Category Archives: revisions

The Revision Chronicles: Two Final Pitfalls

shearsAfter teaching a class in revision, these are the last things I like to remind everyone:

  • Don’t write your story by committee.
  • Do send it out!

Let’s look at those in a little more detail.

  • DON’T write a story by committee.

Despite all my invaluable revision tips, in the end, what makes your story idiosyncratically YOURS is important. It is good to listen to your critiquers, but you are the final say. Especially if you and your stories tend to be an outlier (if you have an unusual voice, or subject matter that doesn’t seem to be in vogue) then you may have voices telling you to change. It can be hard to determine when you need to listen to those voices, and when you have to listen to yourself. You often have to KNOW the rules before you can break them (IE, you need to know WHY you’re going against the grain, and understand when that’s the right choice.) As Daniel Tiger sings: Keep trying; you’ll get better!

  • And DO send your story out!

I don’t recommend revising a story or novel for years and years. I look back at my earlier work, and I think: I would write that differently now. But is that always a good thing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Yes, I have some skills now I didn’t then. But on the flip side, my current obsessions are different than when I was writing ten years ago. I was chewing over different themes. Just because I wouldn’t write something now, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good to be written then, and sent out then. I encourage you to do the same.

Thanks for following along with the Revision Chronicles! Check back next month for a new topic!

The Revision Chronicles: 5 Sentence-Level Tips

shearsSo, now you’ve worked through the high-level stuff. Your scenes and characters are pulling their weight. The protagonist hurts and your details matter.

Time to look at sentence-level revising! First off, there’s a great book by Ken Rand available through Fairwood Press called “The Ten Percent Solution.” As implied by the title, it shows you how to trim your manuscript by ten percent, just by getting rid of extraneous words. It is worth a read. Some of the tips below come from that book and some come from my experience critiquing manuscripts for writers who are just starting out.

 

Five Tips for Sentence-Level Revisions!

  1. Tight POV: “Jane saw the birds. She heard them chirping.” If we’re in Jane’s head, then we know that “she saw”, “she heard”, etc. Just cut to describing the birds. Repeating that “she saw” will actually distance us from Jane.
  2. Redundancy of Action: You don’t need to say that John “pushed the button with his finger.” What else would he push it with? Only tell us if he pushed it with something unusual, like his nose.
  3. Redundancy of Speech: “I hate you,” she said angrily. Ditto above. But if it’s “I hate you,” she said wistfully, then we’re moving into interesting territory and you can keep it.
  4. Don’t Double Up: “They ran and jumped through the fields and meadows, laughing and chattering as they went.” A little of this is fine. But occasionally I’ll read a story where every sentence looks like this. Trim it down.
  5. Weasel Words: It almost looked like a chair. She felt something like surprise. She very nearly came close to almost sort of describing a thing accurately. Cut!

 

And now before you start feeling too despondent, I’ll tell you that I regularly found all of this in my early writing. Except, I didn’t know to find them. It was only later that I realized all these things were slowing down my writing and making it clunky. Good news? They’re all super easy to fix. Just take a pass through and look for them. Soon it will become second nature.

 

The Revision Chronicles: 3 Ways to Make Your Stories Work Harder

shearsAre you a rambly writer? Perhaps you’re a pantser? Or perhaps you’re always thinking in epic scope, with hundreds of scenes and casts of thousands–even in a short story.

If this is you, then . . . your story pieces might not be working hard enough. Every new character is someone the writer has to try to care about. Every new scene is a new place for them to imagine. Consider where you might start compressing things to make every piece work harder.

 

Making Your Stories Work Harder

1.Combine characters. Two one-dimensional characters might be stronger as one three-dimensional character. (Wait, I’m not sure that math adds up….)

The cool thing is that this potentially makes for an even more interesting character if you think the two minor characters’ traits are incompatible at first. I had one story where the protagonist had a hardnosed boss, and a coworker with an unrequited crush on her. Each did one small thing for the story: the boss was there to move along some key plot points, and the coworker helped show the aloofness of the protag’s character. But combine the two and wow! I immediately got a way more interesting character, since he now had to be hardnosed and unrequited-crushy at the same time.

