Article 7: On Revision
Arguably the two most satisfying words for a writer to type are: The End. That sweet phrase means that at last you’ve finished you manuscript and have finally achieved your goal of writing a novel.
At this point, you’ve earned that wonderful reward that you may have been using as added motivation to help you reach the finish line. An odd mix of emotions can accompany the winding down after such a monumental task. Crazed joy. A rush of exhilaration. Relief. A dazed, empty sort of numbness. Dizzy, shaky exhaustion. When I finish a new book, I always feel as if I had been sprinting as hard as I could at the end of a marathon, only to crash into a brick wall—full stop. Sadness, strangely, is also quite common to many writers, a literary form of post-partum blues.
It’s as if your very best friends have moved out of town. Yes, you’ll see them again from time to time, but what are you going to do on the weekends now that they’re gone? This reaction to such an achievement might sound a little crazy, but writers aren’t exactly known for their sanity, are they? *g* Either way, it’s best if you know about it ahead of time. That way, if you experience these reactions when you finish your book, you won’t wonder if you’re losing it.
So, what comes next?
Revising. Unless you’re the Amadeus of the literary world, you probably didn’t get it right the first time around, and if you did, then you certainly don’t need any advice from me. For the rest of us mere mortals, great books aren’t so much written as they are rewritten.
The first thing you want to do, however, is to get some distance between you and your newly finished manuscript. It’s almost impossible to view it with any objectivity so soon after completion. You’re either going to love everything or hate everything if you don’t give it enough of a cooling off period, and the probable truth is that neither reaction is warranted. So, wait a little while before you begin revising.
Use this time to ‘refill the creative well.’ Read fiction and poetry. See movies. Visit friends. Putter in your garden. Go hear some fine music. Bake cookies. Shop. Romance your sweetie. Fly a kite, make a picnic, stare at clouds. Do whatever makes your soul as happy as a purring cat.
Then, when you feel ready, pick up that manuscript, kick back, and give it a complete read-through, trying to view it as if you were Jane Average. Jot notes on a separate piece of paper: What did you like about this book? What didn’t you like? Read it all in as close to one sitting as you can.
One thing to keep in the back of your mind as you’re reading is any alternative title ideas that jump out of you. Let’s face it, titles are hard. It’s great to have a title you love, but chances are, if an editor takes an interest in your book, she/he is almost guaranteed to ask you for a list of different title ideas for the editorial and marketing departments to choose from, or at least keywords pertinent to the story that they can use to dream up a commercial title for you. Look at themes, details, motifs, characters. Keep track of these keywords.
Once you’ve read your book all the way through, there’s no law that says you have to fix it in a linear fashion. You can if you want to; you may need to for your particular story, because if the ‘base’ or foundation—usually the first hundred pages or so—isn’t right, then it’s hard to know if the rest of the novel has got a leg to stand on. But if you do your read-through and your first act doesn’t look like it’s going to be a problem, it might be useful to start with the most important, looming issues that need fixing. Which thing that you want to fix is going to have the greatest impact on the overall story? You might want to fix that first. Sometimes by untangling the hardest knots, a lot of the lesser issues fall into place much more easily because everything in a novel is connected.
The other possibility is to start with the easiest fixes, because then at least you know you’ve got the small stuff, the clutter, cleared out of the way so you can then focus all your attention on the bigger issues.
You can (and should!) work in a way that feels most comfortable for you. But how ever you choose to proceed, here are some of the issues that you’ll want to think about as you look at ways to make your book better.
Pacing. Does your story open in the right place? You haven’t bogged down your opening in a bunch of backstory, right? Once the opening is established, does one event lead causally to another, and is tension building as these events unfold? Are there new discoveries to startle the reader now and then along the way?
Everybody loves surprises. Suspense is what keeps readers turning pages, and suspense can arise from any source: It need not only be what we typically think of as “suspense,” i.e. Can 007 escape the baddies? It can also come from quieter, but equally urgent, emotional matters, such as, How is this heroine going to react when she finds out the hero lied? Or: When is this hero going to realize he really loves her? Your reader should be eager to find out the answer to these questions. As Dickens said: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”
Characters and Conflict. Are your characters actually getting somewhere in their relationship as the story progresses, or do they just keep fighting about the same darn thing for a hundred pages? It won’t do to have them squabbling the whole way through the story and then abruptly falling into bed. The relationship should deepen, change, and grow as they reach new levels of intimacy throughout the story. They should also be getting somewhere with their inner conflicts (the conflict with themselves—sorting out their own ‘issues’) as well as their struggle against external forces.
Revision is your opportunity to sharpen the lines of the “for” and the “against” in their own minds, with their lover, and with their enemy.
Keeping the characters heroic—in most popular genres, they are not just protagonists, but ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines,’ after all. Are you showing your lead characters in a favorable light? For example, make sure your heroine isn’t running off half-cocked doing things that make her look less than sensible. There’s little a reader hates more than a witless heroine. Is she crying at the drop of a hat? You don’t have her fainting in order to cut short an important conversation, do you?
