In the last step, I talked more about revision, covering 5 basic principles to help as you use your revision outline from step 11 to adjust your manuscript so it matches the kernel of your story. Now, I will talk about 5 more principles that build on the 5 from last week. In the New Year, I will spend another two weeks doing this, covering revision at two deeper levels of complexity, before moving on to polishing, the final phase of storybuilding.
For a complete guide of all Storybuilder steps, including a list of posts to come, CLICK HERE.
Tip 1: Look for inner and outer turning points, and emotional contrasts
In last week’s tips (Revision 201), I talked about making adjustments. Of course, we were not concerned with big adjustments at that point. We were only trying to detect where the story fell out of sync. The goal of going through and filling in your outline is to appreciate this, but the actual work of making corrections in each individual sub-frame is difficult and something that requires many layers of development. To help with navigation, you will want to get to know each sub-frame well, and a crucial way to do this is to look for inner and outer turning points, and emotional contrasts.
If you filled your sub-frame sheets in according to the instructions from step 11, then you will have a place for these three things on each one. Looking at your sub-frame and identifying these three things is a good way to sweep over your manuscript and connect to the story underneath.
An outer turning point is a change in circumstances that gives your narrative a tailwind. It can be subtle (in fact, it is most effective when it is subtle). An inner turning point is a change within your character, and often it is linked to an outer turning point. It can be direct or indirect. Maybe you are writing a mystery novel and all the evidence gained up to this point serves as a backdrop for your detective to have a sudden epiphany while lying in bed—the realization that everything they have been doing is wrong and they have to go about the case another way. An outer turning point could be anything from an unexpected home invasion to a betraying friend’s smirk, to a sudden gust of wind, while an inner turning point can be anything from an epiphany to a brief moment of recollection to a sudden shift in story voice (conveying a subconscious inner shift).
Emotional contrasts go hand-in-hand with outer and inner turning points, and a strong story is one where a character’s conflict arc progresses under the pull of strong conflicting emotions. While outer turning points are related to plot, these outer events, however subtle, bring about or contrast changes in your character that present an emotional shift and often an opposition to the previous emotions. This, in turn, leads to an inner turning point. All together, these three things are the coal that keeps your narrative engine chugging.
An example might be:
[example summary of a sub-frame]
Abe awakens to serene sunrise, reflecting on what might lie ahead in the day, wondering if his fiance, Eve, will come visit. He smiles, appreciating how beautiful the sunrise is on the water. A leaf drops on the pond, sending out dark ripples and the air is suddenly chill, rekindling the memory of how he nearly lost her two years ago. Never again, he vows. He goes back indoors, realizing how cold his coffee is.
In this example, we might write:
- Outer turning point: the leaf sending ripples along the water
- Inner turning point: Abe realizes how uncertain his life is and decides he can’t fool himself no matter how hard he tries
- Emotion contrasts: nostalgic, hopeful, and pleasant vs. insecure, uncertain, and uneasy
In the next sub-frame, Abe would cart the new emotions along and those, along with any external turning points there, would lead to further development of his arc within this frame.
Since inner and outer turning points can be subtle, you can look for them in every sub-frame. These shifts are what compels your readers to keep turning pages. The goal of a storybuilder is to infuse every sub-frame with them effectively.
However, one note of caution: beware creating these for the sake of creating them. They must belong, otherwise your story’s events might read like a cartoon. Again, this is where art comes into it. You, the writer, must know what your overall goal is with each sub-frame and how it contributes to the larger scope of your story. When you look for these three components, you want to ask what is truly happening, and what is true to the story—not what ought to happen so you can make the scene dramatic.
Think about what is happening in the frame as you think about the inner and outer turning points and emotional contrasts of a particular sub-frame. Think also about what is happening in the part of the 9-part outline, even the 3-part. For example, in the scene with Abe, maybe this is the middle of the novel and Abe is about to discover that he has a devastating mental illness. Maybe our goal is to have him end up in a mental hospital where an old woman teaches him to trust the world again through their hour-long sessions of coloring with crayons. If that’s the purpose of the novel, then this scene’s meaning can be put in context. In this scene, for example, let’s say Eve never calls Abe, and he hangs around until supper and watches the sun set. This frame is about the onset of his madness (as it turns out, Eve went on holiday and he doesn’t remember, because he is starting to hallucinate). He goes to bed with the light on, and hears whispers on the wind. He picks up the phone and suddenly the operator’s voice recording actually speaks to him and tells him Eve is dead. Panicked, he runs outside, half-naked, until one of his neighbors finds him on the street. (That’s the final sub-frame of this frame.)
Get the idea? Now see what you can do with your story, and next week we will dig deeper into how we can use the sections of the sub-frame notes to appreciate the story behind each meaningful segment of your manuscript.
Tip 2: Implement alpha and cold read notes
During the last part of Step 8, Drafting 4, I talked about alpha readers. We also did a cold read, in step 9, where you made notes as you went over your draft like a reader. You can look at the storybuilding process as a bit of an architecture project. You spent a lot of time in the pre-building phase, doing renderings, then developing a careful blueprint. You can only plan so far—so at last you went and built, very carefully. Afterward, though, there are tests and fixes that need to be done. Your role now is to use all those inspector’s notes (both your own as cold reader and the alpha readers’).
Last week I shared basic tips to help you get your bearings with the process. Now you can think about where to put these notes. I recommend you avoid putting them in until you have filled in all your inner / outer turning points and emotional contrasts for each sub-frame. The reason for this is you need to gain some perspective as you break your story apart so you can better appreciate where a given issue might rear its head. One of your notes might be, “Your character doesn’t seem to have much confidence. Is she always like this?” Your goal is to check, but in order to do that, you have to know where to look.
