Monday writing roundup: writing exercises, book piracy, and more.
The Manuscript Shredder’s Novel Revision and Editing Guide
You’ve just typed the end, now what? It’s time to revise, but revising without a plan can lead to hours of wasted effort and frustration. Rather than getting stuck in an endless editing loop, use this novel revision and editing guide to make sure you are doing the right edits in the right order.
Step 1: Take a step back
The first step in any revision checklist is to take a break from your book. Chances are you will be ready for one, but the real reason you need to take a break is your brain needs a rest. Writing a novel is an emotional experience. We writers love our characters, and we love our stories. If you try to begin your editing process when you are still wrapped up in the emotional release of finishing your story and seeing your characters finally win, then you will lose objectivity. Taking a break from your manuscript will give you time to regroup and get some perspective on the project. This will give you a chance to put your creative self aside and dust off your editing mode. An editor must be objective and even a little cold-hearted to kill all those little darlings.
Step 2: First pass
In the first pass, all you are doing is getting it ready for alpha readers. What does this mean? Making sure the novel is actually finished. As you read, make any notes of things that must be added for the story to make sense. This is not where you add that new subplot idea that you had. In fact, try not to add anything that isn’t critical for the reader to understand what is already on the page. Why? If the story makes sense as is, then adding extras is only padding the story with nonsense that will drag the pacing down. Few readers are looking for 1000 page epics. Today’s reader wants a fast-paced read and that means keeping everything centered on moving the plot forward.
The amount of work you will need to do will vary depending on if you are a plotter or a pantser. Plotters will have done most of this work when they were creating their outlines. Pantsers will use the first pass to really piece their novels together.
What to do: Pantsers
Your first task is to make an outline. This is a simple one or two line description of what happens in each scene. You can do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or use the synopsis feature in Scrivener. Why? Having a list of your scenes and their function will make every step after, easier.
Using your outline:
- Identify any scenes that do not move your plot forward and cut them. (These are usually world-building exposition and character-building scenes that don’t have lasting consequences for the plot) Make a note of any important information in these scenes and make a plan to add it to another scene.
- Identify any characters that do not move the plot forward. (These will likely be eliminated in the useless scene purge.)
- Identify any subplots that do not impact the main plot, consider cutting these. Again, make sure any important information is inserted into another scene.
- Identify plot holes.
- Now make a short description of your character arc and check character arcs for logical progression.
Once you have this, you are ready to do your first rewrite or major edit. Go back through and fix these issues. This is the main difference between plotters and pantsers. Plotters do the majority of their work before the draft, and pantsers do the majority of their work after.
If you are a meticulous plotter, you have likely already finished these steps before you began your draft. If not, go back and take a look, otherwise continue to the next list.
What you are looking for on the first pass: Plotters (Second pass: Pantsers)
- Are all the scenes complete?
- Do scenes end in the right place, or do they stretch on too long?
- Do your scenes contain useless filler or chit-chat dialogue?
- Are any scenes missing or out of order?
- Does characterization follow a logical progression?
- Are your character reactions consistent with his/her place in the character arc?
- Look for characters who could be combined. Does your YA heroine really need an annoying work friend and an annoying school friend? Combine them into one person. Make it easier for your readers to keep track of your secondary characters by using as few as possible.
- Make sure your secondary characters make appearances throughout the story.
- If you use the XXX trick, (typing XXX when you cannot remember a word or detail.) do a “find” and fill in those missing vocabulary words.
- At this point in the process you may use spell-check to fix any spelling errors or incorrect words for clarity, otherwise, leave the grammar alone. Do not waste time reworking sentences or paragraphs at this stage, as you have not finalized which scenes will remain in the story.
Once you have a coherent plotline, you are ready to find your alpha readers.
What’s the difference between alpha readers and beta readers?
