Re-Visions: How to Take a Fresh Look at Your Manuscript
Posted by Elise Hayes Dec 22 2010, 12:01 am in craft, revisions
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
|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.
|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.
|Philippa ends the scene angry with Guy’s ideas of women (so have her start the next scene acknowledging her frustration over that…)
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”?