February 28, 2011

Revision, II

I'm continuing the write-ups from the Writer's Conference  I attended in San Diego at the end of January.  These notes are from Q. Lindsey Barrett, author, on revising the draft of a novel.

Structured Revision, by Q. Lindsey Barrett

Write hot, passionately, quickly, push limits in first draft-you can always dial back if you need to use a rolling outline no matter than three chapters ahead, then. . . Revise cool. Take only the previous day's work to revise, then at 20,000 words, step back to make sure you're on the right step.

Think about writing in terms of clothing.
Ready to wear—mass produced 20 stacks at a time, fabric can slip
Designer clothing, cut in stacks of 4-5, so it's more true to size
Couture, custom fit—one garment at time.

She interrogates each detail until it fits into the novel.  She does a novel a decade.  She has a strategy she uses to get through it.

Prolific horror writer Elizabeth Engstrom knows her ending before the first draft.  She writes toward the end--writes to discover.  In all good stories, the ending is echoed in the beginning.  There are other writers who revise as they go, but Ms. Barrett's advise to us is don't revise each scene endlessly—you'll get sick of it because you revise and revise and revise.  Sometimes writers don't get past the first chapter.  Remember--you have thirty seconds to capture someone's attention. Write that full first draft! 

No matter if you're a white-hot writer or a cool writer, the revision process is the same.
Start with a two week resting period.  A week is an absolute minimum.
She likes a long resting period (The Writing Habit by David Huddle—a  book she recommends).

Shift to a different writing project in the interim.  You want to come back to it as if you are a reader, not a writer.  You have to print it out.  Read it like a book.  Read it straight through (may take a couple of days).  You are reading for story—don't get out that pen!  Don't look for typos, grammatical errors.  If there's a problem, she puts a tick mark in the margin.  If there's a whole section that needs to be reworked, a vertical line in the margin. 

Pass One. When you are ready to start the first draft, some start over.  She means they start writing from scratch—the entire book—all over!
Five Scene Scaffold—most emotionally resonant scenes.
Write those first—your pen's on fire and you're interested.  Inciting incident, then climax.  Just write those five scenes that are most important, then fill in.

Pass Two. 
Story again.  No typos, no grammar.  This time you can make marks, but no correcting.  Each scene has a set-up, a resolution—read for story in the scenes.  Each scene should have a little hook.  Then write a transition—something that makes them wonder happens next.  Analyze what you've just rewritten by identifying the acts.

Pass Three.
Identify the Acts: Each scene builds up the larger complication—decide where the  ms (manuscript) forms the three acts of structure.
I--Set the character on their journey
II--Beset with conflict, just before the end is the darkest moment. Where they need to gather their resources and rise to the challenge.
III—Protagonist has an epiphany.  At end of act III make sure external conflicts and internal conflicts tied up, resolved.

Think of these as units—I needs more of a set-up, III might need more of a resolution.

Give your readers information that allows them to conclude/figure out the qualities of their characters—action, dialogue.  Tension, tension, tension, tension, and some humor which can help ease the tension.  If your characters cry, your reader doesn't have to.  We will feel the characters' sadness if you write it from the actions.

Pass Four.
Story equals conflict.  Do not allow your characters to say yes to each other.  Put them in opposition—the conflict doesn't have to be overt—it can be covert. 
Every once in a while you'll need a "breather scene"—but be specific as possible—no generalities.

Pass Five.
Interrogate your story—did you employ the five senses?  In our world, we are separated from them—we use sight all the time.  Readers CRAVE sensory details to help readers understand our scene.

Assign five highlighters for each sense—highlight the five senses.  Your ms should be a rainbow (no need to have each sense on each page, but there should be a good distribution.)

Pass Six.
Did you find yourself flipping through pages?  Action verbs are critical.
Now is the time to correct the typos and grammar.

