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Re-Visions: How to Take a Fresh Look at Your Manuscript

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You’ve written the first draft of your book. You’ve typed in those glorious words, “THE END” (because, hey, I write those words at the end of the first draft to mark the accomplishment of getting that far–even though I still have boatloads of work left to do).

So what now?!

The key to revising is locked in the word itself: re-visions. You need to see your manuscript–the pieces of it, from scenes, to chapters, to character arcs–in a new way. Many writers call upon critique partners at this stage. But today I’m going to write about a different tool for gaining a fresh look at your manuscript: a revision chart that I devised when I was working on my second manuscript. It proved to be incredibly helpful for me and I hope it will for you, too.

THE ADVANTAGES TO CHARTING:

The chart does two things for me.

  1. While my individual scenes might be strong, the overall progress of the story from scene to scene may be choppy: Did I really set up the heroine’s internal growth so that when she makes that key decision in Chapter 10–a decision she would never have made in Chapter 1–my readers believe she’s genuinely changed and that this is the decision she’d truly make at this moment in time? The chart helps me trace the progress of the external plot, character arcs, romance arcs, sexual tension, etc.
  2. It targets my weak spots (more about those later). The chart makes me look at every scene in the book, one at a time, and asks me whether I’ve skimped on fleshing out the elements of the story that I find hardest to write.

THE GOLDEN RULE: CUSTOMIZE!

Before I unveil the chart itself, there is one golden rule for the use of such spreadsheets and charts: Customize, customize, customize. I developed the chart below because it made me face the weak spots in my writing. If you’ve reached the revising stage and want to try this type of tool, don’t just cut and paste my chart into your word processing program and start typing. Spend some time thinking about your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer–and tweak or completely revise the chart to suit your writing needs.

THE ANCHOR COLUMN:

My strengths are plotting and external action. Since I tend to think of my stories in terms of external plot, I anchor the chart with a column on the left that reminds me of where I am in the story’s action. This column is always easy for me to fill out (although to make it more challenging, I later made myself go back and rework it so that I was articulating the characters’ external goals for the scene). One of my critique partners is a character driven writer. For her, the anchor column is what’s happening in her characters’ internal journeys. She finds that column easy to fill. I would prefer a trip to the dentist.

POV COLUMN:

I found it useful to track POV on the chart–and when I first started using it, I was sometimes surprised to find that I had multiple scenes in a row in the heroine’s POV, with no sense of what was going on with the hero. And that’s the point of the chart: it makes you look at your scenes in a new way. I went back to those scenes and shifted several of them into the hero’s POV–which gave the reader (and me) much better insight into the hero’s internal journey at those stages of the story.

COLUMNS ON WEAK SPOTS:

My weak spots center on the characters: What emotional impact does the external plot have on them? How are these characters growing together or apart (the romance arc)? Another weak spot for me is sexual tension. I devote the majority of the columns to these questions, because these are the places I’ve probably skimped on in the writing.

Below is a sample of my re-vision chart from my last manuscript. You’ll see that there are blank spots–I’ll point out them out when I analyze the chart below. To understand this snippet from my chart, here are the basics of the story: The setting is twelfth century England. The heroine (Philippa) was raised as a boy and then a knight. She’s lived her entire life as a man. When her identity as a woman is discovered, she has to learn to be a woman–and isn’t at all happy about it. The hero (Guy) has been charged by the king with putting his newly inherited estate in order AND with making Philippa into a lady–and there’s a deadline with dire consequences for his family and estate if he fails.

External Plot/Character Goals POV Emotional Impact Sexual Tension Romance

Arc

Setting: Two weeks later, at dinner in the great hall.

GUY’S GOAL: As part of his attempts to set the estate’s affairs in order (the backdrop of the scene is the successful completion of the village), he asks his sister Anne for input on her betrothal.

PHIL’s GOAL:

GUY

and

PHIL

GUY: When he speaks to Anne about the betrothal, he’s feeling good–feeling like he’s implementing a new skill he’s learning–listening to his sisters. He’s not just telling her what to do (as he did with Helen)–he’s asking Anne’s opinion. He’s going to be surprised/bewildered when it doesn’t work (and fall back into old autocratic habits).

PHIL:  She realizes that she was as guilty as Guy in her limited conception of women: she, too, was forcing her sister Wynn to marry or go to a convent. She wonders now if alternatives are possible.

The scene ends with Philippa having made progress and Guy–although initially trying–slipping back into his old gender ideas.

