Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why the last minute of 'Mad Men' was storytelling genius

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Warning: This post contains spoilers; proceed at your own risk. If you haven't seen the Mad Men finale, what are you waiting for?? You can watch it here.

For most of the Mad Men finale, I was underwhelmed. I’ve seen far too many disappointing finales in my time, and I tend to watch them now through a scrunched face wincing against the disappointment that seems sure to come. In this case, what I saw wasn’t bad; nothing outrageous or ridiculous, and nothing amazing either.

But in the last minute of the show, that changed.  

In that minute, Don Draper has a breakthrough at a hippie commune/institute, and as a result of it, comes up with arguably the most iconic television commercial ever made. There are several opinions on the nature of that breakthrough, and what exactly the commercial reflects. Some people argue that like the Grinch, Don Draper changed fundamentally that day—he found peace, personal growth, and fulfillment, and the beauty of that was channeled into the commercial. Others argue that no, he’s the same old Don Draper he ever was, and the breakthrough was just do to with how to exploit the cultural zeitgeist for the purpose of his clients. 

I fall closer to the second camp, but that’s irrelevant for the purpose of this post. I don’t want to talk about who’s right or who’s wrong, I think both opinions are valid. I want to talk about why the storytelling device they used in that last minute is such genius. 

The simple aspect of the genius is that the above ambiguity itself turns the device into a Rorschach test, and regardless of where you fall, ends the story in a personally satisfying way. That alone is not easy to do. 

But there’s a more complex aspect, as well. As writers, we’re always on the search for not just a good device, but for the best device to transport our readers to wherever we want to take them. To bring up not just the setting but the emotions, the sensations, the feeling of a time and place. To bring who the reader is in to what we write, and to make our writing a part of them.

The juxtaposition of Don’s meditative smile and the ‘Hilltop’ Coke commercial did all that in a most brilliant way: it called up our associations and attachments to that original commercial, and then mutated them through the lens of Don’s journey. I was barely more than a sparkle in my daddy’s eye when that ‘Hilltop’ commercial first aired, but it was still a huge part of my cohort experience. The song and the subsequent commercials, they became an anthem for my parents’ peace-and-love hippie generation, and thus an inevitable part of my cultural experience. But not, it turns out, in as simple a way as I had previously thought. 

When the commercial started to play during the finale, I was first transported to that time in my childhood when those idealistic values ruled the day and people really did believe in potential human utopia. I instantly, reflexively, smiled and sang along, a flush of happy memories fluttering through me. 

But that juxtaposition framed this viewing of the commercial with the ethos of Mad Men itself, and the knowledge given me by cultural hindsight. Those kicked in as I watched the camera focus on a Coke bottle, and then on an entire row of Coke bottles. I was uncomfortable, disconcerted; while I was undeniably seeing the original commercial, it didn’t match my memory of the cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t the idealism of a generation, and it wasn’t a message of peace and love—it was a commercial, and an obvious one. They were trying to sell me something, not a worldview but a soft drink that had absolutely nothing to do with peace, love, and harmony. Other associations flooded me: obesity, diabetes, corporate irresponsibility. 

As the song hit its crescendo (”It’s the Real Thing! What the world wants today!”), I watched the overacted face of the singer, and blanched at the bombastic lyrics. In a few short years, the idealism of this generation would turn into the ‘ME’ ethic of the 1980’s. Greed is good, watch out for yourself, the polar opposite of ‘love your neighbor’. And as the baby boomers who populated the commercial and the world came into power, financial markets would collapse, eerily similar wars would be fought, and the world would remain, in most relevant respects, the same as it was before their revolution. Was this an inevitable part of human nature? Would it always be this way?   

Goosebumps ran across my skin as the message came full circle. That’s what the show has been asking, all of these seasons. Advertising, well, they’re selling you what you want to buy, so you’ll buy what they want to sell you; it’s not real. Don Draper was the king of this, of cloaking the product in whatever garment would make the consumer feel they'd morphed into the person they wanted to be, in the world they wanted to inhabit. He embodied that fundamental message of the advertising world: people are what they are, and you can’t change that, but you can manipulate the illusion. Still, at the same time, Don railed against that cynicism, wanted to believe in something more about the world and the people in it; that was the push-and-pull that tortured him throughout the seven years.  

