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Revision Xibalba: Theading the Plot

First the good news:  I finished the revisions to The Bloodgate Warrior and shipped them off to Alissa this morning.  Even BETTER news – she likes what she’s read so far!  Woot!  That’s always such a relief.  Did I interpret her revision letter correctly, thoroughly, and then most importantly, did I carry those revisions through the ms in a logical way?

Which brings me to today’s revision topic.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last few days and decided I should blog about it in case it might help anyone else working through a rough patch of revisions.

As I told Raelyn earlier this week, I was so deep into the forest that it was hard to see the trees.  All the threads (changes) I was juggling began to get muddled and tangled, and I was starting to lose my grip on what to pull forward when.

What am I talking about?  It’s that chaos theory I’ve joked about before:  A butterfly flaps its wings on page one and you suddenly find yourself revising every single chapter until it’s an entirely different book.

This is why revisions are hard.

I’m not talking about minor line-edit type revisions, but something more challenging.  For instance, Alissa wrote that she’d like to see more of a contrast between Cassie’s driven focus for her job and what happens when Tecun climbs into her bed.  *winks*  I already had some bits of character traits that I really liked for her — her static trait involves her nightly ritual before getting into bed, for instance — but I didn’t go far enough.  (In fact, I realized as I got into the revisions for this element, that I’d gotten a few things terribly wrong that didn’t jive with her character at all.)

Now you might think this was an easy change.  I’ll just throw in a new trait – like maybe she’s OCD about her schedule and has every minute of this “vacation” mapped out down to the minute.  Easy peasy right?

Wrong.  Because if you’re going to ADD something to a finished manuscript, it has to have impact.  If the butterfly flaps its wings, there’s wind, no matter how faint, that must spread and ripple throughout the story.  Otherwise why even bother with the change in the first place?

So if I’m going to add a character trait, I have to SHOW it again and again.  It has to affect the plot in some way, no matter how small, or it’s just noise.  Like a random hair color or scar that I mention without ever explaining where the scar came from or how it changed the character’s life.  Why even bother if it’s not important and crucial to the story?  I couldn’t just mention this trait once and let it drop – that would be doing a lazy injustice to my character.

Everything has to matter.  It has to have impact.  WHY is she doing this?  HOW can I show it?  WHEN does this affect the plot?

And that, my friends, is where the real bite of Revision Xibalba comes into play.  Once you start affecting plot, um… news alert… your plot changes.  Scenes change.  Actions mean something else entirely.  If you change one turning point, then all the others are affected too.

See that trickle down effect?  More than shit begins to roll down hill at this point.  And oh, all those pesky trees.  I had several items I was changing at the same time, not just this one character trait, each one like a colored thread that had to be pulled all the way through to the end in a logical manner.

For example, Alissa mentioned in passing that she liked the idea of the family journal that Cassie brought with her to Guatemala and wondered if there was any way to make that more important.  Well sure.  I could — and did — write several thousand words of journal entries, which became a cool way for me to resolve several items in the revision letter at once.

But which events should the entries cover (I ended up spanning over 500 years!!)?  It couldn’t just be backstory or it’d slow the plot too much.  It couldn’t be all emo whining or moaning about the past.  They had to have real, measurable impact.  Things had to change because of these entries.

What clues could I drop in the journal that would make the reader go OOOOOOOHHHHHH when I finally laid out the live-action scene before them?

Notice that if I’m changing the plot or character…that’s more than just copying and pasting a new journal entry into place.  That means I’m changing significant elements of the plot itself.  Alllllll the way through the ms.

So then it becomes a balancing act requiring a delicate touch and a sharp eye.  If I’m going to drop in this little tidbit here, and make it really really matter, then I have to do it again over here.  I can’t drop a bunch of bright red paint in chapter two and never ever paint with red again.  I also have to remember the green and blue I’m adding and balance that with what’s already there and the new red.  It has to be consistent from start to finish.  All of these new colors are important now so I have to drop some over here, and again here, and then yeah, it’d better become crucial and important before the ending again, or…

Again, why bother?

Threading the plot — carrying these changes through in meaningful and consistent ways — building momentum page after page, THIS is the difference between making your editor happy when she opens up your revised document and making her groan and pull out her red pen again.  I truly believe this is where you can really learn to shine as a hardworking professional.

No, I don’t mean you have to blindly accept every change proposed by your editor.  But when you dig in and begin to make those changes, carry them through.  Don’t just plop a few things in and send it back.  Really think and dig.  Yes, it’s more work.  Yes, it’s painfully hard to come up with new ideas once the story’s already done.  Trust me, I know.  I added over 5K to this story (net – I added way more new words but deleted other passages that didn’t work any longer), and wrote another couple of thousand words of journal entries that I didn’t end up using at all.

But you know what?  I loved Tecun and Cassie before I sent The Bloodgate Warrior to Alissa (or I wouldn’t have submitted it, obviously).  But now?

