Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Revisions are Really About: Getting to Know Your Story

A lot of the time spent in the revision process involves getting to know your characters and story on deeper levels. I've noticed that it takes me a whole draft to get the story, then maybe two or three sets of revisions before I really know the characters. It's good to know I'm not the only one. In responding to my post on when to stop revising, here's what some of my commenters said:

Tabitha Bird: "I know to stop writing when I can write a good query letter. When I can sum up the book and I know what it is about and the whole thing makes sense, then I know I am there."

Karen Strong: "I can't even began to tweak my pitch or query until I'm almost near finishing revisions. I just don't really know yet until it's at that point."

I suppose that's why some people  make character sheets, setting descriptions, highly detailed plot summaries etc, before they begin writing. But until I put my characters into situations where they have to act and react, I don't really know them, or the surprises they will bring to the story.

Monday, July 26, 2010

How Do You Know When to Stop Revising?

For the past few weeks I've been working on revisions and I'm ready to stop. How do I know it's time?

1. My toughest critic (so far) read the revised manuscript and gave me a thumbs up.

2. I've cut as much as I can from the story, without removing anything essential. Any more, and I think the story would fall apart.

3. The story actually makes sense! I was able to write a coherent two-paragraph summary, a pitch sentence and a query letter. (They need more work, but the story is focused enough for me to capture the essence of it now.) I know, I know. It would have been easier if I'd done that at the beginning. For this one, I had to write the book to know what it was about.

4. The story has stopped filling up my thoughts. This sounds crazy, I know. It's summer. I should be out enjoying the world instead of feeling tied to my computer. Sometimes the story grabs hold and won't let you think about anything else. Yesterday, I spent a whole day poking around in my garden, chalking on the driveway with my kids, taking a long walk in nature. The story didn't call me back.

5. I have first drafts of two other novels waiting for more attention.

At least for now, I'm done with revising this story. Until it captures the interest of an agent or editor and they make more suggestions for improvement. I'm not kidding myself. I know there will likely be more revisions for this book in my future. And I won't mind. But for now I've taken it as far as I can. How do you know when to stop revising?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Revisions: Enhancing the Setting

I'm surprised about how much rearranging happens during the revision process. I thought events were pretty much in the right order, but once I started cutting and condensing, the structure became a lot clearer in my mind. Sections needed to be moved. Some needed total rewrites to make new transitions.

But....I managed to cut about 5,000 words! Even though I got rid of some writing I was proud of, the novel is much tighter and more coherent for having done it.

My next step is to think about details - details that show my characters personalities and details that show the setting. For settings, I've made a scene by scene list of the settings in my novel. This gives me an overall picture of whether there is variety in my settings (because some of the scenes I cut had interesting ones). My plan is to brainstorm sensory details that go with each setting. Then I'll look for places in the novel where I can bring in a few additional details to enhance the setting.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Make Two into One: Revising to Condense

Despite the pain involved in the process, I've managed to cut some scenes from my novel. Yay! It's making my story stronger. Something else I've noticed is that in some places I can condense scenes by combining two scenes into one. For me, this works when two scenes have some similarity:

 1. Setting. Does your MC need to visit the same location again? Maybe both goals can be accomplished at the same time. I had my MC walking the dog at the same park twice within a couple of chapters. Was the second visit necessary? I managed to combine the scenes to reduce the number of setting changes.

2. Dialogue. Sometimes when I'm preoccupied with solving my MC's problem, she has similar conversations with more than one character. I had to ask myself, is anything new emerging? Sometimes the same information is being rehashed in different conversations. Cut and condense.

3. Events. When notes from my critique buddies say things like, "didn't this already happen?" it forces me to take a second look at the obstacles I'm throwing up for my MC. They may be different, but not different enough to stand out. That's when I start moving around large blocks of text to capture the strongest reaction to the obstacle. It forces me to find another, even tougher way to make things hard for my MC.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Revisions Step 2: What to Cut?

One of the big things I need to do with my revisions is to cut some of the length of the novel. I know there are sections where the pacing slows down, or the story gets caught up with subplots, so I'll take a closer look at those.

To help with that, I'm revisiting all the critiques from my amazing critique group MiG Writers. I'm going through them carefully, not for the picky details (those will come later), but for larger ideas that affect the whole novel. Wow - it's so helpful to have a good critique group! My group members put a lot of thought into their comments and I'm taking them seriously.

There's some great advice for editing over at The Blood-Red Pencil. I love the idea of getting a quick feel for the pattern of tension and conflict in a novel by assigning a ranking to sections or chapters and making a graph to see how it looks. Maybe that will help me decide what sections I need to cut (another painful process).

What's your best tip for deciding what to cut?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Beginning Revisions: First Read

I waited a few months after last reading my (unsubbed) novel, hoping that would give me the distance I needed to be more objective about it when I started revising. My plan was to read it all the way through first, then think about what I needed to change. I was surprised how painful it was for me to read it. It didn't feel like a real book. It sounded a lot worse than I expected. And a few times I got so bored I wanted to give up on the idea of reading through it at all.

