Monday, March 22, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Step #2

I've been so busy doing Step #1 in my revision process (which is to do nothing), that I haven't had a chance to blog about Step #2. Here, finally, it is...


Are you a writer who finds it's easier to make your writing shine than it is to deeply examine your story? Do you craft the perfect scene, compose beautiful sentences, search for exquisite words? Is that what you think of as "revising?" If so, I've got a different approach for you to consider.

All that polishing has its place in the revision process, but it comes much later. Right now, any time spent focused on your writing is wasted time. Instead, you should focus on your story.

In other words, rather than asking yourself, "Have I told my story in the best way possible?" you should ask, "Have I told the best possible story?"

Don't be afraid of the answer. It might not be pretty. You might realize there are giant holes in the logic, or that the stakes aren't high enough, or a million other things. But you've got to face reality and make your story shine before you can make the writing shine. You've got to look at the big picture.

Here are five important things you should have in your story:

1. A character with a problem. Not just an interesting character. Not just a situation. But a believable, sympathetic character with an interesting and difficult problem.
2. A beginning, middle, climax, and end. Make sure your beginning quickly sets up the main character and his or her problem. The middle should show the m.c. working to solve the problem but only making things worse. The climax should be a moment where it seems the m.c. simply can't succeed. And in the end, the m.c. should either solve the problem or not, depending on what kind of story you're writing. Either way, though, the main character has grown and changed because of the story.
3. Big stakes for your main character. What happens if the m.c. doesn't succeed? Why should the reader care if it's not the biggest deal in the world? Make the reader care!
4. A well-developed setting. Ground your story in a time and place. Readers want to know where they are.
5. An inner and outer conflict. In the best stories, the main character solves the inner conflict in order to solve the outer conflict. Think about the outer conflict as the story, the plot, the excitement. Think about the inner conflict as the depth, the growth, the meaning. You need both.

This is a lot to consider (and it's really just the beginning). You've written a big novel. So how do you go about "seeing" it all?

Here are some things that work for me:
I like to make Post-it maps of my novel. Each Post-it summarizes one scene in the story. The smaller Post-its are changes I need to make.

I always make a calendar and summarize what happens on which day. This helps with logic problems and timing questions.

I list all my chapters and describe the action in each one. This is a good way to see the action of the story in one or two pages. It also helps me see when I have left a story-line or character for too long.

Inner conflict and growth is important in my stories. So I like to outline that change as well. For example, in Julia's Kitchen, Cara goes from believing God is a sort of Superhero to seeing him more as a compassionate friend. But that belief can't change in an instant. There are small steps along the way, heading in that direction. I had to be very conscious of her belief and craft every scene appropriately. By outlining these changes, I was able to keep track of what she was believing and when.

All these things help me look at and think about the big picture. Fixing it all is pretty major surgery. But it's vital.

Coming soon is Step #3!

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