Revising Your Book

I get asked about revising a lot.

A lot.

I have been asked about the process so much that I crafted a workshop out of it. I can’t give the same workshop every month, but it’s a fairly vital topic.

Writing and revising are not easy. First, there’s the writing part, which is as arduous as it needs to be. You pump out your zero draft, molten and messy, then you have the raw material needed to revise.

Some people do not “do” zero drafts. Some people revise as they write. Hats off to you if you’ve figured it out. I myself have yet to finalize anything below four drafts.

Revising is necessary for a creature like myself. Here are my notes on how to stay sane throughout the process, fellow tender morsels.

HOW TO REVISE YOUR BOOK

So you finally got to “THE END.” You persevered through all doubts, reservations, and fears, all to arrive at those two golden words.

But are you finished?

Oh, my friend, you have only just begun.

What do you mean, I HAVE TO REVISE MY BOOK?

Remember how teachers asked for rough drafts? Y’know, you’d be assigned some enormous research paper, and teachers would set due dates for the entire process: thesis statement, introduction, outline, rough draft, and final draft. In all likelihood, this was to ensure they didn’t receive messy, incoherent, hastily-written papers.

Oh, my lovely. Listen: that 400+ page beast you’ve just finished is a rough draft. It is not ready for querying. It is nowhere near close to a final edit. Under no circumstances should you pay someone to “edit” it. Immediately hiss and swat at any evildoer who suggests otherwise.

This is not to undermine the glory of your achievement. You have accomplished an amazing thing. You’ve written a book.

But it is not ready.

And the only thing you should do when you understand this is SAVE and CLOSE the file.

Let it rest for at least a few days. Your eyes must be fresh and unclouded by hate when you come back to your pages.

First pass

The initial pass serves two essential functions:

Clean up the document for readers. Be your own spell check. Eliminate basic typos and wonky formatting.

Note what you need to work on. Jot down what pops out at you—clunky dialog, plot holes, verbal crutches, weak characterization, inconsistent point of view—and compile a list. I separate problems by whether they’re global (manuscript-wide changes) or local (scenes).

Once you have a list of potential issues, turn your focus outward. You’re going to need more eyes. Remember: verify before you vivisect. What you consider a flaw might be your novel’s finest aspect.

Peer review

Start searching for critique partners and beta readers. You’ll want to work with someone familiar with your genre and its demands. Not sure where your book would be shelved? Start with who you imagine reading it. Where would they go to find your book?

Write a summary. Readers and critique partners will want an idea of what they’re getting into. A good rule of thumb for what to include (per the wondrous Nathan Bransford) are CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and QUEST. Pretty much every pitch I’ve ever read follows this basic structure:

“When conflict happens to the main character, they must overcome the conflict to complete their quest.”

This applies to fiction and nonfiction of all kinds. Tossing a ring into the fires of Mordor does not a quest make. A Campbellian hero’s journey does not have to be epic in scale to be compelling.

If you’d like to go on your own hero’s journey, the next step you could take in this process would be to write a query letter. It’s certainly one way to knock out several birds with one stone, and if you’re interested in traditional publication, it’s a dragon you’ll be forced to to face. However, that particular journey is best covered in a separate workshop. Let’s refocus.

Critique partners! Where does one find them?

#CPmatch hashtag

#CPConnect hashtag

Scribophile

Writer’s Block Party

Absolute Write

Critique Partner Google Matchup

Feedback received. Now what?

Identify what resonates and what doesn’t.

Not all critique is good critique. It’s up to you to decide what will help your book. Cast a wide net and see what issues your readers consistently point out. If readers repeatedly tell you the voice is weak and your favorite character adds nothing to the story, you might want to reexamine voice and characterization.

Collect feedback. Bounce ideas off readers and writers you trust. You’re forming a strategy for the next draft. One could call it a…

Revision checklist

Remember how I mentioned “global” and “local” issues? That’s the idea. Start big and work your way down.

PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS

Examine your structure. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is the overarching conflict ever resolved? If you’ve woven in subplots, ask yourself whether they make the story compelling or confusing. Each thread should serve the tapestry. If it doesn’t…

Snip snip.

