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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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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

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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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