Tag Archives: Revising

Achievement Unlocked: Revision Milestones

Looking back, the big turning point in my writing career came when I embraced revision.

Cocky teenage me thought everything I wrote was awesome, and only needed light editing to be perfect. Eventually, I realized that the first draft is only a starting point, and the most important part of the writing process is elevating your book from promising to kick-butt drop-dead awesome through an Edge of Tomorrow-like process of revising it again and again until you have honed it to a bleeding edge of badassery.

It can be really hard, though, to know when you’re ready. When you’ve leveled up your skills in the unforgiving lava dungeon of revision until you are prepared to fight the boss monster of querying.

It occurred to me today that there are certain milestones writers tend to pass as they gain XP crunching their way through writing career side quests. I spent a few minutes brainstorming a list of some revision achievements many writers seem to unlock before finding success in publishing. If you’re wondering if you’re high enough level to poke your head into the boss monster dungeon, it might be worth taking an look to see how many of these you can check off.

You certainly don’t need to have done all of this stuff—if you’re good enough to get it right the first time and haven’t had to do some or even most of these things, that’s awesome. But I’d suggest that if you can’t check off at least 5-6 of these, you may want to grind some more revision levels before querying. And I would suspect most agented writers can probably score at least 50%.

Have you ever (on any book, not necessarily your current one):

Cut a major character, or merged them with another character?

Cut an entire chapter?

Significantly changed the order of events (moving whole scenes/chapters around)?

Cut an entire subplot?

Added an entire subplot and woven it into the story?

Started over completely?

Rewritten an entire chapter (or the equivalent) from scratch?

Had 50% or fewer of your first draft words make it to the final draft?

Done a complete reimagining of a major character?

Rewritten your first page(s) completely 5+ times?

Done a revision pass focused specifically on improving one general/abstract aspect of the book, such as voice, setting, stakes, through line, etc?

Changed POV, tense, viewpoint character(s), age category, genre, or another similar major meta-structural element?

Written 5 or more drafts of a novel?

Completed more than one novel?

Trunked a novel?

What am I forgetting? If you comment with other common “achievements,” I’ll add ‘em to the list! (And maybe I’ll do a more reach/advanced achievement list someday and make it into a full-fledged Revision Hell test or something.)

Happy revising!


Breaking a Scene List into Arcs

In a previous post, I talked about color coding my scene list by stakes. That’s only one of the ways I use my scene list, which is really a super handy all purpose tool to look at a book’s structure in all sorts of ways. (To review, it’s just a list of all scenes in order, with a short phrase naming each scene.)

Another way I’ve used it that came in really handy on my current revision is to use the scene list to break the book up into arcs or acts.

I look at the scene list and try to identify turning points in the book, and map out arcs connecting those turning points. You can look at varying sizes of arcs, from a few major acts to lots of shorter arcs—whatever’s useful to you—and even nest them if you want to get fancy. For my current round of revisions on THE TETHERED MAGE, I wound up identifying 10 arcs of varying sizes.

After I identify these turning points, I break up my working copy of my scene list accordingly, and I try to name or label each section based on its overall arc. If I can’t identify an overall direction, or I want to label a section “A Bunch of Random Stuff Happens,” it probably means I have a bunch of disconnected scenes without a clear through line. (This happened to me on this latest pass, and it was super useful to catch it so I could find/make a through line.)

Here are a few of the redacted-for-spoilers labels for my current working arcs in THE TETHERED MAGE, for example:

  • Meet [REDACTED], Your New Problem
  • [REDACTED] Is Getting Worse And Maybe It’s [REDACTED]’s Fault? LOOK ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONNECTED!
  • Starting to Figure Stuff Out & Have Victories & Solve Stuff…
  • OH WAIT NO EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL

(Those aren’t consecutive, except for the last two.)

For other projects and past drafts, I’ve sometimes used more specifically descriptive phrases, as opposed to the more abstract and structural ones above. Here’s a made-up example of this approach:

  • Part One: Searching for the Golden Potato
  • Part Two: Potato Found, but Stolen by Void Bunnies!
  • Part Three: Hunting Down the Void Bunnies
  • Part Four: NOPE! Running From the Void Bunnies
  • Part Five: All Seems Lost (Void Bunny Ambush & Aftermath)
  • Part Six: Unlocking the Inner Potato (It Was Within You All Along)
  • Part Seven: Stealing Back the Golden Potato
  • Part Eight: Void Bunnies Destroy Seattle
  • Part Nine: Unleashing the Golden Potato
  • Part Ten: Post-Potato-splosion Wrapup (soup w/leeks & bacon, mmm)

It’s kind of like the scene list zoomed farther out.