STAKES/TENSION

Does your reader care what happens? No? Probably a good place to blow something up or burn something down.

PACING

Does it drag? Does it move too fast? Your readers will let you know.

CHARACTERIZATION

Are your characters believable? Do they change over the course of the story? Who are they at the beginning, and who do they become by the end? Every character may not experience a clear arc, but your primary and secondary characters should be affected in some way. If they move the plot, the plot moves them.

Remember, we don’t have to like them. They just need to be interesting.

POINT OF VIEW/TENSE

What lens best serves your story? Is it an edge-of-your-seat thriller? First person present might be your friend. Third person past is a popular choice for fantasy, but feel free to do weird things with it. Turn it inside out. Make it work for you.

VOICE

There are multiple voices in your book. One set belongs to your narrators. One belongs to you. Depending on how many points of view you choose, balancing the two can be difficult.

Common elements of voice include vocabulary, syntax, and description. If everyone speaks and acts like a poet, the reader will have a hard time telling your characters apart.

Get familiar with these terms. Issues with characterization, pacing, and point of view will likely show up as culprits in multiple revisions.

Yes.

Multiple.

More than one.

Dear writer, revision is a hydra, but keep faith: your strategy will improve over time.

What about the finer things?!

Ah, those literary devices. Are there particular themes you want to work in? Maybe a character is associated with a symbol. Or you’d like to create a brooding, dreadful atmosphere. Perhaps one character acts as a foil to another. Clever motifs, foreshadowing, and shifts in narrative structure might be high priorities for you as a writer. Don’t discount these darlings when pages are on the chopping block. A minor stylistic change might save an otherwise broken plot.

Any other tricks or tips?

A few hacks I’ve found helpful in identifying problems:

  • Read it out loud. Nothing susses out wooden dialogue or run ons quite like reading your own pages out loud.
  • Print it out. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been stumped on a problem, only to immediately spot it on a printed page.
  • Get weird. You have no idea how many times changing the font of a serious POV to Comic Sans MS saved my sanity. Give it a try sometime. You’ll thank me later.

PERFECT VERSUS GOOD ENOUGH

Advice is great and all, but…

WHEN IS IT DONE, you scream into the void.

WHEN IS IT FINISHED, you howl, hurtling your MacBook down the street.

WHEN AM I DONE?!

There is no fail-safe for this. You have to develop your own rubric. Traverse your own underworld. Rescue your manuscript from its depths. When you’ve done all you possibly can, throw it farther. Enter it into contests. Query. If problems still exist, you’ll find them.

With persistence, you will accrue enough knowledge and experience to know when it’s time to shelve a project and move onto the next.

The only way out is through, dear writer.

RESOURCES

The “see with eyes unclouded by hate” quote is totally applicable to the revision process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EISWfdFNiUU

Nathan Bransford’s masterlist of writing advice: https://blog.nathanbransford.com/writing-advice-database

More about that godforsaken Hero’s Journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

Upstate Creative Writers Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatewriters/

Upstate NaNo Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatenano/

The Absolute Write Critique Partner Master Thread: https://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?30-Beta-Readers-Mentors-and-Writing-Buddies&s=207dbc0de5272ad710ac3f6527ec01cb

Writer’s Block Party Critique Partner Match Up: https://writersblockpartyblog.com/2018/01/11/wbps-critique-partner-match-up/

Critique Partner Google Match Up https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup

Scribophile: http://scribophile.com

#CPMatch Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpmatch?lang=en

#CPConnect Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/CPConnect?src=hash

Jes’s revision checklist that is, in fact, pretty ultimate: https://www.inklyo.com/ultimate-fiction-editing-checklist/

Another trustworthy list from Marissa Meyer: https://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/from-idea-to-finished-step-6-revisions/

Bethlehem Steel

For the past week, I’ve been up north visiting family. My great aunt passed away, and we traveled up to Pennsylvania to bury her ashes and scatter my grandfather’s. It’s not often I get to visit with my extended family—they’re scattered between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I live all the way down in South Carolina. It was a rare chance to see old places, and since our trip up to Jonestown, PA was less than two hours from Bethlehem, we carved out time for a side trip so I could go snap some pictures.

