Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Playing With Cards - The Creative Part of Revising

Last time, I gave a step-by-step rundown of my revision process and explained how I "use" (that sounds so bad) alphas, betas and critique partners. Now, we can begin breaking the process down, starting with the first few rounds of revisions. These rounds are both fun and painful at the same time.

They're fun, because I'm still in the creative part of the process. There's still a lot of new writing going on and I'm coming up with new ideas for plot twists, suspense thickeners and character development. They're painful because it means chopping up what I'd once thought was a masterpiece and putting the pieces back together, sometimes trashing some while also trying to figure out how to weave those new things into something that already exists.

Building a house from the ground up and making it the way you want it is easier than taking an existing home and trying to remodel with the walls, ceiling and infrastructure already there. Removing a wall isn't so easy when you discover it's holding up the second floor or the roof. We're going through a remodeling project right now and even demolition isn't as fun as it looks because you don't want to do irreperable damage.

Same goes for your WIP, which is why it's easier if you don't completely pants your way through the first draft (write by the seat of your pants with no outline). A little planning of at least where your outside walls, roof and main rooms go before you start reduces the stress and pain of having to move any structure points later. I learned this the hard way, having pretty much written both Promise and Purpose by the seat of my pants. When I do at least a basic outline that follows good story structure, revisions are less painful.

However, unexpected twists and turns come up while writing the first draft that cause the original outline to be pushed under a pile of new notes, never to be seen again. I have a better structure than I did if I hadn't outlined at all, but it still needs work. So, even if I did actually outline the book before writing, in the first few rounds of revisions, I'm working on the structure - the plot and character arcs.

As soon as I finish the first draft, I start analyzing it for improvement. Actually, when I first finish the draft, I whoop and holler, do the happy dance and swear it's not only the best thing I've ever written, but the absolute best thing ever written in the history of the entire freakin' universe. It's a damn masterpiece that no one ever will be able to top. Ever. Then the next day, I start reading this brilliant piece of genius and realize, well, um, yeah ... it's crap.

It's for this reason that many authors will tell you to put the WIP aside for at least a couple of weeks so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and mind. Let it stew for a while, or work on something else, so you can be objective when you get back to it. I've tried this. It's too soon in the process for me to do so.

I need to immediately read what I just wrote. I need to remain immersed in that world and maintain that connection with the characters. By the time I get to writing the end, I don't always remember everything that was in the beginning. If I wait to do this step, when I start up again and I'm reading it for the first time, I won't necessarily remember exactly how the ending went down on paper. I lose that continuity, which leads to adding an extra round of reading/revising - once to familiarize myself with the entire story and then again to actually make notes and figure out what needs fixing.

After one night of celebrating, I get back to work. Usually, I'll print out a hard copy of the manuscript, grab my purple pen and go to a different room of the house. I'll review any notes I've made while writing the draft to remind myself of fixes I already know I want to make (when I'm writing, if an idea occurs to me that's not a quick fix, I'll jot it down to put in later). Then I'll read through the entire draft, writing notes all over the pages, in the margins and on the backs.

Reading the story beginning to end allows me to make notes where I was inconsistent, dropped a ball I'd thrown in at the beginning but forgot to catch later, completely left a plot line out that needs to be in there, etc. Now that I know how the whole story goes, I can see how it can be better, so I'm also taking notes on those areas. Basically, in this round, I'm putting in everything I'd meant to originally, but had messed up in the heat of the draft, as well as adding any new ideas.

If I feel good about these changes, I'll get to work, starting at the beginning and going through the entire manuscript, working on these plot and character improvements. If I'm stuck, especially on a major plot point that must be fixed before anything else can be figured out, then I'll let my alpha start reading so she can help me brainstorm a solution. But I'm usually still working while she's reading. When I'm done with this round, I'll definitely give it to her, although, again, I keep working while she has it. Unless I do need her help, her purpose at this point is to cheer me on.

