Tag Archives: revisions

Revision Week: Greg’s Q&A

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

Greg R. Fishbone

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Revision Week: Targeting Word Count

Welcome to our week-long discussion about revision! You’ll hear from several of us on the topic. I’ll start off by discussing revision for word count.

After writing a manuscript about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, and try to help the ghosts, I developed a series proposal and sent the proposal and manuscript to an editor I knew. Imagine my delight when I got a call from him, just a month later. Imagine my ecstasy when he said, “I love it. I want to buy it.”

Now imagine my reaction when he said, “It needs to be twice as long.”

Granted, the manuscript was less than 20,000 words, but the plot worked, and I had a nice fast pace, focusing on action and dialogue. But since I was pitching The Ghost on the Stairs as the first in a series, it had to match Aladdin’s series guidelines for ages 9 to 12. So I had to add 15,000 words, while keeping the story fast and active to reach our primary target of reluctant boy readers.

I’m probably in the minority in having to expand rather than cut my work. Many authors wind up with sluggish, overwritten manuscript and have to cut them down. Short stories, picture books and easy readers are even more challenging, as they typically have tight word counts. But I have also critiqued other writers’ stories that fall into an awkward in-between length—too long for an early reader, but too short for a middle grade novel. One way or another, we often have to adapt to publishers’ needs or market trends by trimming or adding to our work.

Adding material and trimming are very different skills, so I’m going to focus on the first in this post. The trick to expanding your work is to add complications that will make the work more exciting—in other words, add plot, not description or random action that doesn’t affect the plot.

In my Haunted series, siblings Jon and Tania travel with their mother and stepfather’s ghost hunter TV show, and discover Tania can see ghosts. In each book, they have to figure out what’s keeping the ghost here, then try to help her or him move on. In the version of The Ghost on the Stairs I sent to the editor, people already knew the ghost’s name, and why she’s stuck here grieving. To expand the manuscript, I made the ghost story more vague. Jon and Tania have to do detective work to discover her name and background.

These added complications gave me about 70 more pages. The editor read those revisions, but found a new problem. Some scenes lacked drama. He wanted it spookier, with the ghost more active. I realized that some of my “detective” scenes didn’t directly involve the ghost at all. For example, I had the kids do research in the public library. They find information, and leave, with no drama. To keep the ghost involved, I moved their research session to the hotel’s business center—right next door to the ghost—and finished the chapter with another dramatic ghost encounter.

New material must make the plot more interesting, rather than slowing it down. Complications should be dramatic, scary or emotional. By adjusting the number and complexity of complications—essentially adding or removing plot—you can shorten or lengthen a manuscript.

This can sound odd to the beginning writer or non-writer who imagines that a story is what it is, and couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be changed. But the more you write, the more you discover how many options a story idea gives you. What seemed to be a picture book works better as a short story. A short story idea grows into a full-length novel. An epic novel is more manageable when broken down into a trilogy. Discovering what your story can be is part of the fun of writing!

Chris Eboch with Haunted books

Chris Eboch with her Haunted books

Chris Eboch discussed expanding a story by adding more plot in her personal blog in several posts this last April and May.

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Revision scorecard: FWQ

I thought PJ’s’s post about her revisions for THE EMERALD TABLET was so interesting, I was inspired to take a similar look at THE FARWALKER’S QUEST. It’s been one of my more extensive revisions, and I can see common themes in the notes.

Elsewhere, I’ve detailed a few things about reducing the length, which was the most important (though hardly only) issue raised by my agent prior to editorial submissions, so I’ll mostly skip that here. But I did have to tackle length over and over again.

A few revision stats:

  • Time to write first draft – about 6 weeks, a big chunk of it scribbled by hand, including on hotel notepads during a vacation in Mexico
  • Length of first draft – 121 K in 479 ms pages (once into Word)
  • Length of published novel – 93K in 357 ms pages
  • Biggest single cut: A scene in the final third that was less than 3 pages long
  • Time from first word written until publication – 3 years, 10 months
  • First line: Did not change. Zeke’s tree wouldn’t speak to him.
  • Last line: Did not change for the book itself Ariel hummed her song as they went. — but a planned epilogue in the ARC was whacked late in the game.

Other than length, my biggest revisions on this book could virtually all be described as moving information forward. Because I’m a pantser, my plots often entail little mysteries that I don’t know the solution or backstory to yet. Those show up in the first draft when my subconscious figures it out or reverse engineers what I’ve already set up. Examples in this book include everything from the large (what the telling dart’s message for Ariel says and what or where is the Vault) to the small (where Scarl takes Ariel midway through the book).

I used to think I could leave such information where it fell out of my head and that would make great suspense for the reader, but I’ve come to accept that suspense does not equal confusion, and that even once they know all my secrets, a reader still might be willing to find out what happens. (This took some convincing by my editor, believe me.) I almost always need to let the MC, and therefore the reader, out of the dark about something sooner than I want to. The one exception was that my editor thought Scarl’s true colors should be slightly less obvious, so I cut a short scene before the midpoint that revealed him the most.

Adding info and explanations felt tougher than cutting. I was trying hard to avoid info dumps,  so I had feather in information a half-scene here, a line or two there, finding some reasonably organic reason to bring up such info where it had not been before.