In addition to helping spot structural issues, I also find breaking up the scene list into sections to be really helpful for tackling my edits in bite-sized chunks. For instance, if one of the 25 things I want to work on in this revision is strengthening character X’s voice, and character X doesn’t appear until my 3rd arc, I don’t even have to worry about that item on my list until I get to that section.

It helps me manage the revision a piece at a time, without having to juggle too many things in my tiny brain. And I can identify what I most want to focus on in each arc, and keep that focus in mind as I revise that section.

I’m sure there are a ton of other ways you could use this, too — and other writers probably have their own variations on this technique. I like making lists, because that’s how my brain works. Some people may prefer to map out acts more visually, or go crazy with sticky notes, or make an Excel spreadsheet, or name their cats after various plot themes and throw out some catnip mice and see what happens.

Some people may even be so awesome they can keep track of all this stuff in their head and not need 32 pages of notes to do a revision. (HA HA WHAT KIND OF LOSER HAS A 32 PAGE REVISION PLAN ANYWAY? NOT ME.) (*Switches tabs while you’re not looking*)

For me, though, the scene list is the X-Ray that lets me look at my story’s skeleton. And this is one way to make sure everything’s all connected properly, and not just a loose pile of bones.


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.


Go Back and Revise, or Keep Drafting?

I’m at that point on my WIP where I know I’m going to make some edits to chapters I’ve already written that will significantly change a viewpoint character. I have to make the choice whether to go back and revise now, or to forge ahead and finish the first draft before revising.

Normally, I’m a big fan of revising first when this sort of thing happens. It’s hard to build on what came before if you don’t even know what that is. If I haven’t rewritten those scenes, their emotional content can’t inform what I’m writing now. I can’t make subtle references back to what happened there, or let the particulars of those key events drive how my characters act and make decisions now. I can’t refer back to those unwritten scenes in dialogue or internal monologue.

In this case, though, I’m going to forge ahead. Because this is a multi POV project and I’m trying to do some cool things with how the POVs play off each other, I already know there’s a lot of revising in my future. Anything I go back and revise now is just going to get revised again when I’m done, and the new stuff I write now is probably also going to get revised…maybe even completely rewritten. This is not going to be a “clean, awesome first draft” kind of book. It’s going to be messy before it gets pretty.

So I’m going to let go of perfectionism (for now) (at least a bit) and forge ahead, choosing momentum over continuity in this draft. Different books require different strategies!

I know I’m not the only one who’s faced this dilemma… I’d love to hear how others have handled it!


Questions to Ask During Outlining (or Revision)

I’m working on a new outline now for my restart of my WIP. For every scene I add to my outline, I’m asking myself these questions:

What changes in the scene? – If nothing is really different at the end of the scene than it was at the start, I probably need to cut the scene or combine it with another one. This question helps me catch “show the status quo” scenes or “establish the characters” type scenes that don’t add anything to the story.

What is at stake in the scene? – One of the big reasons I’m rewriting my current WIP in the first place is that I realized while plenty was happening in the first 15K words, and my characters were learning things and doing stuff, they didn’t really have strong personal stakes yet. It doesn’t matter how action-packed a story is if the characters don’t have deep personal reasons to care about what’s going on.

What will keep the reader compelled to read on at the end of the scene? – This should be an exciting question or situation they want to know more about, and it can’t be the same thing scene after scene. I need short-term dramatic pull to get them to turn the page and start the next chapter as well as an intriguing overall arc.

Does the emotional tenor of the scene follow from what happened just before? – If I murder someone’s parents in Chapter 8, they shouldn’t be chatting about boys with their BFF over cannolis in Chapter 9. But it’s way too easy to do this by mistake.

Is the one-sentence description of the scene similar to that for another scene? – For example, in the outline I’m working on, I had two scenes where my outline description was basically “Character A confides in Character B, and Character B encourages Character A.” Same two characters. When I catch this kind of thing, usually I combine the scenes into one.

It’s easiest to ask these questions at the outlining stage, because then I can catch problems before I write the scenes and save myself work. However, these are also questions I try to ask myself during revision (especially if I’m looking to cut wordcount). If I’m honest with myself about the answers, they’ll catch a lot of problems for me.


The 15K Rewrite

First drafts are such a wonderful, magical thing, full of infinite possibility and the intoxication of the blank page. They are also, usually, crap.

There’s a good reason for this. We’re just getting to know the characters, find their voices, establish the story. Here’s an example of what the first several chapters of one of my first drafts might look like:

  • Let’s choke the voice to death trying to make it beautiful!
  • Who the hell are these characters? Maybe if they putter around for a while, I’ll find out.
  • Inciting incident… 2-3 chapters too late.
  • Now let’s talk about the inciting incident in such a way as to establish our characters! Because nothing gets you turning pages quite like establishing the characters.
  • Maybe we can talk about our backstories a bit, too. If we do it while walking around or eating breakfast, that’s not exposition, right?
  • Uh-oh, nothing exciting has happened for 4 chapters. ARBITRARY ACTION SCENE TIME!

