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Storybuilder Inc. — Step 12: Revision 201

In the last step, about the basic principle for effective revision I use, but now I will spend another four steps outlining 5 tips, with increasing complexity each week, before moving on to the final steps, 13 and 14, highlighting five key steps, in order of increasing complexity.

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

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Tip 1: Avoid those little fixes

Some writers prefer many drafts and proceed on good faith that the prose will work themselves out as the layers add up and they get more familiar with the story. This means leaving weak sentences and misfit paragraphs in place, trusting on good faith that they will come together as you churn through draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and so on. I will make the assumption that you have been following this workshop and have tried to write your story using the principles outlined during the drafting phase (Step 8).

This means you have worked carefully using your frames and have invested approximately 1-2 hours / 1000 words of draft. This means your overall prose are well-developed, as are your scenes. It means you can delegate your work into two distinct phases: revision, which involves larger changes, and polishing, which deals with all those “little fixes” (I will talk about polishing in Steps 13 and 14).

As I mentioned in last week’s post (Revision 101), the goal of revision is to bring your draft in sync with your story. This means having scope and perspective to make large changes and appreciate them beyond the actual words on the page. Fussing with your prose to perfect them, therefore, will steal the large scope you otherwise need to achieve effective revision.

Tip 2: Use your post-draft outline

In step 11 we invest quite a bit of time in going over our story and writing an outline that divides your manuscript into it’s smallest components. The process of creating this outline and filling it in meant rewriting the former outlines you developed and telling your story in bullet form so you can appreciate angles that the prose otherwise might hide.

Use the post-draft outline sub-frames to direct you. Each of these sub-frames is anchored in a given frame, which will help you appreciate how each sub-frame develops themes relevant to your premise. The sub-frame sheet allows you to write out background information that doesn’t appear in the draft and allows you to look for inner and outer turning points so you can see if your story in this place moves in a way that is compelling to your reader.

Tip 3: Don’t let the draft lie to you

Your draft is what you wrote. Think of it as a discovery. Think of it also as a lot of uncharted territory and false labeling as you attempted to make sense of what you actually encountered.

Your outline was your map from which you planned your trip carefully before starting your draft, but it couldn’t prepare you for every tangle of underbrush, pitfall, and the layout of enemy tents. When you did your drafting, you went out reconnoitering, and wrote out exactly what you saw.

Now you’re back with detailed data and it’s overwhelming. You wrote down everything you encountered, but it was dark, and you didn’t know what you were actually seeing. That underbrush you encountered was actually tripwire, and you’re lucky you get caught in it. And those enemy tents—guess what? They were actually your allies, so the plans for attack you formulated while on your way back would have made the war a lot messier.

Your draft is a best guess, and, if done well—if you write slowly and take the time to truly discover the story—you’ll have all the details right. For the most part.

Your post-draft outline is a chance to go back to the map, consult with intelligence and other reports, and put all the details together so that your detailed account of the terrain is in fact correct.

Then you’ll be ready for attack.

(Aka sending out to a publisher. Yep, it’s a tough market.)

Tip 4: Leave yourself notes and time to think

So your draft lies to you here and there and you have to change your plans. Don’t change them too quickly. Those tents that you are told are allies might be neutral. That matters when you’re planning war.

Similarly, the subplot that makes no sense might work with the fix you come up with as soon as you spot the problem, but there might be a better fix that will come to you as you continue to hop around your sub-frames and consider the various angles. See the whole picture. Don’t just think about the problem in sub-frame 19.2. Think about how that problem pokes its head up in 11.2, 13.4, 16.7, and 23.3, and leave notes in those spots that will be easy for you to get back to using the “find” feature in your word processor. (I like to use text in square brackets between paragraphs, and anchors.)

Mastering revision involves lots of restraint. Like the art of mastering drafting, it, too, requires more thought than writing. While you might spend 1-2 hours / session of revision at the computer, and do this for many months, during this phase your mind will be spinning all throughout the day and these are problems you will no doubt be taking to bed.

Tip 5: Layer in your rewrites

The goal of the revision phase is to get away from linear revision. This means you should not feel like you have to go  through your notes from the beginning to end when you address those parts of your manuscript that need a tune-up.

Think of this as a visit to the chiropractor. (This workshop started with a posture analogy, right?) If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done a lot of work, and I bet you have lots of knots in your back.

Now, a chiropractor doesn’t go over your whole back, bottom to top, again and again. She might go over it once to feel where there are the most subluxations. Crack. Crack. Crack. That’s your middle back, by the way. Maybe there were a few in your lower back, and a few in your neck, but every time she gets to your middle back it’s like you’ve turned into a bag of Orville Redenbacher.

That’s where your chiropractor spends most of her time, and similarly you, as writer, need to spend most of your time where it matters, layering in all your rewrites until there are no more things that are out of alignment with your post-draft outline.

Next week

Revision is important. It’s the time when your story comes out of the cocoon and spreads brilliant butterfly wings of gold and purple and scarlet. You can always do more of it, but at some point you have to stop. It’s not meant to be endless, which is why it’s important to have a method, even if there is madness in it.

