Revision Hell: Like an Onion

Last night after work, I finished the last revision to Return to Shanhasson, at least until my beta readers sign in with any confusion or holes they find.

Hopefully I’ve conveyed to you that for me, revisions are all about the layers, and so I stole that reference from Shrek where he says ogres are like onions.  I’ve read Holly Lisle’s one-pass revision article, but that just doesn’t work for me.  I do some of her techniques, but I need more than one pass.

Each book requires a different amount of work.  Return to Shanhasson really didn’t have that many significant issues that I needed to resolve.  I had two major scenes I wanted to rework, and I thought the end was a little rushed, but otherwise, I thought the story was pretty solid.

In this case, my first pass was smoothing; watching sentence and paragraph structure; correcting typos, run-on sentences, and fragments; expanding emotional and non-verbal communication; and fleshing out the easier [notes to myself]. 

I made note of a few things I wanted to resolve or address, and I fixed those things as I went.  However, if those things had been significant enough — like a new subplot, as I did for the Maya story — then I would have done a revision pass just for that change.

After that first pass, I went back through the manuscript searching for the last [notes].  These required me to pull up not just the first two books in the series, but also the two Keldari novellas.  I had character names I couldn’t remember, and I also needed to name a ruined city on the edge of Far Illione.  That required googling and research to find just the right name.

Yesterday, I made another full pass.  This one was more delicate.  I savored some passages, rewording key phrases to make sure they sounded right and had the rhythm I was looking for. 

I also watched for any dischordant words.  The right word is so important.  In this fantasy, no character should ever say okay.  Mykal would never say pool, but he would say well.  A Sha’Kae al’dan warrior will say “Forgive me” but never “I’m sorry.”  Rhaekhar always gripped Shannari’s chin, but Gregar always danced his ivory rahke up her neck and cheek. 

These are all little things, little layers, but they’re so important.  It’s part of my voice, and part of each character’s voice.  It’s the little phrases that tie Rose to Road to Return.  Remember when Rhaekhar says “run to me” in effort to get Shannari to ride straight to him near the endof Rose?  That phrase is significant.  Reusing it not once but several times helped me bring the entire story arc through nearly 1000 pages full circle.

Finally, I had to remember the theme song, Faith of the Heart, and make sure it rang true and strong throughout the story.  I believe it does.

It’s been a long, long road, but what an incredible journey.

Revision Hell: Trimming My Tells

We’ve all heard the prime directive:  show don’t tell.  Newbies discuss it endlessly on writing loops.  We have incredible quotes like:  “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” from Anton Chekov.

Great.  But in the end, what does that really mean?

The way I look at it, I have certain traps I consistently fall into.  A laziness, something I always do a little too heavily, tells that betray the story as a first draft.  You will have other tells, other beloved darlings you must murder.

My biggest tell — without asking one of my editors to flay me publically — is repetition.  A little deliberate repetition can be powerful, sure, but typically I tell something, and then I show the exact same thing.  Obviously showing is stronger, and the repetition actually kills whatever power I managed to envoke. 

For instance, just last night I stumbled across the following:  She reacted immediately.  [telling]  She slammed her knee on his elbow and pinned his advancing arm beneath her weight. [showing]  Easy fix:  I deleted the first sentence entirely.

Another kind of repetition I tend to overdo:  Once, she’d believed.  She’d believed that love was the greatest gift of all.  I do this a lot with fragments for some reason.  This too is an easy fix:  Once, she’d believed that love was the greatest gift of all.  Cleaner, tighter, and not redundant.

Another tell I get away with in the first draft is telling my characters’ emotion instead of showing it.  As I go through Revision Hell, I look for these tells —  she felt [emotion]  — and then expand to include nonverbal communication or physical responses to show that emotion.  If she felt angry, maybe her temples throbbed and she tightened her jaws.  If she felt sick, her stomach churned.

One last tell I’m looking for:  she saw or she heard.  These can be distancing from the action and emotion of the scene.  If we’re in deep third, we don’t need to say: she saw the sword coming for her head.  We can simply say:  the sword sliced toward her head.  Similarly, she heard the white knife clash against her sword can be simplified to the white knife clashed against her sword.

