By Brenda Buchanan
Last month I shared three important lessons I learned while writing my first three books. Barbara Ross summed them up nicely in her comment: Make time. Make space. Seek balance.
My intention with this month’s post was to offer three more and complete the sextet, but once I got writing I realized I had more to say than I thought. (This is not an entirely new experience).
Today I’m going to focus on how I learned to embrace the process of revision. Next month, I will get into Lesson #5—getting over the things that turn you into a fraidy-cat—and perhaps even Lesson #6, which is about being true to yourself. But for now, let’s talk about revision, shall we?
Lesson #4: Revision is More Fun than You Think
In my pre-published years, I felt about revision like I feel about dusting—that it was a necessary chore, the kind of task that invites procrastination. Sweeping the garage, cleaning out the fridge and washing the kitchen floor are reasonably rewarding exercises. Dusting makes the furniture look better only until the next sunny day, when the beams coming through your windows show more gray fuzz on the end tables. When dusting, I grit my teeth and force myself to be thorough, when my natural inclination is to give it a lick and a promise.
The difference between dusting and revision is that I now embrace the opportunity to make my words shine. My blog sisters Kate Flora and Barb Ross—the Queens of Revision—have inspired this attitude adjustment. On this blog and in workshop settings, both Kate and Barb have shared systems they have devised to tighten their prose, smooth awkward transitions and amp up tension. I don’t do exactly what they do, because their weaknesses (to the extent they have weaknesses) are not necessarily my own. But like them, I have created for myself system to help me strengthen my stories.
I have created a worksheet that I complete with a sharp pencil, because writing by hand puts me in an analytical head space. This is critical during revision. I was frustrated when I attempted to revise solely on the keyboard, because that process didn’t allow me to break out of my intuitive writing mindset. But writing and revision are two different things. It was a big day when that important truth dawned on me.
Here’s a photo of my worksheet, which allows me to take my work apart one scene at a time. The worksheet page is geared to chapters, but my analysis is always scene by scene.
In case the questions aren’t readable, at the top I note the day of the week and date when the action occurs, to keep my timeline in order. If I’m writing in more than one voice (as in Quick Pivot and again in the soon-to-be-released Truth Beat) I jot that down that as well. This allows me to sort the chapters by voice and review and revise what is going on from each character’s perspective separately. Then I ask five key questions:
- Does the opening grab the reader?
- What happens/what are the key plot developments?
- What new characters are introduced? Am I giving the reader enough information about them in this chapter/scene? Too much?
- What creates the tension?
- Is the kicker (end of chapter or scene) strong enough?
Questions 1 and 5 are a standard part of the curriculum of the arrive late/leave early school of suspense writing. My best chapters/scenes open in the middle of action and end with a strong hook. In the beginning I had a new writer’s tendency to set the scene, but I’m learning to break that habit. It is fine for me to think about what Joe Gale would do while he got ready for a big day. But my readers don’t need to see him getting dressed or driving to an interview. Better to jump into the action, whether it’s a skull tumbling out of a collapsing wall or a tense interview with someone who knew a murder victim. Similarly, the last passage of a chapter or scene has to pull the reader into the next chapter or scene. A flat ending encourages the reader to set the book down. My goal is to keep ‘em reading.
Question 2 and 4 also are close cousins. Making myself write out what happens allows me to chart the action. Is there enough going on? Too much at once? Then I analyze the chapter in terms of tension, again breaking it into scenes. Every single scene needs to have some tension. Sometimes it’s at a screaming pitch and sometimes it’s on simmer, to allow the reader some respite. But tension must be constant. Using a worksheet to chart the tension level has been an enormous help for me.
As for Question 3, I list the characters introduced in each scene to sharpen my awareness of pacing. Am I throwing new characters into the mix rat-a-tat-tat, so fast the reader can’t connect with them? Or am I being too measured, which can rob energy from the narrative?
The questions on this worksheet reflect the areas where I tend to get into trouble if I don’t watch myself. Your tendencies may differ, and thus the questions on your worksheet. But I do recommend creating a tool to help with the process of reflecting with clear eyes on the quality of your work. It has turned me into a revision believer.
But I still disdain dusting, so don’t hold your breath waiting for a post from me on the merits of microfiber vs. feather dusters.
As the holiday season settles upon us, I’m feeling deep gratitude for the many wonderful things that happened in my life in the past year. I thank all of my MCW colleagues for their support and friendship, and wish for them and all of the readers of this blog a peaceful season filled with love and joy.