Ten Things About Revision (FenCon Writer's Workshop Part 5)

Revision is war. It's the toughest part about being a writer; so tough that amateurs often skip it altogether. But if you want to be a pro, you're going to have to do it at some point.


The following series comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.

Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in The Good Fight, an anthology of superhero vs. monster stories.


FenCon--a long-running science fiction and fantasy convention in Dallas, Texas--hosts an affiliated writers workshop every year, where professional writers share their own experiences with beginning writers in intensive workshops.

My own writing is at a too comfortable plateau, and I attended to learn some new skills to improve my writing. I've enjoyed FenCon writing workshops before and always find something to take away.

I attended the workshop with my friend and frequent collaborator, Belinda Christ. I think she has attended them all. Like me, she's always searching for community and new tools to improve her trade.

This year, 2015, urban fantasy writer, Jaye Wells, did a four-day class for a dozen writers on critiquing each others' work. Ms. Wells used our comments as a springboard to present sessions on structure, conflict, and the other areas writers need to learn their craft.

Part Five - Ten Things About Revision

  1. Ice, ice, baby: After you finish the first draft, let the story chill. Go get some sun. Write something else. Go talk to actual people instead of imaginary ones. A couple days is okay. A couple weeks is better. Ideally, you'd have a couple of months. You need distance so you can read it with cold, critical eyes. When you're ready, read your story like a reader in one complete pass. Don't worry about commas. Make quick notes about things that need fixing, but don't get too anal about it. This read is about seeing the big picture of your story as it stands.
  2. Arm yourself for battle: For me, this means redoing my storyboard (more on that below) to reflect scenes that need rewriting, shifting around, or deleting altogether. I go chapter by chapter and plot out what needs to be added or deleted, so once I'm in the thick of the swamp, I won't lose my way. I can hear the pantsers out there whining, but revision is about taming that wild beast of a draft into a readable story. A plan will go a long way to making your vision come through for the reader.
  3. The red pen of doom: Revision is not a time for the muse. It's not that liminal spot where you're floating through fluffy creative cloud of drafting. Send the muse to the basement with some red wind and reruns of Buffy. Then rip the duct tape off your internal editor’s mouth. Chuckle when she bitches about the pain. She’ll be torturing you soon enough. Give her free reign over the red pen and let her go to work. Encourage her to be merciless. By the time she’s done with the second read of the pages, it needs to look like a murder scene – the blood of your pen everywhere.
  4. Get naked: There are a few experiences for writers more terrifying than asking for critique. It feels a little like stripping down in front of a group of catty sorority girls and asking them to circle all your fat in Sharpie. Obviously, being an awesome person, you're too smart to ask for critique from malicious people. No, you need someone you know is tough but fair. Tell them exactly what sort of you need. Even with my published author CPS, I still tell them exactly what I need. "Don't worry about sentence level stuff. I just need a bird's eye." "Hey, can you read this and tell me if the subplot is working?" If you do it right, letting yourself be open to constructive criticism will result in a stronger story.
  5. Every chapter, every scene, every sentence: Nothing goes unanalyzed. A book is a complex system with lots of moving parts. You need to make sure they're all working together or face a massive malfunction. While we're at it, every character must have a purpose, every plot twist must build upon the last, and every subplot must braid into the main plot to highlight your themes and conflicts. Sounds like a lot, right? Welcome to the big leagues, son.
  6. Sing it, sister: Read it out loud. Yes, all of it. Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the rhythm authentic? If not, fix it. Don't do this in the middle of revision, but after the story is pretty tight and you've done a lot of the heavy lifting of revision. Pace around your house and read the story to your dogs or the dust bunnies. You will be amazed how many mistakes you missed and poor turns of phrase you discover. You might feel like an idiot, but do it anyway.
  7. Seven-later dip: In addition to fixing plot holes, revisions also allow you to add complexity to your characters and world. You'll be amazed how much of a difference a well-placed sentence or line of dialogue can deepen characterization. Layer in details that flesh out your scenes and expand your world. Finding opportunities to add these little gems should be on your Must Do List.
  8. Get thematic: By the time you're ready to do your first cold read, your themes should have begun to make themselves known to you. Maybe you set out with certain ones in mind, but ones you don't consider have a way of sneaking in when you're not paying attention. If you're writing genre fiction, you need to use a deft hand when it comes to theme. No one wants to be conked over the head with meaning. One way to subtly buttress them, though, is to instill your sentences with theme words. Come up with a list of words that help infuse your story with the right mood and thematic symbols. For an overview of this, read Alexandra Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.
  9. Don't panic: Bi-polar writer's syndrome is a real thing. One minute, you're all "I'M A GENIUS! THIS IS THE BEST BOOK EVER!"  Then it hits you that there is a distinct possibility you could die before you're about to share this work of amazement with the world. Luckily, you listened to me and left a detailed revision plan. You email it to your baffled spouse. "No matter what happens, don't let my publisher hire my nemesis to finish this novel. This is my LEGACY!" Five minutes later, you're slumped over your keyboard howling, "MY EDITOR'S GOING TO TAKE A CONTRACT OUT ON MY LIFE. REVIEWERS ARE GOING TO CHASE ME WITH PITCHFORKS AND FIRE!" You might daydream about quitting writing altogether or getting into an accident so you don't have to finish the book. My advice? Learn to be patient with yourself. Try to enjoy the ride. Also, have a friend on speed dial who will bring you chocolate/bourbon/chocolatey bourbon.
  10. The fat lady: There is such as thing as too much revision. Someone once said that novels are never done, just abandoned. At some point, you're going to realize you've just spent four hours deleting and reinserting the same comma. This is a signal, friend. It's time to let go. If you're not under deadline, you have the luxury of revising as long as you want. But the wise writer won't waste years of his or her life trying to turn a three-legged dog into a show pony. Set it in a drawer, send it out for critique, or submit it. Then move on to something new. A lot of wannabes have wasted good years using revisions as an excuse to start something new. Don't let that be you. Listen to the fat lady. She'll tell you it's over. Move on. You've got new worlds to create.

General Revision tips:

Storyboard your novels. Use a horizontal whiteboard with post it notes. Put each act on a line with mini-climaxes and resolution. Use different colors for different points of view.

Backloading: put the most powerful word at the end of the sentence. The brain remembers the last word it reads.

Use a list of colors or themes and integrate them into your story. Example: water, moon, chaos. Every paragraph is an opportunity to focus on your theme. Be subliminal.

The problem with character sheets is that we make them before we get into our story and it restricts the author's input. The author should not drive the character; the character should develop naturally.

The 90 Day Novel is a great resource for characters.