Things That Irritate a Reader, Things to Make Sure You Have
1.     Take out Side Trips—that don't further the plot
2.     Flesh out where you've been Telling, Not Showing.  Passive voice is a clue—take passages of telling and turn them into dialogue to get the characters talking—Sometimes she'll put another person in the room and make the characters talk—even if it feels artificial.
3.     Take out the words: Very, Causing, Just,  or any other words you use incessantly. (Use the Replace tool on your word processing program—don't do anything, just use the Replace to see how many uses of the offending word you have, then go through them one by one.)
4.     Watch out for present tense: Here This Now Today (these words are flags)
5.     Investigate every use of the word "it," "there is," "there are."  Weak writing.
6.     Adverbs—investigate—try to convert your adverbs to strong verbs and strong nouns.
7.     Relate every conversation to every pronoun (correct pronoun usage)
8.     Take out qualifiers: sort of, nearly, almost.
9.     Eliminate things that distract the reader, pulls them out of the story. [You don't want to pull your readers out of the fictive dream by making them pay attention to oddities.]
10.  Inaccuracies—or things locals would know—fix them.
11.  Speeches that go beyond a paragraph.  No internal thoughts that go beyond a paragraph.
12.  Make sure the reader is always grounded in space, time and POV.  [Scenes change when POV, time or locale changes.]  Make Characters distinctive.
13.  Investigate forms of the verb "to be," substitute an active verb.  Passive voice. "The book was picked up by Alex."  Passive voice.  AVOID.
14.  Tension needs to be on every page.
15.  Each scene has to have internal conflict.  We don't care about plot—we care about how hero is feeling about it.
16.  Make sure the opening engages the reader.  Try using action—doing something.  Not sitting, not thinking, alone in a room, driving to work, waking up.
17.  Check your chapter endings to make they are deliberately weighted to make the reader want to know what's going to happen next.  We want the reader to go to work bleary-eyed because they stayed up all night reading.
18.  Make your ending echo the beginning.
19.  The change in your protagonist is the character arc.  Make sure it is the external story events that change the protagonist.  Internal changes have to stem directly from external changes.
20.  Secondary characters need to be fully formed, but if you're bored with the main character, work on them.
21.  Be interesting in every sentence.  If writing were easy, everyone would be a writer.
22.  Vary your sentence length, structure.
23.  Characters should not be in the business of drawing conclusions, nor should the author.  The reader is the only one who can draw conclusions.
24.  Put sensory images in every paragraph.  Have something the reader can touch, taste, smell, see, etc.
25.  Make sure the complication, or the obstacles, are the only thing slowing the plot, not the writing.  (Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, scene of Conrad noticing the details which describes C's ascent to the doctor's office—gives us a sense of him, of the doctor's office, of the doctor).
26.  Tighten and heighten.  Compress time to put on more pressure, draw out the tension.  Something has to happen before something else.
27.  Make sure the names evoke the character.  Scarlett O'Hara was Pansy just until the book went to press.
28.  Omit all unnecessary words.  Does the sentence work without it?
29.  Ask yourself: Are all the story questions answered?  Story Question  is what is the premise.  Are these answered?

February 6, 2011

Revision, part I

One of my favorite workshops was taught by Angela Rinaldi, an agent.  It was interesting to me because I was able to see through the tips that she gave for rewriting, how a book can look to a pair of fresh eye--to an agent.  Some of these tips I heard in other workshops (they must be universal) but it was her perspective that I found refreshing.  This would be a good CD to get of the conference (actually there were many that would be good to get).

Get Me Rewrite!
Angela Rinaldi

You might think your fist draft is your best draft.  Trust me,  It's not.
Revision does not diminish your creativity or originality.  Nothing will be lost by rewriting.
You have to make the time to re-write, make it part of your routine.
Out of the work, comes the work.  You have to do the work and you have to keep on doing the work.  You' won't arrive unless you go back in and keep on working. Even Keats revised. Even the great ones work for greatness.
Less is More.  Especially on description.
Revisions make you work on your inner voice, but your inner voice may be boring. Self-editing might result in bringing in other voices. 
Avoid those things that bother you in novels.
·      physical descriptions
·      bloated dialogue
·      exclamation points
·      excessive use of big words
·      dialogue tags that are intrusive, say too much
·      "shot a look"
·      too many characters
·      cliché writing
·      "convenient" plot devices
A workshop where the teacher shows you how to edit can be very very helpful.

You have to learn how to read books and deconstruct them.  Read them and take them apart—esp. NYTimes bestseller books.

First Reader: Not every writer has a critical eye for their work.  Bring in a first reader as they can point out problems that the writer can't see.  We writers are very tender and it's hard to offer up the writing for perusal.  Set up some ground rules.  Pick someone who has the same aesthetic as you do.  Have them read for a specific item.  Grammar.  Or have someone focus on the through line—your main point—what's carrying through every scene—the railroad track that runs through every scene.  The arc of the novel.  If a scene isn't attached to the through line, then ask yourselves why is that scene there. Ask that first reader if they get what point you're trying to make.

