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Posts tagged with: revisions

Digging Yourself Out

I’m from Alaska, which means every winter I see someone slide into ditch or a snowbank.  Sometimes the snow and ice just win (especially if you aren’t paying attention to conditions or don’t know how to drive in them).  Similarly, there comes a time in every writer’s life when their manuscript goes into the ditch, metaphorically speaking.  Or maybe not every writer’s life and if you’ve never high centered your manuscript on a snowbank, more power to you – but I certainly have.  I just get stuck – and after kicking myself for getting stuck in the first place (which is just as pointless as kicking myself for sliding into that ditch), it’s time to get to work digging myself out.  So how do you do that?

There are a few things you can do…

1. Write your way out – this, to me, is the equivalent of trying to drive out of the ditch – which sometimes works and then you’re out and you didn’t even have to get out of the car!  Bonus!  You wrote a fix and you’re good!  But in my experience, trying to power through often leads to spinning tires and no traction – and sometimes you’re in there even worse than when you first slide in.  So what next?

2. Dig your way out.  You get out of the car, you assess the situation, and you judiciously apply your shovel where needed – usually by removing what isn’t working and returning to step one and trying to write your way out, after adding a little salt (rewrites) to get traction in the areas you were slipping. But often it’s hard to see where the snow is causing the problem, so…

3. Call a friend to help you dig out.  Get a new pair of eyes on that manuscript.  Get some perspective!  Talk through the problem.  Someone looking at your problem with fresh eyes often sees the things we are too close to see.  And can also talk us off the ledge if we’re seeing a bigger problem than really exists.  Years ago, my sister got stuck in a parking lot and was convinced we were going to have to call a tow truck, but I just got out and pushed and little and we got loose just fine.  Sometimes you need that extra bit of help to get free of the sludge – and talk you off the ledge.  But when that doesn’t work? 

4. Call in the pros.  Sometimes you simply need a pick-up with a tow-hitch to drag your butt out of the snowbank.  A professional editor or a trusted critique partner who is going to go through and not just give you confidence and a little shove, but also drag you forcibly out of the snowbank by looking at your entire dang manuscript and telling you where you went wrong.  The problem with this?  If your vision doesn’t line up with the person towing you out, you can both be trying to steer in different directions and can end up in an even worse accident.  Cooperation is key and steering out of a ditch while your car is being dragged is a lot harder than it looks!  So maybe, before you call in the pros…

5.  Try looking at the problem in another way.  Sometimes you just need to change your approach.  Drive slow and steady instead of gunning it because you’re impatient.  I know you want to just get out of the bank already – you have places to be! Shiny new stories to write that aren’t mired in snowbanks!  But sometimes if you slow down, or break down your process, or try driving slowly forward deeper into the bank instead of driving out, or sideways or upside down or writing by hand or opening a new file to work on a blank slate or reading a craft book, just trying ANYTHING different, you can shake loose that little bit of inspiration to get moving again, even if it is only slowly, and you can finally get clear.

However you do it, there’s no sense giving yourself a hard time about getting stuck – and the problem isn’t going to fix itself.  So stay clam.  Stay collected.  (Or do a primal scream of frustration.)  And then get back to work.

Right now I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering taking the car apart and rebuilding it piece by piece in a new file, keeping only the parts that are working and hoping there’s enough there that it will run when I’m done – so if you want someone to primal scream with, I’m totally there for you.

What do YOU do when you get stuck in your manuscript?  

I love revisions

I love revising a manuscript. I’d rather fix a second draft than write the first, and today I’m sharing three of my favorite revision techniques. I’ve included an exercise with each, plus examples from my YA novel I Wish.

Rediscover the heart of the story

We’ve had other great Ruby posts about creating taglines. To recap, a tagline narrows down the story into a few words, to entice the reader to learn more. For I Wish, the tagline reads: What Lacey needs is a miracle; what she gets is a genie–with rules.

The heart of the story is different. It’s not about enticing the reader; it’s about enticing you. What is the point of your book? What is its “North Star”? Whenever you’re feeling frustrated during revisions, it helps to have clarity on the emotional core—the heart—of the manuscript.

Fun with Revisions

The Winter Writing Festival is underway and if you’re writing a first draft, I hope the new words are piling up higher every day!  Me?  I’m working on revisions.  My New Year’s resolution for this year was that I was finally going to revise my old Golden Heart-winning manuscript and turn it into something that might have half a prayer of selling.  I’d already mentally mapped out the changes I wanted to make and I thought, hey, a couple weeks of hard work and this baby will be good to go.

Oh, my foolish optimism.

I knew I wanted to change my villain’s motivation.  I wanted to remove a couple extraneous characters (because my cast of thousands was downright confusing) and shuffle around the order of a couple scenes to make the plot flow better.  And I wanted to break-up a secondary couple that should really NOT be getting married at the end of the book.  I had my neat little list (I love lists) and I was ready to go.

Then I started actually revising and I quickly discovered that I had learned A LOT in the ten years since I’d written this book and there was WAAAAAAAY more work to be done than I’d imagined.

