Revisions and revisions: A never-ending cycle

Happy Easter, my friends! As I mentioned in my last blog post, revisions for the next draft of The Thieves of Traska are currently underway. It’s been a little tricky to find time to write and edit now that I’m working 30-40 hours a week at the patisserie. I’m still rearranging a few things so I can write every day and (try) to blog every week. I think aiming for a blog post on Mondays will work better. Fingers crossed!

A week ago, I had no idea how I was going to revise Thieves. I had a list of problems, courtesy of my beta readers, and a vague idea of what would fix them. But I also had a list of responses that I wasn’t sure what to do about:

  • “The chapters feel too short.”
  • “I’m not sure why Garrison sticks around.”
  • “It doesn’t feel like anything connects to a bigger scheme.”
  • “Not enough really happens in the beginning to compel me forward.”
  • “The pacing is too slow.”

Alright, redistributing where the chapters begin and end wasn’t too hard. I wrote out all the events on my whiteboard and figured out where it made the most sense to put breaks. That left a few blanks to fill in, but I’d figure that out later.

More than a few blanks, since the picture I took before erasing my board is a little fuzzy in spots. (Spoilers all over that board.)

Why does Garrison stick with Claire? According to enough of my readers, it had to be because he has a crush on her. Since that is not the real reason, I need to tweak his dialogue in places so that it becomes clear. I’m still bouncing ideas off of people on how to make it make sense.

Those last three comments drove me crazy. Nothing connects to a larger plot?! Nothing happens in the beginning?! What is wrong with the pacing?!

Asking my readers didn’t offer any clear answers. It wasn’t until I started poking around at what other people said about the pacing in YA books that I got to the heart of the problem.

Everyone in The Thieves of Traska has a personal goal driving them forward. It’s great for their motivation, but it’s not enough for the story. There’s no common goal any of them are working toward together that relates to the overall plot. Sounds like a pretty big thing to be missing from a sixth draft, right? But it’s not entirely missing. There are plenty of little actions that could be connected to something greater if I just add that central point.

So what do you add to The Thieves of Traska to make all the petty crimes Claire commits connect to a bigger picture? Why not some sort of heist? Sure! Now the revisions will include a heist.

What about the lack of events in the beginning, and the slow pace? That one was trickier to figure out. It’s not so much that nothing is happening; the stakes just aren’t high enough in what does happen. For example: when Claire and Garrison are on the road to Traska, one of the highlights of the trip is when they’re attacked by bandits. That’s exciting! But buried beneath a lot of uneventful walking.

Now, instead of mutually deciding to journey together, I have Garrison unaware that Claire is following him. These revisions help build up to the solution to the “why does Garrison stick around” problem. And, by adding the risk of discovery, the stakes are just a little bit higher.

It’s not such a boring walk anymore, is it? If I take the same approach to every chapter, perhaps the pacing problem will be fixed, as well.

Ending the first novel in a series

As I near finishing draft five of The Thieves of Traska, the ending is a problem child again. How do you end the first novel in a series when the story isn’t yet over? The end is supposed to tie up all those pesky loose ends and satisfy the reader. But now it also has to entice the reader to obtain the next book and continue the adventure. Yikes!

Just about every how-to I’ve looked at says the end of book one should feel resolved, but still have a few loose ends. That way the reader can be satisfied, even if they don’t go on to the next book. In theory, that makes perfect sense. In the trenches of novel-writing, however, it doesn’t offer much direction. Which part is supposed to be resolved? Which part isn’t? Does that mean I have to do a cliffhanger?

I’m of the opinion that the ending of the first book should not be a cliffhanger. Leave readers wanting to know what happens next? Yes. Introduce a new, life-changing problem at the end and make the reader wait through a whole other book to resolve it? That’s better suited for book two. So let’s take a look at what to close and what to leave open at the end of book one.

Resolve: What brought your character into the story?

Your inciting incident gets your hero involved in the events of the story. It might relate to the overall plot, but it’s also personal to the hero. Why else does he leave his old life behind? I refer to this as the character’s selfish goal.