2. Squash scenes. A common trap at the beginning is to have a scene that does JUST one thing. It is mostly plot (an action sequence.) Or it’s mostly character development (two characters talking about their feeeeelings.) No, I’m not saying that every tender moment needs to take place while the lovers are being chased through a city. But look over your scene, see what it’s doing, and see what other elements you can add in to make it richer. See where you can squash two scenes together. Maybe scene A over here only really has one piece of pertinent info, when you come down to it, and the same is true of B. Squish squash.

3. Deadhead details. If you’re taking the time to show details about the rooms, clothing, weather, etc–make sure those are very specific and necessary details about place, character, or mood. Get rid of the generic ones. Remember, you can use details in all kinds of cool ways–worldbuilding is a key one, of course. If the sink is a normal sink but the door irises open, get ye to the door and iris it for us. If you’re stopping to describe clothes, then I want to be learning about the background of the characters or, again, the worldbuilding, through the details of what people choose to wear. Be the camera and choose only the key things to show us.

 

Of course, this goes hand in hand with the first month’s suggestions about ways to trim your stories–but coming at it from a slightly different angle. Sometimes with stories–certainly with flash–I start to feel like I’ve examined every darn word a thousand times–trying to make it DO MORE.

There you have it, folks. This month’s tip. Combine, squash, deadhead.

Til’ next time! This has been (dum dum dum!) The Revision Chronicles.

The Revision Chronicles: “Didn’t Push it Far Enough”

shearsThis month I’m going to talk about one of the most frustrating pieces of feedback I regularly got when I was first starting to write stories.

“Didn’t Push it Far Enough.”

Because, what does it mean? Hey, I came up with this nice little 1,800 word story, and it had all the story pieces there (I mean, gee, there were characters and they did things and there was, like, a resolution, what more did you want?) And editorial feedback would be, this is nice and all, but you “didn’t push it far enough.” (A similar critique is “underdeveloped.”)

The good news is that if you get this feedback you’re probably have a good kernel of a story. Maybe you have a good structure, or a neat idea, and the critiquer or editor can see the potential. But it’s frustrating, because how do you “push” a story, right? I mean, if it were a rock and a hill, there’d be some place to start.

Here are some things I look at when I’m trying to think of how to push a story farther.

Character-wise:

  1. First off, does your protagonist hurt? Can you hurt her a whole bunch more? Turn up the volume. In general, as readers, we get attached to stories because we care about the characters. We remember tough decisions protags had to make.
  2. Now that you’ve “pushed” your protag into some more uncomfortable situations, step back and look at her again. Does she change? Does she change enough? Does she learn and grow?

World-building-wise:

  1. Part of the joy of SF is coming up with new worlds. Have you “pushed” your world far enough? And by this I mean, have you really thought through all the larger ripples that would come from whatever changes you’ve introduced? If you just say hey, in this world all kindergarten teachers are vampires and walk away, I mean, look. There would surely be more changes from that. First off, night school.

Plot-wise:

  1. Can your outcome have larger consequences than it currently does? Not every story can or should be about saving the world, but again, think about the ripple effect. How has your story changed the world it’s set in?

 

I looked back through my rejection logs for an example to share with you. One of my earliest (unpublished) stories frequently got this feedback. Thinking back, it was because I had a reasonably interesting SFnal idea (vaguely like a super-accurate OKCupid, written before there was OKCupid), but I chose to explore it through a series of vignettes.

Now if you slice a 3500 word story into 3 smaller stories, you’d better make sure they’re building to a greater story. (Read Caroline M. Yoachim’s Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion for an example of how to link flash stories and make them build to one big story.)

Anyway, mine didn’t. Each story explored a little problem with different characters getting “perfectly” matched up, so A) I didn’t spend those 3500 words fully delving into one character and watching them change and grow. Then B, I didn’t fully explore all the ripples my software would make in society. And C, no, there were no larger consequences.

