Welcome back to Storybuilder Inc., and Happy 2014!
I have compiled this series based on my writing method to inspire others who wish to develop their own storytelling strategies. I cover everything from the initial premise to the final, polished draft. Last week I covered 5 intermediate principles to help as you use your revision outline from step 11 to adjust your manuscript so it matches the kernel of your story. This week I will talk about 5 advanced principles that build on the 5 from last week.
For a complete guide of all Storybuilder steps, including a list of posts to come, CLICK HERE.
Tip 1: Balance the senses, do your research, and build in all perspectives
The idea behind this tip is that of making adjustments without lose perspective. First, in Revision 201, I talked about going over to get each sub-frame in sync, to appreciate the story that is actually happening despite the prose you laid there. The goal was more to make notes, to summarize your scene, or to fill in any background information you now appreciate by looking at the segment of story, with the perspective you have on how the story turned out. In Revison 301, the intermediate version, I considered a more focused way to appreciate the scene by looking at inner and outer turning points, and emotional contrasts. These are important core threads in storytelling, and I demonstrated how a story’s inner engine chugs along by the movement of these pistons.
In this step we move past these elements and map out the finer details of your scene. Now it is time to fill in the rest of your sub-frame outlines. Map out the senses to see if you have an imbalance (many stories are vision heavy, which means being mindful of sound, smell, touch, and taste, can give you some extra spices that enhance emotion, mood, and vividness of a scene). Play devil’s advocate for all the details your mention so you can do extra research. Is there a sword fight? A broadsword in a light-weight woman’s hand? You might want to research broadswords and their place in battle (which would make you rethink what weapon to give your heroine). Finally, put your sub-frames in perspective.
I need to say a little more on this final point, since it’s a bit loaded. I mentioned, in Step 11 that you will want to include a section on each sub-frame for where you can summarize how the sub-frame contributes to the development of the frame. For example, if you are working a frame where your character goes back to her childhood home, a place now full of cobwebs and broken windows, then your goal might be to contrast her state of inner turmoil with her physical world (previously, we met her as a high-power business woman who couldn’t be taken down – until she receives a phone call from her ex-husband stating that her mother, who has been wasting away in a long-term care facility, has passed away). One sub-frame might be where she picks up a shattered picture frame, the picture gone, but the frame familiar because she remembers it as the one that hung on the wall, sporting a picture of her mother and father, actually looking happy. In the “contribution to frame XYZ” section you might write, “Stirs up Athena’s (protagonist) source of pain, the thing she tries to forget.” After all, the purpose of this scene is to show that contrast, to bring her toward the mission to unearth how her grandfather died and to confront the secret she’s kept since she left home to “get a real life”.
One important thing to note, of course, is that the reflections you write are not a summary of your sub-frame. They are an assessment of the true story going on, and your job, when you appreciate how a given sub-frame contributes to a frame, is to dig deeper and get more in touch with that story behind the facade of a draft that is, at best, a very educated guess.
This type of perspective-taking is important on higher levels than just the sub-frame to frame level. Not only do we have Athena’s old home visitation frame, we might have, say three frames that are part of the Start of Main Action section. Thus, we will do up a new card for each frame, and on each card we will have a “contribution to Start of Main Action” (replace “Start of Main Action” with the respective part of the nine part outline each collection of frames belongs to). What I usually do is list a bullet summary on each frame of the sub-frames, then look for the common thread. On the back of the frame card, I will divide it in half, with one side for themes, the other side for subplots or background information. For example, with Athena coming home, perhaps the frame before was a phone call with her ex about a problem with inheritance wherein he notifies her that she has to go home (she’s at her apartment with her current date, a hot middle-aged woman from the office), and the frame after is a visit to the institution where her mother died (she hasn’t been to her home town in seven years). This is all the Start of Main Action, and putting it together, the purpose of this section is to move Athena toward the ultimate goal of the novel: to make her confront her past hurt and become a better person for it. On each frame card, then, we would write how the frame contributes to the section, i.e. we would write that the home visit frame’s contribution is it brings Athena face-to-face with her troubles and shows the reader some of the trouble beneath her facade before she goes to the long-term care home where her neglected mother wasted away.
Doing this gives you meaningful perspective and a hierarchical organization to your story that reflects the structure you built from your outline, before drafting. The goal of this process is to help you appreciate themes and higher levels of story, which will, in turn, inspire you to drop anchors all over your manuscript for later development during the polishing phase to come.
You will create a card for each of the 9 parts of your outline, summarizing, in bullet form, each frame that makes it up, and including a note for how that part of the 9-part outline contributes to its parent section of the 3-part outline. For example, the Start of Main Action is art of the Beginning of your novel. For example, in the Athena story, on the card you create for the Start of Main Action, you will summarize each of the three frames, and likewise on the card you create for the Beginning, you will summarize the 3 parts, Opening Sequence, Turning Point 1, and Start of Main Action. For each of the three cards, you will have a section for how they contribute to the Beginning, i.e. for Start of Main Action, “sets Athena’s in motion to confront the source of her hurt.” Turning Point One might be the call from her ex, and the news that her mother is dead, while the Opening Sequence might introduce us to Athena during a satisfying, long-awaited “you’re fired” meeting.
It goes all the way to the card you will make for your story. On that card, you will have a summary of the beginning, middle, and end, and on it you will state the premise. Your goal will be to make that premise true, and, if you did your outlining well, it should be quite close to the premise you set out with in Step One.
