When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?
Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.
This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?
Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.
The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.
I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.
I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)
For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?
One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.
With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?
Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.
The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.
After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?
You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.
Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.
Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.
I haven’t been blogging much lately. I got some birds up last week from my outing to Vanier Park, with Barb, but posts about writing and the state of my life have been in short supply. One reason is that I temporarily diverted my usual blogging time into revision on an upcoming novel. Another is that I am doing the Quantum Leap rewatches, and a Favorite Thing Ever each week, along with prepping lectures for my Novel III class and writing 8-10 critiques a week for the current Novel II class.
At the same time, some of the bits and pieces of my life have been shifting around a bit, and lots of them haven’t actually settled yet. One example: I’ve always been an early riser, but for the last month and a half I’ve been starting my work day at 6:00 a.m. Another: I’ve been deep in preparations for a choir concert (video footage, including me mangling the word ‘collectivist’ and Badger being lovely and articulate, can be found here). This was my last concert for awhile, as I’m taking a break from singing.
I never quite got a chance to tell you that my birthday trip went down the flush, and I haven’t figured out what the new birthday plan will be. And I took on a new mentoring gig, which–with help from several other little life shifts–discombobulated the stable little Wednesday morning breakfast ritual that has been a mainstay of my and Kelly‘s lives since we were twenty-five or so.
There’s been other stuff too, so much of it, some of it with the potential to either be quite big or evaporate in a pfiffle. And I’m like a lot of people, in that uncertainty will never be the topic of an Alyx favorite thing ever column. So there’s been lots of awareness of things unresolved, a resulting bit of tension, and radio silence.
A few things that definitely are going on:
–Kelly and I and Ana are going to the Vancouver Police Museum’s Forensics for Adults program tonight, to do a one-hour workshop on blood spatter. Come on, admit you’re jealous.
–When we first moved to BC and I got chances to experience the Seabus and B.C. Ferries, I started having fabulous seagoing adventure dreams. In these physically improbable scenarios, I often got to drive a ferry as though it was a speedboat, in really fast, really splashy chases. These dreams are so fun. Now that I have been on a cruise, I have cruise dreams too!
–After a couple years of random and unsuccessful attempts to find contact information for her, I have finally managed to reconnect with one of my Clarion instructors, someone I absolutely adore. This has been supernice.
—All my carrots are belong to virtual reality. It used to be that when I achieved some wee personal goal, I’d buy myself a $2-5 packet of sticky notes, or a bowl from someplace like YokoYaya. But now I buy iPod apps! Today I loaded up Vancouver 150, which is a “Hey, Vancouver’s turning 150 so here’s a news and history portal” type thingie. But it was free, and the universe owes me a treat, so if you know of great iTouch apps that are not games, I am always interested.
In 2017 I refurbished the post that I sometimes call the car metaphor essay, and in it I talk about how teaching writing is a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard and saying, “Okay, you all know what a car looks like. Build one out of what’s here. Or, you know, build a truck, plane or submarine if that’s your thing.”
In any case, that car metaphor post enabled some useful conversations with students, and I was pleased with the response to it, so when a new round of my Novel Writing II workshop began at the UCLA Extension Writer Program, I followed it up with this expansion, about some of the basic pieces of that metaphorical car engine.
If you were building cars and I were a mechanic, the fastest solution to “You need a spark plug” would be to research a spark plug, figure out what it is and how it works, match it to the piece you’re building and get your motor running. (Or, alternately, find a way to build a functioning vehicle without one.)
But in fiction, as with any art, there is no universal diagram of parts, no index to how they work, and no single way to plug them into the structure of your story. This doesn’t mean, though, that having a list of some of the key structural features of a story isn’t helpful. So, with that in mind, here’s a start:
–The novel forms a relationship with the reader. The book makes a first impression, progressively reveals more about itself, engages the person’s emotions and finally says goodbye. It affects them . . . whether for a minute, a week, or a lifetime.
—Emotional investment: the way that the novelist forms this relationship with the reader almost always involves making them care, about the characters in the book or the outcome of the main character’s journey.
–The reader is lured into a sort of narrative dream that pulls them forward with suspense, that fills their conscious mind with the details of the story or a compelling narrative voice. The vicarious experience of reading the novel can be successful whether it is direct, vivid and somewhat simply flavored (think vanilla ice cream) or as complex and layered as a four-course meal in a fancy restaurant.