Why “selfish” and not just “personal,” like so many others call it? It’s a simple goal ignoring the reality of the character’s situation, and how it affects others. Your character has three ways to resolve their selfish goal:

  • Achieve. One option is to have the hero get what he was after in the first place. It resolves the main conflict of this installment, but not the series plot (winning the battle as opposed to the war). For an ending, it’s the point where the hero could stop and still be satisfied with their accomplishment (just like the reader). But there is still much to do, and the hero has made the big problem his problem.
  • Abandon. Another way to resolve the hero’s selfish goal is to have him abandon it. The person/thing he’s been searching for is dead/destroyed. He decides not to take his revenge. Like the previous option, the hero’s main conflict is resolved and the series conflict remains for the later installments. He lost the battle, but the war is still ongoing.
  • Postpone. At first glance, this resembles the previous options. As far as the reader knows, the hero has either achieved or abandoned his selfish goal. But they are in for a surprise. That person isn’t really dead! It was stolen, not destroyed! He had it with him all along! They caught the wrong culprit! But all that happens after book one.

Leave open: What keeps your character in the story?

Remember, the ending of book one is where the hero got (or thinks he got) what he wanted. He could turn away from the greater conflict, but then there’d be no need for a sequel or two. This is where he declares his heroic goal. It’s the daunting, nebulous task the hero chooses to take on.

Just because I call it “heroic” doesn’t mean that goal has to be saving the world. If you’re working with an anti-hero, the heroic goal could involve revenge or something equally not so goody-goody. It could be a broader selfish goal, like rising in power or conquering an enemy.

Whether your hero decides to do something good, bad, or a bit of both, he should have some vague idea of what that thing is. The “why” should already be answered by the events of book one. The “how” is the plot of the rest of the series.

This declaration is an invitation to the reader to proceed to the next book. The ending answers most of the questions, so the reader could stop there. There are just enough unanswered questions — about how the hero will reach his heroic goal — to interest readers in the next installment.

What are your hero’s selfish and heroic goals?

First name, last name, or both for characters?

Coming up with a name for characters can be one of the hardest tasks for a fiction writer. Once you’ve got the first name picked, do you stop there? Do your characters need to have last names? What about middle names? Names are one of the little writing speed bumps (they slow you down, but don’t stop you like writer’s block).

For me, a name is part of the holy trinity of elements I need before I can start drafting a story. The other two parts are the main character’s identity and what goal they have to accomplish. The name is usually the last part I come up with. It sets the tone for the character and his or her story. Because of that, I give all major and secondary characters first and last names. Minor people in the background tend to have one or the other, depending on how their reference in dialogue.

First name only

A character’s first name is probably going to get the most use. Friends and family will use this name in dialogue. It’s the name readers will forever associate with your story, for better or for worse. Best case: they name their pets after your character. Worst case: a red flag goes up in their head whenever they see or hear the name again. The latter might not happen if you use non-traditional names or make up your own.

Let’s say you visit an etymology website to find a real name. If you choose a first name based on its meaning, root word, or region of origin, those elements contribute to the character’s identity. It’s a little thing not every reader will search on their own. Those who do will feel like they’re part of an inside joke with the writer.

The Office inside joke meme; switzy thoughts first name blog
Source: Quickmeme.com

You might stop there. If it never makes sense for anyone to refer to your character by their last name — out of respect or derision — that could be a good idea. But before you move on, consider what else a last name could define about the character.

The lack of a last name could even be plot related. If your character is searching for their identity (for some form of catharsis, or to solve a story-relevant bout of amnesia), the revelation of a last name would be one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Last name only

Without tags or titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Duke, or Supreme Overlord, the lack of a character’s first name could be lost on readers. In and out of dialogue, using only the last name functions much the same as using the first name only.

If the character belongs to a famous or infamous family, their last name becomes name, identity, and reputation all at once. When other characters refer to this character by their family name, they assume he is just like the rest of them. It’s a good source of conflict if the character is the black sheep of the family, but a first name becomes almost necessary then. He’s not just a Lannister; he’s Tyrion Lannister.

The lack of a first name could also be part of the quest for identity I mentioned earlier. A character who is always referred to by their last name might search for something to set them apart. If the name comes from their occupation or station, the first name is how you pick out Jon and Ramsay from the rest of the bastards in the north.

leeroy jenkins, jon snow, battle of the bastards, game of thrones
The North (and the internet) will always remember. Source: Imgur

First and last names (middle optional)

Together, a first name and a last name create a unique title that refers only to your character. It also offers you an opportunity to characterize relationships by which name other characters use. Harry and Draco aren’t chummy, and it shows in the clipped way they call each other “Potter” and “Malfoy.” But Draco tends to use last names even for his friends.