Checklist of Bad Habits
You can use this list--because it's easy to do, it's also a good way to get into the editing.  Once you finish this, you'll have the strength to go back in and do more.
1.     Don't use dialogue tag lines—it should be obvious what's going on.  Don't use smiled, as in " 'Nice to see you,' she smiled."  If you have two people in a room, use minimal tags, instead use physical action.
2.     Avoid unnecessary stage directions.
3.     What goes first, comes first. Bob sees the knife first, then asks about it.  Many times Bob has picked up the knife before he saw it.
4.     Avoid adverbs.
5.     Don't give us back story in dialogue.
6.     Don't tell and then show—if you show it, don't tell.
7.     Don't open your book with obscenities.
8.     Don't open your book with throat-clearing.
9.     Don't use exclamation points.
10.  Don’t open with weather.
11.  Avoid sentences that start with "The man" or So or And or That or But or It.
12.  All your characters should have some redemptive qualities.

----------More Questions for Revision---------
Are your characters too familiar? Are they engaging? Do they have individual characteristics?  Do they lay down and die during critical moments—are they standing there like dolts in a scene of high intensity?  Do they react when they need to?
Have you given them names that fit their characters?
Characters reveal themselves through their words—does their dialogue match their intent?
Have you gotten into the head of characters, into their minds?
Story promise—in the first couple of pages of your novel?
Have you forsaken contemplation over action?

She read us a column by Ayelett Waldman, published in the Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2010.  Waldman uses the term "Bore-geous Novel."  Bore-geousness happens when you write beautifully but without any action.  Each scene must be necessary to the narrative.  "In writing, you must kill your darlings."  (Faulkner)

Does your story matter to you?
Is going to broaden our understanding of the human condition?
Are there surprises?
Is there a moment of epiphany?
Do you have a distinct voice?
What is your story's through line?
Source of tension? Internal desire vs. internal goals.
Does the character grow?

Story Promise
What will the reader gain, understand at the end of the novel?  EG: Is he going to get the girl—themes are more abstract, but story promise is more concrete—it's like the challenge the characters have to overcome.  Will the answer to a question be resolved?  The story promise is more concrete than the theme.  You always want the writer to give you a better idea of the human condition, but she sees that more as the theme.  [Some discussion here, as we are all bit confused.]  This is not the character arc. This is more like what the reader is promised at the outset: Will he get the girl?  Will she find her man?Will they have a child? Will they survive the car crash?

QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE (I've only given only the answers)
Websites that assist in the editing can sometimes cause you to procrastinate. 

Watch out for prologues—sometimes writers use them as doom to come.  When they work, they really work—those that are philosophical, families are in trouble, all is not what it seems—seem to give a sort of idea of how to read the novel are the best.

Titles?  They change all the time. Don't obsess about them.

When are we done with re-write?  If you're still working on it after 11 years, it's time to let it go—out to agents, or let it go.

Read aloud your dialogue.

First person POV is a revision nightmare because it allows you to say so much more.

February 2, 2011


This is the continuation of the posting of my notes from the Writers' Conference in San Diego at the end of January.  I went to two Dialogue classes.  The first one was a string of anecdotes, and I didn't find it very helpful.  This class was given by James Scott Bell.  He uses movies as a reference source.  I sometimes wondered about that.  Why not novels?  It reminded me of a conversation I had with Steve Minot (a professor in University of California's Creative Writing Dept) who said when he and his wife would have cocktail parties in the early days, everyone would talk about the books they'd read.  But in the later years (Steve Minot died last year), it was all about the movies, and Minot thought that movies had replaced books as the Great Universal.  I did find Bell's examples helpful, and kept noting which movies to put next on my Netflix list.


The fastest way to improve a manuscript (ms) is with dialogue, and if you can submit—in your first chapters—a scene (make sure you have a scene) with dialogue, you're ahead of the game.

Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.
It's an extension of your character's agenda.  If you have someone in the scene who doesn't have an agenda, kick them out!

Famous quote: A good story is life with the boring parts taken out.

