Sunday, February 13, 2011

Revising: what to do after 'The End'

So I've typed THE END, done my little happy dance and basked for a while in the sweet sunshine of how awesome I am. Now what?

Well, it's time to pull that baby out and revise. But what does that mean? How do I know what to fix, what to leave alone? Well, like any good neurotic obsessive outliner, I have a plan. Let me share it with you...

At this stage, my manuscript is one big .doc file with scene breaks indicated by #. No chapter breaks yet. But it's in reasonable shape, with no really big holes or {insert fight scene here}. Yes, I am feeling smug about that :)

First pass: does the story work?

I start at the beginning, and go through to the end. Never mind if I already hate the ending, or know the scene on page 157 where he bakes lamingtons in his birthday suit is crap -- I'll worry about it when I get there. Why? Because I'm looking for overall effect. Is the story working? Are the highs and lows where I want them? And are they high or low enough?

I like to read one scene at a time, in order but in isolation -- that helps to break it up into manageable chunks -- and ask the following:

Plot holes. Mark all the dumb bits, and make notes on how to fix them for later.

Scenes that don't do anything. If there's no action, no revelation, and no character arc goes anywhere, it's not doing anything. Mark for deletion -- but also mark any essential info that needs to be relocated somewhere else.

Things that aren't adequately explained. You, the author, know how the spaceship or the terrorist's bomb or the Secret Vampire Society works. Make sure the reader does too -- but only as much as they need to.

Motivations that don't show. Again, you know why your characters make decisions. Make sure the reader understands -- look at the introspection and the dialogue to make sure it's clear on the page.

Character arcs that fall flat. This is a tricky one. How do you test if your character arc is working? Well, I like to go back to basics. Ask what are the conflicts that the character needs to resolve, and in what order? Then, go through your scenes and make sure it's happening on the page, not just in your head.

Sound like a tick-the-box exercise? It is, kind of. I like to make a little list for hero and heroine, noting the scenes they appear and following what their arc is doing in that scene -- what it's actually doing, not what I wanted it to do when I wrote that scene. Plot events are just the catalyst for the romance -- how is the character changing emotionally in response to them?

So my list might look something like this, with initial conflict, reversals and notes to myself:
Scene A: heroine has trust issues. Meets hero and thinks he's lying to her.
Scene B: heroine fights attraction, dithers about whether to trust hero and decides she must proceed alone
Scene C: heroine needs help to {plot event} and hero helps her. (Note: do better with this. She should be tempted to trust him but too afraid)
Scene D: She finds out that he endangered his own life to help her in scene C. He must have another agenda. But she decides to trust him and go along with his plan to {plot event} (Note: make her motivation to trust him clearer: she needs his help because {reason})
Scene E: is captured by bad guys and believes hero has betrayed her. (Note: make it more believable that she would immediately assume this.) Decides she was foolish to trust him.
This is a quick-and-dirty example that I just invented on the spot, but see what I mean? You're tracking the progress of the character's change, and you can match what you've actually done against what needs to happen. This way, it's easy to see where your arc falls down.

So that's it for first pass. Once I've fixed those things, it's down to the more techie stuff, like chapter hooks and line edits.

I'll let you know how it goes...


  1. Sounds like you've got a solid method that'll get you throught he first revision pass.

    I've never been one to leave an [insert scene here] in a manuscript. It'd annoy me too much, but maybe that's why I write slower than you...that and the stack of papers to grade that I'm delaying getting back to by reading and commenting on your blog ;)

  2. I am assuming that you also do one important step before revising - put the thing away in a drawer and forget about it for 2 days? An essential step to wipe your short term memory of the document otherwise you don't read what is actually written but what is 'in your head'.

    I tend to revise as I go along, takes longer to complete a manuscript but you end with a more complete one. Maybe I need to start thinking less about polishing while writing and more about completing and polishing later?

  3. {cracks whip} get back to it, Terry :)

    And yeah, leaving it for a while is important, especially for the line-editing part. By the time I get to that, I've usually read it so many times I've practically memorised that sucker anyway...

  4. Congrats on reaching the revision stage!

    (One step closer to being on my Kindle.)

    It sounds like I'm in the same boat as you. Once I reach line edits, I have the book memorized. I still read books from a year or so ago and mentally add back words that were cut. It drives me nuts.