…Yeah. Really gripping stuff.

But wait! By around 15K-20K, all this flailing around has actually accomplished something. I’ve got a sense of the characters and their voices. I’ve fleshed out the inciting incident and how it impacts them. I have a better sense of what their lives and goals were like before and how the inciting incident changes everything.

Time to start over.

For the past couple first drafts I’ve written, when I got somewhere around that 15K-20K mark, I opened up a new doc and tried again. This time, I was armed with a much better understanding of my characters and my story. I didn’t entirely throw out that first try — I brought the good parts over into the new doc — but I approached it like a from-scratch rewrite.

I can’t even tell you how helpful this was. Not only was that first quarter of the book immensely better, but I launched into the rest of the first draft after the rewrite with much greater mastery of the story. The first draft of the rest of the book was better for it. I’ve heard from other writer friends who’ve done the same thing, and they’ve generally been enthusiastic about the effect as well.

Right now I’m at around 16K on the first draft of my new WIP. I’ve just hit the point where I can look back at what I’ve written and go ugh, this could be better, and I know how. And I’m about to hit a really good break point.

It’s rewrite time.


Honest Answers to Querying Writer FAQs

For fun, here are some honest answers to the questions querying (or pre-querying) writers REALLY frequently ask.

Q. Is my book any good?

A. Yes. But it could be better.

Q. OK, is my book good enough?

A. WRONG QUESTION! It’s never good enough. Back to the revision pits!

Q. How do I make this book better? I’ve looked at it so long my eyes are bleeding.

A. Give it to good, honest CP’s. Take a month or two off from it and start something new (not a sequel). Fall in love with the new thing. Learn from it. Now come back to the first thing, especially if you don’t love it anymore, and you will magically be able to make it better.

Q. But I want to start querying NOW!

A. NO. No exceptions. Take the time off and start something new to get some distance first. DO IT.

Q. OK, I did it. Now, OH GOD, how the HELL do I write a query letter?

A. Go critique other peoples’ letters in a forum or blog workshop somewhere first. Also go look at query contest winners on the big blog contests, and figure out what you like about your favorites. Also, QueryShark.

Q. That’s a lot of information. Can you sum it up in three words?

A. Yes. Character, conflict, stakes.

Q. Ugh, writing a query letter STILL sucks.

A. It will always suck. Go get feedback on yours now.

Q. Does my query letter suck?

A. WRONG QUESTION. Ask yourself, “Is this so awesome anyone in their right minds would immediately NEED to read this book?”

Q. Seriously?! THAT’S the bar?!

A. Yep. Terrifying, isn’t it?

Q. Dude. I should just quit.

A. NO. No quitting. BACK TO WORK.

Q. I sent out my query letter. WHEN WILL AGENTS GET BACK TO ME?!?!

A. Never. They will never get back to you. Your suffering is eternal.

Q. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

A. Or you could check QueryTracker.

Q. Argh, now they’re getting back to me and it’s all rejections! Does my query suck?

A. Yes. Or else your book isn’t ready.

Q. How do I know which one?

A. Get feedback from someone whose judgment you trust who will be honest with you. Then listen to it. Then revise.

Q. I’m getting requests! OMG OMG!!! What do I do?!

A. Keep calm and query on.

Q. HOW LONG CAN IT TAKE AN AGENT TO READ ONE FREAKIN’ PARTIAL?!

A. Ten thousand years.

Q. Will they EVER get back to me?!?!

A. Not always. Non-responses on fulls are a thing.

Q. SERIOUSLY?!!?!? That is the WORST THING EVER!!!

A. Yep.

Q. Can I nudge?

A. On your full? After 3 months or according to guidelines. No sooner. Get your finger off that send button. (Smacks)

Q. When do I give up on this book and move on?

A. You should already be writing the next book the minute you start querying. If your book isn’t getting the response you want, stop. Pause. Look at it. HARD. Make it better. Make it better than that. Then try again. Chances are it’s not hopeless, you just queried it too early.

Q. I looked hard, and, um, I think it might be crap. NOW should I move on?

A. If it’s actually crap and you’re not just having a low moment, sure. If you’ve got a new book that’s better. (If not, why weren’t you writing it all this time, hmmm?) If it might not be crap, or you don’t have anything else ready, BACK TO THE REVISION PITS!

Q. You say that a lot, don’t you?

A. There’s a reason for that. Every book can be better, always. MAKE IT SO.

That was fun! What did I miss? Got any suggestions for more Honest Writer FAQs I should add?