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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 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 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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