Examples of the changes

Ariel first hears the word Farwalker: Draft: p. 134; Final: p. 100 (the same scene, reflecting how much the first 100 pages shrank)

First mention and description of the Blind War: Draft: p. 61; Final: p. 11

Ariel first finds out what a Farwalker is or does: Draft:  p. 297, Final: p. 125

Ariel learns that the dart’s sender is unknown*: Draft: p. 220; Final: p. 107

*This is actually not resolved until nearly the end of the sequel. I can’t break some habits, I guess.

I just read a blog post somewhere by author Jody M. Roy about saving editorial notes and reviewing them again once the revision is done so improvements can be internalized and applied to future first drafts. I’d like to think that the sweat shed over the revisions themselves might have the same long-term effect! But I do know that trying to identify things I repeatedly find myself fixing, across manuscripts, is giving me a clearer idea of weaknesses to work on and things that should get special attention from me before my “first” draft (ha) is ever read by somebody else.

— Joni, who misses the tide pool and the ghost carrots in her first draft, even if they weren’t important

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More Roundtable Discussion: Revisions

It wouldn’t quite fit in our last post, so here’s another viewpoint about revisions from Jo Whittemore, author of ESCAPE FROM ARYLON and other books in her trilogy, The Silverskin Legacy:

The most challenging editorial changes are still ongoing for a pet project of mine. It’s currently sitting on the backburner, however, while I work on other projects that I’ve already got hammered out. It’s caught somewhere between MG and YA, so I’m working to balance it out to be more MG. What makes it so difficult is that the original version/much of the character action was based on a YA world (driver’s ed, etc), so not only do I have to age down the characters and their language, but I have to alter their situations to suit a new set of circumstances.

(Whew, that DOES sound like a tough revision.)

How about you, readers? What have been your toughest revision challenges — and did you discover any secrets for completing them?

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Roundtable Discussion: Tough work ahead?

As writers everywhere work on their first drafts for NaNoWriMo, The Spectacle looks ahead — to revisions. In this roundtable, we asked Spectacle bloggers to talk about their most challenging editorial revisions.

Mike StellarKari Anne Holt, author of MIKE STELLAR: NERVES OF STEEL:

For my first book, I don’t think any specific change was difficult — it was more the idea of revision that was difficult for me. The biggest challenge in the editing process, for me, was learning to trust my editor. There were certain scenes and ideas that I felt pretty invested in, and in one editorial letter — one sentence — those ideas were questioned. My editor wrote a GREAT letter, though, and throughout the entire revision process had excellent ideas and feedback. He did a wonderful job of suggesting changes, listening to me try to work out why those changes would be better, and then encouraging me as I finally saw the sense in what he was suggesting.

For me, it was an important step to realize that my editor has been in the business a long time and really knows the audience we’re trying to reach with the book. It wasn’t hard for me to accept his revision ideas, but I also wanted to make sure I knew where he was coming from and that I wasn’t just being an overly excited, “I’ll do anything you want!” new author. I didn’t want to create tension where there didn’t need to be tension, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to be a pushover.

The revision process taught me a lot about writing and trust and the publishing industry. It was invaluable, really (even if frustrating sometimes), and I think the book we ended up with is incredible. Now, if only I could make self-editing a more rewarding process… :)

P.J. Hoover, author of THE EMERALD TABLET and its sequels:emerald-tablet

Edits for THE EMERALD TABLET were mind boggling for me. When I first got feedback, the manuscript was twice as long and really needed cutting. My editor told me that the first 150 pages had to be narrowed to 30. I got it to 36. That was Round One. Then we went through edits again. She showed me where to move stuff around to keep the story flowing, and as I followed her suggestions, I also saw much more I could cut on my own.

I love working with editors. They are some of the most gifted people in the business, and I look forward to continuing to get such amazing feedback in the future! And, of course, learning to improve on my own self-editing in the process :)

deadgirlloveLinda Joy Singleton, author of THE DEAD GIRL series, THE SEER series, and more:

When I was writing a middle-grade cheerleading series, I got excited about a subplot with a kooky elderly aunt who is on a scavenger hunt for missing jewelry. The editor said to cut the entire subplot, including the aunt. It meant rewriting two-thirds of the book. Definitely hard…and sad to lose such a fun subplot. It probably took me a week, since these were short books. Recently a less drastic edit request took me two weeks since I did a lot of minor editing while I rewrote the more major ones.

I’m all for getting advice from editors, especially if it’s just suggestions and not mandatory (in case I don’t agree). I try to be flexible and accomodating. I usually pick a few things that I won’t change, though, to fight for, and change everything else. For instance, in the 2010 release of #6 THE SEER, I put in a subplot with a character who is getting her own book as a lead-in to this next book. The subplot involved murder and was exciting, but didn’t connect to the rest of the book. My editor suggested either cutting the subplot or finding a way to connect it to the main story. I found a way to connect and the book is much stronger now. Oddly enough, all it took was changing a few paragraphs. It was the coming up with the “connection” that took days of hard thinking.

joniicon— Joni Sensel, who has cut 20% from one book; added a character and scenes to illuminate the mechanics of events in another; and is snarled in bigger revisions on a pre-editor draft.

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