If you believe his struggle ultimately changed him and his new zen mindset was reflected in that commercial, you may have had a different cascade of emotions and associations during that last minute than I did; then again, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter, because the device worked its magic either way. It took your life experiences, your rich network of cultural beliefs, and called on them to help tell you the story. Made you look at those experiences and beliefs through the context of the show. And in one single minute, without a single word of dialogue (other than the pre-existing song lyrics), it took you on a journey that made you contemplate deep questions about the human condition, while putting a cap on seven seasons of the show for you.

I call that powerful storytelling.

Should this be discouraging for those of us who work only with words, who can’t put in a video or audio clip into our work? Are we capable of less? No, absolutely not. Every medium has its own pluses and minuses, and I think there is an interesting discussion to be had there, but at the end of the day, that’s the challenge and the allure of writing: we use words to weaving magic. We’re called by the desire to create worlds, experiences, emotions, and new thoughts in the minds of others. And no matter the medium, when we see someone do it this well, with such deceptive simplicity, it’s stunning and awe-inspiring.  


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Review: Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley

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In my recent post about my revision process (you can find it here if you missed it), I mentioned that there were several books that helped me along my fiction revision path (which turned out to be very different from revising my previous non-fiction). I’m going to do a series of reviews on the ones I like, starting with one of my very favorites, Rock Your Revisions: A Simple System for Revising Your Novel, by Cathy Yardley. 

Rock Your Revisions has been a life-saver for me; it helped me stake out an effective approach to my revisions, and then walked me through each portion of them. I’ve come to think of it as a user’s manual for fixing your novel, like the kind of user manual that walks you through repairs to your car. 

Maybe it’s only me, but a manuscript can be intimidating, sitting there all bulky with lots of pages and chapters and paragraphs and sentences—where do you even begin? Page by page, looking for every possible issue as you go? How would that even work? How do you keep track of everything you should be checking for? And what if all you can figure out is that a scene or section isn’t quite working, but you’re not sure how? 

This book helps with all of those issues.

Built into the structure of the book itself is a plan for tackling your revisions and breaking down the nightmarish big-picture into manageable chunks. Because you can’t keep track of everything at once, so don’t even try—instead, do it in stages. The book takes you through a three-pass process of revising your novel one step at a time, and as it walks you through, it helps you diagnose problems you might not be able to recognize. 

The first revision pass takes you through structural revision; this looks at the between-scenes structure of your book, or Yardley refers to as ‘framing your house’. Here you’re going to look at your story structure, your characters and your storytelling devices. Within this section, the book continues to walk you through step-by-step to help break down this revision pass(of course you don’t have to follow it if you don’t want to):  

Pass 1: Structural revision pass
Quick read
Scene Chart
Characters (Story-level)
Plot Points and Story Arc
Characters (scene-level)
Scene flow and escalating conflict
Talking head avoidance devices
Opening Scene
Closing Scene
Creating the first pass plan

The second pass is the scene revision pass; as Yardley puts it, in this section, you’re going to make sure every room in your house has a purpose and is furnished in a manner that serves that purpose. Here you’re going to make sure that each scene is structured well as its own unit (has a goal that you’ve acieved), that everything flows, and that the contents are compelling to your reader (you don’t bore them with too much narrative summary, etc.):

Pass 2: Scene revision pass
POV revisited
Dialogue check

Finally, the third pass is your fine polish pass, where you decorate your rooms, make ‘em nice and pretty for your visitors. Here is where you do the equivalent of line-editing. This pass is represented by a single chapter in the book, broken down into different issues like checking for repetition, checking for typos, and the like. Yardley assumes that you mostly know the drill here—after all, you’ve been doing this sort of revising most of your life--but gives a good reference for more help in this area: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (which I will be reviewing next time, because I love that book, too). 