On the plus side?  My ego wasn’t getting in the way anymore.  When I first wrote the book, it was my precious baby and anyone insulting my precious baby was to be viewed with suspicion and barely-contained hostility.  Now?  I’ve grown a thicker skin and gained a decade’s worth of perspective. My emotions are out of the picture and I can decimate this P.O.S. without mercy or hesitation, if that’s what it takes.  So I have to say, taking a ten year hiatus before revising does actually have some benefits.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I was amazed at the things I hadn’t even realized I didn’t know back then and I want to share my epiphanies in the hopes that it might help someone else on their own revision journey.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Your heroine’s life cannot be perfect in Chapter One.  (She can appear to have it all, but you’d better knock her off her pedestal fast.)  My heroine hadn’t met the man of her dreams yet, but he was on his way and other than that, she was golden.  She had nothing to learn.  Nowhere to grow!  So why did she need the hero in her life?  Just the good sex, really.  And companionship.  Which are nice.  But why did it have to be HIM?  What made him right for her?  Her life needed to be less perfect so he had something to add and so she had room to mature.

So how do you tell if your heroine is too perfect?  Ask yourself these three questions:  1) What does the heroine need to learn by the end of the book?  2) How does her life need to change for her to be happy?  3) How will the events of the book force her toward her HEA (willingly or not)? 

If your answers are 1) Nothing, 2) It doesn’t, and 3) They won’t – well, then you’ve got a problem.  Give that girl some internal conflict to overcome!

2.  Your hero & heroine need romantic conflict.  No, we don’t want them to try to kill one another on sight (though that could be fun…) but they do need something keeping them apart.  My hero and heroine were attracted to one another.  They both wanted a fling.  They had no obstacles – emotional or otherwise.  So there was no satisfaction when they got together because there was no tension pulling them apart (and letting them snap back against each other like rubberbands).  Giving my heroine some actual issues helped (because my hero then had to become the man who was both the best and worst possible person to help her resolve her issues), but I still needed there to be that juicy tension of two people who have a REASON to stay apart but still can’t resist the temptation to get together.

So how do you tell if you have good romantic tension?  I have three questions for that too: 1) What is keeping them apart?  2) Why is that reason important to them?  3) What would have to change for that reason to become less important than the budding relationship?

Once you answer those questions, you’re one step closer to being ready to revise.

3. Being funny is nice and all, but you can’t sacrifice good character motivation or believable plotlines in the name of humor. (Or at least, I couldn’t.) When I wrote this book originally, I wanted to be Jennifer Crusie.  I adore Jennifer Crusie.  Alas, I am not now, nor will I ever be, Jennifer Crusie.  But in the last ten years I’ve figured out that I actually have a voice of my own and I would rather be me than Jennifer Crusie (which is a pretty awesome realization – though I still love her to the moon and back and worship the computer she types on).  But all those cute little moments that were designed to maximize snark?  They had to go.  Because they didn’t work (see above revelation that I am not Jennifer Crusie).  I had to mercilessly decimate my cutesy one-liners for the sake of stronger characters.

When a scene isn’t working, take a good hard look at it and see if you’ve snuck in any of those darlings that we need to kill.  The sentence may be perfection itself–but if it doesn’t fit the book, then it doesn’t belong in the book.  Take it out.  Build a whole different book around it if you need to, but kill your darlings to make the whole better.

Those were my big takeaways.  I’m nearly to the end of my revisions and I can only hope that this hot mess turns into something workable by the time I’m done.  And I hope your revisions go better than mine did.  Good luck!

What tricks have you learned to help you through Revision Hell?  Do you hate it like me or are the revisions your favorite part?

Rip and Rebuild: Revisions Part 2

Welcome back to Rip and Rebuild: Revisions Part 2! If you missed part 1, you can find it here.

Today we’re talking:

Nuts and Bolts

Nuts and Bolts: How to put it all together

Rip and Rebuild: Revisions Part 1

Revisions.

Does the thought give you nightmares, make you break out in a sweat, make your head pound like when you’re in a room full of screaming kids? (Sorry, I’m a mom of six, I’ve dealt with a lot of screaming kids.)

If you haven’t been through a revision and you bravely, even defiantly state, “I’m not afraid,” I offer you a quote from my favorite two-foot high, green Jedi dude, “You will be. Oh. You will be.”

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

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”?

Six Rules for Writing Category Romance

What are the two most consistent bits of advice that I’ve been given for writing a compelling category romance?

1. BUILD THE ROMANCE!

2. DEVELOP INTERNAL CONFLICTS!

Um, okay. Obvious enough. Those things are at the core of most romances. But how, exactly, do we do that in such a short book?

The Latest Comments

  • Bev Pettersen: What a beautiful, inspiring post, Heather. Even better were your test results at the end. Grinning...
  • Darynda Jones: SOOOOO GLAD, HEATHER!!! I love this post. Thank you for the reminder of all the wonderful in the...
  • Cynthia Hsucroft: Wonderful news!!
  • Tamara Hogan: Such awesome news, Heather!!!!
  • Heather McCollum: Thanks so much, Addison! Love and hugs to you too!

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