Revision techniques differ widely from writer to writer, and part of the reason for that is that different writers put different amounts of planning into their writing. Honestly, for most of us, I have a suspicion that a certain inescapable amount of conscious shaping needs to be applied to plot and structure before we can make a story work. Some of us do the bulk of that work in advance of writing the first draft, and some of us do the bulk of that work after the first draft is written.
Writing is like creating a sculpture. Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Rodin, Cellini, any great sculptor, had a similar process. They:
- had an idea,
- drew the idea,
- modeled the idea,
- found the proper medium,
- set the sketch onto the medium using calipers or a pointing tools,
- carve the rough shape, starting with the main body
- rasp the outline with broad, sweeping strokes to create details
- polish to bring out the color, reveal patterns, and add sheen and beauty
The Writer's Revision Tools for Scuplting a Manuscript
- The idea: There's a difference between an idea that anyone can write--and will likely sell only a few copies if it sells at all--and one that becomes a timeless bestseller. A girl must fight to save her sister and herself, that's an idea. A misfit orphan is swept into a hidden magical world, that's another idea. But they're generic. Looking at how you can give your ideas a stronger, more universal appeal before you write your story and again after the first draft is the most powerful secret to revision. Think how much more unique Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling made the concepts for THE HUNGER GAMES and HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE.
- The sketch: We can't draw our stories, but we can provide a thumbnail of the most important elements by putting them into one sentence that tells us something unique about both the protagonist and the antagonist, provides the goal and motivation, sets out the obstacle/conflict, and provides clear stakes for failure. If we can't do that before we write, we will have a harder time revising after the first draft. And certainly, if we can't set that out after the first draft, the second draft will be far less focused than it should be. Jami Gold has a great post on different ways to lay that out.
- The model: There's a pattern to stories, and fortunately there has been much written about different techniques from Complications, to Three Act Structure, to Save the Cat Story Beats, and more. Use at least one of these either before you write or after you've finished the first draft to make sure you've got the basic plot points that readers will expect and to identify places in your story where you need to adjust your structure or pacing. A great way to model this out if you aren't into outlines is to use the One Page Synopsis--this is the easiest, most painless structure tool.
- The proper medium: For me, the closest writing analogy to finding the right block of marble from which to sculpt a masterpiece is the elusive quest for voice. That includes, of course, the point of view of the story, and it defines how the finished story will appear. Voice usually comes in a flash of inspiration the same way that a sculptor often recognizes the perfect stone when he sees it, but it also requires trial, error, and constant adjustment. Writing scenes from different points of view and looking a different ways to say the same thing can really help. But ultimately, voice is an outlook--a way of seeing the world of your characters. No two characters will see that world in the same way if you've properly done your job.
- Applying the sketch: Breaking the book down into acts and scenes, whether before you write, as you write, or after you write, will quickly let you see what your story structure looks like. Give yourself a one sentence synopsis of the action in your scene. Next, note the day and time, the emotional context, the goal for your character, whether or not she achieves that goal, and how it changes the overall story. A scene that doesn't have a ripple effect on every other scene is not doing what it needs to do yet, so you'll need to remove it or go back and examine how to make it work harder.
- Carve the rough shape: Scenes, like stories themselves, need structure. They require a goal, a conflict, room for failure, unexpectedness, and a framework that makes them visually unique. They need to vary in emotional temperature. Look at the length of each scene and chapter, check the structure, and verify that you're not getting bogged down in witty banter that goes nowhere. Make sure there is always a sense of forward momentum as well as character development. I often split this into two separate passes, a plot and world-building pass and a character pass.
- Develop the details: Only once the story is there and the shape is in place is it worth going in to look at the details that make the story memorable. This is the place to worry about making sure there is something on each page that makes the reader sigh, or cry, or laugh, or clench their fists. This is the time to make sure there is visual imagery--but this is also the time to make sure that description balances with story and doesn't detract from forward momentum.
- Polish the sentences and words: Notice that I haven't said anything about sentences until this stage, and that's because before I get to the polishing stage, anything that I do to perfect the sentences is basically wasted effort. One, it's harder to throw out beautiful sentences and subconsciously, we're less likely to see that those beautiful sentences need throwing out. And two, what's the point of perfecting a sentence that may need to be cut? Words and sentences come only once everything else is in place.