These are some of the answers I came up with for my friend Kate Messner, who is writing a book on revision for students, using input and examples from different authors with different methods of work. I’d been thinking a lot about revision anyway, because the first book of the Galaxy Games series has been through many revision cycles over the past year, and will be revised at least once more before being put in its final form. I’m looking forward to Kate’s book and I will be posting my whole set of revision Q&A on my website.
Are there times during the revision process when you need to step back and do more brainstorming?
There are lots of times when additional brainstorming is necessary in the revision process. For me, this might start with asking a “what if” question. “What if a character did this instead of that?” or “How can this other character come back into the book later on?” or “Wouldn’t this chapter be better if I added some clowns?”
A seemingly small change might ripple through the entire book so you really need to think about all the consequences before you commit to doing it!
How do you brainstorm titles?
Brainstorming titles is especially challenging for me. I use working titles to avoid committing myself until the last possible moment. Sometimes the working title becomes the final title, but sometimes not.
For the brainstorming part, I think about what the book is about and make a list of words that might fit into a title. For a book about playing sports, my list might start with game, team, goal, field, champion, pitcher’s mound, and so on. If my book is a giant mutant squid, the list might be squid, tentacle, calamari, mollusk, etc. So if a story is about playing sports against a team of giant mutant squid, I might end up with a title like Squid Games, The Tentacle Team, or Mollusk on the Mound. Easy!
What kinds of outlines and organizers do you use? Do you ever use maps, timelines, calendars, or other specialized planning strategies that you can describe?
I rely heavily on chapter maps and timelines but every book has its own challenges.
The Penguins of Doom was written in the form of letters with lots of themes and plotlines going on all at once. I ended up making index cards for each of letter and juggling them around until they made sense. I included plot and theme on each card as well as the word counts, to make sure I put enough short letters between the longer ones. And since I was writing the letters out of order, I color-coded them: green for ones that were complete, yellow for ones that were in progress, and red for ones I hadn’t started yet.
In the first book of the Galaxy Games series, I cut between events happening in the United States, in Japan, and in outer space. It was important to keep track of the passage of time, since it might be the middle of the night for one set of characters while others were awake and eating lunch. I picked one event that had to happen at a certain time on a certain day, and set every other scene as became “X hours before” or “X days after.”
How do you deal with the theme or central issue of your book during the revision process?
Part of the revision process is identifying the theme and making sure it’s presented in a balanced and natural way that doesn’t come off as preachy. The best is when an issue can be presented from multiple viewpoints, with nobody being entirely right or entirely wrong. I want readers to explore the topic and make up their own minds. The characters might also change their minds or struggle to find the best among a bunch of imperfect solutions, which is a good model for how a reader might consider that theme as well.
When you’re revising and you come to a part of the book that seems to need richer details and more description, how do you approach that? What strategies do you use to make sure you have specific details to make your writing real? And where do you draw the line? How much detail is too much?
Sometimes I read books that include a page or two of description for every room the characters walk into. I always used to skip over those parts and imagine the story taking in some place that had meaning to me, like my grandparents’ house. Lots of old time mysteries and ghost stories seemed to take place in my grandparents’ house.
That experience taught me to be minimalist about description and include only things that matter to the story. I tend to add more details in the revision process wherever I find ways to use description for a specific purpose, like showing a character’s interests by describing what’s hanging on his or her bedroom walls.
I also try to include sensory details other than sight. What does the inside of an alien spaceship smell like? What is the texture of the floors? What do the food dispensers sound like? These are questions I ask during the revision process because the first draft is more about what happens than exactly how it happens.
How do you make sure your characters feel real and well-rounded when you’re revising? What do you do with people who feel flat? How do you choose names for characters and give them specific characteristics? Do you have any special character-building strategies you’d like to share?
Character names are tricky. Sometimes I’ll go by the meaning, like with Septina and her siblings in The Penguins of Doom, whose names have Latin roots that correlate to their birth order. Or I’ll make some connection to history or popular culture, as with Septina’s family name, Nash, which is a tribute to a notable mathematician named John Nash.
Sometimes I’ll pick a random name as a place-holder in the first draft and use search-and-replace to rename the character during the revision process. If you do this, make sure the original name is spelled the same each time and confirm every change to make sure you’re only changing character names like Nash and leaving alone words like “gnash” or places like Nashville.
My characters tend to evolve personalities as I write and many times they will surprise me. As a result, I might have to return to an earlier scene because I’ve come to realize that the character would think, speak, or act differently than I’d originally thought.
Sometimes I write outtake scenes that don’t go into the book, but allow me to explore how a character would act in a different situation. If I cut a scene from the book, I keep it in a separate file instead of getting rid of it entirely, because it just might provide some insight that I’ll need later.
Do you ever try writing in different points of view? And are there specific things you need to watch out for when writing in first person vs. third or vice versa?
For point of view, I like to imagine I’m filming a movie and need to decide where to put the camera. I might need multiple angles to take in all the action, or it might work best to have the camera hover over a single character’s head and follow them around for the entire book. Sometimes the best way to tell the story is to cut open the main character’s skull and surgically implant a camera in their cerebral cortex, and that becomes a first person story. You need to figure out the point of view early in the drafting process because it’s very difficult to change in revision.
When you’re writing in first person, how do you make sure you’re channeling the character’s voice?
The most important thing about writing in first person is realizing that your character’s mind is the landscape you’re exploring and that nothing can ever happen outside of that. You can’t describe a thing the character didn’t personally experience without some reasonable explanation that they read about it, had it described to them, or otherwise learned about it afterward. The same thing applies in a third person narrative that’s tightly focused on a single character.
One more thing I learned while writing The Penguins of Doom is the importance of a viewpoint character having a purpose and a perceived audience. Septina’s voice came out differently when she was writing letters to her parents than when she was writing to a friend. She sounded different when she was apologizing for something, explaining something, or asking for something. It made me realize that we all talk differently in different situations and adjusting for that can help a writer identify the parts of a character’s voice that stay consistent over time and audience.
Of course, all of these answers are subject to future revision. :D
—Greg, who has his revision pencil ready for another go!
Greg R. Fishbone