Friday, July 13, 2018

Moving from Writer to Reader View: Revision Steps to Make Your Book Stand Out

Books enter our lives in distinct stages.  First comes the wild idea.  It grows gradually in the inner room of your creative self, until you can't ignore it.  You have to get it down.  This burst of energy propels you through an important starting gate--past ideas ruminating inside to ideas on the page.  Maybe they're externalized for the first time, and they generate other ideas.  You write for months, years, whatever it takes to shape your vision.  This initial timeline is very individual:  if it's your first book, you may need a lot of time to dream.  Or, if it's been generating inside for years, it may come forth in a mad rush.  

It's exciting, this idea to vision stage.  And eventually, you have a draft.  It's way rough (I love writer Anne Lamott's name for it:  shitty first draft), but without it, you ain't got nothing, as they say.  So you start here. 
 
Next gateway is to figure out what the real story is, inside all the mess.  You take the document on your laptop or pages piled onto your desk and rework, over and over.  You get feedback, you rework some more.  A lot of emotions come up.  A lot of resistance, usually: hate, passionate love (how amazing! how unique!), and eventually some neutrality.  I find this part can take two or three years, to locate the real book within the initial draft.  

The key to this step is moving from writer view to reader view.  A writer must--and I believe this so strongly, from working with thousands of writers--release their personal attachment to the story, and let it become what it is meant to be.  

Readers will not care if it's your precious idea--they want it to relate to them, too.  You might think of this step as moving from the personal to the universal.  Finding what, in your personal vision or story, will speak to others and touch their lives too.  

It takes a lot, for most writers.  Some never manage it.  They are too attached to what they originally saw.  I say this from years of editing experience, working with publishers, helping writers cross this threshold.  I say it with much compassion, because I have to do it too--and it's often a bitter medicine to swallow.  

Essentially, you, the writer, must let go in order to see your story from a reader's eyes.  You must absent your hovering presence and let that story speak for itself.

That's when you really can begin to revise.

Robert Boswell, author of The Half-Known World, calls all our drafts to this point "transitional."  I find this accurate--and true for all genres, including prescriptive nonfiction, which often works with outlines and talking points and much planning.  Until we get past the transitions of refining the manuscript towards the universal view, the reader view, we're not ready for certain revision tasks.   

Steps to Revision 
I trained as an editor for eighteen years.  Both as a freelancer for various publishers and a salaried manuscript editor for a small press in the Midwest, I worked with experienced pros who were steady, careful, and kind enough to instruct me. I learned there are indeed clear steps to take when polishing a manuscript.  It's not a blind ride.  Each editor has their own method, but many overlapped.

From my eighteen years, four main steps evolved.  There are many more, but I'll share these with you today--maybe one will be helpful to your revision process.  

Step One:  Find a Workable Editing Method
When you've gotten to the reader view, you are ready to begin working on fine-tuning the manuscript.  First, find a good editing method that fits you.

Decide if you're more comfortable editing by paper or on screen.  It's really a matter of personal preference.  I tend to work onscreen until the document gets impossible to hold in my mind.  Then I work with revision charts and printed pages.

It's important to find a method that lets you "see" the whole book, not just its parts.  My charts check for three main features in each scene and chapter: (1) is there an outer event, (2) what is my intent for that scene or chapter as writer, and (3) what is the reader's possible take-away about the characters, narrator, or message of the book.  I create a big Excel document or a chart in Word for this step then enter all the data for each scene, each chapter.  Tedious, yes.  Revealing, absolutely.  I can immediately see where I slipped out of reader view into my own limited intent.

(At my Madeline Island workshop in a few weeks, we'll be working with these charts.  I'll be taking writers who are ready to move to reader's viewpoint through the necessary analysis that allows it.  Click here for last-minute registration.)

Step Two:  Weed Out Blah Verbs
Even though your manuscript as a whole fits your reader view now, you may still have spots of less conscious language choices.  One typical area is blah verbs.  We choose verbs in haste when drafting, and we may overlook their weakness.  Here's a short checklist that many professional editors use.

1.  Scour out the verb "to be": search for "was" and "is" and replace with more active choices.

2.  Remove "had" as much as possible.  "Had" is past perfect and is really only needed in the first instance of a flashback.  Then most pros slide into simple past tense.  For instance:  "She had been a chef years ago.  She landed a good job at Circus Maximus."  Notice that the "had" places us in the backstory, but after we are there, we can move to simple past, with "landed." 

3.  Eliminate "ing" verbs.  Gerunds are useful but slow down the pace.  Compare:  "He wired the alarm" with "He was wiring the alarm"--fast, punchy versus languid.  Occasionally, languid verb forms draw out tension, but if you search, you'll be astonished how often you've unconsciously used them.

4.  Replace "walk" and "move" with more vivid actions.  "They moved across the field" versus "They sped across the field."  Quite a difference.

5.  An adjunct to weak verbs is often the overuse of adverbs.  Wipe them out as much as you can if you've opted for "ly" descriptors instead of punching up the verb choice.  Adverbs slow down the pace.  Use them cautiously; sometimes they are essential, but can you get rid of most of them?

Step Three:  Continuity Check
Revision means making sure all details are consistent throughout your manuscript.  Here are the three biggest offenders to double check:

1.  Verify the movement of weather and time of day, chapter to chapter.  Make sure these are consistent and evolve logically.  We can't go from midnight to midday without notice.  I make a chart and double-check it against my chapters.

2.  List all major items in your story--vehicles, physical details, room locations, possessions--anything that appears frequently.  Use the checklist to search for each.  Verify that you've used the same descriptions.  A man with flaming red hair in chapter 1 who is suddenly bald in chapter 10 needs explanation.

3.  List all names--place and people.  Check for consistency.  One of my mom's pet peeves (she's a voracious reader) is the author who changes a main character's name from Elise to Elaine mid-book.

Step Four:  If It Still Doesn't Sing . . . Checklists for Content
If you still find yourself swimming in unease after these changes, you may need to go back to your content and upgrade it.  Here are five small questions I ask myself, to bring content to another level:

1.  Does each person in the story show inconsistencies?  Humans do.  We're generous and stingy.  We're sweet and snarly.  If your players aren't two sides of their own coin, stop protecting them.  Show everything.

2.  Are the places and peoples unique enough?  I make lists of how each person differs from the others, then do the same with each location.  Push this as much as you can.

3.  Are there enough fights?  Do they range in intensity?  If not, add some.  Conflict makes prose move.

4.  Are there enough secrets?  Do you reveal them too soon?  Can you delay more, to build tension?

5.  Does each chapter have a clear and definite purpose?  If not, can you change it?  Or eliminate it?
 
This Week's Writing Exercise
Pick one of the steps above.  Try it out this week on a chapter or your entire manuscript.  See how it works for you.  Then try another, if you wish.

Slow and steady--most editors I admire have these qualities.  It's something we writers may not come to naturally, but the revision process will certainly teach us better!