Good Dialogue
1.     Essential to the story.  It advances the plot. It gives us story information.  (Maltese Falcon with Sam Spade & Cairo).  It reveals character.  The way Cairo talks is very different than Sam Spade. Dialogue can reveal theme.  Some writers know their theme, but other writers discover it as they go.  If I take my character and project them twenty years in the future and someone asks them "Why did you have to go through that?" they'd be able to answer the question in larger themes.  Think of the Life lesson in the movie Wizard of Oz: There's no place like home, but that's the counter of what they voice at the beginning.
2.     It comes from one character to another, naturally.  No excessive expository information Avoid those lines like: "Here we are in sunny Spain!" This would be something that both characters know (but that the audience doesn't), so they wouldn't have to say it.
3.     Conflict and Tension—Why? Because in good dialogue 1) the dull parts taken out, and 2) someone in your scene is worried about something.  Every character in your scene has something on their mind, something they are worried about.  Butch and Sundance "I can't swim."  "But we're going to jump."  Conflict between allies.  Conflict can come from something that doesn't sound complete—missing information—mystery can increase tension.  Mystery is like a maze—you're trying to find the answers, but suspense is like a tight coil, which gets tighter and tighter as the scene goes on.
4.     Sounds just right for the piece.  Be aware of dialogue that shouts "I'm great dialogue."  Needs to be effective without calling attention to itself. (Not the same as memorable dialogue).
5.     Sounds just right for each character.  What kind of vocabulary does your character use? Does it fit their background? Education? Demographic? Favorite words or expressions? Regionalisms?  Peer groups?  (e.g.: skateboarders, professions, lawyers, doctors, etc.)  What kinds of things to you say to other doctors that we patients don't normally hear? (interview a doctor if you're writing about dr.).  Syntax—words and phrases and the way people say them—word order, rhythm, combinations of words.
6.     Not real life speech.  Don't use hesitators (uh, um, well) or only use them if there's a reason for them.  Again, if it's part of their agenda—make it logical.
7.     Compression.  Dialogue is honed down, rather than puffed out.  We like white space these days—interruptions, action, call all give us that white space.
8.     Subtext.  What is actually said in the scene may not be what is being communicated.  Think of an iceberg.  On the top is the scene being played out. Underneath: back story, character relationships, thematic elements, and the meaning of those things.  They naturally come up to the top, but in a subtle way. Think of Casablanca—scene with Rick, Nazi dude, and French captain.  Characters are talking that way because of backstory, of hidden agendas, of attitude, made memorable by subtext.

Tools to Write Good Dialogue
1.     Orchestration—you can get good dialogue before you write a single line of it by how you orchestrate your characters.  Create them with possibility of conflict with the other characters.  Different agendas, different personality types.  (Think main characters in City Slickers.)   The dialogue will almost happen by itself.
2.     Transactional analysis, which comes from the book Games People Play.  The theme of that book was that we tend to play to play roles in our relationships and we speak in scripts.  Three main roles: parent, adult, child.  If you have two characters in a scene, ask what role to they think they play in this scene.  Two adults are boring—what if one had a parental role and one had a child role.  (Think Cop and person being interrogated.)  Great conflict.  Give thought to the power levels of your characters.  What role are they playing?
3.     Compression.  Actually dropping words—cut them out of your dialogue, esp. at the beginning and the end.  The emotion is there because the words were actually cut, not added.
4.     Cast the Character.  Google images can give you a headshot,  so you can see and hear the character before you write.  Having this image helps you write dialogue in the character's voice, not your voice.
5.     Act it Out.  Literally.
6.     One gem per act, or Curving the Language.  Make your dialogue memorable by curving the language.  Do you ever later say "Wow, I wish I'd said that."  So, write a line in your dialogue, then curve it—play with it.  "She looked like  a million dollars" can morph into "She looked like a million bucks--tax free."
7.     Place exposition within confrontation.  One way to get exposition/explanatory info is in tense conversation/anger.  (On the Waterfront with Brando.) 
8.     Sidestep.  "On the nose dialogue" is a phrase in screenwriting which means there is a statement, then a direct response, then another statement, then the direct response. Some of this will exist in your novel, but you can increase conflict by doing off-center stuff.  Why do some people not answer the question?  Or answer with a question?  Or an interruption?  Or a sudden punch?  He then did a series of short Q/A with an imaginary husband and wife, showing these types of things.
9.     Use silence, or an action beat instead of a verbal response.  (Think of Hemingways' short story Hills like White Elephants.)  It's all done through dialogue, or what is NOT said.
10.  Let if Flow Exercise.  Write the whole scene in dialogue, letting the characters almost improvise—just let them go.  They begin to take on distinctions that you might not think of.  But then, take that, and see if you can identify the most powerful line in that scene--pull out that out and make it the key to the whole scene.
11.  Minimize.  Take a scene you've written—a dialogue-heavy scene—and then see how much dialogue you can cut.
12.  Attributions/Tag Lines--These things move in waves, but there seems to be more minimalism currently in vogue.  The dialogue itself should tell us how it's being said.  Minimal tags are sort of invisible, which is good.  Occasionally using an action beat, if that action is integral to the scene.  Try to minimize the tags, but don't eliminate them.  Sometimes too many action beats can distract the reader.  Every time you use an action beat, the reader is having to picture it—and it moves the concentration of the reader from the dialogue into the action.  Adverbs—avoid.  Use VERY sparingly.  How can I rewrite the dialogue or the action around it to get rid of the adverbs? should be asked.