In each sub-section throughout the book, Yardley defines the important concepts you need to know, shows you what you’re looking for via examples, and gives you ‘assignments’ at the end to allow you to put the advice into action. Her explanation and examples are clear; some advice books I’ve read will give you 2-3 pages of a book or story to read to illustrate a point, and by the time you read it, you forget what you were looking for. Her examples are concise and user-friendly. 

Most of all, I love this book because it has a flow-chart nature to it; overall, as I’ve already mentioned, but even when it comes to individual issues. For example, in one sub-section about making sure your characters are behaving consistently, she gives a diagnostic tool to apply for each scene in turn (I have paraphrased this somewhat for space reasons; she explains as she goes): 

(1) Identify the POV character in a scene.
(2) Identify the scene’s goal
(3) Check this goal against the overarching Goal-Motivation-Conflict of the POV character.
(4) If there is a mis-match (if the scene’s goal conflicts with the GMC), adjust your scene. 

For me, this syllogistic trouble-shooting approach is perfect. Sure, somethings I can figure out for myself. But sometimes I may know I need X, but I have no idea how to get X. This helps break it down in a way that clicks with my mind. It makes things crystal clear for me, and gives me an action-oriented way to diagnose what's wrong with the scene, and how to solve the problem. 

In my writing life, I have taken the essential approach of Rock Your Revisions and modified it suit my own style. I don’t follow the exact order she suggests, and I have a few other things thrown in that I know I personally need to address when I revise. But this was the book that helped me begin carving out my approach to revision, and I still go back to it when I revise. I think it’s a great place to start if you’re facing your first revision, and an excellent way for more experienced writers to help smooth over their problem areas.     

Do you have any books or other sources you've found helpful for revision? I'd love to hear about them in the comments if so!

Happy revising,

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Research trips for your novel: My tips!

I just went on my first official writing research trip!

I’m gearing up to revise my third novel and write my fourth; both are set in a little California town that I love. I’ve visited once a year on average for the last fifteen or so years, but always for a get-away, never with an eye to writing about it. So it was time.  

I know what you’re thinking. These days, you don’t need to leave your house to research a location. You can stroll the streets of Paris on Google maps, and you can search the history of any place, even down to the buildings and the people who live there. So why bother doing a research trip? 

As writers, we try to capture the five senses when we write, and we try to take things deeper than the typical experience, and internet research can’t capture that for you. Not the smells of the freshly-baked bread from the boulangerie. Not the sound of the violinist sitting in the park, or the crisp sweetness to the air in the morning. Not the precious surprises, like the hidden courtyards or the sculptures in the cheese shop. It can’t capture the people, their manner and their accents. Your experience of these things, even if they don’t all make it concretely into your writing, will give the ring of truth the same way your character’s backstory gives dimension even if you never reveal it. 

Here are my tips for getting the most out of your trip:

1) Do your research beforehand. Yes, I know that sounds like it contradicts what I just said and you’re tempted to throw something at me (don’t do it, you’ll only break your tablet). But I'm talking about a different type of research. Figure out what you need to see and experience that you can't otherwise (especially in accord with #2). Find the right tours, etc., to meet the particular needs of your book. 

2) Do what your characters do, go where they go. If your book has already been planned to some degree (outlined or even partially written), you already know some of the things your characters will need to do, and some of the scene settings you'll need to use. Maybe several scenes will take place in a diner a la Seinfeld, and you'd like to pick a real one to use for authenticity. Maybe your murder mystery takes place in an art museum; you'll want to visit that museum (find out if photography is allowed in advance, take notes on layout, etc., while there if not). If your characters work at the police station (or will end up there at some point), pay a visit and at least see where it is and what the outside looks like. 

But don’t forget the non-obvious stuff. Where does someone of your protagonist’s demographics live in that city/town? Where do they shop? In my book's town, there are no chain grocery stores, only two mom-and-pop grocers; I never realized that before this trip, because when I’d visited before I was on vacation and ate out. Where do relevant locals hang out? What restaurants do they eat at? If they have kids, what do the schools and parks look like? The daily routine of someone living in Manhattan versus a small town in Central California is going to look very different, and you want to be able to portray that well. So don't just eat in the restaurants you want to try, eat in the restaurants they would eat in. Check out the places they would go.