Well.  I always say this but I think with her help, it’s become the next best thing I’ve written.

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Revision Xibalba

No Friday Snippet or zombies this week — I’ve been deep in Revision Xibalba, otherwise known as Revision Hell.

Okay, not hell, not really.  Because it’s not been as bad as I feared, not at all.  Of course I’m just now getting to the last 26 pages where I think I need the most work, but the rest was pretty good. 

I don’t want to jinx myself but I really love this story.  There are parts that I have no memory of writing, and I’m shocked, surprised, and thrilled that I wrote it, because it’s so good.  Then I think, wait a minute, I’m not supposed to think that.  Am I?

But it is.  There’s just something sparkling and intense about these characters.  Maybe it’s the first person narrative.  Maybe it’s Tecun Uman the great national hero himself.  But the way this story came together is magical. 

And the humor.  *chuckles*  It’s not blatant slapstick sort of humor, but there are several nods to some of my favorite things, including a joke at my expense.  Remember some of The Bloodgate Guardian discussions I had with Alissa about Ruin?

Ruin?  Honestly, that was the jaguar guy’s name?  I looked up at Tecun’s face, but he didn’t seem perturbed by such a strange name.  I suppose that was easier to pronounce than Itzpapalotl.

“Or Kukulkan,” he whispered silently in my head.  “One of his true names is Xbalanque.

Okay, then, Ruin it was.

(Yes, both Ruin and Jaid make a brief appearance as the Gatekeepers of Chi’Ch’ul.)

Natalie (the heroine’s best friend) came out way more interesting than I expected too. So interesting that I can’t leave her hanging like I am in this first draft. Fixing her story thread will be one of the harder threads I need to resolve in these last few pages, but very important.  She deserves better than what I originally gave her.

And the sex.  *wipes brow*  Whew.  I joked to Raelyn the other day that one scene just went on and on and eventually I’d gotten tired in the first draft and simply left the scene because I didn’t know if they were ever going to finish.

Much different than The Bloodgate Guardian, I know.  Ruin and Jaid just weren’t going to get together any quicker, no matter how much I wanted them to.  They had a completely different story to tell.  However, Cassie and Tecun were burning up the page before I even started the first draft.  The Maya elements and research are still there, but whoa is this a sexy story!

Now, I’ve reached the pyramid scene, the culmination of everything that’s happened between Cassie and Tecun up to this point.  This is the scene that generated the ENTIRE story.  Everything came from the sacrifice at the top of El Castillo.

Um, literally.  *winks*

Let’s hope I can pull it off.

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Revision Hell: Vicki

I wasn’t going to work on Vicki until next year.  But I was listening to music on my iPhone last night and Need You Now by Lady Antebellum came on.  So I couldn’t help but pull up her file. 

That song speaks to me so loudly.  The back and forth angst is totally Vicki and Elias.  They need each other so badly, but they’ve screwed up, swore they weren’t going to call or get back together, but it’s late.  Cold.  Lonely.  I need you now.  Then Jesse comes along, and Elias has to be there, at first, to make sure she’s okay.  Then he can’t tear himself away, even though he’s uncomfortable.

Last night I got through the first 40 pages.  They’re pretty smooth because I’ve had them done the longest (and read those pages the most).  Latter sections will take much more work, and somewhere, I need to find room for 5-10K more words to make it a nice length.  I know I have several [fix] and [add] notes, so I’m not going to stress about adding too much right now.  Let me get a good, solid, polished meaty draft, and then I’ll see where I am on length.  I think expanding emotions during the steamy scenes and filling the known holes will be enough.

I adore the ending.  ADORE.  Absolutely love it.  It’s just the middle that needs work!

Goal:  be ready for beta readers by Christmas.  Synopsis and submit by end of the year!

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Revision Xibalba

While I’ve been blogging mostly about Vicki and “dream writing” this week, the real “work” I’ve been doing is Revision Xibalba.  I got the revision letter from my new editor at Carina Press last week and a deadline of 2/28, so I’m rocking and rolling through her notes.  Vicki is actually my cookie at the end of the day for a job well done.  Er, hopefully well done.

So I guess it’s only fair that I talk about revision process too, right?  Holly Lisle has made the “one-pass revision” her bread and butter.  I can’t think off-hand of any other author who has blogged about their revision process (if you know of any useful resources, shout them out).  So here’s a bit about what I’ve been doing this week.

Of course, the HOW depends on WHAT the changes actually are.  I’m not working on the line-edit phase yet, correcting typos, answering the copy-editor’s notes about eye-color change or questioning the word choice with a suggestion.  No, this is high-level revision, and quite honestly, pretty tough.  I can’t just point to one little spot, make the change, and be done.  Several scenes have to be touched, and tiny changes here affect changes deeper in the story.  I have to keep things consistent and tight, while still addressing the issues.

First:  read the revision letter, all the way through.  Then put it away for a day or two and just think about it.  Let all the comments soak in.  Rumminate.  See what makes sense, organize any questions or comments on paper.  I did so, and by Sunday, I had a plan of attack in my mind.

