Writer's Craft Article
Fiction Fundamentals: Writing Elbow Grease, Part 2
by Karen S. Wiesner
Based on Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2: 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
In this three month, in-depth series, we're going to go over what could be considered the grunge work in building a cohesive story. Revising, editing, and polishing require a little or a lot of writing elbow grease to finish the job and bring forth a strong and beautiful book.
In the introduction to this series, we discussed the process of entering the revision mindset. In this second installment, we'll go over all things "revision".
STAGE 1: REVISING
Marguerite Smith said, "Motivation is when your dreams put on work clothes." Revision can also be aptly described as when your dreams put on work clothes. The process is equivalent to getting on your hands and knees to scrub a filthy floor until it shines. It's the grunge work of being a writer, but it's well worth the effort you put into it. And revision and editing and polishing add a very definite extra layer to your story. Without it, your story probably won't read smoothly, nor will it shine.
What's the best way to revise? Below, we'll discuss ways to go about revision effectively.
Minimizing the Work
Let's first talk about the difference between the revision process and the editing and polishing process, because these, too, are separate jobs that can--but ideally shouldn't--take place at the same time.
These writing processes are similar to what builders face. It's not unusual to make design changes during construction, but builders want to minimize them. Moving a wall, for instance, can be expensive, especially if it's already been framed in and drywalled. During construction, periodic visits are made to the building site in order to monitor the home's progress. This allows the owner and builder to detect problems earlier and therefore take corrective action.
In the same way, in the process of writing a book, you want to minimize major changes to your book, like rewriting an entire story thread, or adding, deleting, or revising multiple chapters--they'll cost you a lot of time and effort (hence the need for an outline, where these kinds of revisions take only a fraction of that time and effort). If you've gone back to your outline often while writing the first draft to make sure your story is progressing the way it needs to, you'll detect problems early and be able take corrective action. This prevents major revisions at the end of a project, when you've already committed hundreds of pages to a solid structure. Terry Brooks said about this: "I believe, especially with long fiction, that an outline keeps you organized and focused over the course of the writing. I am not wedded to an outline once it is in place and will change it to suit the progress of the story and to accommodate new and better ideas, but I like having a blueprint to go back to. Also, having an outline forces you to think your story through and work out the kinks and bad spots. I do a lot less editing and rewriting when I take time to do the outline first."
What most writers call revising is actually just editing and polishing. Revision is the larger of the two jobs. We'll talk more about editing and polishing, which should be minor buffing up, later. Revision may or may not be major, especially if you've started with an outline. But it does involve tweaking characters, settings, and plots; and possibly rewriting, adding to, or deleting one or more scenes; and incorporating major research. When you revise, you evaluate (and fix) any of the following:
-Character, setting, and plot credibility and the cohesion of these elements
-Depth of conflicts, goals, and motivations
-Effectiveness of hints, tension and suspense, and resolutions
-Emotion and color
-Hooks and cliffhangers
-Adequacy of research
-Properly unfurled, developed, and concluded story threads
-Deepening of character enhancements/contrasts and the symbols of these
Revision is redoing or reshaping in an effort to make what's already there better, stronger, and, of course, utterly cohesive.
Maximizing the Benefits
After you've completed a first draft and allowed the book to sit for a long time, the next step is revision. While I used to do this step off the computer on a hard copy of the book, the work involved after the revision done by my own messy (practically unreadable) hand, having to make all those corrections within the story file on my computer, became too immense. Literally, there was never a single page that didn't have countless changes, additions, or deletions. I now find this job a world easier to do on the computer.
I strongly believe that revision should be done as quickly as possible, with as little interruption from the material as possible. This won't compromise the quality of your revision, I promise--just the opposite, in fact! Ideally, if you can set aside a block of time of about a week (three days is generally the maximum time it takes me, but I always allow for a week) to work exclusively on the revision, you'll find that your story will be more consistent, and you'll remember details much better. In my case, I remember things photographically--I could argue that I memorize the entire book during this time, and any error will jump out at me as I work. During revision days, I may even be woken from sound sleep because a glaring error in some portion of the book will emerge from my subconscious. The whole book is quite literally laid out in my mind, ready to be accessed at a moment's notice during this short revision period. If revision on a project is broken up over a period of days or weeks, especially if you're working on other projects during this time, the book will most certainly suffer from consistency issues, and possibly even structural and cohesion problems. If you can set aside that crucial, uninterrupted block of time to focus on revision, your story will benefit from it immeasurably.
To get started, make a list that organizes the revision items in need of your final attention during this time. Fix firmly in your mind those details you need to attend to while reading your book from start to finish. Check off what you've finished at the end of each work day so you'll know what you need to deal with when you come back to the revision.
Yes, during this time you'll be working on fixing more serious problems, but you probably will be doing some editing and polishing during this stage as well. You're there; it wouldn't make any sense to not clean up something small but not quite right that clearly needs a little elbow grease. However, what you're really looking for during the revision is anything in your story that doesn't work or doesn't make sense.
One way I keep my project consistent is to have a notebook next to me while I'm reading to revise. I jot down the timeline and various other details, including the page number the detail is mentioned on. If I later have a question while revising about, say, when a certain event took place, I can always look in the notebook to make sure I've kept those facts consistent. Whenever and as often as this detail is mentioned in the story, I'll write down the page number for it in the notebook. I might decide to change the fact later, and this way I have a list of all the places affected by the change.
You may have very little left to do to make your book closer to perfect once when you complete this process.
Next week, we'll go over stages 2 and 3: Involving critique partners and setting the final draft aside.
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of Cohesive Story Building, Volume 2 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.