Continuing the Harry Potter metaphor, I’ll point out that Draco’s use of last names only is different from the way most people refer to the Hogwarts staff by their last name. In conversation with the staff, students use the respectful title “professor” before the last name. In more casual conversation, they don’t use the first name because it’s not part of the identity they associate with their interactions with that person.

harry potter, minerva mcgonagall, hogwarts
Source: Wikipedia

If that sounds complicated, try thinking about your own teachers or college professors. Despite having a more personal/friendly relationship with some of my professors, it’s uncomfortable using their first names. I either use their last name, their full name, or — when talking to them directly — try to avoid using any name at all. When all else fails, I resort to simply calling them “professor.”

But that’s a real-life example of how a character’s use of another’s name defines the relationship. By giving a character a first name or last name only, you miss out on this layer in your writing.

Perhaps the most famous story to make use of the importance of both first and last name is Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s not exactly subtle, either:

‘Tis but they name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

[Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Act 2, Scene 2.]

How do you use a character’s first name and last name within your story?

Yo-yo characters: Back and forth in development

While backing up the current draft of The Thieves of Traska, I found the backups for some earlier drafts. I skimmed through, old scenes making me nostalgic and, sometimes, embarrassed. So much of the story and each character has changed. But I was surprised to find places where I’d gone back and forth on my revisions.

Mostly, I can’t seem to decide how friendly I want characters to be with one another. One character in particular, the Messenger, is getting whiplash from his revisions. He has always been mysterious and a little scary. Then I gave him some charming lines and he became a friend to Claire and a trustworthy superior.

In the fifth draft, he’s changing back to something closer to his original self. It suits his role as Claire’s superior; he is now someone she respects, but doesn’t always like. Their relationship is friendly when they agree, and professional when they don’t.

character quote-the messenger
He also now has the most popular quotes among those I’ve shared on Twitter.

Even though this change means I have to cut some scenes I loved, I think they were still necessary to write. Exploring the Messenger’s personal side and making him a friend to Claire showed me the parts of him that I like. He’s more than just an ominous figure that tends to deliver bad news.

Where did his sense of morality develop? What grey areas make him struggle between duty and desire, and why? I know everything he sacrificed to get to where he is now. Most of that backstory won’t make it back onto the page—at least not in this draft—but all of the Messenger’s actions reflect on it.

The Messenger isn’t the first character to sidetrack me with his personal story. Pages in my notebook hold detailed explorations of how certain characters met. I’ve scribbled some conversations that happen during the events of the book, but never make it to the reader. So many tangent scenes that reveal the depths of certain relationships have been cut.

So why go through all that effort if none of it ends up on the page? Because it all builds character.

Overcomplicating the story with little things

Even though that world-building workshop I attended was weeks ago, I keep flipping back to those notes. All the little things that help make a fictional world immersive are overwhelming to establish. You go one leaf at a time, adding to the story’s branches until you make a tree.

But at what point do those details overcomplicate things?

After sitting with the fourth draft of The Thieves of Traska for a few months, my brother finally finished reading. One of his notes said it’s difficult to remember each character and which side they are on. He’s the only one to make this comment, but I still looked for what might be complicating things for him.

Instead, I ended up noticing all the nuances of the world I created. As I continue editing, those nuances increase. And it all makes me wonder if I’ve created something immersive, or indecipherable.

There’s the currency, the predominant religion of the region, linguistic differences in dialect. Now, clothing details indicate social status. Building decorations offer peeks at the city’s culture. References to architectural maintenance imply the environment’s effect on the story’s main location.

All of these details add more stones to the city of Traska. As of the  new chapter I’m drafting, an entirely new street appears. With every little detail I add after every read-through, my fictional world gets bigger.

Do all these little things serve the story in any way? Certainly.

As Claire tries to blend into the city, she becomes more conscientious of how appearance affects her treatment depending on where she is. The city’s decorative ironwork provides a useful grip for our wall-climbing thief. The people fixing the city are a tool for someone looking to send a message.

There is a balance to find between inundating a reader with details and tossing them into a bland new world. Am I the only one who can’t see the forest for the trees? Or are there truly too many little things getting in the way of a reader’s enjoyment of the story?

Perhaps these are the details that will help readers like my brother better distinguish between and remember the different characters. Or maybe they are forgettable and all but useless. Whichever it is, I hope to find out when I send the fifth draft to the next round of beta readers.