So yeah, I pretty much failed every suggestion above. Hmm, maybe it’s time to pull that story back out and see if I could do something with it now…

Till next time! This has been (dum dum dum) The Revision Chronicles.

The Revision Chronicles: Three Ways to Add Words

And I know what you’re thinking: Why would I want to bloat my story? Besides, last month you told us to trim!

shearsAnd this is true. I am a big fan of trimming and nearly every story I see from beginning writers needs trimming. (I’m going to include the shears picture again just to remind you.)

However, I also see stories that need to be richer, deeper. It’s not about adding padding–it’s about adding the right words.

When do you know you need to add words? Think about what kind of feedback you get.

  • Do you hear things like “I didn’t know what the setting looked like.” “I didn’t know what she was thinking.” Or just, “It felt thin.”
  • Do you find that your drafts come in at an awkward length, like 2-3K? It might be that there are things you know in your head about the story that you haven’t effectively communicated to the reader. (This was one of my problems, early on–I would only get the bare bones of the story down, and stop, pleased to have a beginning, middle, and end.)

Here are a couple tips to practice fleshing out your stories.

  1. Add in more sensory detail. Sight gets used the most frequently, of course, but go back through your story and consider what your characters might be hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting. A few well-placed details will help you avoid “white room” syndrome, where your scenes are all happening in a faceless void of blah.
  2. Read every scene and think “what do I know about this scene that didn’t get put on the page?” Put it all in. Then you can go back through and take some out.
  3. Find more ways for your characters to communicate to the reader what they are thinking. Again, you might put too much in and then trim this back down. But if your feedback is: I didn’t understand WHY she hated him–then a few well-placed details (like a brief mention of the time he glued her math book pages together in grade school) can help your reader understand what you’re trying to convey.

As always, only you know what story you’re trying to tell, and whether this tip will help you, and that story. For an example from my own writing, I often write the first draft of a novel as extremely bare bones. Zero setting at all. Zero sensory description. Those things come in later passes, once I have the basic plot down. So you might find this is something that works for you, too.

Til’ next time! This has been (dum dum dum!) The Revision Chronicles. 

The Revision Chronicles: 5 Ways to Trim Your Stories

So, I love revision. I love talking about revision. And I’m going to try a series this year discussing some of my favorite revision tips.

This month’s topic: When and what to trim.shears

Does your critique group always tell you your stories feel bloated? Do your stories keep ballooning past the word count that short story markets are looking for, even when you try to stay short? And sure, some of us are just naturally epic novelists. But even epic novelists might look for places to trim.

Here are some things to look for:

  1. Repetition of information. Ask yourself what the purpose of each scene is. If you have two scenes that are both there to point out that the protagonist hates her father, try it with one.
  2. Repetition of place. If you find your characters are circling around between a couple different settings, see if you can find a more elegant and concise way to streamline the plot. That circling can make your short story feel stagnant–it’s not moving forward if it keeps coming back.
  3. Details matter. Are all your details the right ones? If you want us to believe your protagonist is a loner, don’t show us the one night when he happens to run into all his friends at the bar. And especially in SF, it’s important to use exactly the right worldbuilding details. Trim misleading information that doesn’t serve the story.
  4. Where does the story begin? Are you a pantser? Did you write a bunch of stuff with no outline, hoping to eventually find the plot? This is fine, but now cut out all the stuff where you were wandering around looking for the story. Maybe your story really starts on page 7, when something actually happens.
  5. Cut, cut, cut. As an exercise, try lopping off 20% of your word count. (Keep the old version!) Read through and see what you don’t miss. Put back what you do. I find this very . . . focusing.

 

As always, these are suggestions which may or may not work for the particular story you are trying to tell. I remember one of my stories (Turning the Apples) originally clocked in at 5000 words. I thought it was done. But then I wanted to submit it to a 4000 word market. So first I tried to cut it down to 4500. Great. Then I tried to cut it down to 4000. NO DICE. But I achieved a much tighter 4500 word story out of the process.

Til’ next time! (I guess I can’t help signing off my articles like it’s a Toasted Cake episode.) This has been (dum dum dum!) The Revision Chronicles.