“Ugh…I’ve been through my novel so many times and rewritten so many passages that I just can’t see how it can be improved any more. Everything feels fixed to the page.”
This frustration was expressed by one of the writers at our group meeting last Monday. He recognises the need to improve his novel but just doesn’t know how or what to change any more.
He has gone “cold” on his manuscript – he has gone through it too many times and can’t see it objectively any longer. This is how Sol Stein characterizes the revision problem in his book “Stein on Writing”. Stein advocates a “triage” approach to revision which prevents the writer becoming desensitized to his or her own work.
Basically this means fixing the most critical problems first i.e. the primary causes of a manuscript being rejected. Only after triage should we begin general revisions. Here are the triage steps:
Step one: EXAMINE YOUR CHARACTERS
- Protagonist / hero – there are many ways to examine your main character but here are a few questions which may help you ensure the hero is humanized, well-rounded and credible:
- What particularly do you like about your character? Make sure this is not unconsciously autobiographical.
- How would you feel about spending your annual vacation with your main character? Would you get bored or irritated? Remember you are asking your readers to spend many hours with this person, make sure to keep them interested and engaged.
- How well do you understand your hero? For instance, if they were your friend and you were to win the lottery, would they be happy for you, jealous, avaricious?
- Does your character change or grow during the course of the novel? The reader will not want to go through a long journey with your hero to find that he or she has learned nothing. Your hero needs to evolve.
- Antagonist / villain – make sure your villain is multi-dimensional. Even bad people have a sense of humour, do kind things occasionally and can pretend to be good when it suits them. How bad is your villain? Is he capable of being charming and enticing? Is he just badly behaved or is he morally deficient? It’s up to you of course, but make sure you understand the degree and nature of your villain’s badness.
- Minor characters – even these are important if a scene depends on their credibility. Make sure they are life-like. Sometimes just one little detail is enough to give life to a minor character.
Step two: ENSURE YOU HAVE CREDIBLE CONFLICT BETWEEN HERO AND VILLIAN
Remember what Michael Hauge said about the essence of a story? See Eating the Elephant. Each story has a main character, the hero, who has a powerful desire and experiences conflict in trying to attain this. To keep your readers interested, your hero must have huge obstacles to overcome, the stakes must be high and his adversaries formidable. Even a love story contains these elements where the hero needs to overcome great barriers to win his lover.
Step three: EVALUATE YOUR SCENES
- Start with the most memorable scene in your book. If you can’t remember it in detail, then it is not memorable enough. Strengthen it.
- Now think about your least memorable scene. You will probably need to browse through your manuscript. Don’t read the book! Remember you don’t want to desensitize yourself. Just browse through until you find it. Then fix it. If you can’t fix it then cut it. If necessary include essential information from this weak scene in another one.
- Now you have a new least memorable scene. Go through the same process with this one, and the next, until you have reviewed and strengthened or cut all the weak scenes from your book.
Stein likens this process to the work of a surgeon. Be ruthless, and like a surgeon, fix or cut out anything which will weaken the body of your work.
Step four: TEST MOTIVATION
From memory jot down the three most important actions in your novel. Is each action motivated in a way that you would accept if someone else were telling you the story? The overall credibility of your story depends on the three main actions being well motivated. This is essential to the success of your story. Don’t rely on coincidence. Create and develop motivation throughout. Now look at the other significant actions in your story. Does anything happen which seems to happen just because you want it to? If it does not arise out of the desire of your characters, then establish motivation or eliminate the action.
Sol Stein says that only once you have gone through this four state triage process should you begin the general revisions. Following this process means that you won’t make minor changes or major rewrites earlier in the novel which have to be changed once again, when you realize you have a fatal flaw with one of your characters, scenes, main actions or motivation. And this way you won’t have to read the entire thing over and over again, from beginning to end, dulling your senses and making you stale before you have a good final draft to present to a publisher.
If you have finished a manuscript and are revising, congratulations! If, like me, you are still working on your first draft then taking this advice on board early may help you produce a better first draft.
Thank you for reading and keep writing.