In the next round, I go through the revised MS and make note cards for each scene. Sometimes I'll do on paper cards, sometimes I'll do in Scrivener (if it's not already in Scrivener, which sometimes it is if I did really good outlining ahead of time). I write down a note about the scene so I know which one it is, which characters are in it, the conflict and the purpose of the scene. The best way to do this is using different colors for primary plot, secondary plot(s), and different character arcs. If I'd already done this in Scrivener, I'll revise them because things have certainly changed since the outlining stage.

Now comes the tricky part - deciding which scenes stay, which ones go, what needs to be added and the order of the scenes. I'm a firm believer that the first things that come to mind in the outlining and drafting phases are the most obvious, most banal and cliche and make for a mediocre (at best) or boring (at worst) story. I learned this from Donald Maass and his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. We should question ourselves on everything because with more thought and imagination, we can usually come up with something even more spectacular than our initial idea.

In the first round of playing with my cards, I analyze each one, asking myself if that scene serves at least one purpose to the plot. If it doesn't move the story along or serve a very important purpose that no other scene can do, it needs to go or be combined with another scene. I also play the what-if game with each scene, asking myself, "what if I made this tragedy even worse by doing such-and-such" or "what if that didn't happen at all - how would she react?"

If the scene stays (with or without revisions), the card goes into the keeper pile. If it needs to go, it gets tossed to the side (I never throw away, though, virtually or physically, just in case I change my mind). If two scenes need to be combined, they get clipped to each other and together they go into the keeper pile.

Now, I take the keeper pile and analyze whether the scenes are in the right order. I'll ask more what-if questions - what if he did this before doing that rather than after, what if this was actually the cause to that other thing, etc. Sometimes, I'll shuffle the cards and see what kind of new order of events comes up. I've learned the hard way not to change the order of events too much because usually the first draft is pretty close to the right order - the causes and effects happened organically, which you don't want to mess with. But sometimes, the original order just doesn't work. Or you forgot a scene, which throws things amok. And oftentimes by doing this, even if I keep everything in their original order, I get new ideas for how to ruin my characters' lives and make the story better. For any new scenes that need to be added, I create a new card and put it in its place in the pile.

Once I feel good about my main plot line, my subplots, and my character arcs, my cards are in the order of how the story should be told and I've made any necessary notes. Starting with the card on top (the opening scene), I start rearranging the WIP document accordingly, moving, deleting and adding scenes, while smoothing out awkward transitions and such as I go. By the time I'm done with this round, my plot and character arcs should be pretty much nailed down.

But I want the opinions of other, very smart people, especially those I know who are awesome with plot and character development. So the MS goes off to my first round of critique partners, and this is when I try to let the book stew in my mind without actually working on it until the feedback comes in. This allows me to consider their feedback objectively and also to have a fresh brain when I go back to the WIP for the next round, which we'll discuss next time.

Does this make sense or is it clear as mud? Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My (Ideal) Revision Process

Mention the word "revisions" around a group of writers, and you'll get a mixed chorus of "ugh!" and "squee!" It's true - some writers hate revisions while others love them. Those who hate them say they prefer the creative part of the process and hate getting bogged down with the technicalities of grammar and sentence structure and rewriting the same sentence 23 times before getting it exactly right (only to end up deleting it in a later round). Others say they love giving their stories that beautiful polish, knowing that every change is making the story and the writing better.

I'm kind of in the middle here - I do love the creative process, which for me, continues through the first few round of edits, but the process can also wear on me, becoming tedious and boring. There are only two times I truly hate revisions and edits, though. The first is when I need to make a plot or character change that's going to cause a ripple effect throughout the story. Making this one revision, whether big or small, means cleaning up several scenes, sometimes even adding a new one or completely rewriting one that I already loved. The job feels huge and daunting and I whine about how much I don't want to do it.

The other time I hate revisions and edits is far into the editing stage - that point where I thought I was done, but realize I need to make another pass or two through the manuscript. By this time, I hate - I mean, HATE - the book and the characters in it and I just want to kill them all off. I've read the story so many times that I think the whole thing sucks and I should simply trash it and this whole idea of being a writer because I'm really just a fraud. But when I'm done - well, I love the book and the characters all over again, and I know it's the best book it can possibly be. I learned a secret about how to handle this at the Heather Graham's Writers for New Orleans Workshop last week that I'll share when we get there.

