Project 2012: Revision and story length

Dizzytangerine asked:

When you’re done, should your novel be longer or shorter? Meaning do you tend to add more content or delete. Thanks in advance!

Whether you end up with a longer or shorter novel depends on what you need to do to tighten and strengthen your story.

For some writers, the first draft is a concise exploration of the basic ideas, to be expanded on in the second draft.  For these writers, the second draft will be longer.

For some writers, the first draft includes a lot of extra information as the writing explores and expands on their original idea.   For these writers, the second draft should be shorter.

Look at the length of your first draft.  Is it in the range of 90,000-120,000 words?  Good.  Stick with that.  If it’s under, you have room to add words.  If it’s over, mostly you should be looking for things to cut.

I usually write short first drafts, because when I’m writing I leave out a lot of description and feelings in my rush to get the story down. When I do a second draft I still cut, but I also spend a lot of time expanding on the world and expressing the characters’ feelings.

What about you?  Are your first drafts long and wordy, or short and curt?


Project 2012: Starting your revision, Step 1: The read-through

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.

Project 2012: Program outline

Before 2012:

  • Supplies and a plan

2012: Q1

The first quarter is all about the big picture.  You’ll be looking at your story as a whole.  This is the phase where you chop entire sections, revisit soggy plot devices and give those wimpy characters some backbone.

  • Hook versus climax
  • Plot arc
  • Character arcs
  • Mapping tension
  • Voice, tone and language

Worksheets: chapter list, timeline, character journey

2012: Q2

Second quarter is all about the chapters, zooming in to make sure that each section of your book develops the story, advances the plot and illustrates character development.   You’ll be looking at flow and movement and making sure each chapter strengthens the work and moves the story forward. For each chapter you’ll be looking at:

  • Hook to climax – chapter
  • Rising tension
  • Character development

Worksheets: scene list, locations and events, character journey

2012: Q3

Third quarter is getting into the nitty-gritty of scenes.

  • Scene structure
  • Words and phrases
  • Tension in every word

No worksheets for this phase.  This is where you make choices about words, about how you tell the story, about dialogue, about description and language and colour.  This is where your rough words become poetry.

2012: Q4

The fourth quarter is about getting ready to submit.  It’s about finishing up any polishing.  It’s about writing a synopsis that captures your novel.  It’s about drafting a query that makes people want to read your novel.  It’s about researching agents and publishers, ready to submit on January 1, 2013.

The new first draft

And in between all this, you will be aiming to write at least 2,000 words a week on your new novel.  Which is achievable for any one of us.

Liquid Story Binder Tutorial Part 1: setting up for brainstorming

This is part 1 of my tutorial on using Liquid Story Binder (LSB) my way.  I’m writing it to give you tips on using this complicated but useful program, and also as an illustration of the way I work.

If you look at the picture in this post, you can see how I work with pen and paper.  It’s a fairly simple system, but I end up with a lot of notes, pads and cards scattered across the desk while I’m working.  I have tried numerous writing programs in the past, but they don’t work for me, because I still end up with masses of notes (which I consistently lose) while the bulk of the text is in the writing program.

When I read about LSB, I thought I might have finally found a program that suits the way I work.   Because LSB is basically a folder (binder for the US readers) only electronic.  You have the facility to store everything; notes, characters, chapters, worldbuilding, scenes, all linked and related and easy to find.

Unfortunately, the program itself is not intuitive and has a steep learning curve.  And for some reason the designers opted for confusing and non-intuitive names for things.  Planners?  Not what you think.  Builders?  Sequences and storyboards?  What’s the difference?  Dossiers, listings, galleries, images, mindmaps!  The possibilities are endless, but opening the program for the first time is overwhelming.

But it’s worth persevering with.  It really is.

There are tutorials, and I learned a lot from them, but I still had to sit back and think about the program, work out how to use it to my advantage.  This series of tutorials is the result.

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