–The book rewards the effort taken to read it. Let’s face it: reading is recreation, but TV, movies and video games render entertainment to many for what can be perceived as far less work. The mental effort of reading the book must therefore be overshadowed by the enjoyment the reader derives from it. Either the reader shouldn’t perceive that they’re doing much work at all when they pick up your story–because it’s that much fun!–or they should perceive the effort but feel the rewards are worthwhile.
—Vicarious experience: readers come away with a sense of either having been your characters, in some sense, or of having known them intimately. Reading offers us a chance to see life through another’s eyes. It lets us be cops and adrenaline junkies; it lets us be classical musicians, it lets us be saints and sinners . . . all from the comfort of a comfy chair.
—Comprehensible: readers could retell the story to a third party, describing it as they would any movie or TV show they were trying to interest their friend in. By the same token, they could easily tell you who the main characters are and how they differ from each other.
Bits and pieces
–The title sparks some emotion–interest, curiosity, humor, recognition, nostalgia, outrage, you name it.
–The opening paragraphs are intriguing enough to draw the reader into the story and to cause them to want to read further.
–There are one or more consistent points of view. (Not all readers will necessarily notice this, or care, but editors, other writers and savvy readers will . . . POV can be invisible, but it is also crucial.)
–The closing paragraph leaves the reader with some note of finality or closure; in some fashion, you’ve said goodbye.
–The book has a plot: the story relates a sequence of related events, in other words, told in or out of chronological order. These events, if arranged in chronological order, would make a certain amount of sense.
–The events of the story include an early incident which kicks off a series of attempts by one or more characters to solve a problem.
–The events of the story include a conclusion, usually near the end, that either solves the story’s problem or proves it unsolvable.
–In other words, the sequence of events has a beginning, middle and end.
–The protagonist’s attempts to fix whatever problem they’re tackling tend to make matters worse rather than better.
–At some point in this series of events, things reach a crisis point where it seems likely that things are going to end badly.
–This sequence of events is usually driven by a protagonist, a character who is trying (for good or ill) to change something about their life or the universe. Monkey wrenches may be thrown at them by an antagonist, who can be anyone from a loved one with misguided intentions to a competitor or an outright villain.
–Books are about the human experience, and so there are people in the book. This is true even if all the people seem to be talking dogs, androids, ghosts or telemarketers.
–Some of the characters are likable or, if not, at least one of them is so deeply intriguing that we want to know what happens to them.
–One of the characters is almost always the most important person in the book and is the one with the goal or problem mentioned above. This person is referred to as the protagonist, the main character, or sometimes the MC.
–The book has enough characters, ‘enough’ being a vague number that is setting appropriate, gives a sense of the main character’s social world, while limiting the field enough that we know who the important players are.
–At least some of the characters in the book know each other, and have relationships that may also create emotional engagement with readers.
–Characters’ emotional reactions to the events of the plot and to each others’ actions are believable, neither too muted nor too big.
–Characters have characteristics: physical traits, emotional qualities, history and background. These qualities will affect how they talk, move, think, act and behave on the page.
–Characters all have their own agendas, motivations, and expectations and the tension between character agendas may help to create interest in a scene. (added by Kelly Robson)
–The characters in the book are different from each other and their various qualities make them seem like unique and interesting individuals.
–Finally, characters evolve. At least some of your characters will change in some fashion by the end of the book. In western fiction, for example, it is often the case that the main character will struggle mightily against some personal failing and in the end overcome it.
–The novel usually takes place at some specific place and time (or several places and times) and readers understand where and when it is.
–This setting is conveyed with confidence and sensory detail. If it is somewhere readers may know, whether a real place or a documented historical period, the details are correct. The author clearly knows that Manhattan has a big park in the middle of it, for example. Even if the setting is wholly invented, the author ensures that readers believe in it by providing everything from its sights, sounds, smells to its social landscape.
–The setting usually affects some of the character’s options: a novel set at sea brings with it the risk of sinkings and storms; a novel set in a prison might raise the question of escape. A novel set in a convent may not have many male characters, and those it does have might be clerical in nature.
–The setting is appropriate to the characters and content of the book, in other words, and the content and characters fit with the setting too.
–Setting affords an opportunity for readers to travel elsewhere, to imagine life in places and times they have not seen or cannot see.