It’s deceptive to see a little bullet or short paragraph like “make sure you continue the heroine’s wry sense of humor all the way through–it sort of disappears near the end.”  (Not a direct quote – just a paraphrase.)  My first thought was oh.  Didn’t I do that?  I thought I did.  Hmmm.  I should read a few passages in the last third or so and see. 

Second.  Read the manuscript (at least sections).  Look for trends and patterns the editor has pointed out.

Oh.  Yeah.  I started to see patterns where I had the wry humor coming from the wrong character.  Or I could expand Jaid’s dialogue or introspection just a bit and make it bigger. 

Third:  Fix.  Maybe not as easy as it sounds.

Fix Phase 1.  Doubt.  I wasn’t really trying to make Jaid funny at all.  I had this sudden surge of distress and doubt.  OMG, how can I make this funny?  Wry humor, what is that?  I did it on accident!  I swear!

Fix Phase 2:  I read the beginning of the book and jotted a few examples of where I thought Jaid had been slightly funny or self-depreciating.  I had several examples.  Again, I started to see patterns, lines of subtle humor that had been laid down at the beginning and never mentioned again.  Dropped threads, missed opportunities. 

Hello, she’s the Un-Indiana Jones.  I made a big deal about this a couple of times in the first half of the manuscript.  Yet when she’s actually racing through the jungle, chased by demons, and nearly drowning in a dark cave, I never once had her go hmmm, maybe grading and lecturing isn’t so bad.

Fix Phase 3. Go through manuscript and watch for slight moments of humor.  Make sure it’s centralized with Jaid.  Amplify if it makes sense.  Watch for moments of high action followed by a quiet moment.  See if it makes sense to drop in a comment.  Mention “Un-Indiana Jones” at least one or more times in the high action events of the climax to bring it all together.

Yay, one bullet done!  How many more do I have to make? *groans*

Actually, I’m almost done.  The humor one was one of the hardest to fix (other than the name change), because I had that moment of panic.  Last night, I had to fix the reunion with Jaid’s father.  I’d totally gone off the deep end in the last revision (to make it romance) and the sap was just oozing all over everywhere.  Ugh.  I think I made it more realistic, and even opened myself up for all sorts of good stuff in the next book.

Final:  Once I make all the changes, I’ll create a new copy of the manuscript just for me.  I’ll accept all the changes, delete any comments, and read it one more time.  I actually prefer to use Google Mail’s “read as html” option for this phase (which is why I remove the comments).  Seeing it outside a Word doc just gives me more clean space to see how it’s really going to read.

This gives me the chance to look for formatting problems (sometimes it’s hard to see paragraph breaks when Track Changes are on), as well as check the flow and make sure I didn’t break anything. 

So by the time this revision pass is all over, I bet I’ll have read the manuscript AGAIN at least five more times.  I’ll read it at least one more time for the copy-edit phase, and we may have more than one revision pass before we get there.

So yeah, “one-pass revision” just doesn’t work for me.

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Making Mistakes

Nobody likes to make mistakes.  For one thing, it’s pretty damned embarrassing, especially when it takes someone else to correct your mistake.  But I tell you now that there’s nothing that’ll open your eyes quicker than a humiliating mistake — if you’re willing to learn from it. 

It’s like the joke that Jeff Foxworthy tells:  When he was a kid and stuck his finger in a light socket, his dad said, “Hurt like hell, didn’t it?  Won’t do that again!”

Making writing mistakes hurts like hell too.  And yeah, I won’t be making this mistake again.

So what’d I do? 

Because of my lack of rules, boundaries, and limitations (see yesterday’s post), I didn’t make good choices from the beginning with the Maya story.  Remember all my posts about Revision Xibalba?  All that work?  Wasted.  Because I didn’t know what my genre was, and I didn’t stay within the lines.

To correct my mistake, I had to:

  • delete two subplots that convoluted and detracted from the main romance line.  Painful, because I loved these two stories.  Clue: I loved them enough, I should have given them their OWN book!
  • axe 25K
  • kill over a dozen characters.  Can you say too many characters?
  • rewrite the ending

Was all that work worth a little jaunt on the wildside?  In the end, I have to say yes, because it opened my eyes to the path I’d chosen.  I had to make a choice about whether to keep going and ignore the mistake, or correct it.  I chose to correct it, and I learned a lot from it too.  I can’t tell you how much better this ms is now, but I’m much happier with it.

And the real sign that I’ve made the right choice?  Before, I was blocked about what the next book would be in that series.  I jotted a few ideas, but I really had nothing beyond a general “I need to do this” sort of feeling.  As soon as I committed to the changes above, I immediately started getting excited about more things I could do — now that I had opened up the stable door and stepped inside.

So I guess I’m glad I made the mistake, but geez, I wish my head was a little less thick.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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.


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


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. 


“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?”


“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!