Okay, back to Revision Hell for me.  Do you have a particular TELL that is too much TELLING?

Revision Hell: Lies My Characters Told Me

One thing I’m watching for as I wade through revisions is the Big Fat Lie.  Yes, even my most beloved na’lanna characters I’ve known for years have an appalling tendency to lie.  They will say things that don’t quite ring true, or do things which in hindsight make me scratch my head.

Okay, okay, I must be honest.  These lies my characters perpetrate are actually my own failing.  What happens is that I flinch.  There’s something the character really wants to say or do, but I’m too cowardly to let them have at it on the page.  OMG, what will people think?

And then boom, here come the lies.

If I’m writing the first draft, I can feel the anxiety begin in a particularly difficult scene.  I’ve finally learned to just get through it, whatever I have to do — even lie just a bit.  Maybe it’s not as edgy as Gregar really is.  Maybe it’s a little TSTL on Shannari’s part.  Maybe it’s too touchy feely for Rhaekhar.  But I get through it, because I know I can’t fix a blank page.

Now in revision, it’s a little easier to face the truth.  Maybe because the first battle of simply finishing the book has been won, and now I can gird up a different kind of loins for the emotional battle.  In fact, this is the opportunity for me to deliberately make myself more uncomfortable.  That’s when I know I’m really wringing the heart and tearing at the gut, which is the only kind of story that makes Gregar smile.

Make it worse.  Go for big, over the top, even shocking responses.  Don’t be safe.  Don’t take the first response — which is what I got in the first draft.  Don’t be a coward.  Don’t flinch from the truth, no matter how ugly and painful. 

At the end of the day, I may then choose to let a character tell a different kind of lie, because as Conn said in Dear Sir, I’m Yours:

Everybody lies, darlin’, even if only to themselves.

Revision Hell: Murdering a Character

Do you have a “stock” character in your story who is perilously close to becoming a cliche?  Someone you need for a plot convenience, or simply to show another facet of your protagonist?  Would it matter if you changed the character’s name or sex?  If you simply took the character out of the story, would it really leave a gaping hole, or could you pull the story tighter and really not miss him at all?

As I read through a story for revision, one of the things I’m considering are the side characters.  Are they really needed?  Do they have a goal?  Can I make everything worse for the protagonist by doing something more powerful with the side characters? 

If you have a weak character who’s not pulling his share of the story, here are a few ideas to consider that might help.

Combine characters.  Sometimes you can take several side characters with very minor roles and meld them into one larger character who has several facets and purposes, making them more interesting.  For example, I cut Rhaekhar’s mother out and combined her role as “supporter” into Alea’s character.  This was challenging, because Alea really didn’t like Shannari, my protagonist, at all.  The complexity made Alea’s character richer and tightened the story considerably.

Give the character a stronger goal.  Remember, every character is the star of HIS own story.  He should have a purpose, and if it’s counter to the protagonist’s, even better.  If you have a character who doesn’t really have any goals above “make the plot convenient” or “help the protagonist be the hero” then sit down and do some work. 

  • Consider writing a few scenes in the character’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use his POV in the final story.
  • Get into his head by writing in first person, maybe some key backstory.  How did this character come to be here, for this story? 
  • Give him some contradictions.  If he’s brave, what is he afraid of?  If he’s kind, when would he be mean?
  • Give him something to do that deliberately makes the situation worse for the protagonist.

Rebuild the Character from Scratch.  This one is super hard for me, but sometimes it’s necessary.  I have to envision killing the character, literally, murdering him or her.  Otherwise, I keep doing the same thing that led me into the wrong path in the first place.  I did this once and it was gut-wrenchingly hard.  I murdered Shannari, the protagonist in the Shanhasson series.  I killed her in my mind so I could start all over again, even though I’d already written about 1000 pages in the series.  Only when the old character was dead and buried in my mind, could I start with a new protagonist worthy of carrying the load of the Story I envisioned.

I have a character in Return to Shanhasson who needs some work.  Jorah, the golden Blood, has become a weak character.  You know you have a problem when his only distinguishing characteristic is his size, and I don’t mean how tall he is. 

