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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 12: Revision 101

Like an alchemist

Revision is like metallurgy, and good storytellers must become good alchemists. How do you know what changes to make? How do you know what things to leave alone?

I developed my story-building model based on the principle that any story can be developed to its full exactly as it’s told, and to change that story in any way creates a new story. Hence, one need change nothing! Instead, one need discover what should never have been there in the first place.

Your story is gold, but in the process of telling it, some impurities slipped into your mixture. Your goal when you revise is to eliminate them by working your magic and turning them into gold as well.

That is the alchemy, and if you are scratching your head wondering what the heck I’m talking about, then please read on.

The multiple universes of story

It’s tempting to get carried away with revision. After all, you can change anything you want. You can add a character, or take two away. The story changes then. In fact, it is another story altogether. You’ve discovered something new. You’ve slipped into another universe with its own laws, and if you truly want to discover that one, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and work everything out once more. Never mind that wonderful universe you outlined then wrote into existence.

It’s so tempting to go into that other universe, even though it seems the same. I assure you, it is not! (If you have been the victim to circular revision due to entertaining these seemingly innocuous changes, then no doubt you can relate.)

The true, unique story you discovered

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “I had my protagonist Al’s whiny mother tag along as a side-kick for my whole novel. You’re telling me I shouldn’t cut her?”

Well, actually, I’m telling you neither. What I’m suggesting is that you discover WHAT your true story is and ask how Al’s whiny mother helps to serve that story. You spent time carefully outlining everything up to this step, so I presume you had a good reason to put Al’s whiny mother in the story. If not, then, by all means, Al’s whiny mother might have crept in somewhere while you drafted and now you have to go back and determine just how to set things right. Maybe she has to go (if she was never part of the story to begin with), or maybe (which I think is more likely) you have to discover just what function she serves in the development of your story arc.

This is exactly what it means to unearth the true, unique story you discovered. Not just with Al’s whiny mother, but with every single sub-frame and the elements in it. If you’re ruthlessly cutting elements from your story to avoid hassle and get it to your publisher, then you’re taking the easy way out. Granted, sometimes it’s liberating to let loose with the sledgehammer when you’re doing renovations—at least, until the ceiling falls down on you.

Sledgehammers aside, your goal is to find the “true story” that lies somewhere in between what you’ve written and what you can appreciate to be the true story from the post-draft outline you developed in Step 11. Bring the two in sync, bit by bit.

The art of doing this well is not something I can tell you how to do—the ability to do this is what makes you a writer and is very much a “gut” thing. However, having a method by which to anchor yourself as you do it is very much a calculated move that does not depend on gut and chance, and it can spare you the headache of listening to many “instincts” that take you in wild circles.

You’re going to apply this treatment again and again and again, very much like peeling back the layers of an onion, until you get it just right. For example, maybe the first pass over your manuscript you will try to determine each sub-frame’s inner and outer turning points, contrasting emotions, and contribution to the overall frame. Next time, you might pick out more specific senses, list characters and places involved, note things you need to research, write out background information, and realize a few more things about what function that sub-frame needs to serve for it to “belong” to the story. The time after that, you might layer in more alpha reader and cold-read notes, and tick off things from your to-do list. (Keep in mind, you can visit this sub-frame again any time. You don’t have to go from the beginning to the end before coming back to it, and you don’t have to visit every one the same amount of times – only the particularly troublesome ones.)

The important point here is don’t approach revision as a reader. Your goal with revision is not to read your manuscript and fix the words. You will get bogged down and lose sight of the larger implications of the changes you make. Instead, use your post-draft outline as a tree-hopper to keep you focused on higher levels of story—see your sub-frames as units and look at what the components are doing through the words. Zero in on larger goals, like trying to show various contrasting emotions and how a dialogue can be rehashed to meet this need, or revamp a “dead” scene so it actually has a function that fits with the thematic function of the other scenes it is part of. Layer in various senses so they suit the mood, modify one character’s behavior after you write out her background motives, or give someone boots when you realize the journey through the snowy forest would be quite tedious with shoes.

‘Til every inch glows

You are tempering steel. You swing your hammer in the middle and beat down the bumps you see between blows. You flatten one, then appreciate another better. Back, front, front, back. A little on the edge, several in the middle, one for the tiny bump that stands out against the ruddy light. Your arm is tired, but you can keep refreshed by the improvements you see with every swing. It keeps you going until the whole thing’s glowing and smooth and ready for another bath.

Expect revision to take you an average of 2-3 hours / sub-frame by the time it’s all said and done. That’s about 200-300 hours if you’re writing a 100,000k word manuscript (approximately a 400 page novel). Given the 200 or so hours it should have taken to write the draft (again, assume 100,000 words), this equates to half a year of Monday-Friday 9-5 work.