These are just some of the nervous ticks new writers frequently fall into. You can, indeed, should have characters with flaws, but there are some flaws readers won’t forgive, and if you tread close to them, I would try to bend over backwards to give the character strengths in other areas that are powerful enough to make up for their flaws and then some. Heroes, especially, need to be wonderful, irresistible men. For example, you can have a dark, hard-bitten hero if you find ways to hint that he’s got a heart of gold under all that tough-guy attitude. A sense of humor goes a long way to endear any character to readers, but the character had better be genuinely funny. A hero who won’t quit with the lame jokes quickly becomes as wearisome in fiction as he would in real life.
Revision is also a great place to flesh out secondary characters who you might not have gotten to know very well the first time through. The most important thing to know, of course, is why everybody in the story is doing what they’re doing—motivation. Motivation is what propels the story forward.
How’s the emotion in your story? This is your chance to crank it up. Go for the gut-wrench, as someone once said. I like to pull out my key scenes between the hero and heroine and look at them side by side. That lets me see immediately if: a) the relationship is really growing as the story unfold and b) if the characters are consistent yet developing along their individual character arcs.
Dialogue. It’s great if you can read your whole book aloud, alone or with someone else, but at the very least, read aloud the dialogue that you’re a little iffy about. Definitely break up any long monologues that you come across. The soliloquy was great for Shakespeare’s time, not so hot today.
Layering. One of the best advantages of revising your manuscript is that you get to go back and layer in all the little details pertaining to later portions of the book that you didn’t know yet when you wrote the beginning the first time around. You know your characters and your plot so much better by now that you can shade in little insights into the hero and heroine’s minds and subtly foreshadow things to come.
Settings/Costumes/Props. The devil’s in the details. Have you dressed your characters for their various scenes? I don’t suggest catwalk type commentaries, but romance is predominantly a women’s genre, and—newsflash!—women enjoy beautiful clothes, home furnishings, fine food, etc. *g* A romance novelist will do well to be a bit of an epicurean, herself.
In historical romances, readers step into a very different world than that of today, so they’ll need that world adequately described for them in order to imagine it in crisp detail. When that happens, she’ll feel like she’s “there.”
Readers expect at least some references to the gorgeous historical clothes our lucky heroines get to wear. They especially need to be able to imagine our hot heroes in exquisite detail, so they need to know if he’s a ‘basic black’ kind of guy, or if he’s a dandy prone to saunter through Hyde Park wearing a purple paisley waistcoat and yellow nankeen pantaloons!
The same holds true for your ‘stage’ sets. We live in a highly visual age. But even though we’re competing for readers’ entertainment/leisure time with Hollywood studios that have multimillion dollar budgets, never mind the special effects, they’ve got nothing on us.
Because we put on our ‘shows’ in the theater of the mind, our budget is totally unlimited; we can afford to hire a cast of thousands, any special effects our imagination can dream up. We can book any place on earth for our location. We just have to put forth the effort to bring it all to life on the page. So take a look at your sensory details throughout your book.
How’s the lighting? Are there any extras meandering about on the scene to add flavor and life to the set? Heck, we can do better than Hollywood—we can do smells and textures! All of it infused with a character’s individual stream of consciousness.
A hero who’s a sea captain, for example, is likely to notice quite different things in a given set than, say, a farmer or a city banker. Squeeze all the juice you can out of your setting—just don’t run overlong with description. The way to avoid a lifeless lump of description on the page is to filter it all through the point-of-view of a character with whom your reader already shares a strong emotional connection.
And by the way, the things that a character notices or responds to in a scene don’t just have to do with who he/she is (their role in life), but what’s going on in his/her life at the time. Just like you and me, if your heroine is depressed that day, she’s going to notice or react to her environment very differently than if she’s just won the lottery. Use revision time to make your setting work for you.
As for your ending, it should tie up all loose ends and deftly—not clumsily, please—offer some “final thoughts” on what’s been learned, realized, or accomplished because of the journey your hero and heroine have taken together over the course of the book. It should leave the reader with a smile on her face. If there’s one place in your entire manuscript where you really shouldn’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve and even go a bit “over the top,” it’s your ending. They say that your opening sells your present book, but your ending sells your next book.)
So, now, with your second draft complete, you may choose to go through it one more time and give your prose a final polish.
All that’s left to do now is to print out your book, buck up your courage, and give it to a few people to read. That’s right, you heard me. It’s time to go for the gusto.
It doesn’t matter so much who you select as your first handful of readers. You might have to make do with whoever is willing! It’s better of course if it’s someone whose judgment you trust, but I think that at least one of them should definitely be a non-writer. Why?
Don’t take this wrong, but writers aren’t exactly normal people. *g* You need to find some non-writing, regular folks to read your book, plain and simple. Certainly, there’s a time and a place for peer critiques, but writers look at fiction quite differently than readers do. Many of them, both published and aspiring, can’t resist the urge to remake every story in their own image—in their own voice, with their own style.
That doesn’t help you. You have your own distinct style and voice. (And if the other writer feels at all jealous of you or threatened by your talent, all they’re going to do is tear you down.) Readers-only won’t bring all this baggage or hidden agendas to their read of your work. For them, their self-worth isn’t on the line so your talent isn’t a threat; they’re just in it for the entertainment. So, go find you some readers!
The purpose of sharing your revised work, once it’s all finished and polished and beautiful, is for you to get a little taste of how it feels to ‘put yourself out there’ to be read. It’s a funny feeling. One that I hope you will get to know well when you sell that book!
Good luck…and enjoy the journey.
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