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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 12: Revision 501

Welcome back to Storybuilder Inc.

For those just joining, I am both a writer and an editor and have compiled this series both by utilizing various principles of storytelling craft learned from other writers and professionals in the industry, and from techniques I use in my own practice. I do my best to make it accessible and adaptable for other writing styles, i.e. intuitive vs. planning.

I cover everything from the initial premise to the final, polished draft. Last time, I covered 5 advanced 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 final, very advanced principles of pre-polishing revision.

For a complete guide of all Storybuilder steps, including a list of posts to come, CLICK HERE.

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Tip 1: Discover characters’ fourth dimensions and world-building under-story

Are your primary characters three-dimensional? Time to make them four-dimensional. Are you secondary characters two-dimensional? Now it’s time to get to know them as well as you knew your primary characters before you started telling your story. Tertiary characters, those ones who make a quick appearance, will also get a promotion—at least, some of them. Pick those tertiary characters who stood out more than expected in the manuscript and make them more that one-dimensional. The ones who stay one-dimensional, those extras in the crowd, can now be called quaternary characters for the distinction. Go on, rewrite all your profiles and label accordingly.

What about settings? You drew them out, made some notes. But your story went on and maybe you forgot to write down the details. Now it’s time to organize and get them down. And all those details with your world need organizing too. If you write speculative fiction, then you might need to make profiles for nations, cultures, peoples, religions, languages, or groups. You might need a chronology to deal with the history behind the world as it’s come together. Do that too. Develop a system and keep it organized.

Do you see the point I’m getting at and how it relates to the idea behind this tip? So far, we’ve just been looking at the story in each sub-frame and how to make revisions without losing perspective. Now the goal is to comb over your sub-frames, look at the world-building behind them, and see how you can coherently organize your notes to make sure everything’s consistent.

Contradictions in story occur because we lose perspective of what is actually going on. After all, writing a story involves lots of juggling. At the same time, getting carried away with profiling to make sure you understand all the inner workings can pull you away from the germ of the story, leading to a manuscript that reads as an attempt to Frankenstein a bunch of disjoint creative blocks.

In Step 4 I mentioned basic techniques to keep your world-building together and in control. (In fact, I will be following Storybuilder Inc. with a companion series on this process.) Now, after the writing is done, it is most appropriate to take the time and build to your heart’s content. It will give you more perspective, which is exactly what you want.

Focus, in particular, on character, since character motives are the essence of story and the conflict that defines it. Go deeper than just knowing all the levels of your primary characters—wear their skin, see into their soul. If they’re burned, feel that burn, if they weep, you should be weeping too, if they are depressed, get ready to see the doctor for some antidepressants. Wear black if they like black, or spend hours in a garden or conservatory if your heroine is a gardener in a land of eternal spring. Think of yourself like a movie actress (or actor) getting into character, and go so far as to talk like your primary characters, walk like them, even think like them while you’re trying to discover this fourth dimension of their character. The story you tell is their story and the only way it will be believable is if you believe it—and that means you must live it. That’s a four-dimensional character, and even if it drives you a bit crazy, well…there’s a price to pay for prose that truly are alive.

There’s also the lesser players who knit together the subplots. Contradictions and plot holes abound when secondary characters are little more than two-dimensional jigsaw pieces. You know a bit of their back-story, their motives and goals, but not much more. Make them more than a wind-up toy that spins and somersaults. Now, you don’t want them to be three-dimensional in the story, because otherwise your narrative will be over-saturated with meaningless info-dumps, but those characters do need to become three-dimensional to you, their creator, and he perfect time for this is the point where the story is told and you want to get to the bottom of why everyone is doing the things they’re doing. Look this little bit deeper, and see if the story your wrote is in line with it. If not, make a slight adjustment to make it true.

Last, those tertiary guys and gals. Every piece of your story must be meaningful. And so everyone who occupies more than a few sentences should be as well. Convince yourself that their presence passes this test, and, to do so, make them two-dimensional on paper so that, when they speak, walk, or are observed by your protagonists from a distance, you’ll understand their significance.

An example:

A bearded man walking across the town square now is an unemployed lumberjack whose wife wants him to find work as a blacksmith, and he’s storming across the town square because he hates the thought of it. His lip is curled, his shoulders are hunched, and he’s cursing the Goddess of Thunder. And this is perfect, since he does this during the chapter with emphasis on misdirection and free choice. Furthermore, the otherwise sunny day I picked now will change to foggy and overcast, making the primary character uncomfortable and on edge. See how a bit of knowledge of a tertiary character’s second dimension can enhance a scene, change the tone and mood, and send a ripple across the manuscript? Do this with every tertiary character you can think of, using the slightest brush stroke, and watch your story come to life. (And I’ll assume you all are familiar with writing’s number one rule: show, don’t tell!)

You’ll find that probing characters deeper will open up setting and world details too. If you are writing a story set in the real world, then you might profile relevant groups based on your research if, for example, you find out your character was a former spy for an organization called the Black Bells. Let all the layers build and add up, and tweak your story accordingly (or make notes where you’re not sure so you can address it all during the polishing to ensue).