Does that sound like a lot? It should – after all, full-time writers are not full-time writers because they laze around in their slippers all day. More importantly, though, does this compel you and excite you as you think about the riches you can bring to the surface as you develop this unique story universe you set out to give birth to?

Persevere, and you won’t regret it. When this is all done, your story is ready for beta readers and another cold read of a special sort that involves taking time off work and assuring all your friends that your absence is not a reason for any concern.

But we’ll talk about that next week.

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Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog:

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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 11 (Part 1): A Revision Outline

In the last step we returned to outlining to kick off the post-draft phase of storybuilding. Our goal: effective, time-efficient revision that doesn’t come with a regular dose of migraines and head-prints on your desk. This week we will talk about how this “magic” outline is going to look.

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Slow plotting pays off

It seems the villains who get the upper hand in novels full of intrigues are the ones who have been plotting a long time, considering every possibility without making the slightest move until the time is right. So it goes with the plotting writer. You learn to restrain your urge to just write, write, write, and instead spend lots of time thinking, developing your outlines, profiles, maps–what have you. If you’ve been following along so far, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with the Storybuilder Inc. model, and now it’s time to take those plots and schemes to a whole other level.

After all, we have a novel to turn in, and there might be a hefty advance awaiting our patient conspiring.

Plot before, plot after

We waited a while to get here. We plotted first, through various carefully measured stages, then we wrote our draft–all the while keeping our plans in front of us, and being sure to organize new character, setting, or world-building details as they crept into the manuscript. Our pile grew, and our story took on a life of its own.

And that’s the rub. Whether you are a plotter or a seat-of-your-pants writer, the story decides what it’s going to be. Now, you can be that plotting noble who follows any whim and ends up on a hangman’s noose, or you can be careful and crafty and avoid those dark rooms and daggers (aka dead end stories) by sticking to your outline as you write.

You’re still going to be in a bit of trouble by the end, though, and that’s why we don’t just plot before–we plot after as well. There’s nothing like losing miserably at a game of chess, especially when you had the upper hand on your opponent for half the game. But, not all is lost–plots can be revamped at any stage in the game. And so it goes with stories.

But I hate English essays

I think the only thing from English class I liked was the scene in King Lear when the Earl of Gloucester gets his eyes gauged out, because it made me think of how I felt every time I had to write an essay. Fortunately, I learned something valuable from this process which made those many painful experiences worthwhile.

When you pick a book apart to analyze it, you must think about theme, structure, character development, parallel plots, contrasts, how plot complements theme….the list goes on. When you break apart a story to analyze it, you’re describing its guts. In essence, you’re describing the post-draft outline.

Except you didn’t have the opportunity to rewrite those stories. No. They’ve been published, and therefore they’re untouchable because you’re not the author. Your goal, in those English classes, is to understand what the writer is saying, and how the writer chose to say it well.

That’s not the case now. You are the author of this story, and now that you have it broken down into its sub-frames, you have a chance to use those English class skills and appreciate your story’s structure.

The goal: to show you where the text matches the story, and this will be the key to masterful revision.

Make each part serve its whole

In each sub-frame, you will need:

-a brief header to describe this sub-frame

-a column where you can list the five senses, and emotions felt / conveyed by your character

-a brief summary about how your sub-frame develops the frame it is part of (review what frames are HERE)

-a space for you to list out any research you need to do

-a space for background information pertinent to this scene (this is handy for info-dump removal)

-(optional) places to show inner / outer turning points (where a character’s inner bearing changes vs. where the outer circumstances change)

-(optional) place to list characters and setting information

-(optional) place to show emotional contrast, since this is a key ingredient to creating engaging fiction

-(optional) opening and closing hooks for the sub-frame, since these inflections sharpen your reader’s interest in your story, like a breath of air after an underwater dive–the more, the better

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You will also create a new page for each frame and put this at the beginning of each respective sub-frame section. You will want to include:

-a brief name for the frame based on what it does

-a brief description of how it develops the section of your 9-part outline it is part of (to refresh your memory what those 9 parts are, read about them HERE)

-inner and outer turning points (these are not optional here, because you want to make sure at the very least you have some changes that twist and turn your story in each frame

-a brief summary of each sub-frame so you can appreciate at a glance how your overall frame looks

You might want to use your old frame from your pre-draft outline to compare the two for revision ideas

***

You can do this with each part of your 9-part outline as well, and the 3-part, and, finally, the premise. After all, you want to rewrite all of these things to see how they match your story, and to see how your story might need some changing to get back on track.