Tip 2: Tackle those harder alpha and cold reads notes
The idea behind this tip is to use external feedback. In the last step, the intermediate form, I mentioned implementing alpha reader and cold read notes. However, you might find these notes difficult to tackle. Some points might be harder to define, such as, “Margaret is always sulking and is not likable. Fix.”
Well, fixing Margaret isn’t a simple job. You might need to brainstorm several places to go and fix her. Meanwhile, the principle of revision is to keep perspective of your novel and move over it quickly. Deciding how to fix Margaret will become a sub-task that will eat up days, possibly, derailing the momentum you might have built up while going through and addressing your revision checklists.
Instead, shift those harder notes until later. Skip them, and check-mark the simpler ones that allow you to address a spot directly where you can leave an anchor in your document that you will come back to during the polishing step. Then, once you have moved over and developed your sub-frames and gained perspective for your story, both fine and gross, you can come back and jump at these harder tasks. “Fixing Margaret” can be defined as brainstorming how Margaret presents herself, and possibly a “find”-hop around your manuscript for the name “Margaret”, to see where you can do some revisions.
Tip 3: The power of anchors
The principle at work with this tip, in its 101 and 202 versions, is to prevent circular revision. One of the main causes of circular revision is the “fix it now” syndrome that torments many writers. You spot a problem, get an idea, then go into your story and change it. You go through, front to back, change, fix (or so you think), then go through again, only to find that many of the things you fixed created other problems.
It will be especially true as you move to these higher levels of revision that changing your manuscript to respond to the whims that occur will be potentially problematic. Hence the need of anchors.
It never hurts to talk about anchors, so I’ll repeat:
An anchor is a cute term I use to describe any symbol that won’t accidentally crop up in your manuscript so that you can get to a spot of interest right away. For example, in my manuscripts, I like to use [*] as an anchor for places where I’ve left myself revision notes to be addressed during polishing. I use some standard anchors, like [*introspec] for passages of introspection, [*XYintrigue] for where character XY’s intrigue is revealed or at play behind some of the mysterious actions. You can invent your own, but whatever you do, make sure you keep a list of all your anchors so you can “find” them and look at the passages of interest, or address the notes you’ve left for yourself.
Some people use the revision features of their word processor, however I’m not a fan of this because the text in your revision notes does not stand apart from the text in your manuscript during a search. For example, if I want to get to a specific comment or type of comment, I can type in one thing and go straight to it because of the anchor. Likewise, I can group together various comments using common anchors, and thus address related issues together for better continuity, rather than going through every comment and skipping the irrelevant ones (which still takes time to read and determine if they are irrelevant to your task; let’s not mention the temptation to take a detour and fix a different issue).
Tip 4: 90 percent thought
The office for a writer is a mental space, not a physical. All the scribbling you do on the page is just ten percent of the true work that happens. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you spend much of your time plotting and thinking about your story while away from the medium that allows you to capture it in still form.
Thus, embrace it. That was the spirit of this tip at level 101 and 202. The reason we leave anchors and spend time looking at abstract structure beneath our story is to move to higher levels of thought. This is where we think deeper about the story’s elements that we are now familiar with, to make sure we’ve got it right.
Like a cow with six stomachs, you’ll go chewing, swallowing, chewing, swallowing, and so on, until your story isn’t just a crude ball of cud. This takes time, thought, and care. If you’ve utilized this skill during the drafting phase and have written your words with care, then you’ll find this process of careful thinking will guide you beautifully through revision.
Tip 5: A snake shedding its skin
I mentioned rumination, but there is another image that better describes revision: a snake shedding old layers of skin. Your story is growing as you pass through successive stages of development, and if you avoid circular revision and even everything out with the right amount of thought, you will be able to appreciate how your manuscript itself evolves. As you address your revision concerns, you will be loading your manuscript with anchors and notes, and you will also make changes as they come to you. You won’t have a second or third draft. You’ll have an organism that changes slowly, shedding skin as you reach milestones for core aspects of its development.
Metamorphosis is a better image for how your story will transform after polishing, so if you’ll bear with my disgusting metaphor…revision is about shedding layer after layer after layer, changing subtle bit by subtle bit by subtle bit, until, at last, you’re nothing but a…CATERPILLAR! Then it’s time to crawl into the cocoon, do a hot read (Step 13), and put the revision notes and hot read notes to use and patiently toil so that your manuscript can emerge a wonderful butterfly (Step 14).
Next week, you’re a level 5 revisionist
The spirit of revision is restraint, no more than it is for writing itself. I have been sharing some of the higher levels of revision that I use, the with goal of presenting stages of complexity so you can think about and try some of the simpler before moving onto the harder. In truth, however, this presentation is an ideal representation of what is, in practice, much more chaotic. Nonetheless, a procedure is taught in any work place so that the workers will know what they should be doing, so that when they must improvise (most of the time), they can at lease improvise in style. So I sort out and share the method I follow in the hope that you, my fellow writer, will takes some notes and revise in style. (Unlike the office workplace, the storytelling office is one where you improve ALL the time).
In my next post (3 weeks from now) I will move to the highest level of advancement and talk about the most painstaking (and worthwhile) extents I go to ensure I have fully developed a story – to ensure not that a story is perfect (because no story can be written perfectly), but that it is complete.
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.