Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Revising is the best part of writing

My first draft of a novel usually hurtles along like a runaway train. It has roofless cars and faulty brakes and is headed for disaster.  I recently finished the sequel to Burnt Siena. It’s called Umber Rome, and takes my characters through the catacombs of Rome on a search for Nazi-looted art.

I tend to write quickly in my desire to get the basic story on paper and then spend a great deal of time revising. Draft one is a road map. It is essentially a detailed outline of my characters, my plot, and my setting. But it isn’t finished; it needs fleshing out.

How to go forward with Umber Rome? I thought about adding an additional point of view, since my novel was already in the third person, told from the POV of my protagonist and her policeman boyfriend. More research was needed on the history of the catacombs, how they formed, and the underlying geology of the city of Rome. Flora’s job in art conservation needed some more detail: what did her day-to-day work involve?

Then I went back to some of my favorite editing advice gleaned from two Sisters in Crime workshops led by Nancy Pickard and Donald Maass.

Nancy Pickard is an award winning mystery author and frequent speaker.  Nancy’s revision system builds upon what she learned from a book called Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting  by Robert McKee. “CASTS” is Nancy's acronym for “Conflict, Action, Senses, Turn, and Surprise.” The goal is to have all five elements in each long scene or chapter. “Turn” is defined as a change in the mood or perspective of the POV character, due to say, an event or a new piece of information. “Surprise” is something unexpected, either for the POV character or the reader: “I hadn’t thought of that!”

Donald Maass runs his own literary agency in New York and is a frequent speaker at writer’s conferences. In his book Writing the Breakout Novel he discusses how careful planning and revision can make an author stand out from the crowd. He also wrote an excellent, one-page article, “Building Microtension into Every Scene” in the September 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest (thanks, Molly MacRae!). Maass has great suggestions on how to see your own work in a new light and then make it better. A few are: 1) What would your character never, ever, do or say? Now make the character do or say that. What happens to the story? It gets more interesting. 2) Pick a passage of dialogue and increase the tension between the speakers. It can be friendly or hostile, worried speculation or mild disagreement, “or any other degree of fiction.” Milk the emotions of the characters, and increase the reader’s level of engagement.

Other questions my critique partners have suggested to ask of every scene and chapter: Does this belong in the story? Does it advance the plot, or slow things down? Does it make the reader skim ahead? Then either revise or remove the section.

Is my character fully reacting to what is happening around her? Sometimes she is passive when she needs to show emotion or take action. Force her to take over her scenes, react both appropriately and inappropriately, and move the story along.

Can I make this situation worse? Look at key points in the plot, where everything goes wrong. Increase the stakes, put the characters in more danger, and increase the tension.

Every author has her own system. What are some of your favorite revision strategies?


Jacqueline Seewald said...


This is such a helpful blog! I love the questions. Do publicize so other writers at all levels will have the benefit of reading it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I think revising is where the real work is done, even with a careful first draft. Thanks for the references. It's always useful to be reminded of the best reference books for writing.

Carole Price said...

Very helpful! I edit as I write, often go back to add a sentence or two that occurs to me during the process. I like the editing process and welcome advice and others thoughts on it. I'm nearing the end of my WIP first draft and find your blog useful. Thank you, Susan.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Sarah. I decided to add another POV to my first draft, which bogged me down a bit. I charge full speed ahead through my first draft without a plan and rewrite/revise for the second draft. I do wish I'd planned a little better this. I guess it's a good thing I enjoy the rewrite stage.