My goal with this workshop is to give you all a resource to help you complete your projects, and so I will spend more time on revision. Next week comes revision 301: 5 more tips that will help you deal with all those popping vertebrae.

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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 11 (Part 2): Discovering Microstructure

In the last step, I talked about creating a post-draft outline. If your novel is 100,000 words, then you might have 50-100 sub-frames — and thus a big stack of paper! I only talked about what each sub-frame sheet should look like and the motivation for doing such a crazy thing. This week, I will talk about the process of filling this sheet in—the process of discovering microstructure.

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Like Clockwork

Don’t you love the intricate workings of a clock? Large gears turn to control the outward display, and as they rotate smaller gears move quicker, controlling them. Spools swivel in time to those smaller gears, and even smaller components turn, some slow, some fast, but all in perfect concert with the overall progression. It’s incredibly complex, and yet, at the same time, simple. It’s unified, with one purpose.

Just like a story.

If I lived two hundred years ago, no doubt I’d be a clock-maker (a day job while I secretly work away at my stories). Instead, I find teaching about and exploring the machinations of math and computer programming just as stimulating—a digital age equivalent of a clock-maker, I suppose. One thing is for certain: it’s taught me to think about stories structurally and abstractly, without getting twisted up by all those complicated gears.

Last week we explored how to divide your story up into small chunks—the only smaller division from here would be the sentences and passages that move each one. (If you are writing a series or a collection of related stories, you might want to consider bigger wheels and what sort of machine they turn in as well. I’ll write about that in the series of extra posts to follow this workshop.)

Now, let’s explore why it’s important to explore micostrcuture.

Pearls before swine

Exploring microstructure means going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out and organizing details, and discovering the emotions and plots that lie in the background to the story. It allows you to discover what is really happening so you can make intelligent structural changes that reflect the overall story. It will take hours—count on 100 hours for 100,000 words of story.

So, is it worth it?

I love the comic “Pearls before swine,” particularly for its title. It resonates on many levels for me, especially with regard to completing a story: if you don’t put your pearls first, you’re going to turn your precious gems into pig food. Ugh!

Many writers turn in work too soon (myself included, which is why those works now rest peacefully in a box). Sometimes the reason is pressure of publishers who offer lucrative contracts if a novel gets handed in by a certain date, though for the most part it’s psychological — you’re tired, and you want to finish and move on. You settle for “good enough” instead of “done”.

This is a mistake. (In my opinion—but this whole series is about what works for me, so I think I’m entitled to that here. ) There’s plenty to be learned by probing your story’s full depth, and its worthwhile to discover how to do this effectively. Discovering microstrucutre will allow you to get the bird-eye view, both from the treetop and from the far-up clouds.

This might seem like building a nuclear bomb for an ant hill, but publishers aren’t looking for tin-can explosives. They’re looking for stories that will explode across reader networks, rise in a mushroom cloud of reviewer buzz, and hover over the market like nuclear winter. And you are going to create it—if you hold onto your pearls until they’re ready.

Go back in time

The goal of this process is for you to go back in time and actually place yourself right in your story, live-time, the same way you were when you wrote it. Using your sub-frame notes allows you a different medium to engage with your story so you aren’t merely looking for sentences to change. Filling in how a sub-frame contributes to the development of the frame it is part of, writing out emotional contrasts, inner and outer turning points, emotions, senses, background story—and so on—allows you to lay out the minutest building blocks of your story. Most importantly, while you go through, sub-frame by sub-frame, you have the opportunity to make changes as your notes call for it.

As an example from my own work, the opening for frame 11 of my WIP niggled me—but when I got to filling in the sub-frame for the opening, I realized I did not give Jak enough emotional presence because I spent some time on background information while establishing the scene in medias res. Fleshing out the components for the sub-frame allowed me to make changes with a proper reference and, after about twenty minutes of playing type-delete-type-delete-type-delete, I sat back and “felt” the scene work (good enough at least for this step in the story-building process).

Using this as your guide, you might decide you need to add a sub-frame or remove one—even add or delete a whole frame!—you might decide to change characters, names of places, or how various plots execute. Discovering microstructure is a great way to see where all the components of a larger plot arc occur so you make adjustments where you need to.

Go through with your own manuscripts and relive each sub-frame. Make sure you also redo your 9-part outline, 3-part outline, and premise, and place these as dividers at the beginning of the frames where they occur. Think about clock-wheels and how each smaller part is part of the whole. Use some alpha or beta reader notes, and your cold-read revision notes (but don’t get too concerned about implementing everything from your checklist—that comes in step 12).

Be creative and introspective. Most importantly, take your time and enjoy the experience of reliving the story your drafting process left behind.

Almost done!

After you have done this, you’re going to feel like you’re close to being done, but there are three final steps. Your manuscript might read as very good, but our goal is to make it more than excellent—so good that there is no word to describe it. (I say goal because, in actuality, it will always be possible to make it better; but you might want to have this in the back of your mind.)

Next week we begin with the first of three steps in the revision stage, using our completed post-draft outline, and I will discuss the final steps to help you discover that quality to your manuscript that is more than excellent—the quality that says “done”.

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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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