–Books are about something. Admittedly, sometimes we write theme without thinking too consciously about it. But there’s some thing you keep returning to, in one way or another. A reviewer can reduce this to a phrase: “YOURBOOKHERE is about loyalty, family, love, death, or betrayal.”
–Whatever your book is about, the theme develops. Different aspects of the topic turn up in different contexts: if the author is making an argument–“Cheaters never prosper,” for example, they might show that the question is more complex than it seems on the face of it.
–The characters’ actions, especially those of the main character, are going to relate to this theme in some way.
–Themes can be big or small, important or frivolous, heavy or light-hearted.
–Characters talk to each other. A lot! Whenever two characters have an exchange that matters in some way to the story or their character development, readers get to hear the actual words exchanged.
–Individuals have their own voices, so dialogue showcases the differences between characters’ personalities, outlook, nationality, social class, education, background.
–The dialog works, by which it means that it reads in such a way that readers ‘hear’ the conversation as they read.
If you’re struggling with a novel rewrite, you might find it a useful exercise to compare this list with what you’ve got on the page. Where does what you’ve done diverge wildly from the above? Is that something you’ve chosen to do, and is it working? If not, is there something there that, if revised, will make the piece stronger?
As of today, I still have one or two slots available in my upcoming UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, which has the unwieldy name of: Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way. The course description can be found here, and this is the syllabus, subject to last-minute tweaks.
The weekly discussion questions in the syllabus should give you a good idea of how we’ll go about the workshop: I want to put your book under a microscope in a directed fashion, so each week we focus on a specific aspect of your storytelling: the setting, the prose, the characters, the plotting. The idea is to ensure that all the likely points of writing success or failure get looked at, with each book.
The other important thing to consider about me as an instructor is that I am friendly to all genres. Put in the simplest of terms: I don’t consider science fiction to be either superior to or inferior to something like literary fiction, or paranormal romance, or splatterpunk. I will read each book with care and respect, whether or not it’s something I’d buy for pleasure reading. I expect my students to learn to separate what they prefer–the stuff they like to read, in other words–from the issue of bad or good writing. This is more easily said than done. It takes practice… but I also think it’s important.
Someone always asks, so I’ll say up front: It is totally okay to register for Novel II without taking Novel I as long as you already have a good idea of what you’ll be writing. In other words, Novel I is essentially a book development class that takes you through the process of building the groundwork for a book: figuring out setting, choosing a protagonist, working through a basic outline of their journey. If you’ve done that and are ready to write fifty pages, or if you’ve written that much already and are ready to write fifty more, you can take this class.
I’m teaching Novel III next quarter… for that, you do need Novel II.
Needless to say, I’m not the only game in town at UCLA–there are dozens of great courses, dealing with the long form and the short, in prose, poetry and in screenwriting. If you’re looking for a course this winter, you can probably find something delightful and challenging in our catalog.
Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll be happy to answer them.
I’ve been looking through my cobweb photos from Burnaby Lake, all of which, incidentally, are spider free. It’s all threads and plants and water drops. There were so many I had to divide the upload into two batches, one of fragments and close-ups, another of whole webs, like this one.
A web, I can’t help noticing, is work. It’s a finished thing, purchased with life and effort. The orb weavers eat their webs each night and spin them anew in the early hours of the day, I’ve read. And I’ve been thinking about that as I look at the pictures, and simultaneously work through a bit of teaching work. I am in the early stages of Creating Universes, Building Worlds, which is the first UCLA class I ever developed. It’s a short fiction workshop, all SF/F/H, and the thing that stands out about my current group is how well read they are. I’ve had classes that know from Asimov and Bradbury, Herbert and Rowlings… and almost nobody else. But this month I’m hearing them talk about Marion Zimmer Bradley and Kelley Eskridge, too, Octavia Butler and Charlie Stoss and Elizabeth Bear, people from all over the genre map. It’s exciting; I can’t wait to see what they come up with as their stories develop.
In the winter–which means January–I am teaching Novel II again and come spring it’ll be Novel III, the latter for the first time. My mind is full of teacher stuff for all three courses: interesting challenges for the Creating Universes folks, what do I want to do better with the Novel II class (last time I taught it was my first, so there’s lots thought and feedback and potential tweaking), and how do I want to structure Novel III?
I work on one class, set up another plan a third. Different cycles, no web-eating, less easily quantified results, but it’s perhaps not a wholly unrelated process.