I’ll start with a caveat, because this post is composed of writing advice. What you read here is my method, and it works for me. I’m fully behind it, because it’s tried and tested and (my favourite word) efficient. Nothing drives me nuts more than wasting time, so this method is designed to reduce time wasting and repetition as much as possible.
You don’t have to use it. That’s not what I’m saying. But if you don’t know where to start, or you don’t have your own solid method, then you are welcome to give this one a try.
I break all my revising into 3 parts:
- big picture – the story, hook, climax
- parts – chapters, scenes
- language – word use, grammar, voice and style
I revise this way because there is nothing more frustrating than spending a week working on a scene, only to realise that it needs to be cut. Ugh. Waste of time! It also means that I don’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of sentences when I’m still surrounded by hulking great plot holes. It’s fast, efficient and means you shouldn’t need to revisit something once it has been fixed. Of course there are always exceptions, but let’s reduce the back and fill as much as possible.
Step 1: the read through
I try not to sit down and read the story through in one sitting. Because then I get into reading mode, and it’s easy to get a picture of your story that is not truthful. It’s about seeing what’s there, not what you think is there.
So when I read through, I do it chapter by chapter, and I have a spreadsheet open beside me. the spreadsheet has the following columns:
|Chapter name/number||Location||Synopsis||Major plot events||Character arc||Notes|
As I read, I fill in the table. If I have nothing to put in a cell, I leave it blank. I use the notes column to remind myself of things that jump out at me, for example, when I can see a character is weak, where I need to increase the tension. I don’t fix them, I just note them. If timing is important to your story, you might also put a time column in.
This spreadsheet, once completed, is a powerful document. Your entire story, distilled down into events. Not only can you use it for revision, you can use an updated version to help you write your query and synopsis. Spend some time on it – it will make your revision much easier.
Also, as I read I make a list of characters as soon as they turn up, with a brief note on relations. Sometimes I already have a character list, but as you write characters sometimes just turn up. This makes sure that you know ALL of the characters in your story.
One thing that is vitally important is not to get caught up in words. Not now. Clunky sentences? Ignore them. Grammar, spelling, voice, language, the lot. Ignore them. Because if you start fiddling with it now, there’s a good chance that (a) you will get caught up in the minutae and miss the big picture, and (b) you’ll have to scrap your changes anyway. So resist the urge. Even if you get a blinding flash of inspiration. It will come back. Jot it down and move on.
Once I’ve read the whole story through, I do 2 more things. I write down the story question (also known as the inciting incident) and the climax. So for example, in Lord of the Rings, the story question would be “can Frodo destroy the ring before Sauron takes over the world?” the climax, of course, is Frodo destroying the ring.
Have a look at your story question and your climax. Do they match? If your story starts with “Can Frodo destroy the ring?” but ends with “Frodo and Sam get married and live happily ever after”, well, you may have lost your way somewhat.
If your question and climax line up, great. If not, have a good look at your story. What do you need to change to bring them together? Do you need to change the climax, or do you need to adjust the beginning of the story to match the end? Which is better? Which feels more real? Don’t start writing, think. Do all the work in your head.
Check the pathways for your plot and subplots. Do they run smoothly? Do they intertwine? Are there any plots left dangling that need tidying up? Do your characters grow and change? Do they react to events in the story? (Very important!) Does every event have an impact on characters and the world, and lead to future events?
Keep the writing to a minimum, but identify on your spreadsheet where you need to change things, and what needs to change. Use colours to highlight plots, character arcs, weak points, good points. Spend a lot of time thinking about your story and what you need to change.
Next post, I’ll talk about mapping tension in the story and a little bit about plot arcs and character development.