On Revision

Jul. 6th, 2011 09:54 pm
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I’m hip-deep in revisions for my thesis novel, so naturally that is what I am thinking about at the moment.

The first and most important rule of revision is that it can’t happen unless you’ve written something. That should seem obvious, but many writers get bogged down in the search for perfection in their first draft and then never get out of chapter one. Perfection is not a realistic goal in any case (you’ll never get there -- even after your book is published you’ll still find places you could have tweaked or rewritten and made better), and it is especially unrealistic in a first draft. Chances are, you’ll end up with anywhere between three and seven drafts of your novel (or many more), each one a little bit tighter and better than the one before. As you write more, you’ll get better at writing well the first time. But on your first (or even fifth) novel, it’s important to remember what SJ Rozan told my class at Seton Hill (this is a paraphrase): “You can’t grow flowers in air, but they grow very well in shit.” It’s ok if the draft sucks, as long as you have a draft. Go through it and find the flowers, then dig out all of the rest.

The second rule of revision is the opposite of the first. It states that you can’t be so in love with your words that you aren’t willing to part with them. I’m cutting out some very well-written passages because they don’t mesh with what I now know is the overall theme/plot/character arc of my book. I don’t delete them entirely; I stick them in a file called “Excisions.FeyBlood” so I can find them later and maybe bring them back to life in another story or the sequel(s). It’s kind-of like deleted scenes from a movie. Sometimes the material is brilliant, and sometimes it even helps with character development or plot but just doesn’t fit anywhere. So you take it out, and maybe one day you’ll post it on your blog and people will go, “so that’s what Character X was really up to in that scene.”

The rest of the rules deal with the “levels” of a story.

The bottom level is the mechanics level, where you tweak the words as words. You make your sentences active, clear, and concise. You check for weak verbs and adverbs. You check for errors in grammar and spelling (YOU MUST DO THIS!!!).

Just above mechanics is the plot level. This is the bare-bones frame of the story. Does the plot make sense? Do your scenes follow a natural progression, one after another? Do they lead into the next, or are any of them leading you off in a different direction?

The next level is about character and conflict. What are your characters doing in each scene? Every character should have a GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) in EVERY scene. Even the secondary characters. Even the characters who only walk on stage for a moment. They want something for a reason but can’t get it because.... You fill in the blank.

And outside of that is the meta-level. This is where you consider things like theme and tone. This should be one of the last things you look at, because you probably won’t know what your theme or tone is until you’re almost done with the book anyway. Sometimes you start writing a book knowing what your big theme is going to be, and if you knew, then at the end is a good time to evaluate whether you achieved your thematic goal or not. For me, even if I had a vague notion when I started, my themes always end up changing and evolving as I write the book. I end up changing and evolving, too, as I learn more about my world, my characters, my process, and myself.

Revisions can be grueling work, but they can also be fun and informative about your project. Sometimes looking at your manuscript with fresh eyes is enough to trigger a new flood of ideas and creativity.

It’s happening to me right now...so I’d better get back to it. :)
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
As an author of a fantasy series-in-progress, I feel honor-bound to defend them against negative comments.

Tonight I participated in a class chat as part of my MFA program in genre fiction. The chat's theme was characters and point of view, but about halfway into the the chat we started crossing from character into plot. We were talking about the requirements of series writing, and how to carry characters and plot over the course of a series. Someone made a comment about mystery and romance series being different than fantasy series, and I chimed in that a lot of fantasy writers view their series as one huge story/book chopped into volumes. Another member of the class shot back that that was lazy writing, a la the Wheel of Time.

A chat room isn't the best place for an argument, or even a discussion, because you can only enter so much text and in this case there were twenty or so other students who wanted to talk about other things. So my only rejoinder was that I didn't mean that the individual volumes didn't or shouldn't have their own story arcs.

But now that I have time and leisure, I want to talk about the fantasy series, and to defend my views.

The first point is that we have Tolkien to blame. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he did not write it as a trilogy. He wrote it as one book and for various reasons (one being the cost of paper post-WWII), his publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes. I would never suggest that other writers blindly ape Tolkien's example. After all, if you read the entire book it does have a plot arc and character development (though confined primarily to the hobbits). Tolkien knew what he was doing, but was forced to do something else instead. I mean, who would end The Two Towers with Frodo taken by the enemy and Sam in possession of the Ring? When the movies were made, they shifted events around so that Towers would have a more satisfying climax and conclusion, and it's one of the few changes I agree with.

Modern fantasy readers want their books to have good character development and good plot structure. Just furthering the overall series plot isn't enough- you have to tell a good story every time. But that big picture or big problem that follows/pushes/is pushed by your characters throughout the course of the series is just important.

I think of the modern fantasy series as an ocean tide. It's all the same water, and the goal is to hit some high point on the shore, but it is going to take a number of waves breaking on the sand before the tide comes all of the way in. Each wave is a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In each, the characters are pushed further on their own journeys and grow and change as the wave swells and curls. At the climax they crash upon the shore and then sweep back to regroup for the next book/wave. Every time they get a little farther toward their goals, and meet new challenges along the way.

Fantasy readers want big, sweeping stories with lots of scenery and characters and plots that aren't easily resolved in one 500 page volume. Stand-alones exist, but both publishers and readers are going to beg for more.

So when you write fantasy, you can't neglect the individual book problem or the overall series problem(s). You have to consider both.


allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
Allison Holz

October 2011

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