What if you only have a very vague idea of what your plot will be? If the location is a far away, expensive trip, you might want to wait until you've written a first draft or detailed outline, and adjust your revisions accordingly. But if it's close and easy to get to, why not let the location itself spark ideas for you? Maybe you'll fall in love with a particular park and the perfect scene will practically write itself.    

3) Talk to locals. Strike up a conversation with local people when you’re doing your thing. Tell them you’re writing a book set in their town, and you’re almost certain to be met with enthusiastic help. People are proud of their homes and their knowledge, and they’ll hook you up with all kinds of inside information. And while you’re talking to them, pay attention for any local expressions or mannerisms they use.   

4) Take a local walking tour or two. Larger tours like bus tours and duck tours are fun and good for an introduction to the city/town. But smaller walking tours are where you’re gonna get your gold. These take a longer time to cover a smaller area and your guide will fill that time with information. Usually information that’s hard to come by elsewhere; local lore, obscure facts, interesting trivia, all the stuff you want to spice up your book. Take the time to find quality tours run by experienced guides; they take pride in what they do and truly love the subject. And ask them questions! They are enthusiastic about sharing what they know, or they wouldn’t be doing this for their living. Tell them you’re writing a book about their beloved town, and watch the information flow. Just don’t ask so many questions that the other people on the tour can’t get their own in, and remember to tip your guide well. 

5) Stop by the local history museum. I know what you’re thinking: "We have a local history museum where I live and it has exactly three postcards and a stuffed jackalope." First off, I bet it has more than you really appreciate, because you’re a local and you know local stuff already that an outsider wouldn't. Local history museums give priority to preserving things that larger museums can't, and you’ll be surprised what you can find there. Maybe you’ll discover an annual quilting competition founded in the 1800s put the town on the map—and that it still happens every year. That little nugget right there could be the basic plot for the next mystery in your series. Second, even if the museum doesn't really have much, it does have a docent who loves the area and has tons of knowledge hiding in their little gray cells. 

What about bigger cities? They often have smaller specialty museums based on different aspects of local history. Do some digging and find the ones that relate to your book. 

6) Experience local transportation. Sure, maybe you have enough money to take cabs everywhere when you visit NYC (if so, would you like to adopt me?), and would never need to set foot in the subway. But if one or more of your characters will be on that subway, make sure you get down there and experience it. Even walking down the street in your book's location may be very different from what you’re used to; walking in Manhattan during commute times, for example, is an experience unlike any other. So get out and walk where/when your character would walk. Stand in line for that cup of coffee they pick up on the way to work. Taste the street meat they grab for lunch when they're in a hurry. 

7) Try to go at the right time of the year. Maybe you hate snow and it would never occur to you to go to Boston in November. But if that’s when your book is set and you visit in August, you’re going to miss a lot of detail that would lift your book to a different level.

8) Be on the lookout for the unique and quirky. When I was in Paris, I saw a lady feeding sparrows out of her hand in front of Notre Dame Cathedral (she did this regularly). I tried to imitate her with the leftovers of my morning baguette; she came over and showed me how to attract them, and soon I had scores of little birds sitting on my fingers and eating crumbs from my palm. Not only was that an amazing experience, but how wonderful would it be to have this woman in your Parisian mystery? Think of they joy your readers will feel if they recognize her in your book! Did you know that the Roman Colosseum is overrun with stray cats? Throw a cat or two into your description, and you just got a lot more real. Did you know that bands really do walk through the streets of the French quarter in New Orleans? (That detail made it into my second book, sho’ you right.) Writers have great imaginations, and we can make up our own color when we need to. But if we can capture the color that’s already there, so much the better for connecting with others who love our location.       