But first, how does this all go together? How do I get from the first draft to that point of knowing I need to make plot or character revisions to the point of hating the book because I've read it so many times and then back to loving it? How do I know when I'm ready to hit the Publish button?

First of all, let me say that every book has been different. The writing process has varied, and so has the revision process. But I do follow a general progression of steps, which I'll outline here and we'll get into in subsequent blog posts.

Before I list those steps, though, I feel the need to define the difference between beta readers and critique partners. At least, this is the difference to me:

Critique partners are other writers (usually published now that I am) or editors who give me detailed feedback. I use them at different stages, which you'll see in a moment, so the kind of feedback may vary, but the point is that they're focusing on the craft of the story and the writing - the technicalities that readers don't specifically notice but know there's just something "wrong" there. My "critters" can explain what exactly is wrong or at least help me figure it out for myself.

Beta readers can be writers, but are also just readers who enjoy reading and can give good feedback on the story, but usually in more general terms. Sure, they'll point out a typo or grammar mistake, and they're really good for noticing inconsistencies (a character's eye color changes, for example, or their aunt has a different name later in the book). But they're also good for overall reaction. While my critters are focused on the trees, the betas can look at the forest. They can tell me if the plot makes sense or if there's a hole somewhere. They can tell me if they loved the whole thing, or liked certain parts but not others. They'll say, "I don't like this character. He rubs me the wrong way." But, compared to my critters, betas may not be able to pinpoint what it is that they love or don't like. They know a character gets on their nerves, but may not realize it's because the words or body language I've given him doesn't mesh with the character I'm trying to portray. Betas are often people with different perspectives - I get The Man's opinion from a male perspective; maybe someone who's familiar with a disorder one of my characters has to make sure I've kept it "real"; and, of course, avid readers who know when a story works and when a character is swoon-worthy.

Now, I do have what I call an alpha reader. She is also my business partner/co-publisher. She gets to read everything first, sometimes even before I do, and her primary function as the alpha is to serve as cheerleader and sometimes idea-bouncer-offer (she serves other roles later in the process). Choose this person carefully because he/she will probably read your book several times before it's ready to be published or submitted. You don't want them to hate you for putting them through that. (The Man will NEVER be an alpha reader for me. In fact, he doesn't get to read until the very end because he won't read it again to see how I addressed his feedback or to see how it's evolved. Then he talks about the book and he's wrong about half the things.) So, yeah, choose wisely.

Proofreaders, one more distinction I want to make, are reading specifically for typos, missing words, extra words, grammar mistakes and the like. They're also making sure that the last round of line edits didn't cause a sentence (or whole paragraph) to accidentally disappear. Yes, that's happened before.

Now onto my process. These are the steps I follow as soon as I complete the first draft in an ideal situation, but sometimes I have to combine some steps to be able to meet my deadlines.
  1. Read-through while taking notes.
  2. First round of revisions for plot.
  3. Give to alpha to read and get feedback.
  4. Second round of revisions for more plot issues based on alpha's feedback/brainstorming sessions, as well as character arc and development.
  5. Give to critique partner(s) who I admire for their excellent plotting and character development.
  6. Third round of revisions to address critters' feedback, as well as scrutinizing and fixing structure of scenes, chapters and paragraphs.
  7. Fourth round of revisions for theme, descriptions and dialogue.
  8. Give to first round of beta readers.
  9. Fifth round (now called edits) addressing betas' feedback and polishing the writing.
  10. Give to different critique partner(s) who I admire for beautiful writing and grammar technicalities.
  11. Sixth round addressing critters' feedback and polishing the writing even more.
  12. Give to second round of beta readers.
  13. Sixth round of edits addressing any more betas' concerns, as well as combing for repetitive words and phrases and finding better ways of saying the same thing.
  14. Give to line editor.
  15. Fix line editor's issues.
  16. One last read-through.
  17. Give to proofreader.
  18. Fix proofreader's issues.
  19. If time allows, give to one more fresh set of eyes just to be sure nothing went wrong while fixing the proofreader's issues.
  20. Collapse from exhaustion ... then celebrate.
We'll go through these in detail over the next several weeks. For now, if you haven't already, I recommend lining up your first round of critique partners and beta readers. And if you have an alpha reader, you can decide whether you're ready to let him/her read your baby yet or if you want to go through it at least once before slicing yourself open and exposing your soul er, sharing this little project you've been working on.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You Wrote a Book! Now What?