Alpha readers are the readers who read your book when it is still in its generation stages. These readers will give you feedback on overall structure, characterization, or world-building. Alpha readers focus on big-picture items. They may suggest large-scale changes, like those from the Pantser list above. I engage my alpha readers in the planning stages and pass out scenes before the draft is even finished. We bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm possible plot twists. My alpha readers keep me on track and point out potential problems before I have a chance to even write the scenes. (If you’re working with a professional editor, this stage is called a developmental edit, substantive edit, or manuscript evaluation. If you wish to work with an editor at this stage, make sure you have eliminated any unnecessary scenes and subplots before submitting. Editors charge by the word, so there is no reason to pay extra for words you already know you are going to delete.)
Using the feedback from your alpha readers, solidify your plot line and character arcs. Again, at this stage don’t worry about putzing with small details. There’s no reason to worry about commas or small line edits. Just get the plot and characters completely formed.
Now you are ready to look at the smaller details
In this pass, you need to focus on the prose.
Start by checking your MRU’s. Make sure your characters always react to something after the reader sees it. “I jumped three feet in the air when she poked me,” creates distance, but “Something poked me, and I jumped three feet in the air” lets us share the character’s experience. Often just switching sentences around will fix many paragraphs.
This is where you need to eliminate any exposition that doesn’t serve the scene. These are long paragraphs of characters thinking about things that do not affect their current situation. But what about world building? You need to show the reader why this particular aspect of the world building is affecting the character right now. Your readers won’t care about how many gods are in your character’s pantheon, but they will care if her God of War demands her little sister as a blood sacrifice. Make sure your world affects your characters, otherwise, it’s a pointless backdrop.
Once you have your MRU’s set, tighten the prose.
- Eliminate unnecessary words or phrases. (And make sure you are not using commas to tack things into sentences where they don’t belong.)
- Eliminate unnecessary passive voice (Not all passive voice is bad, click here for full details)
- Look for stronger verbs, etc. (Again, not all adverbs are bad. Use your best judgment)
- Double check your sentence constructions. Look out for repetitive sentence starts, participle phrase abuse, or otherwise convoluted sentence structures.
At this stage I have my computer read my manuscript back to me. This makes finding incorrect words or bizarre sentences stand out.
(Watch out for over-writing at this stage. Many writers get into trouble trying to blanket eliminate words like “that” and “was” from their manuscripts. Don’t write anything weird to avoid using these words. Keep your prose sounding natural. If no one would ever say that sentence aloud, then try again.)
Now look for point-of-view (POV) errors. Sentences that make statements the POV character couldn’t possibly know, for example, or unintentional instances of authorial intrusion (click here for more about authorial intrusion) Also, make sure you have consistent narrative focus. If you are using deep POV, look out for unintentional distancing: phrases like “I felt, I thought, I saw,” etc.
As you are making these scene-level edits keep an eye out for consistency errors. The gem in the dagger suddenly turns from blue to green, for example.
Once you have completed this pass, you are now ready for beta-readers.
Here’s where writers can get into trouble. You do not have to implement every change suggested by a beta reader. If you had good feedback at the alpha stage, then there shouldn’t be many large-scale changes at the beta stage. A beta may simply not like your book, that does not mean there is anything wrong with it. So don’t get caught in an editing loop trying to please everyone. You will never succeed. If you did not get feedback at the alpha stage, then you may need to rewrite large portions of your book. Go back to the beginning of this list and make sure you are proceeding in the right order.
Your beta should suggest small level revisions, like those on the stage two list. Once those are completed, you are ready to move to stage three.
Once you have finished the edits from your betas (remember only make the changes that you agree with) you are ready to move forward. If you are working with a professional editor at this stage you will be getting a line edit. Again, make sure you have done all you can before submitting to a professional. You want her to be fixing things you could not have fixed yourself.
Spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you are having trouble focusing on these tiny details, do this edit from the back to the front. By reading the novel backward, you are forced to look at each sentence individually, and you won’t fall into the trap of just reading the novel.