9) Take a lot of pictures and video. I’m talking an obsessive, mind-numbing, ridiculous amount of pictures. Of things big, details small, and everything in between. You think you’re gonna remember it all, but I promise you, you won’t. As I was writing up my notes an hour after finishing my walking tour, I went through my pictures and they reminded me of several things I'd already forgotten. And sure, there are tons of pictures on the web of things like Times Square. But only YOUR picture will capture what was on the billboards while you were there, and that crazy lady who was wearing a hat that matched her dog’s. 

And I’m not talking about those types of pictures, anyway. Pretend you’re a photographer who is trying to capture what’s unique about the city in a new way, and you’ll end up with a trove of material to spark memories and build setting. I've even been known to literally take pictures over my shoulder when I’m on a tour that is moving too quickly for me to snap all the pictures I want. What can it hurt? These aren’t the days of yore when you had to go to ye olde film store and pay through the nose for developing; if the picture is a blur, you can delete it. But it’s always always always better to have too many than not remember that perfect detail for your scene.  

10) Journal, journal, journal. Write down what you're experiencing as you get the chance, in down moments and at the end of the day. You'll be experiencing a lot in a short period of time, and memory decays quickly when overloaded. So dump what you can onto the paper and keep that storage space clear for the next bunch of information! Also, journaling now will help keep those experiences fresh and compelling.

Most of all, don’t forget to soak it up and enjoy. Whether you chose your location because it’s somewhere you love or have always dreamed of going, or because it’s a necessary by-product of the story you want to tell, let it invade your soul. Your experience of it will naturally bleed into the story you write, and will make your project that much richer.  

Have other tips that I missed? Leave them for me in the comments!

Happy writing! 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: A Writer's Guide to Persistence, by Jordan Rosenfeld

Do you ever feel like giving up on your writing? Maybe after a rejection from an agent or magazine you thought was a perfect match for your work? Or after you spent eight hours revising a two-page scene only to realize the next day that your original version is better? Or when you’re staring at a blank screen and the voices in your head are whispering to you that you’re crap? Maybe when you read a masterful piece by another writer and feel like you’ll never be able to achieve that sort of beauty?

Nah, me neither. 

Hahahahaha, YEAH RIGHT. If I had a dollar for every self-doubt I’ve had, I’d be driving a Ferrari down to my weekend yachting excursions. 

It’s not a novel observation that the ability to persist is a key skill in a writer’s bag o’ goodies. But how? How do you keep persisting as you're being pelted relentlessly by the rejections and voices in your head? 

A Writer's Guide to Persistence
Jordan Rosenfeld’s A Writer’s Guide To Persistence tackles this question from the roots on up. It has three parts: ‘Practice’, ‘Polish’, and ‘Persist’. Each of these main divides have several smaller sections, like ‘Push through perfectionism’; in each of these Rosenfeld discusses the issues that hold writers back, and gives concrete suggestions for overcoming them. She also has a ‘Work it’ exercise in each section designed to jump-start you on the topic, and a ‘Move it’ exercise designed to get you physically moving, since breathing and physical activity can help fight off our negativity and boost our production. In some of the sections she also has guest writers share some relevant personal experiences on the topic at hand, in sidebars titled ‘Persistence is personal’. 

In the ‘Practice’ third of the book, Rosenfeld breaks down the fears and the excuses that keep us from an effective writing practice. We’ve all said things like: ‘I would write if only X’,‘I can’t write unless I have Y’, ‘Maybe I just don’t have anything interesting to say’, ‘What if nobody ever reads what I write?’ and so on. She shines the light on all of these and many more, and then helps you build defenses against them. She gives advice for building your own ‘creative support team’, finding the time and space to write, and constructing a plan to reach your goals. 

In ‘Polish’, Rosenfeld helps you defeat the demons that keep your writing from flowing, and your craft from deepening. She helps silence the voices that stop you from writing things that scare you, and encourages you to push your abilities and develop your skills. And she explains why revision isn’t an indication of failure or bad writing, but a necessary part of creating good art.  