National Novel Writing Month (November) has ended and now there are people all over the world asking, "Now what? I wrote a whole book. What do I do next?"

Well, first, CELEBRATE!!! Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment. The saying goes that everyone has a book in them. That may be true, but not everyone wants to write a book. Of the millions of people who do want to write one, only a fraction actually start. And of those who start, only a small fraction actually finish. So you are basically one in a million! Or, at least, one in a hundred-thousand or so. Either way... Congratulations! Do a happy dance, have a few drinks, take a day or two to relax and say, "I did it."

Then it's time to get back to work. At least, if you have any desire at all of possibly pursuing publication. When I finished my very first draft of my very first book, I wasn't so sure about the publication thing. I didn't even know if I had something anyone but me would actually enjoy. I wrote that book solely for my pleasure, and the thought of sharing it with anyone was absolutely horrifying - worse than going into public naked. That was my very soul in those 180,000 words.

Yes, you read that right. I don't have a typo there. My first draft of my first book was a little over 180,000 words. That's basically the equivalent of two normal-length books. I didn't know that at the time. But I learned. And I revised and edited and revised and edited some more. Eventually, I realized it was two books, so I split and rewrote endings and beginnings and revised and edited some more. I (eventually) shared the new versions along the way. My poor business partner who became my publisher read about twenty versions of Promise and Purpose before they were ever ready for publication.

My point? You finished a book, but that doesn't mean it's time to hit the submit or publish button. I don't care who you are or if this is your first or thirty-first book. A first draft is also known as a rough draft for a reason - it's bumpy and choppy, jostling the reader about with its plot holes, lack of smooth transitions and sharp turns that make no sense. The writing is ugly and coarse, except for maybe a few gems that will probably need to be deleted anyway because they do nothing for the story (we call this killing your darlings).

Your book needs work. Lots of it. This is especially true after NaNo or any other time we shut down our inner editor and write with abandon.

I knew this when I finished my first whopper of a draft, if only because while I'd been writing it, more ideas had come to me that I wanted to go back in and add or change. But before I decided just how much more work I wanted to put into it, I needed to know if it would be worth it. I needed some validation. So when a couple of important people in my life wanted to see what I'd been so obsessed with for the previous six weeks, I sucked in a deep breath and tried not to puke when I handed my soul, er, I mean, manuscript over.

They liked it. They had some ideas. They asked questions that made me think and generate more ideas. I couldn't not work on it. I became a little braver and let more friends read the revised version (still one book, though), and this process continued for 18 months. That's right - I wrote the first draft of 180k in 6 weeks, but it was another year-and-a-half before Promise was ready to be published.

Finishing a first draft with a beginning, a middle and an end is a huge accomplishment, and for some, that's enough. They can cross that goal off their bucket list and move onto something new. But I think for most of us, the writing bug bites hard, and we can't just let it go. And even though there is still much work to do, and even though we may whine and gripe about how much we hate it (especially when we've gone through the book so many times, we'd rather stick needles under our fingernails than do it again), we also love it. This is our passion, and we want to share it with the world.

If this is your new goal - to share your book with the world - stay tuned. Over the next few weeks or so, I'll be sharing my revision and editing process. The good news? It doesn't take two years anymore. In fact, some people can complete the entire process in a couple of months. It takes me about six months from the first word to clicking the publish button now. Not as fast as some authors, but we're all different, and I think six months is about as fast as I'm comfortable with.

Before we dive in, you might be like me and want to know if you should even put more work into this thing you've created. If so, take the plunge and let one or two trusted friends read it. If they finish it in a decent timeframe, you have something worth working on. But even if they don't - even if they don't get back to you in months and skirt the question every time you ask, "So how do you like it?" - don't give up. Either get back to work on it or move onto the next project.

If writing is your passion, you'll keep going. And that's the real answer to the "Now what" question: keep writing.