After this edit is finished, you are ready to query. (Although, if you land an agent, then you will likely do this process over again with her.)
Now move on to proofreading.
Proofreading is done to make sure your text looks the way it’s supposed to on the page. This means removing phantom characters, extra spaces, soft returns, tabs and other inconsistencies in the text. This will make sure your text behaves correctly on any e-reader. Proofreading will also include all the visual elements in the body of your text. This means setting any illustrations or tables as well as making sure the margins, headers, footers, page numbers, chapters and scene break elements are all consistent throughout the book. This will also include the table of contents and making sure all additional pages (title page, acknowledgments, about the author, dedication, etc.) in your publications are consistently formatted. If you are doing your own typesetting, then you should have another party proof the copy. Also, make sure you view your book in several different formats on multiple devices.
Editing is a long and often tedious task. By using this plan as a guide, you can see where you are in the process and know what to do next. By keeping your editing steps in the correct order, you will avoid wasting time, making your editing process more efficient and more effective. Don’t wander around in the editing wilderness. Let this guide be your map to getting that manuscript done.
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These common mistakes will ruin your first page
The first page is the most important page in your novel. It is the first impression a reader (and therefore an agent/editor) will get. A potential reader will judge your entire book based on the content in these few paragraphs. Getting it wrong could mean no one will ever read your book. No matter how many opening pages I read, many fail because they contain the same common mistakes. Don’t let these mistakes ruin your opening page.
Mistake 1. Doesn’t start the story.
This may seem like an idiotic statement, but I’ve seen it too often to ignore it. Too many writers use their opening pages to do everything but get the plot started. Make sure your character has a goal and a plan to achieve that goal right on page 1.
How do we start the story?
Identify your story’s inciting incident. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.) Now work backward. Map out the specific list of events that leads your character to that moment. In this case, we see Katniss in her daily struggle to feed her family. The entire purpose of the exposition is to show how Katniss feels responsible for Prim, and she is willing to risk her life for her sister.
How far back should I go?
Only go back as far as the reader needs to understand the inciting incident. For some stories that might only be a few minutes. In the case of the Hunger Games, Collins only went back to the morning of the Reaping. Why? Because this was the only day that was different. Going back further wouldn’t add anything to the story.
Mistake 2. No conflict
Many writers fall into this trap because most novels begin before the main character’s world falls apart. This is called establishing normal. But just because the explosions haven’t started yet doesn’t mean that everything in the character’s world is perfect. Find a conflict for the character in their normal life and use that to show characterization. Characters must have a problem on page 1.
Before I elaborate on this question, I need to distinguish between conflict (a problem a character faces in a story) and Conflict (the main obstacle in a novel.)
Does the story’s main Conflict need to appear on page 1?
There can be hints. It can be in the background or foreshadowed. All these are fine, but it is not necessary to have the story’s main Conflict appear on page 1. While some stories can begin this way, there are plenty of novels where tripping over the villain on the first page simply wouldn’t work.
Rules for conflict on page 1
Yes! There must be a conflict on page 1. Some people will say from the opening line, but I give writers till the end of the first paragraph, (assuming the first three sentences work together as a whole.)
This conflict must be:
- Part of the character’s journey
Your readers must be able to understand the problem without any explanation. If you’re not sure, consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what your setting is, people will understand conflicts from this list: hunger, shelter, safety, group identity, etc. If a reader can’t understand a conflict, she cannot empathize with the character.
The conflict must be right in front of the character. Your character can’t be sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her problem. It needs to be right there in the same room with her. She needs to be actively struggling against it. If you find your character sitting and thinking about the problem that happened last week, switch to that scene and show that event.
Writing a compelling conflict is nothing more than presenting the first two points in an interesting way. If you’ve succeeded in the first two points, the reader will naturally want to know if the character overcomes the obstacle. Even the most mundane conflicts can become interesting if the character is sympathetic. We make the character sympathetic by showing the character struggle.