With that brave foundation in place, ‘Persistence’ helps with the roadblocks that you will encounter when you’re trying to put your work out into the world. Just got your twentieth rejection on the same piece? She explains how rejection can help you. Did you just spend several weeks volunteering at a conference, but didn’t manage to get even one agent to look at your manuscript in the process? She explains why all that effort was not wasted, even if it seems like it was right now. She helps you tell quality feedback (critique) from harmful feedback (criticism), and know what to act on and what to leave behind. She helps you recognize sabotage, both from yourself and from others, and defend against it. She discusses when and how to submit, how to deal with those inevitable rejections and how to know when to self-publish.   

What makes the book work for me is the insight Rosenfeld has into writers’ fears and self-destructive reactions; for almost every topic in the book, Rosenfeld gave voice to a fear or concern that I’ve had, or that one of my writing friends has had. Every time Rosenfeld mentioned one of my fears, my brain cried ‘Yes! That’s it exactly!’. That insight alone is powerful: so many of us think we’re the only ones to ever have such-and-such fear, and because of that we’re not worthy of membership in the writing club; to see that others share our struggles gives hope and encouragement.  Maybe we’re not so strange after all, and if they can overcome it, so can we. And to that end, she uses her insight to break down the relationship between our fears and our self-destructive behaviors, and provides solutions.  

If you’ve never had the voices of doubt whisper to you, never had internet trolls slam your deeply personal work ‘til you want to crawl into a hole, and never had a stack of rejections make you question whether your dog can write better than you, you probably don’t need this book. But for the rest of us, it’s an excellent source of strength and guidance for the days when we want to put all our writing through the shredder and gorge ourselves on chocolate. 

BTW, Jordan Rosenfeld is having a virtual launch party for the book on Facebook, on May 13. She'll be joined by other authors who will be sharing their best writing tips, and she will be giving away copies of the book! You can check out the event page here

Happy persisting!


(Disclosure: this website may be compensated for linking to other sites.) 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Now what?!: How I revise my manuscripts

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Yes, I did it!!
So you wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo or whenever, and now you need to revise it. Confused? Overwhelmed? Unsure where to start? 

Yeah, I know how you feel. Revision still strikes fear in my heart, but I’ve revised a few novels now, and I’ve learned a few things that might help you out. Here’s how I revise, with a few tips along the way. 

My first draft

I'm the sort of writer who needs a lot of revision, because I write my first drafts most effectively when I lock my internal editor in the trunk at the back of my closet, trussed and gagged. Once she’s dealt with, I usually start with an idea, and build in my structure as I go (you can see an explanation of my pl-antsing approach here); I don’t write in a linear fashion. When I realize I’m going to need a scene or a set of scenes, I create pages in Scrivener as a placeholder for them; I give all my scenes names/descriptions and assign them Scrivener ‘labels’ to indicate which scenes are finished and which are still in progress. As I finish the draft, I check my labels to make sure I’ve gone back and written all the scenes I was supposed to write.

I change my label when I finish the scene...
In corkboard view, the color of the pins quickly tells me which scenes are done (yellow). 

Then, I set the manuscript aside for six weeks; nary an eyeball nor a fingertip shall molest it during that time.

First revision pass

My first pass consists of three parts: read-through, prep, and revision.

Read-through: The first thing I do is read through the manuscript as though it were any other book. I print it out with font, spacing and formatting that gets it as close to a printed paperback as I can get it, grab myself a cup of coffee, and read. I keep a pencil at my side, but not in my hand because I don’t let myself edit; I only make broad notes at this point. I’ll mark where the pacing it too slow or too fast, where I need more introduction, where I need to mention some crucial point earlier in the plot; I’ll note where characters are coming across flat or inconsistent, when I need additional scenes, or when I need to move scenes or cut them completely.

Speaking of, there's an excellent tip I’ve seen several places, including K.M. Weiland's podcast: know what your weaknesses as a writer are, and focus on them during revision. One of mine is too much narrative summary, and this is where I call myself on that tendency; you’ll find ‘NS’ generously decorating the pages of my first read-through everywhere I find summary that needs to be developed into an action scene. If you don’t know yet what your weaknesses as a writer are, keep your eye open as you do your first read-through, and/or ask your beta readers if they can identify any when they read your manuscript. This will helping you knock out some problems quickly the next time around.