Nineteen years ago, Bethlehem was home. We moved in July of 1995, and the last time I visited was fourteen years ago. Bethlehem Steel officially ceased operations in 1995 after 140 years of operation. In August of 2000, I walked with an old friend through downtown Bethlehem at night, carefully herded as she warned me to stay close. It wasn’t the Bethlehem that I remembered, and as I took my old home in, the germ of a story took shape in my mind.

There are a number of towns in the Rust Belt that have crumbled under the weight of a broken economy and never recovered. I imagined a city that continued to spiral, its dark, dead heart ripe for an opportunistic madman and a terrorist cell. It took many years and two drafts for me to really learn about the characters involved and the conflict that drove them, but it was never a story I thought I could publish.

And then I fell in love with YA, and I realized my story had a home.

For almost three years, I’ve been weaving this story about a girl, her truest friend, and the person she loves most, all trapped at the center of an ancient war. There are numerous settings I’m attached to within the story, but the one I love most is Bethlehem Steel. Research brought me to Shaun O’Boyle’s photographic essay, shot in 2006. The images are downright haunting. Here was the city I imagined, an industrial powerhouse that was once a symbol, now crippled, crumbling, and hollow. The more I dug, the more it took shape in my head. Thankfully, there are a number of photographers and hobbyists who have provided enough photographs and information for me to map a place I’d never walked through.

Until this past Sunday.

Bethlehem was still three and a half hours from our last destination in New Jersey, and we’d been on the road since eleven that morning. I had roughly an hour to capture as much of the remaining steel mill as I could. It took a bit of circling around the city to find it, and along the way I captured a couple of photos.

Southside BethlehemSouthside Bethlehem

Founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel produced steel for New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and steel for ships during World War II. The heart of South Side Bethlehem is Bethlehem Steel, and it was resurrected in 2009 with the introduction of a new casino. Today, the site is now an arts and entertainment district renamed SteelStacks, home to the casino, a performing arts center, and three outdoor concert stages. We followed the buses and a crowd to the stacks, and once I spotted the entrance, I was so excited I leaped out of the car with neither purse nor phone, only my camera. I broke a flipflop, but it couldn’t stop me, because I recognized everything I saw.

Iron foundry

Iron foundry - back

The iron foundry was a bit different from the photos I studied, but from its relative position to the stacks, I had a rough guess of what it was. I continued on, snapping pictures as I went.

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Somewhere far past these buildings is the site of the climax of AMoA—not sure if it’s still there. It’ll have to wait for another trip, I suppose…

And then I found the engine house.

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I was so thrilled to find this place! It was blocked off by a partition, so I couldn’t see into it very well, but I could still make out the tops of the engine flywheels.

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There was an exhibit of one, which I photographed from a half dozen angles.

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If you think these are big, the engines are even bigger. They had to be, to help provide power for the stacks!

Engine house - front

The cool thing about the engine house? This is where chapter 1 takes place! I wasn’t able to get to the other side of the engine house or continue down to check out the other end—I was phoneless and at this point had lost my family in my excitement, not a wise idea—but I was able to properly map out in my head which direction Eid had run from and how far he’d had to go. I also discovered a number of new details I couldn’t make out from photographs, like the ridge of the railway line running alongside the stacks. I’d known it was high, but I didn’t understand HOW high until I was standing right next to it. The corridor I’d put together from photographs was no longer there, but I had a rough approximation of what it might have looked like, years ago.

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While I couldn’t explore the mill as thoroughly as I would have liked, it was absolutely thrilling to be in a place I’d pieced together in my head. I felt like I’d entered my story and gotten a chance to walk around inside it. If the mill hadn’t been renovated, I’m not sure I would have been able to. It was a great relief to discover that a once abandoned industrial symbol had found new life.

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Musikfest was vastly different compared to the last time I visited, but you really can’t beat listening to live bands echoing off of enormous steel stacks. If you ever have the opportunity, go. The novelty of the site alone is worth the trip, and I’m immensely glad I made it.