In this case, I think I’m going back to the original first draft of book two to get an element for Jorah to build upon.  In a very old draft of then titled “Khul’s Beloved,” Jorah did something very graphic that made a stark impression on Shannari.  That scene needs to come back.  If nothing else, it will make him very memorable!

Revision Hell: Laying the Foundation

As I said yesterday, I’m attempting the first pass smoothing of this revision as I make my initial readthru with notebook and pens handy.  Obviously, I’m not going to bother smoothing sections that I already suspect I will cut, but this gives me a chance to spruce as I go.  After reading chapter one, I have 3 things to check on my list and I’m pretty happy with the opening itself — at feat indeed, because I usually battle the opening several times.

The foundation has been laid for this story — it just needs a bit of the mortar knocked off and tidied.  As I read, I’m making the following kinds of changes:

Repetitious sentence structure.  e.g. starting too many sentences with the same noun or pronoun.  See Spot sit.  See Spot run.  Run, Spot, run.  *yawn*

Misplaced modifiers.  I’m pretty good at catching these as I write, but it never hurts.  e.g. Standing aside, the open door was an invitation he couldn’t refuse.  (not from Return – I made up on the fly so it sucks)  So the door stood aside?

Incorrect MRUs.  e.g. according to Swain, feeling, then action, then dialogue.  Sometimes the dialogue comes first in my mind, so I type it, and then record the action/feeling.  I tidy these up now.

Before:

“Even at night?”  Sal asked, tossing his hair back over his shoulder.

After:

Sal tossed his hair back over his shoulder.  “Even at night?”

Wasted words, especially in dialogue and action tags.  When I have an action inside dialogue, there’s no need to add a dialogue tag, said, etc. 

Before:

“Great Vulkar, it’s an abomination,” he cursed, drawing his rahke only to shove it back in its sheath.  “How could any man or woman think to kill a child?”

After:

“Great Vulkar, it’s an abomination!”  He drew his rahke only to shove it back into its sheath.  “How could any man or woman think to kill a child?”

 

23 pages down!

Revision Hell Begins

I stand at the formidable wrought-iron gates leading beneath the Mountain.  I’ve delayed too long already.  This novel has been complete for a year, just waiting for me to find the time — and courage — to enter into…  da da DUM ….

Revision Hell.

Okay, in all seriousness, this particular Revision Hell won’t be as bad as I’m making it sound.  I have a very solid and detailed (105K) first draft prepared.  It’s the third in a trilogy so I’d darned well better know my characters and my world right now.  Just as there are Nine Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, there are various layers to Revision Hell, too.  For this particular work, I already know I have the following challenges to resolve:

1. A few scene holes, where I knew what happened but just wasn’t feeling it.  One is a fight scene, one was a potential sex scene that may be cut (e.g. if I didn’t need it written to finish the story, then maybe I don’t really need it!!)

2. A few wrong turns and rambling paths.  Even in a well-plotted story, it’s easy to write a scene and then later realize that maybe it wasn’t the best option.  I have that problem with a few scenes, in particular  with one  character, Jorah.  I don’t need them, they add nothing to the main plot of the story, and trivialize his character into a LKH stock character, which is not what I want.

3. Dropped threads. It’s like sending your character off with a backpack and then realizing she dropped it somewhere along the way — or needed it and I had no idea where it was.  (Inside joke: this happened with Isabella in Beautiful Death.)  For Return, where is Wind?  Sadly, I thought nothing of this special horse character until the very end, when I realized I had a way to make the ending incredibly powerful, but I had no idea what had happened to her.

4. Texture. This is a tough one for me, because I can add details, emotion, and worldbuilding all day long, and I’ve already got a 105K story.  However, there are a few scenes/details I’ve been thinking about the past few months that could really add depth and heart to the story, and in the end, that’s exactly what this story is about.  The heart.

I’ll post revision tricks as I think of them this month and next, since I have two full-length manuscripts to revise and kick out of the nest.  For now, this dark road descending beneath the Mountain requires a key to pass the gates, and that key, is a read-through.