Now improve the conflict by adding the consequences of failure.
All conflicts must have stakes (consequences for failure). Pay attention to the balance between the two. Stakes that are too extreme or not strong enough are not compelling. Again, make sure the stakes are clear and relatable to the audience.
Part of the character’s journey
Whatever the conflict is on the first page, it must be the first stepping stone on the character’s journey. The consequences of whatever choices the character makes on the first page need to lead into the next conflict.
This is called “Yes, but or no, and” style plotting. If you use another plotting method, you can use this as a test to make sure all your elements tie together.
How it works:
At the end of a scene (or scene/sequel unit) ask: Was the conflict solved?
Answer the question:
Yes, but…The solution caused another problem
No, and…this is how things got worse.
Using this simple device will help you make sure your conflict chain remains unbroken through the entire novel.
Mistake 3. The main character does nothing
She’s sitting in a coffee shop, her room, class, kitchen table (doesn’t matter) thinking about something/someone else. Characters who do nothing on the first page rarely engage readers. This goes back to conflict. If everyone else in your character’s life is talking about their problems and what they plan to do about them, then maybe the scene isn’t really about your main character?
Use the multiple-POV checklist to make sure your viewpoint character has agency or has the highest stakes.
- who has the most at stake?
- who has the most ability to affect change (agency) in the scene?
- whose experience has the most emotional impact?
The answer to these three questions may not be the same character, so choose the one which will create the most impact on the reader. If you find a secondary character eclipsing your main character, you will need to do some rewriting to raise the main character’s personal stakes in the scene.
If the main character doesn’t pass this test, then the opening scene does not start her story. Either you are starting the story in the wrong place, or another character should be your main character.
But what if the secondary character’s actions are the cause for the main character’s story?
Main characters who lack agency in the opening scenes can be difficult. In this instance, keep the focus on the emotional impact the events are having on your main character and how these events affect the main character. Create a sense of doom in him, or a rising sense of duty, or an everlasting shame that he stood by and watched, for example. Often in first drafts, writers will simply have the main character watch the scene unfold without participating, leaving the reader with a “watching TV experience” rather than a fully immersive one. While an eaves-dropping scene may be impossible to eliminate in a single POV book, having one on the first page will confuse and create distance for the reader. Keep the main character in the middle of the action.
Mistake 4. Info dump
The first page is not the place to describe your complex social, magical, or political system. Cut all info-dumping from your first page. If the scene makes sense without it, you don’t need it. If it doesn’t make sense, add back only the information the reader needs.
Make it better by having the characters use the information, rather than explaining it.
I rechecked the power crystals in my disruptor gun, not that I could hear their soft humming over the transport’s quad engines.
Mistake 5. Setting dump
Just as with the info dump, the setting dump also needs to be avoided. A short exposition is plenty to ground your readers in a setting. There’s no need to describe the entire coffee shop and all its inhabitants. Continue to build setting through the scene by having the characters interact with that setting.
Mistake 6. Backstory dump
No backstory on page one. Can you hint at it? sure. Show its effects on your character? absolutely. Can you spell it all out in two paragraphs? No.
Not only is that boring to a reader who is not yet invested in a character, it also ruins any intrigue by answering all the potential questions raised by the character’s actions.
One of the most important aspects of hooking readers is posing questions. If you give readers all the answers, there is no reason for them to continue. Don’t show your hand. Just like you wouldn’t spill your deepest, darkest life secrets to someone you just met, don’t show the reader all your character’s ugly places. Give the reader a chance to make a connection over a more relatable conflict, and then once the reader is invested she will want to know all your characters secrets.
Mistake 7. Too many characters
The first page is not the place to introduce your entire cast. It is also not the place for a character to think at length about people who are not in the room him.
If I’m late again Mr. Miller is gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.
Here mentioning Mr. Miller is fine since the character is relevant to the MC’s current conflict, and there’s no additional information given. From the context, we learn enough about Mr. Miller (he’s the homeroom teacher) to understand his importance. This example keeps the focus on the main character and his current conflict.