Your goal in doing this is to create a detailed structural map of your story to prepare you for when revision begins

It’s worth it

This is going to use a lot of paper (I would recommend printing out a template on 6″x4″ sheets from UPS or Staples), and take a lot of time. However, think of how much time it takes to go over fifteen drafts, only to still feel like you are making circular changes. I’ve been there, and I hate it.

Being a writer, especially when you enter the world of contracts and reader expectations, means you need to turn out quality books, and this, in turn, means you must have a way to reassure yourself that your process is going to work. The Storybuilder model is made just for this, and I hope it helps.

Next week, we will talk about effective ways to fill in these sub-frames to assist with revision.

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Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog:

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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 10: The Key to Mastering Structural Revision

In the last step, we switched gears from drafting to revision with the cold read. Once you have done this, to prepare for revision, it’s time to get back into outlining, with a bit of a twist. Just as you did your pre-draft outline to prepare you for drafting, the post-draft outline will prepare you for effective revision.

If you’re still writing, that’s fine, you can save this for later. Likewise, many writers may be reading these posts at different stages of developing their own stories, so I’ll keep going ahead because my aim is to provide something that is complete and available as a reference.

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Linear revision kills

We started this journey with a carefully-written premise, and I compared it to having a healthy spine. Let’s call on this analogy again. How is your spine, anyway? It’s been a long trip! Despite all the preparation, no doubt it’s worn you down, so this is the point at which to get back into traction and get yourself aligned for what comes next.

Many writers jump into revision like a swimmer into shark waters. They wade through their draft again and again, focusing on different elements, and slowly they drift out deeper and deeper, moving in circles, making deeper changes without a proper reference. Then the sharks show up and guess who’s on the menu?

Whether those sharks are the editors or agents who send out polite rejection letters, or the Gollum in your head that tells you the task is hopeless, linear revision is bound to kill you sooner or later.

It’s madness, but there’s method in it

Not all is lost!

How is your spine, anyway? Time to stand up straight and learn how to master revision. The first stop is the posture clinic, aka the post-draft outline.

Now, this is going to sound crazy. In fact, you’re going to think you’re crazy as your doing it, but when you get to revision and see how much power you have to master your manuscript at all levels, you will be grateful for this step.

Making subframes

We talked in Step 7 about creating a frame-by-frame outline before drafting. From this, your 9-part outline breaks into a sequence of distinct events that give you some focus when you are writing the actual story. But the story takes on a life of its own, and now it’s time to put everything together.

In order to do this, we’re going to basically make our frames over again, except this time we’re looking backward at what we’ve done, with a mind to how the story knits together as a whole. Because these frames are smaller, we will call them sub-frames.

As you go through, try to identify distinct chunks of your story. These are not necessarily scenes or chapters. They are segments, anywhere from 200 to 2000 words or so, where your story takes on a unique cadence and shape. For example, if your scene is a dialogue between conspirators overheard by your POV character, followed by your POV character’s introspection while she rushes down a dark alley to warn her father about the plan to kill him, these events would stand alone as the sub-frames. Maybe in your original story you just saw the meeting of conspirators and that was your frame, but in the act of writing, the alley scene was new, so now it’s time to put it in.

Don’t get lost

There are more steps after this one, so make it your task, during this step, to just identify the sub-frames. Go through from beginning to end and mark them in your document. If one of the sub-frames is particularly long, don’t worry, but do see if there is an inflection that breaks it up. For example, if you have a long conversation in one passage, have a look. If it starts out with an exchange on the history of the world, then someone interrupts with a recent event that changes the topic, then this inflection divides the action and could be seen as a sub-frame.

Going over your whole story and dividing it up will also serve as a speed-read of your manuscript, which is a good thing to follow the cold read (review what the cold read is HERE if you need to). You might appreciate some higher-level things that niggled while you read and made notes, and might get some ideas for how to resolve problems the cold read brought to your attention. Next week, we will talk about how to detail each of these subframes, which will help you spread out roots from these higher-level ideas. Most importantly, it will help you appreciate what your story is off track.

It’s good to plant more anchors (remember, these are the alinear revision techniques I mentioned earlier. Read about them HERE). It’s also fine to revise as you go—iron out a typo, tweak a passage, catch a fresh idea while it strikes you, and any other such thing—but do try to keep your focus on the task at hand. In other words, don’t let this step degenerate into a linear edit, or else those sharks are going to poke their little fins up at you…

It gets crazier

Identifying sub-frames is the start. The next step will be your iron suit for revision, and there are so many important components to it we will devote next week to discussing how to make a sub-frame sheet that will be an effective tool to help you bang every revision nail in place.

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Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.

You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog:

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