Maybe I wasn't in the right mood, but I made myself finish. After a while, it got easier. I slipped back into the world of my story and even began to enjoy a scene here or there.

The process of reading it through without trying to fix anything turned out to be valuable. For starters, those places where my attention wandered were telling me something. The fact that I didn't get into the book right away might mean I haven't got the opening right yet. The places that I enjoyed might be telling me about what I need to keep. 

Have you ever found your own writing difficult to read? Did it turn out to be helpful?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blog Awards and Seven Interesting Things

In the past week or so, I've received a couple of blog awards:

Thank you to Karen Strong and Samuel Park, both of whom have interesting blogs you should check out!

In keeping with the spirit of the awards (or the rules) I'm going to tell you seven interesting things about myself:

1. I'm addicted to board games (okay, some don't have boards but they aren't computer games) and I play at least one game of something everyday. Current favs: Ticket to Ride Europe, Triominos, Backgammon.

2. All of my novels (4 so far) contain nature in some way, the influence of growing up in Northern Ontario.

3. Though I'm Canadian and have lived in Mississauga, Ontario for a long time now, I once lived in Brooklyn, NY, in Cobble Hill on Dean St.  

4. It may be hard to believe, but I actually enjoy teaching kindergarten. Teaching is my third career.

5. A place I've never been but would like to visit is Venice, or actually anywhere in Italy, for the art and the food.

6. I enjoy cooking and have changed the ingredients in almost every recipe I've tried.

7. I don't normally do these "pass it on" type of things, but since it's summer and I'm on a more relaxed schedule I decided to live a little.

In no particular order, some other blogs you might be interested in (I think there are supposed to be ten, but I don't always follow the rules):

M.B. West at M.B.Writes
Caroline at Caroline by Line
Marcia Hoehne at her blog
Theresa Milstein at Substitute Teacher's Saga

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Setting: Using Real Life

Something that helps me to create a strong sense of place in my novels is to use details from places I've been. That way, I can imagine the setting in my head as my characters interact with it -- how the hallway looks, what the restaurant smells like, where the best climbing trees are in the playground.

The downside of doing this is that sometimes, I don't include enough detail. I'm seeing it through my eyes, not a stranger's eyes. I may leave out a key detail because I've seen it so many times before. It almost makes me think I should choose an unfamiliar setting I could visit. Then I'd actually take the time to absorb all the sensory details I need to really bring it alive. Do you use real-life settings in your novels? How do you avoid the problem of being too familiar with them?

If you don't know it, a great resource for getting the right descriptive details is the Setting Thesaurus over at The Bookshelf Muse.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Celebrate...And Win!

I have a lot to celebrate! I finally finished the last chapter of my first draft! It's done! Yay! Now my children have stolen it away to find all the things they think I should fix.

If you are a follower of my blog:
As a thank you to my blog followers for their encouragement, I'd like to offer you a "first impression" reaction of the first page (approx 250 words) of your latest MG or YA writing project. To take me up on the thank you, paste your first page into the body of an e-mail, and send it to me at amackca at hotmail dot com by July 11, 2010. In the subject line, please write: first page critique. [Note: I won't open attachments.]

Everyone should check this out:
My critique buddies and I are running an awesome contest to celebrate our new and improved blog! Visit MiG Writers and post a one-line summary of your story to win a critique of your first ten pages by all six of us. Take my word for it, my critique partners dish out some pretty helpful feedback.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What a First Draft Reveals

Writing a first draft really shows up your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Have you ever noticed how some parts come easily? It shows where your writing is strong. For instance, when I write dialogue, it seems to flow naturally. Later, I probably won't need to do much editing of the dialogue (unless it relates to the plot, of course). I'd say it's one of my writing strengths.

On the other hand, I'm not so good at establishing the setting (among other things). I've been writing so fast, concentrating on bigger things, like the story, that my characters are practically floating in the middle of nowhere. Not always a bad thing, but if your character is in a market and suddenly walks into their bedroom...well you can see how that could cause problems for the reader. My critiquers often point out that I need to add more setting details. Sometimes, they say my settings are too much of the same and need variety.

Have you ever thought about your writing strengths and weaknesses? It's useful sometimes. If you're aware of your weaknesses, you'll have a great starting point for what to tackle when it comes to revision. And it shows where you can do more reading or exercises to develop your writing skill.

WIP update:  In case you're wondering, I'm still plodding along with my first draft, with about two chapters to go. Then I'll have to go back and make sure my characters aren't floating around with no sense of time or place.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Canada Day!

What I enjoy most about Canada Day is all the blissful silence I get for writing, since no one else has to get up to go anywhere today. I can't sleep in, since I have some kind of built in alarm clock that wakes me up with the robins (or maybe it is the robins that wake me up). I love the early morning peacefulness. I get my best writing ideas before a lot of other stuff crowds into my brain. 

A quick update on my novel draft:  I'm still working on it. I didn't meet my "end of June" goal (but I did have fun celebrating the end of the school year with some coworkers). It's probably going to take me another week to get my WIP finished, which is still amazing for me, since I only thought up the idea for this story in March.

If you're celebrating, Happy Canada Day! I hope you get time to do something you enjoy!