Prep: Now I pull up my manuscript in Scrivener, and create an associated spreadsheet in excel. For each scene I’ve written, I create a row in the spreadsheet with columns for the name, description, and revision goals. I consult the notes I made during my read-through, and add any new scenes I decided I needed, both into Scrivener and into the spreadsheet. I will use this to track each of the changes I need to make, and to track my future revision passes:

For each of these in Scrivener...

I create a row in my spreadsheet.

Revision: Now I'm ready to go through and make all of the changes I noted during my read-through; I do this in order, so I can keep track of information flow and pacing as much as possible as I go.

Second revision pass

This pass consists of three parts: read-through, pacing, and revision

I do another read-through at this point to verify that the changes I made in my first revision pass did what I hoped they would do, and that my basic structure and storytelling is sound. I make notes as needed; hopefully there are far fewer of them this time.  

Now that I'm pretty sure I have my basics organized, I check my pacing. I check my overall pacing in my spreadsheet; I note where I have action, backstory, climax and resolution scenes, and rate them on a 0-9 scale for tension:

I track the individual story arcs for any sub-plots directly in Scrivener. This was particularly important for my first book, Hazel-Green, a family saga; each generation had its own story arc in addition to the over-riding arc for the book. Scrivener allows me to pull out all scenes that have a given character (or anything else you want to select for), so this is easier to track and work on directly in the program.

If I feel my pacing is off anywhere, I will tinker with my order or add/remove what I need. Once I’m satisfied with that, it’s time for more revision; this time I’ll revise for several specific problem areas. I generally do this mostly scene by scene, and track what I’ve done in my spreadsheet (see above). I go through and make sure my characters are consistent and distinct. I do a setting check, to make sure I’ve adequately set the scene as needed (place, time, and any other relevant aspect). I check my dialogue to make sure it reads authentically.

Why use a spreadsheet for this? When I'm checking my characters, for example, I go through and work on one character at a time; this means I'm not working in a strictly linear manner. The spreadsheet lets me mark off each scene as it's finished for each character, etc., so I know where I need to go back and do what.

Third revision pass

At this point, I polish the writing itself; here’s where I go through and do my line-editing, tighten the writing, and make it as beautiful and compelling as I can. Why not before? I find it's much easier to cut a scene when I need to if I haven't spend days and days polishing it to perfection, so I leave this part for when I'm fairly certain what I'm polishing is going to stay in the book. In my spreadsheet, I highlight the name of each scene in one of five shades of purple, dark for scenes I think are well-written, light for those that need lots of work, with shades in between as needed. I keep working until all the scenes are the darkest shade.

Also at this point I print out a calendar for the time period covered by my book, and track out the exact timing of everything that happens. This lets me make sure I haven't made any stupid errors that will undermine my plot (like having a full-term baby appear only four months after the couple consummates). 

Final pre-beta revision polish 

Why do I need another polish if I’m happy with all my scenes? Because I can’t trust my own eyes, that’s why. This pass is for silly little things I know I shouldn’t do, but still manage to miss, like passive voice, weak verbs (‘walk’, ‘go’) annoying constructions like ‘started to’ and ‘began to’, and unneeded adverbs. I compile my manuscript so it’s all in one document, and use the search function to pull up all instances of these trouble makers, then I fix them directly in Scrivener. 

Last but most certainly not least, I read my entire manuscript out loud to myself to catch typos and anything else that doesn’t read right. In one of K.M. Weiland’s podcasts, she mentions that if you have a kindle, you can also have it read your manuscript to you; Scrivener can compile into a .mobi file for you, so I’m definitely going to try this with my current work-in-progress.

Off to beta readers!

This is where I’ll send the manuscript off to beta readers. I’ll certainly need to revise more, but at this point I'll need their help to show me the way. So for now, my revision is done, and I can go and do my double-chocolate happy dance!

So there you have it. I hope some of this has been helpful for you. Stay tuned, in the next few weeks I hope to review a few of my favorite revision advice books. In the meantime, if you have any revision tips, I'd love to hear about them!

Happy revising,