  • Grab a notebook and pen and make notes as you go, recording page number or simply adding a comment in the Word file.
  • Since these revisions aren’t massive, I’m going to save time and smooth sentences and polish as I go.  This won’t be the final pass, but it’s like sanding a plank with the first, rougher grade sand paper.
  • Note all research items and find those answers.  For this story, that means I need to dig through Rose and Road looking for forgotten character names or places, etc.  I don’t have a series bible for this story — it’s all in my head.  Or not, in this case.

My MUST DO goal for this week then becomes:

  • Revise the first 100 pages

The Best Damned Story I Can Write…Today

This morning, I reached a place in this writing journey that I’ve never been before.

Awhile back there was some blog storm about when a story should be submitted.  Jessica Faust at BookEnds wrote that Good Enough is Never Enough, and obsessive-compulsive writers everywhere panicked.  At the time, I totally agreed with Jessica.  I would never send out less than PERFECT work, but I also realize that perfect today is not what I will be able to write in a year or more. 

Heh, at one time I was perfectly happy with a little story titled “My Beloved Barbarian” and proudly sent it off to an RWA contest, only to be mortified when the judge sheets came back.  Head hopping?  What’s that?  You mean, the horse can’t have its own point of view?  *wails*

*snickers*

Personally, I’m always driven.  I’m in a rush to finish, and submit.  Now, not yesterday.  NOW! Go go GO!  However, I’m also painfully obsessive about making sure the work is my best. 

If you’ve been reading here long, you know that I’ve been struggling with the Maya story.  I’ve already detailed its long painful history, but suffice it to say that I just couldn’t get the blasted thing RIGHT.  Every time I thought it was done, I decided it needed yet another revision pass.  I’ve spent months in Revision Xibalba since the first draft in 2007, toiling over massive, painful revisions or struggling to whip out a synopsis that captured the spirit of the story.  I felt trapped in Xibalba myself — constantly drowning in this imperfect project that I simply couldn’t get off my back. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love this story, absolutely.  It’s a total heart-wrencher and satisfies my personal craving for Story and Mythology; however, even though it’s one of the most complex and rich stories I’ve written, I could not get it to a place where I felt like I could really say I was finished.

After at least four major revision passes and four different attempts at a synopsis, I made my declaration yesterday:  Synopsis or Death!  I wrote out that synopsis in painful, brutal detail, refusing to go to bed until a cohesive draft was prepared.  Nearly two full packs of index cards met their death in the attempt.

Braced for the worst, I re-read my synopsis this morning.  I made a few slight changes.

And then I kicked that blasted submission package out of the nest with the first query.

Yes, friends, I reached a point where I was so sick of a story that I knew it was time to let it fly, or crash and burn.  If I polish the manuscript one more time, I think its obsidian-mirrored shine will simply rub off.  If I dink around with the synopsis again, I’m going to cut out my own heart and offer it as bloody sacrifice at the peak of the pyramid.

It’s the best damned story I can write today, and so, farewell blithe spirit.  I wish thee safe travels out in the scary wilds of Queryland.  May your hunt for Agent be fruitful.

It’s time for me to move on.

Victor, here’s fair warning that Gregar and I are coming.  We’re coming for YOU.

Synopsis Suckage II

When all else fails, return to pen and paper.

I sat down over the weekend with my favorite pad of paper — purple legal pad — and my favorite pen.  I pulled up the Synopsis Lesson with Dr. Connagher.  And I started over from the beginning.  Oooh, I thought Conn was a taskmaster in his classroom, but geez, he’s really been a hardass about this synopsis.  Even The Rock has been walking around on pins and needles, occasionally sneaking over to stare down at my messy pages to see if I’d written about his character yet.  (I haven’t.)

Haven’t seen hide nor hair of Gregar, the smart-mouthed Shadowed Blood.  Smart man.  I’m sure he’s tucked away nearby, laughing his ass off each time Dr. Connagher loses patience with me and begins cursing in poetry.

After about 20 sheets of scribbles on purple paper, I finally have a somewhat decent beginning.  I have the hook, my protagonist’s intro, background, and inciting incident.  A decent start. 

