Playing With Cards – The Creative Part of Revising

Last time, I gave a step-by-step rundown of my revision process and explained how I “use” (that sounds so bad) alphas, betas and critique partners. Now, we can begin breaking the process down, starting with the first few rounds of revisions. These rounds are both fun and painful at the same time.

They’re fun, because I’m still in the creative part of the process. There’s still a lot of new writing going on and I’m coming up with new ideas for plot twists, suspense thickeners and character development. They’re painful because it means chopping up what I’d once thought was a masterpiece and putting the pieces back together, sometimes trashing some while also trying to figure out how to weave those new things into something that already exists.

Building a house from the ground up and making it the way you want it is easier than taking an existing home and trying to remodel with the walls, ceiling and infrastructure already there. Removing a wall isn’t so easy when you discover it’s holding up the second floor or the roof. We’re going through a remodeling project right now and even demolition isn’t as fun as it looks because you don’t want to do irreperable damage.

Same goes for your WIP, which is why it’s easier if you don’t completely pants your way through the first draft (write by the seat of your pants with no outline). A little planning of at least where your outside walls, roof and main rooms go before you start reduces the stress and pain of having to move any structure points later. I learned this the hard way, having pretty much written both Promise and Purpose by the seat of my pants. When I do at least a basic outline that follows good story structure, revisions are less painful.

However, unexpected twists and turns come up while writing the first draft that cause the original outline to be pushed under a pile of new notes, never to be seen again. I have a better structure than I did if I hadn’t outlined at all, but it still needs work. So, even if I did actually outline the book before writing, in the first few rounds of revisions, I’m working on the structure – the plot and character arcs.

As soon as I finish the first draft, I start analyzing it for improvement. Actually, when I first finish the draft, I whoop and holler, do the happy dance and swear it’s not only the best thing I’ve ever written, but the absolute best thing ever written in the history of the entire freakin’ universe. It’s a damn masterpiece that no one ever will be able to top. Ever. Then the next day, I start reading this brilliant piece of genius and realize, well, um, yeah … it’s crap.

It’s for this reason that many authors will tell you to put the WIP aside for at least a couple of weeks so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and mind. Let it stew for a while, or work on something else, so you can be objective when you get back to it. I’ve tried this. It’s too soon in the process for me to do so.

I need to immediately read what I just wrote. I need to remain immersed in that world and maintain that connection with the characters. By the time I get to writing the end, I don’t always remember everything that was in the beginning. If I wait to do this step, when I start up again and I’m reading it for the first time, I won’t necessarily remember exactly how the ending went down on paper. I lose that continuity, which leads to adding an extra round of reading/revising – once to familiarize myself with the entire story and then again to actually make notes and figure out what needs fixing.

After one night of celebrating, I get back to work. Usually, I’ll print out a hard copy of the manuscript, grab my purple pen and go to a different room of the house. I’ll review any notes I’ve made while writing the draft to remind myself of fixes I already know I want to make (when I’m writing, if an idea occurs to me that’s not a quick fix, I’ll jot it down to put in later). Then I’ll read through the entire draft, writing notes all over the pages, in the margins and on the backs.

Reading the story beginning to end allows me to make notes where I was inconsistent, dropped a ball I’d thrown in at the beginning but forgot to catch later, completely left a plot line out that needs to be in there, etc. Now that I know how the whole story goes, I can see how it can be better, so I’m also taking notes on those areas. Basically, in this round, I’m putting in everything I’d meant to originally, but had messed up in the heat of the draft, as well as adding any new ideas.

If I feel good about these changes, I’ll get to work, starting at the beginning and going through the entire manuscript, working on these plot and character improvements. If I’m stuck, especially on a major plot point that must be fixed before anything else can be figured out, then I’ll let my alpha start reading so she can help me brainstorm a solution. But I’m usually still working while she’s reading. When I’m done with this round, I’ll definitely give it to her, although, again, I keep working while she has it. Unless I do need her help, her purpose at this point is to cheer me on.

In the next round, I go through the revised MS and make note cards for each scene. Sometimes I’ll do on paper cards, sometimes I’ll do in Scrivener (if it’s not already in Scrivener, which sometimes it is if I did really good outlining ahead of time). I write down a note about the scene so I know which one it is, which characters are in it, the conflict and the purpose of the scene. The best way to do this is using different colors for primary plot, secondary plot(s), and different character arcs. If I’d already done this in Scrivener, I’ll revise them because things have certainly changed since the outlining stage.

Now comes the tricky part – deciding which scenes stay, which ones go, what needs to be added and the order of the scenes. I’m a firm believer that the first things that come to mind in the outlining and drafting phases are the most obvious, most banal and cliche and make for a mediocre (at best) or boring (at worst) story. I learned this from Donald Maass and his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. We should question ourselves on everything because with more thought and imagination, we can usually come up with something even more spectacular than our initial idea.

In the first round of playing with my cards, I analyze each one, asking myself if that scene serves at least one purpose to the plot. If it doesn’t move the story along or serve a very important purpose that no other scene can do, it needs to go or be combined with another scene. I also play the what-if game with each scene, asking myself, “what if I made this tragedy even worse by doing such-and-such” or “what if that didn’t happen at all – how would she react?”

If the scene stays (with or without revisions), the card goes into the keeper pile. If it needs to go, it gets tossed to the side (I never throw away, though, virtually or physically, just in case I change my mind). If two scenes need to be combined, they get clipped to each other and together they go into the keeper pile.

Now, I take the keeper pile and analyze whether the scenes are in the right order. I’ll ask more what-if questions – what if he did this before doing that rather than after, what if this was actually the cause to that other thing, etc. Sometimes, I’ll shuffle the cards and see what kind of new order of events comes up. I’ve learned the hard way not to change the order of events too much because usually the first draft is pretty close to the right order – the causes and effects happened organically, which you don’t want to mess with. But sometimes, the original order just doesn’t work. Or you forgot a scene, which throws things amok. And oftentimes by doing this, even if I keep everything in their original order, I get new ideas for how to ruin my characters’ lives and make the story better. For any new scenes that need to be added, I create a new card and put it in its place in the pile.

Once I feel good about my main plot line, my subplots, and my character arcs, my cards are in the order of how the story should be told and I’ve made any necessary notes. Starting with the card on top (the opening scene), I start rearranging the WIP document accordingly, moving, deleting and adding scenes, while smoothing out awkward transitions and such as I go. By the time I’m done with this round, my plot and character arcs should be pretty much nailed down.

But I want the opinions of other, very smart people, especially those I know who are awesome with plot and character development. So the MS goes off to my first round of critique partners, and this is when I try to let the book stew in my mind without actually working on it until the feedback comes in. This allows me to consider their feedback objectively and also to have a fresh brain when I go back to the WIP for the next round, which we’ll discuss next time.

Does this make sense or is it clear as mud? Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

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