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Sweating The Small Stuff – It’s All In The Details

Recently an author friend of mine passed along some of the editorial feedback about a manuscript which required rewrites. In a number of instances, the changes weren’t what a writer new to the publishing world would expect.

Yes, there were a few of the big issues — character motivation, for example — but a good number of the suggestions had to do with the small stuff, things like consistency in a character’s voice, additional details in describing the setting, and minor characters that needed to come alive.

Initially I thought it might be a helpful tip here to give a list of the details this one writing professional told this one writer to improve this one manuscript. But I think you can see the problem with that — what is true for one story and writer isn’t going to be true for all.

I might have great depth in my minor characters, for example, but overlook the missing details that create plot inconsistencies.

The key, then, isn’t to look at a list that some other author has received, but to create a list for ourselves. We need to pay attention to the small stuff in our own work in progress.

Thinking in details may be hard initially. For example, I as the author may know that a minor character will appear in the book this one time but not again, therefore I’m not particularly invested in fleshing him out. What that does, however, is make the character nothing but a prop, a two-dimensional piece of furniture that the author drops in at that one spot for convenience.

One of the most egregious examples of this “character as prop” effect was in a novel I read some time ago. The book was part historical love story and part mystery/adventure. At one point an older woman who was acting as chaperon was on board a small boat with the two main characters. But apparently after the chaperon said her lines, the author forgot about her because the two main characters went on to share a dark secret that no one else was to know. And no, they weren’t whispering, the minor character hadn’t fallen asleep or overboard and she wasn’t hard of hearing. The author simply did not account for her presence.

A small oversight like that can ruin the “fictive dream” for the reader. Instead of being lost in the tension and the surprise, the reader is thinking, Wait a minute, if this is such a great secret, why are they telling it in front of this minor character?

Details of a story setting are no less important. Readers need to be anchored in place and need to be able to picture where everyone is so the action they are reading makes sense. One story I read some time ago had the character under attack and running for his life. Imagine my surprise when he decided to hide in a barn I didn’t know existed until that moment.

Along with specifics in character and setting, an author needs to pay attention to the specifics of his prose. Word choice can alter mood, a more formal phrase can create inconsistency in tone, repetition and redundancy can slow the pace, too many fragments can make the prose stilted. A writer needs to look at such details.

By taking the time to look at the particulars on every level, a writer will discover two things: making up stories actually is work, and taking time to look at the small stuff pays off. You see, we call stories that keep readers ensnared by a special name: best-sellers. 😉

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