Saturday, June 23, 2012

What Are You Really Writing About? How the First Essential Revision Tool--Content Analysis--Makes Your Book Engaging to the Reader

Publishers buy manuscripts when they communicate passion for a topic, presented in a unique way that speaks to a reader. To get this passion, revision lets the emotional truths we've learned during the process of writing this particular story come forward. We revise to make this truth as unim­peded and clear as we can.  

It's a bit like cleaning a window to let more light in, or as Pulitzer-prize-winning author Wal­lace Stegner said, "All you want in the finished print is the clean statement of the lens, which is yourself, on the subject that has been absorbing your attention."

Another way of looking at this: Revision's goal is to let the manuscript become strong enough to stand on its own without the author having to make any interpretations.

In my writing classes we talk about "getting out of the room" and letting your book and its readers have that wonderful conversation that all good literature fosters. Without you, the author, having to be there to make sure the reader is get­ting it.

This concept was frightening to Tom, a first-time book writer, who wondered, What will happen to my theories if I'm not there to explain them? Or worse: If it changes entirely-will it still be mine? Will revision cause it to lose its original spark?   
This is where Tom was stuck.

Content Analysis--The First Step
For me, the refinement that comes in revision lets in the real music of a book.  There's a sense of multiple sections in an orchestra finally playing together. They create a sound larger than any individual part.

But to get this richness of sound, Tom needed to look at revision in each of its three aspects, and in this order: first content, then structure, then language.

This week's post talks about the first step--content analysis.  To read about structure and language revision, check out chapter 19 in my book Your Book Starts Here.   

Content is the foundation of any book. It's the plot in fiction, the defining events in memoir, the information in nonfiction. There's a certain amount that must be present for the book to make sense to a reader. In a writer's head, the content is there. But when revising for content, you want to make sure it's also on the page.

So we take an inventory of the book's content.

I like to do it in two stages. I start with the whole man­uscript, reviewing the table of contents or my storyboard of topics. Does each larger section have substance?  

If yes, I examine the book's chapters and the material within each chapter, looking for any parts that feel incomplete, where in­formation is missing or extraneous.

It is in content revision that you'll discover if you are a naturally contracting or expanding writer. Do you prema­turely edit your "islands" too much, so that the first draft feels more like a brief sketch, with sentences counted out like coins? If so, the richness of your book's sound may be underdeveloped and content revision will show you where you need to expand your story.

Or maybe you feel unsure about whether your reader will get the picture you're trying to paint, so you add a bit more than is really needed. You sense it doesn't contribute to the story's flow but you're worried about leaving it out. You may need to take a deep breath and choose to delete some content. Less is sometimes more in content revision.

Your Questions List
So, as you read for content, you are going to see prob­lems. You will be tempted to make notes on your manuscript, such as, "fix this description" or "make dialogue longer."  

Don't do this. Why?  

Because it will turn your manu­script into a deadening list of chores that can stop you in your tracks. Instead, craft the problems you see as questions.

The first task I asked Tom to try was the questions list. A list of questions will automatically put a writer in the position of cu­rious observer, the fascinated inquirer. They allow you to become open to new ideas that maybe you weren't ready to grasp during the planning and writing stages of your book journey. And ques­tions always attract answers-in a truly synchronous way.

Some examples of content questions from Tom and my oth­er students:

*   Does the reader need to know more in chapter 2 about listening skills?
*   How does John get from the cabin to downtown Poughkeepsie? Do I need to add a
     traveling scene as transition?
*   Which of Mary's phone calls is most important to the plot? (This writer saw the need to 
     delete one.)
*   How can I best explain the backstory on page 45 in fewer pages?

The Extras File
As I review each chapter during content revision, often I find material that is missing--but equally often, material that has to go.  

All that work! I'd spent weeks on some of those paragraphs.

Rather than just delete them, I open a new document on my computer. I name it "Extras." It becomes the holding tank for excess sentences, phrases, and paragraphs I still love but don't serve the manuscript. (Once I even put four chap­ters in my Extras file!)

It always makes me feel better to know I am not throw­ing these gems away forever. They are safe in my computer, waiting for their right place.  

Not surprisingly, I find myself using them later-during other parts of the revision process, for example, when I need a bit more backstory or another line of dialogue.

Want to hear more about the content analysis exercise, step by step, and what it's done for other writers?   

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Skim through each chapter of your manuscript; then, at the top of the chapter’s title page, write one sentence that describes the meat of that chapter—its purpose in the larger story. Con­tinue until you have all chapters described.
2.  Carefully read these sentences in sequence. Are there any places where you see missing steps or scenes that would be needed to make your story flow better for a reader? Are there any places where you’ve added unnecessary material? This may show you exactly where you need to expand or contract.
3.  Now open to a new page in your writer’s note­book. On the top of the page write “Content Questions.” List what you discovered during your review, but write these problems as questions, as in the examples on the previous page.