If I’m late again, I’m screwed. Mr. Miller used to be cool, but ever since he lost his wife last year he’s been the worst teacher at Los Cabos high. The man needs some serious therapy, but instead, he just focuses his rage on making us miserable. He’s probably gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.
The second example is less effective. Because we don’t have a connection with Mr. Miller, his personal tragedy doesn’t interest us. It also takes the focus away from our main character, which is a problem on the opening page when the reader is looking to engage.
Save Mr. Miller’s backstory for another part of the novel where it will have more impact.
The first page is the most important page in your story
The first page is the introduction to your entire novel. It is the gateway that will either hook a reader or turn them away. By avoiding these common mistakes, you can create an effective opening that will draw readers in and get them to turn the page.
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Using a fantasy-style worldbuilding worksheet will help you create an immersive setting no matter what your genre
Fantasy writers spend much of their pre-writing time creating worlds. We dream up social structures, strange customs, and foods. We wonder how many moons our planet has and whether the day of their annual eclipse would be significant. Worldbuilding for the fantasy writer is paramount.
But it should be for every writer.
Worldbuilding is nothing more than the setting. If story equals characters reacting to an environment, then the setting is half the story. No matter what genre you are writing, you should have a well-developed sense of your characters’ world.
Using a fantasy-style worldbuilding chart will help any writer draw a better picture of their story’s setting.
While not every category will apply to every story, most will.
Let’s take a look at how to apply worldbuilding to a non-fantasy story.
Under the People and Customs heading Wrede lists:
There are more, but this is a short example.
Just from these few categories, a writer can paint a completely different world.
The doorbell’s electric buzz made my stomach churn. Someone else stopping by to tell me Mama’s in a better place and give us another casserole. Ain’t nobody eaten half of one. But they’re still bringing ’em. The entire congregation’s been in my living room today. They’ll all be back tomorrow. Probably with more casseroles too. Can’t they just let us alone?
I lay the bouquet over the dark stain on the asphalt and listen to the plastic wrapping crinkle in the wind. The people huddled around the burning drum hush their conversation, but otherwise, ignore me. They know I came to say goodbye. Now, it seems pointless. My mother’s gone. I don’t know if she’s in heaven, but I know she’s no longer here. That has to mean she’s in a better place.
In these two examples, different characters are dealing with the same significant event (the deaths of their mothers) but are demonstrating two different world systems. One is an Appalachian preacher’s daughter; the other is a foster kid in NYC. While these are both contemporary settings in the United States, these two characters have vastly different world experiences.
Using a worldbuilding chart will also help you research an unfamiliar setting
Been a while since high school? Language, customs, and ethics and values have changed dramatically in the past decade. Some for the better (more tolerance) some for the worse (prom-posals? really?) What about the rules for Snapchat? (My total NARP status would show in 5 sentences.) If I wanted to portray this world, I would have to research it. A worldbuilding chart would give me a map for identifying what elements will make this world feel authentic to a reader.
If you plan to use Wrede’s worldbuilding guide for a non-fantasy story, here is an edited version. Answering all these questions before you start writing isn’t critical, but having these things in your mind as you create your characters’ world will help ensure your setting works.
The Questions: What is/are…
- Climate and Geography
- Natural Resources
- World History
- Specific Country(s) History
Peoples and Customs
- Greeting and Meeting
- Ethics and Values
- Crime and the Legal System
- Foreign Relations
- Waging War/Rivalries
Commerce, Trade, and Public Life
- Business and Industry
- Transportation and Communication
- Science and Technology
- Arts and Entertainment
- Urban Factors
- Rural Factors
- Fashion and Dress
Feel free to add your own categories or omit things that are not relevant.
No matter what genre your story is, the setting must be deep, consistent, and immersive. Using a fantasy world-building chart will help you map out out a seamless world for your characters.
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