GUY: He unties Philippa’s legs under the table and feels again his attraction to her. He acknowledges to himself that his plan to stay away from her isn’t working very well–but it’s all he has. He needs to marry an heiress, so he can’t risk an affair with her.

PHIL:

Philippa ends the scene angry with Guy’s ideas of women (so have her start the next scene acknowledging her frustration over that…)

GUY:

When I’m ready to revise a scene, I read it and then try to fill in the columns on the chart. If I find that there are blank spots–and above there ended up being several–then I think about what changes need to be made to the scene to incorporate those missing elements. In the columns above, I can see that this scene does a good job of tracing the emotional impact of Guy’s conversation with his sister Anne over the betrothal he wants to arrange for her (yay me!).

But the sexual tension is incomplete (you were wondering when I’d explain Philippa’s tied legs, weren’t you?). In an earlier scene, Guy had tied Philippa’s ankles in order to shorten her stride as she walks–she still moves like a man, even though she’s wearing a gown. In this scene, she’s actually starting to move like a woman, so he takes off the bindings (thus showing progress on her journey toward becoming a lady–at least in terms of the external trappings of ladyhood). The scene shows his reaction to touching Philippa’s ankles and legs, but not her reaction to his touch. That’s a revision that needs to be made.

While the “External Plot” column presents the action of the scene in terms of Guy’s goals–over dinner, he’s going to talk to his sister Anne about setting up a betrothal for her–the scene doesn’t yet convey a clear sense of Philippa’s goals. That needs to be revised. What’s her goal during this dinner conversation and how will that reshape the scene?

The romance arc is also incomplete: Philippa has been feeling increasingly attracted to Guy, so she’s frustrated (and thus given a reason to pull away from him) by how he’s treating his sister and what that treatment means about his view of women. But I don’t have anything in the scene that makes clear where Guy is in the push-pull of the romance arc. I would need to go back and layer that in.

And, finally, once this scene and the others next to it have been revised, the next way to use the chart is to double-check the overall progress between the scenes: I can look at just the “Romance Arc” column to see if the steps in the romance journey are happening at the right pace from scene to scene throughout the book.

FINAL TIP: Don’t try to fill out the whole chart at once (OMG that would be daunting!). Instead, fill in one scene at a time and use the chart as a prompt to make your revisions of that scene. You have to revise the whole book anyway, right? Filling out the chart only takes a few minutes–and it gives you a tool for re-visioning the scene’s strengths and weaknesses, so that you know whether changes need to be made and what they are.

What columns would go on your chart? What would your “anchor” column be? What are some of the other columns that you would use to check your weak spots? And, just for fun, when do you write the words, “The End”?

39 Responses to “Re-Visions: How to Take a Fresh Look at Your Manuscript”

  1. Wow. This is really awesome. Thanks!

  2. Hope Ramsay says:

    Elise,

    This is really wonderful stuff. I do something similar when I’m in revisions, although, as chart-happy as I usually am, I don’t actually chart every scene. One collumn that I would probably add to your chart would be headed with the word CONFLICT. I would definitely anchor my chart with the external plot, and the scene goal statements, as you have them. But then, in the CONFLICT column I would note who (or what) is opposing the scence character’s goals and what strategies and tactics that a antagonist will pose for the POV character and how s/he will deal with those tactics and strategies. I would also note somewhere how I’m going to end the scene with a disaster or a major hook that carries on to the next bit of the story.

    As noted, I’m not sure I’d use a chart this detailed on a scene-by-scene basis. When I’m “re-visioning,” I usually take a huge step back and try to look at the book as a whole. To do that I return to my Goal, Motivation and Conflict charts, as well as my plot outline, and the boatloads of work that I’ve done on each character, to make sure that I’ve really nailed both the story and character arcs. Often, when I’m revising, the goal is to add plot layers and subplots that might not have been fully developed in a first draft. So when I revise, I might spend a lot of time doing more detailed GMC charts on the supporting cast of characters, or even the villian, to make sure I’ve got the external plot(s) where they need to be.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Hi Hope,

      Oh, I’ve just started really focusing on ending scenes on hooks, so that would be a good column for me to add, too.

      I do the GMC charts for my main characters and villain, too. They’re really helpful in terms of letting me see the “big picture.”

  3. liz talley says:

    I’m very impressed. I’m also very scared. I’m so not a planner or organizer. THAT is my weakness. I sorta bumble through my scenes using only my synopsis, a GMC chart and my “feel” for the story as my only guide. That’s for first draft writing and revisions. But I have to admit, your way is far more thorough. That’s an incredible amount of work, too. But I bet you have some awesomely tight writing!

