For those of you who are about to be selected for Pitch Wars – and for those of you who are not – I see REVISIONS in your future!
Revising is something all writers do, whether it's your first book or your hundredth. "How do I make my book better?" can be a maddening question and there aren't always easy answers. However, there are common things that you can look for as you approach the next draft of your novel. I'm in the process of developing a workshop to help writers identify issues that many of us encounter, and these fall under two headings – Strengthening the Story, and Perfecting the Writing.
|From Sept. 2017: ready with the red pencil|
The biggest "big picture" concerns are bigger than what I'm going to address here, things like plot, character arcs, a story-worthy problem, a concept with zing, etc. You can read about those in any number of craft books. Rather, I want to address the sort of details that you can train yourself to become aware of. Many of these, if left unresolved, will earn you a plethora of "bubble comments" from critique partners, beta readers, or even editors.
STRENGTHENING THE STORY:
1) Not enough tension. Tension is necessary in all genres. Tension keeps the reader on edge and involved. To achieve tension in your writing you need to make sure that various things, on various levels, are unresolved. New questions need to be continually introduced: "What's going to happen if________?", "Why did she react like that?", "Oooh, what's that little teaser referring to?" Tension also exists when characters disagree with each other. In short, tension is a byproduct of conflict, and you want to have multiple layers of active conflict present throughout your novel. Regardless of what type of story you write, tension can increase the likelihood that your readers keep turning the page.
2) Have you left all the good stuff in your head? You know where your scene is taking place and what it looks like. Do your readers know? You see how your characters react to situations, and know the backstory that makes them act that way. Have you let the readers in on that? There's an element to this that's about description (places, people, objects, weather, etc.) – which needn't be long to be effective – but a bigger element is about world and character building. If you want readers to SEE and KNOW what you see and know, you need to show them.
3) Write "in scene" whenever possible. Sometimes a bit of summary is useful, but don't use it to avoid writing difficult or otherwise more interesting "in scene" chapters. Where summary tends to be passive, writing "in scene" is active. Where summary is telling, writing "in scene" is showing.
PERFECTING THE WRITING:
1) Consider dialogue:
- Where is it too explanatory?
- Are there exchanges that could be a little shorter? (i.e. conversation that doesn't contribute to the story or characters)
- Are there exchanges that could be a little longer? (People can be kind of roundabout in conversations; the novelist needs to find a good balance.)
- Are there certain words that only a certain character uses?
- Look for places where you can replace "she said" with more meaningful action or internalization:
a) "I don't know," she said. Vs:
b) "I don't know." Mary scratched her nose, determined not to look Wade in the eye. He probably already knew she was lying, but she'd made a promise to her sister.
2) Consider individual words:
- Look for stronger verbs
- Look for more accurate/expressive words of all kinds
- Look for overused words, both common and "weird" (In Word, use "Find")
- Look for words that are repeated too close together (in the same sentence or paragraph)
3) Check punctuation. Watch for overuse/underuse of commas, semi-colons, colons, and em dashes. Use exclamation points rarely!
4) Make sure every sentence reads JUST as you want it: **
- If it's awkward – or when in doubt – FIX it!
- Find yourself yawning while reading your own book? Tighten in places that feel like they're dragging.
- Keep an eye on she/her (and he/his) in places with multiple people = make sure it's clear who the "she" and "her" are referring to.
** Note: this can be easier to assess when you have "fresh eyes." Try to take some time off between drafts – weeks, or even months!
It might take some practice, but over time you can become conscious of these kinds of nuances and really take your work to the next level.
Happy writing… and revising!