Where this synopsis is going to get tricky is the “suspense” or “thriller” angle.  There’s a TON of plot happening in this story, and it’s crucial that I capture some of that in the synopsis.  This isn’t just a Boy Meets Girl kind of story.  Demons are running amok, some mad scientists are making things worse, the FBI is on the case, etc.  I think what I’m going to do is treat each plot suspense thread sort of like a “love interest.”  I’ll write up a paragraph to set up the thread, and then see if I can neatly (hahaha) summarize in between the inciting incident and the resolution. 

The nice thing (groans) about writing a synopsis is that it forces me to see the story clearly.  I have to define the events and characters very carefully, fine-tuning threads into as few words as possible.  Often that makes a puzzle piece slide a little tighter into the big picture.  I realized tonight that I’d missed a slight opportunity to up the suspense a bit more once Jaid arrives onsite at Lake Atitlan.

*dies*  More revisions.  This is becoming the project that never ends!

When Dr. Connagher finds this synopsis satisfactory, I’ll write up a post like I did for the original “Letters” synopsis.  I’m sure it’ll be a hoot.

Synopsis Suckage

I’ve almost come to believe that the synopsis serves as a “Gatekeeper.”  A finished story in hand isn’t usually enough.  It doesn’t matter how polished the story is.  If I can’t summarize the story in a concise query and synopsis, then I probably don’t know what my story is about.  Philosophically I know this and even buy into it…until I begin to struggle, and then I just want to whine and play the latest Diner Dash game.

I’ve written two versions of the Maya story synopsis and they both suck bracken swamp water.  Choppy, awkward, trite, boring as hell, you name it.  I’ve tried on paper, in a file, starting a new file, jotting more on paper.  Nothing is working.

And then I realized that I haven’t been listening to my own process.  Remember when Dr. Connagher helped me with his synopsis?  For whatever stupid reason, I forgot his lesson.  *headdesk*  So I started over again and I’m writing one paragraph at a time.  I didn’t get far tonight–too tired after long Evil Day Job (quarter-end deadlines on top of everything else).  Everything’s stacking up on me and the stress is really taking a toll.  Hopefully I’ll hit the sack soon, get about 10 hours of sleep, and then work on the synopsis first thing in the morning before anyone else is up.  That’s my plan.

With lots of coffee, peanut butter cookies, Clive Owen, the Rock, and scrap paper, I hope to churn out a good–hell, I’ll even take decent–synopsis.  I can make decent better.  Crap just has to be taken to the curb.

Revision Xibalba: Asking WHY

The end is in sight!

I had some dialogue that contained crucial information the reader needed to know–but it was borderline “technical” or “infodump.”  I didn’t want the section to read like a Maya textbook, but if you didn’t understand the background mythology, none of the “Gate” magic would make sense. 

After reading Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction, I knew I needed to add some subtle tension between Jaid and another character to punch up this dialogue scene.  I’d already laid the groundwork with Dr. Reyes — I just needed some crucial details.   I knew he believed, but WHY did he believe?  It had to be more than “he’s Guatemalan.”

One of the most crucial questions in the writer’s toolbox is WHY. 

But I was really drawing a blank tonight.  I worked late for the Evil Day Job (I have a 6/30 deadline there, too, actually 6/29 because I’d like to take the holiday off starting 6/30) and I was just braindead.  I finally decided to read back through my notes on Guatemala City, where Dr. Reyes lives and works.  In the last revision pass, I created a crucial tie between him and one other “extraneous” character.  It would make perfect sense if I beefed up that connection, so I concentrated on the key event that drove Dr. Reyes meeting/knowing this other character.

Finally, the key hit me right between the eyes.  I bet you’ve probably never heard of Kaminaljuyu, even if you’re familiar with Tikal, Palenque, or Chich’en Itza, yet Kaminaljuyu has been called one of the greatest archeological sites of the New World.  It just happens to be in Guatemala City, too — actually beneath it.

So I completely fabricated a believable little plot element that explains why Dr. Reyes believes in the Gatekeeper.

Only one item remains for Revision Xibalba II — just a little Oedipus Complex.  *snort*  Then to the dreaded synopsis revisions and a careful read through, preferrably hardcopy but I’m low on ink and paper.