    Thanks for taking us into your process. Always interesting to see how someone else does it. :)

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I know the chart looks a little frightening (you should see the finished document, when the *whole book* is charted out this way!!), but it probably only takes me about 5-10 minutes to map out each scene in this way.

      Keep in mind that the point *isn’t to create the chart.* The point is to give me a tool to look back over a scene and see what’s missing.

      I’ll usually start out thinking, “well, this revision won’t take long, because I know this scene is already really strong, so I’ll just chart it out quickly and move on to the next scene.” And then I’ll start finding all these holes. The end result is just a much, much stronger scene–and a much stronger book, as a whole.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> I’m very impressed. I’m also very scared. I’m so not a planner or organizer.

      Me too, Liz. Elise, I’m thoroughly intimidated by your chart!

      I tend to do mainly character development work up front. Internal motivation and conflicts come pretty easily, so at the beginning of the book writing process I have a pretty good handle on how my characters would behave in almost any situation. It’s finding the right situation (plot) to drop them into that’s harder for me.

      • Elise Hayes says:

        And see, I come at the story from exactly the opposite side: I can’t figure out my character’s inner journeys and how they would behave in particular situations until the last draft of the book. But plot ideas? Adventures my characters could be having? Oh, yeah, that’s easy.

  4. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I don’t actually chart my revision process, but I mentally analyze each scene to make sure it’s working hard enough to justify being in the novel. It helps me to consider scenes as events.

    Every event has to establish, strengthen, or resolve some sort of conflict so the plot advances. If the status or situation at the end of a scene isn’t any different than at the beginning it’s essentially a non-event and has no reason for being in the book.

    And to make sure my scenes work extra hard, in addition to advancing the plot, they must also accomplish at least two other things. For example:

    1. Foreshadow
    2. Characterize
    3. Add sexual tension
    4. Establish or strengthen Goals
    5. Establish or strengthen motivation
    6. Add humor or suspense
    7. Provide opportunity for character growth
    8. Demonstrate character growth

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Oh, I like this list, Laurie. Thanks for posting it!

      And I like the idea of having a kind of “checklist” for each scene. That way you don’t have to write out an actual chart, but you still get the same effect of it–a mental list of things that you need to make certain you address in each scene as your write it (or revise it).

  5. Your chart is terrific! I keep track of POV for each chapter as I write, though. Helps me always know who should be next, or when I need to switch it up.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I do that now, too, Christi–but mostly thanks to having started using this chart and realizing that I was having issues with staying in one character’s POV for too long.

  6. Ami Weaver says:

    I love the chart! I do something similar, in a couple of ways. However, mine’s not so pretty. LOL. In the hard copy (I find I revise better in hard copy) I use sticky notes and make notes on those. Things like scene goal, tension, plot threads, whatever. Also I write down any holes (I revise 3 chapters at a time). When I’m done with a chapter, I write the info in a notebook so I can look back quickly rather than slog thru my post-it filled hard copy. :) Frankly, it’s an ugly process but as someone who’s a total into-the-mist writer it works for me.

    Also, I write THE END at the end of every draft. Because I’ve earned it, darn it. :)

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Yay! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who writes THE END with each draft :)

      And you’ve gotta love those sticky notes! It sounds like you’ve found a process that really works for you (even if it isn’t pretty :)

  7. I’m neck-deep in revisions right now on two WIPs, one rather old and one painfully fresh. The fresh one needs this chart like I need my Internet connection.

    I have, in the past, used Jack Bickham’s theory of Scene and Sequel to help me wallow through a tough revision. Though I know his strict view on structure has its limit, it forces me to give each scene a purpose and eliminates episodic development. Books structured his way would have a great deal of momentum.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I developed the chart because the manuscript I was working on had been written together, one small piece at a time, over about 4 years. To say that it was an incoherent mess overall would be an understatement. Each individual scene was fine, but they didn’t work together at all–because I had written most of those scenes weeks, months, even years apart. So the original purpose of the chart was to help me rework the overall character arcs and make certain they made sense. Then I started finding out what a great tool it was for scene doctoring within each scene…and I’ve been using this chart (or some version of it) ever since.

      • I just finished the first draft of my third novel, and when people ask me about it, I say (quite cheerfully) that it makes no sense. They stare blankly, and say, “Oh, I’m sure it’s great!” as though I just needed a confidence boost. Not.

        I’m never quite sure how to explain to a non-writer what I mean. I think people on the outside (i.e., readers) imagine that we just spit out a glorious first draft, and that revisions are more like copyedits. That’s what I thought when I began, at least. But saying “it makes no sense” seems like a normal step on the writer’s journey. It’s between “Thank God, I typed The End!” and “How am I ever going to polish this precious turd of mine?”