Tip 2: Clear all your lists

Revision, like drafting, is organic. That means, although I’m detailing various tips to reflect five different levels of complexity, in truth the order you tackle things will be as unpredictable as the creative process itself. Outlining—true outlining—after all, is not about laying down all the boundaries and limiting your creative freedom. It’s the exact opposite, in fact. It’s about become freer because of the confidence you have in a directive process that will yield a story fleshed out to its fullest.

Either way, before you move on to polishing—the step where you will take all the notes and revision strategies and produce something ready for an editor’s eye—make sure you deal with everything on your list. Cold read notes, alpha reader notes, or another list that grew when you started the revision process. Don’t jump the gun, no matter how tempting that is, because otherwise you’re going to run in circles and end up with a story you knew could have been better, if only you’d waited. If your publisher or agent is pestering you, then ask for more time. If there’s a deadline, then throw everything distracting aside, lock yourself in a room, and ask your friends and family for forgiveness. Do what it takes, but whatever you do, don’t cut corners; leave no stone unturned and you will have the best polishing experience possible, and, most importantly, happy readers when your book is in print.

Tip 3: Good bookkeeping

Your manuscript is going to look like a dog’s breakfast. It will consist of the neat, well-thought-out words you put together during drafting, and the looser, boxed-in notes, offset with various anchors you’ve dropped in during revision. Once you get through all your revision check-lists and have treated every sub-frame and given it the considerations of the various levels of Tip 1, go over your manuscript and read these notes. See if you can clean them up a bit, or put them together. (In the process, you may generate a creative spark or two—it’s fine to fix up your manuscript during revision, just as long as you avoid getting pulled into linear revision.)

If you’re a multiple drafter and more of an intuitive writer (i.e. a “seat-of-your-pantser”), then this corresponds to exactly what you do, but with notes inserted as you run over your drafts, rather than just changing the manuscript each time until it happens to work out.

(Quick fact: intuitive writers often write many drafts, up to twenty, as a process of discovering their story. These stories often abound in surprises and twists that outline-based drafts lack. However, I will again emphasize that the Storybuilder model is neither of the two. There is no “formula” for writing a great story. However, there are steps you can follow to help as you creatively discover how to create your own unique cosmos. Revision, whether you are an outline writer or an intuitive writer, is as much an opportunity to introduce twists, surprises, and new layers to your story as in drafting.)

Tip 4: Embrace unpredictability

Since your story’s true existence is abstract and your true work involves careful thought that far exceeds the time you spend crafting its prose, this means the storytelling process itself can be very unpredictable. As much as you might want to control it, the truth is it will take you for as many twists and turns as the story itself (perhaps more).

The goal of the revision model I’m presenting is to allow you to embrace this process. Rather than forcing on story layers and changes without a sense of their effectiveness, you have an opportunity to write in an intermediate medium. In much the same way computer programmers write in pseudo-code to break down a problem before investing too much energy in implementing thousands of lines of code, so too a writer can learn to write in “pseudo-story”, looser sketches of the story in question without investment in a particular course of prose. Just as a problem-solver uses these looser forms of notation to assist as a focus for thought, so too a writer can feel his or her way to the essence of their story before taking out the brush and sweeping every grain of dirt from its stones.

Tip 5: Kill your darlings, but believe in resurrection

It might seem intuitive to keep the strongest passages of your story and clear away the weaker ones. This, in general is true. But sometimes it’s wise to go to the parts you feel the strongest about and decide they need to be better.

You’ve heard the expression, “Kill your darlings.” Why do we do this? Not because fiction, as a rule, shouldn’t contain anything profound. It’s something deeper:

If you wrote something worth keeping, then it’s not the words, but what the words do, that is worth keeping. So, go to a part you love. Think about it, reflect, then make the decision to tear or apart. Tear it apart and make it better. What will come back will be something different (though it sometimes will be similar). In its resurrected form, it will be there because you connected with what is happening in your story. You connect with why, and the process of writing itself, and in so doing detach from enamor over having written.

I’ve used the image of layers of an onion, or a snake shedding its skin. Also, metamorphosis. Layer upon layer, your goal is to strip your prose down until the diamond and gold and nameless precious gems of your story are naked and gleaming for your reader to see. You’ll break them free during revision, then make them smooth, shiny, and well-wrought during the final polish.

It ends with polishing

Some of you have heard the word “polishing”. Perhaps it was from an agent or an editor who said, “It must be polished before you submit it.” The word itself makes me think of continuous rubbing and smoothing off all rough edges. It’s easy to think this means you just have to write a story then keep going over it again and again. Hence, linear revision, which is, for most, a trap.

I’ve tried to break revision and polishing into separate pieces, and hope this helps you highlight strategies to make the overall process productive. “Keep going over your manuscript until it’s perfect” is not specific at all, and is very unhelpful. Good goals are concrete and specific (like good stories).

Next week, I will detail more techniques, ones that will give you detailed, measurable steps to make sure that “continuous rubbing” leads to a finished story.

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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.

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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 12: Revision 301

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.

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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!

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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.

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Filed under Graeme's World, Storybuilder Inc. Outlining and Storytelling Process