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Well, that’s all I’ve got for this trip. It was definitely an eventful one—I got to see my grandfather’s childhood home and visit his favorite creek. Jonestown is strikingly similar to some of my favorite places much further south in the Blue Ridge, and I missed him quite a bit when I saw it. He’d often told me about walking through the woods at night and what it was like growing up on a farm, and it was wonderful to put a place to a name. Perhaps Jonestown will end up in a story or two.

I’ve got some plans for a blog series this upcoming fall, so stay posted! Thanks for reading, and I hoped you enjoyed it. Kris Reisz referred me to the Sloss Furnaces out in Birmingham, and since I also have family out in Louisiana, Birmingham is right along the way. Hopefully I’ll have more steel mill adventures soon. If I do, you’ll know where to look 🙂

On the Dark Side of Human Nature (or, what Hannibal is doing right & why you should be watching)

To those who know me in real life, it’s no secret that I find dark natures absolutely fascinating. There are a multitude of troubling books on my shelves with themes and subjects that touch upon the unsavory, unwholesome truths we hide from ourselves.

Carl Jung referred to our dark self as the archetype of the Shadow–a universal, unconscious symbol, a sort of primordial memory carried forwards through human consciousness. Shadows are a threat, an inverse reflection of our selves. To see our shadows clearly, we have to confront them for what they really are: the dark parts that both belong to us and are completely repugnant at the same time.

And, oh, boy, does Hannibal play with this idea in fascinating ways.

(Consider yourself warned–there are massive spoilers ahead.)

Though even Alana might have a hard time loving a guy who keeps hallucinating this.

When Will first confronts the Nightmare Stag, it has a somewhat recognizable shape. This stag with feathers takes strange dimensions in his nightmares, defining itself more and more with each appearance. As Will gets closer and closer to the truth–that Hannibal is stalking him as well–the stag begins to change.

But a stag is an odd choice for a representation of Hannibal, isn’t it? Deer are typically prey, not predators. Maybe this is a hint from Will’s unconsciousness that the predator is hiding himself among them, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak. Less cliche, more in line with the image of Garret Jacob Hobbs. After Will kills Hobbs, it makes sense that his shadow would take such an obvious form. As he edges closer and closer to the question of whether he’s a monster, too, the stag abruptly changes into a man.

This man-shaped monster is clearly a predator, something that terrifies Will to have inside his head. His antlers are reminiscent of Cernunnos, a horned god of the hunt in Celtic mythology. Cernunnos is typically associated with fertility and wildness, but this version of Will’s Nightmare Stag is much more of a threat. This version of the stag conjures a repressed primal nature, a need to hunt that cannot be controlled.

This is all perfectly in line with what happens next. Will coughs up a human ear and stares at it in horror, unwilling to believe he’s become the thing he fears most. The ear is undeniable proof, though, irrefutable evidence that he is the Chesapeake Ripper.

But then we see the Stag’s true form.

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The tricky thing about the use of this particular symbol is that in this shot, Will does not see the Nightmare Stag for what it really is. We see Hannibal in true Wendigo form, antlers and all, and we realize the stag that has been haunting Will was Hannibal, but Will does not.

And that’s what makes the start of Season 2 so brilliant. Will and Hannibal both state that they’re trapped in each other’s heads. One could argue that for these two incredibly self-aware characters, their individual shadows have to take physical form. If Hannibal played as Will’s shadow in season 1, I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for Season 2. I doubt we’ll see a correlating symbol, but who knows?

Some people might argue against using motifs and symbols in stories, that they’re obvious or easy to figure out, but Hannibal makes an excellent argument for why you should. Get inside your characters’ heads. Find out what they fear, what they consider to be their antithesis. How can that be toyed with? What kind of seeds can be planted to keep your reader guessing?

As for me, I’ll be over here, considering a Horned God of my own. I’m only a few chapters into this draft of THE WILD HUNT, but I’ve got some fun, scary ideas for what’s ahead. Stay tuned.