        At any rate, YOU get it, Elise. Totally. I feel ya.

  8. Tina Joyce says:

    Wow, Elise, this is a great tool! Thanks so much for posting your process. I’m just writing the last scene of my wip–then come the revisions. Your chart arrived just in time to try it out.

    Thanks again!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Whoo-hoo, Tina! One more scene to go until those beautiful words, THE END. Will you write them on your first draft? Or wait until the final draft?

  9. Wow, Elise! I really needed this right now. Yep, this very moment.
    Thank you!!!
    ~D~

  10. Kim Law says:

    Awesome chart! I do something similar, but I don’t always so it for every scene. I know I should.

    And I only write The End when I’m really finished :) Final draft.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      Ah, a THE END purist!

      I’ll admit that I only used the chart on my “mushy middle” two hundred pages in the last manuscript. That said, I do plan to use it throughout my new wip, once I finally have a seriously complete first draft. The good news is that this “first” draft will be much, much stronger than any first draft I’ve written before. Slowly, but surely, I’m getting better at this writing thing…

  11. Rita Henuber says:

    I get it down and then go back and check:
    Plot and turning points.
    Make sure there is internal and external conflict in each scene.
    End chapters with a hook.
    Check emotions and use body language.
    Make sure the characters personality comes out in each scene.
    Remove clichés and find a different way to write what I’m removing.
    I’m getting better at doing these things as I go along. But they still need refining when I go back to edit. In my WIP the challenge is to keep the heroine’s personality even. Ugg!

  12. Elise Hayes says:

    Your list is pretty close to mine at this point, Rita. I’ve been working on removing cliches and bringing out more emotion (as well as ending scenes/chapters with a hook).

    I like the idea of ensuring that the character’s personality comes out in each scene…but I’m not sure what that would actually look like (again, it’s that whole character development thing that I’m struggling with). Do you have an example for us?

    • Rita Henuber says:

      I know who my people are. Where they went to school. What they like to eat. They like dogs or cats. All that kind of stuff. My heroines tend to have a smart mouth. They don’t take anything from any one. Occasionally I read a scene and wonder what I was smokin the day I wrote it. I wrote her wimpy and let people run over her. The action in the scene doesn’t change I need to rewrite her reaction.
      In the story that sold the heroine and villain are in a booth in a private club. She has on a barely there LBD. The villain’s hand is under her dress, groping her looking for a wire. She didn’t have one. I first wrote it with her acting scared not wanting his hands in her private places. She was squirming, telling him to get his hands off her. Soo not her. Rewrite was the same action, but… she keeps her body still and tells the villain. “I pretty much know where everything under there is. If you tell me what you’re looking for I can direct you to it.” That’s her character.

      • Elise Hayes says:

        Oh, I LOVE that response! And you’re right, it does tell me a lot about her.

        One of the funny things about writing my heroine who was raised as a man/knight was that I actually had to think of her as a man as I wrote her. Otherwise, all of her reactions to the world around her were just wrong.

  13. Vivi Andrews says:

    Very cool, Elise. This kind of chart would be helpful on the front end too. Do you ever fill it out partially as a brainstorming exercise before you begin to write a scene?

    My first column definitely wouldn’t be external plot. My initial outlines for WIPs almost always include the words “and then Something Big Happens” so yeah, not so much on the plot specifics. Maybe character arc? I dunno. Possibly different for each book.

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I have different charts for the beginnings of books, Vivi. (Do you see a pattern starting to emerge here?) Believe it or not, I used to be a “pantser”…but it took me 6-7 years to finish each book using that approach. The charts are shaving off about 2/3 of the time I used to spend flailing. I don’t particularly like using them–I prefer just to sit down and write–but I recognize that they’re really helping me write better and more quickly.

  14. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is excellent…and something I really needed right now! I’m trying to take apart my Golden Heart manuscript and my second book as well and make all the various arcs make more sense. This is a big help, esp. with Hope’s reminder to get CONFLICT on the list!

  15. This isn’t just a bookmark-quality post, Elisa, it’s a cut-and-paste-into-my-writing-file-quality post! Top rate. Thanks, N.

  16. Diana Layne says:

    how wonderfully original, Elise, and great timing! Thanks!

    • Elise Hayes says:

      I am hoping to actually get to use my revision chart on my wip (if I can just finish that last 100 pages!) during the Rubies Winter Writing Festival! Hopefully you will too :)

  17. I love your chart, Elise!

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