I recommend you put all your notes together in one place and move through them like a check-list. Basic fixes and adjustments you can tick off the list right away. Larger fixes can be worked in using square-bracket notes that you’ll address at some point in the layering process. Avoid fixes that seem so large you don’t know where to begin. We will talk about those next week.
This part might be tedious, but if you avoid the instinct to “fix it all now”, it should be straight forward. You will also find there is lots of overlap or issues you may have addressed while you layered in some changes during the time you spent filling in your post-draft outline.
Tip 3: Drop more anchors, use references, and be open to radical change
I mentioned last week that you shouldn’t get too carried away with fixing. In fact, I even said to leave notes inside square brackets (rather than comments, since you can easily find these notes using “find” in the body of your word processor). As you’re doing this, you’re going to realize lots of parts are connected. Maybe there is a big intrigue that shows its face throughout many subframes. In fact, you might notice that it is in sub-frame 2 of frame 21, and so on. You might write:
[look for consistency on this plot. Go into 16.7, 18.5, 21.2, 8.2, and 26.6 and read all references to the Blue Plague and its ties to the Overworld]
Whatever it may be, leaving yourself these detailed referential anchors will help tremendously as you deal with Revision 501, the most advanced stage of revision, and sync together all rough ends such as plot holes or more serious flaws related to a faulty premise or underdeveloped outline.
Unlike the world of architecture, the word “oops” does not necessarily mean rewriting your book. Using the storybuilder principles, you can address the most fundamental of flaws in your manuscript, and these anchors are key ingredients to be pinned in place as you piece together where you have to go back and perform some magic.
Tip 4: Ruminating on higher levels
Tip 4 of Revision 201 can be extended to this level. The goal of moving in stages, with the aid of your post-draft outline, is to create deeper intimacy with your story. You want to move away from seeing it as a long chunk of words that took a long time to write, with some scenes you remember. Instead, you want to reach a point where you can identify which sub-frame a given event happens in, where you can appreciate all the connections of your story and, most importantly, appreciate what your plot elements are and how they evolve.
At this point, you will become aware of flaws in your manuscript and ways your story doesn’t quite fit. Be very critical of these. Don’t second guess yourself. If something is “not quite right,” then there’s a reason for that, and your novel will not be finished until all those not-quite-right’s are dealt with. You don’t need to have the answer right away, but that should serve as an indicator of where your thinking energy needs to go.
I will emphasize that this is not a “stage” of the process (these are just tips, in order of complexity, to help navigate you through revision successfully). This is a principle to show how you want to be looking at your manuscript. In Revision 401 next week, I will extend this tip by visiting some of the more specific ways to deal with these higher levels of problem-solving. For now, see your goal like this:
Imagine your story’s details are the trivia for a game of Jeopardy. Do you want to win grand prize? Then know your facts inside and out. That is the start of realizing where work needs to be done and where some things don’t quite match up.
After all, the devil’s in the details.
Tip 5: Layer in your rewrites – AGAIN!
As you proceed, keep on layering. Think of a snake with its suits of skin. You have a process, but the draft evolves organically. There is no draft 2 or 3. Just the one draft and its evolving states. If you want you can save your draft as a new file to see how it changes, but you will have hundreds of them by the time you’re done. I don’t save my drafts, other than the draft I finished for the cold read, the one that is ready for polishing (the “hot read” version for step 13), and the final.
Layering is the key to doing this effectively, however. Layering allows you the power to seize a sentence and put it where it belongs, right then and there. Layering frees you from keeping you stuck in one place. Layering allows you to move, to make notes, and to come back when you are ready. It allows you to write where writing is ready to happen—where it needs to happen, with the direction of your critical revision process.
Layering in and of itself, without the structural guidance of the post-draft outline or careful storybuilding steps, is no guarantee that a novel will be finished. However, making this your rule of procedure for how you implement revision will give you, the writer, the spontaneity and freedom to swing your hammer down on the manuscript where it needs tempering, rather than beating it in every which direction and always having to unfix what didn’t need fixing.
Next week, you’re a level 4 revisionist
If you’re still following, then you are a determined storyteller and I hope you continue all the way to the end. If you have a desire to tell a story, then do not lose hope or lose sight of your goals. Many writers, sadly, give up at this step, or even before. Worse, many turn their manuscript in for submission and skip revision, applying some polish and saying “good enough”. With the temptation of self-publishing, it’s easy to give in, especially when the going gets tough. But this easy road usually means silent readers or standard rejection letters, and having been there myself I don’t need any convincing which road is more desirable.
It’s going to get tougher next week and the week after. But if you’ve read this far, then I’m going to assume you’re in for the ride. You want a finished novel, something you are proud of. You want a manuscript that’s gone through all the treatments, so that, no matter what, you’ll have finished work in your portfolio.
This is the part where you start feeling like you’re crazy, where your every waking moment belongs to your manuscript and you really wish you could move on to something else. It’s the part where you wonder if you’ve written crap and if you’re wasting your time, if it will ever find a publisher or just be another failure. You might hate it as much as you love it, and wonder if you’re ever going to succeed.
Don’t give into those Gollums! Tell them to go away and never come back, and guess what? Eventually you’ll have peace of mind.
Don’t think about if this is “worth it”, or if it will be “great”. Don’t think about if it will be “crap” or “meaningless”. Throw all that in the fire and let it melt. What you’ll take out, then, will be pure. This is the part where you manuscript moves from being your own to being something else, and that something else will be the story you set out to tell.
See you all in 2014!
Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. He is the author of The Pact and is an editor for Champagne Books.
Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.