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.

Call for beta readers: The Thieves of Traska Draft 6

This is it, my friends: the official call for beta readers. Last time we were here, I was absolutely terrified. Only one friend had read most of The Thieves of Traska by that point. If my readers didn’t like the story, I might have spent a significant amount of time crying and maybe given up on it altogether.

But my readers liked it. Some even loved it.

For the second time, I ask for volunteers. The Thieves of Traska now has nearly 300 pages, and more than 86,000 words.

If you want to be a beta reader…

  • Comment on this post, tweet at me, or email me at Amanda (at) ajswitz (dot) com by Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017
  • Specify your preferred format for reading (Microsoft Word document, PDF, .mobi, etc.)*
  • Please briefly explain your interest in being a beta reader

*NOTE

If you provided feedback on Draft 4 last year, you are eligible to receive a professionally printed and bound copy of Draft 6. The number of printed copies I order will be based on the number requested. If you would like to receive a printed copy, please notify me no later than Jan. 15, 2017.

Beta readers should prepare to provide a thorough, honest critique beyond “good,” “bad,” or “x/5 stars.” To avoid interfering with your reading process, I will save specific questions until after you’ve finished reading.

For a brief description of the story, check out the new Books tab on the top of the site!

2017 brings beta copies of The Thieves of Traska!

I’ve been writing 2017 instead of 2016 on my notes since mid-November. Finally, that can stop being a mistake. Happy New Year, everyone! We have a few exciting announcements to start the year off.

First: I quietly finished inputting the edits I received from beta readers early last year. Even though no one said extensive edits were needed, they happened. Since readers last saw Draft 4, eight chapters have been added, and more than 30,000 words.

Draft 4, Draft 6, beta copy, comparison
A few more edits than I meant to make.

Your positive feedback assured me that I’m not half bad at this whole writing thing. There was also an unexpected side effect: I rewrote the plot for the rest of the series. You’ve all helped me make this a story worth reading.

Our second announcement: now that Draft 6 is complete, I need another set of beta readers! Anyone interested in reviewing a digital copy is welcome to comment here, shout out to me on social media, or email me (amanda AT ajswitz DOT com) at your convenience. I’ll be posting an official call for beta readers next week.

Besides having more content, this draft is special. It is, perhaps, THE DRAFT. The one that will be submitted to agents and publishers. Of course, there are sure to be more edits. But The Thieves of Traska might just be ready to seek publication.

And that brings me to the third announcement. A limited number of print and bound copies of The Thieves of Traska, Draft 6, will be ordered this month. Certain readers (some who read the previous draft, some who haven’t read any of it) have difficulty reading the story as a book when it’s not in book form. For some, a print version — that isn’t a 300-page stack of copy paper — would be most convenient.

A photo posted by Amanda Surowitz (@ajswitzy) on

That’s a daunting read for anyone.

A friend brought another use for these printed copies to my attention when I asked for help formatting the text. Potentially, this could appeal to agents and publishers and help get me published. Whether or not it helps, I will share what I learn in later blog posts.

This is an out of pocket expense for me. Due to the cost, there won’t be an open call for requests for a printed copy. Only those who provided feedback on the previous draft are eligible to request the printed copy of Draft 6. For my overseas readers, have no fear about your own eligibility. One copy is already destined for the UK. International shipping is not a concern.

As this year is already off to an exciting and productive start, let me once again wish you all a happy 2017!

To change or not to change — because of one reader

In class, it was fairly easy to gauge if a change was necessary to improve a story. One person would make a suggestion, and the other 18 or so would discuss ways it would or wouldn’t work. If several people agreed that the edit would reinforce the theme, feel more in character, or correct the flow of a scene, I’d work it in.

With The Thieves of Traska, the pool of readers is much smaller and more spread out. There’s no physical gathering of writers to discuss their thoughts and brainstorm with me. I have to compare the responses to each other, see where the comments line up, and go from there.

So what happens when only one of six readers has an opinion? Do you throw the idea out because they’re the only one? Or do you imagine others readers have the same opinion?

I do the latter. Usually.

The first reader to respond suggested a change to an early scene. No one else commented on that scene, but I felt the edit would be an improvement. I ended up asking a couple of the other readers what they thought, and they agreed that, while they hadn’t thought of it, the scene would be way better if I adjusted it. There wasn’t anything wrong with the scene. It just got better.

Another reader was the only one to comment on a character’s psychological condition. I thought her advice was so helpful, I didn’t ask any of the other readers to weigh in.

But another reader mentioned having trouble keeping track of all the characters. There were too many people to remember, let alone which side they were all on. No one else had this problem. I mentioned it to another reader, and she couldn’t see the need to reduce the number of names. And neither can I.

That same reader has also had opinions on character development none of the others mentioned, but these are opinions I agree with. They mesh with some of the other comments I received, including the one about a certain character’s psychology.

It might be easier to make these kinds of judgment calls with a room full of writers to help me debate whether a change makes sense or if there’s a better way to address the same problem. But with or without them, it’s up to the writer in the end what changes . The next round of beta readers will determine whether those edits actually helped.

Structure: The likely source of your problem

Ever start writing a new scene or paragraph and you get the feeling it’s just not working? Maybe you’re just not in the zone, or you’re hungry. You take a walk, make a sandwich, get some coffee, tell the dog to get off the kitchen counter… anything to get your creative juices flowing.

But before you do all that, take a look at what you wrote just before you started having problems. More than likely, there’s some structural issue there that’s messing you up.

On the smaller scale, this can be as simple as an out of place word. Maybe you’re writing a memoir piece and by the third paragraph, you start to sound like you’re looking down on the wastrels of the world, smoking a pipe in your overstuffed armchair by the fire. Look back to the first paragraph, and you notice you used the phrase “vigorous moments of exercise helped my mood tremendously.” Right there, you’ve set yourself up to echo the sound of that phrase later on.

If you’re trying to go for a lofty voice, then this example might not work for you; I took it from a memoir on of my classmates wrote. But let’s say you’re working on a novel, writing a scene where everything is business as usual until someone comes in, saying they have a problem.

Instead of writing it out, you think an easy fix is to have someone say, “Let’s talk about it.” Out of earshot for your POV character, of course. Then you don’t have to think too hard about the dialogue or setting up all the little details of the situation and can get right to having your characters solve the problem! Action, right?

Except you get to the “exciting” part and there’s no tension. Why? Because you skipped the setup. Instead of giving writers a scene in which someone is panicking and talking about a problem with some really big consequences, you took a shortcut. This amounts to, “Yeah, let’s go do the thing because bad stuff happens if we don’t.” And who wants to read that?

So you go back, find that spot where the structure’s faulty, and write that scene out as you should. Fix the transitions to that scene you were struggling with later on, and suddenly the excitement’s there!

For those of you who wag your finger at those of us who edit as we write, you can absolutely try plowing your way to the end, then come back and find all your structural issues. I took that approach when editing the first draft of a sci-fi novel I’ve been working on. After addressing the problems in the first few chapters, I had to completely rewrite everything else. Once the first part worked, the rest just didn’t make sense.

Doing this kind of editing as you write might delay you in moving forward, but it will make sure you go in the right direction.

9 Types of Artist Bios Students Write

I’ve been editing the biographies people submitted to accompany the accepted submissions to Port City Review. There’s about 63 of these and the quality ranges from only needing a comma fix to me setting aside part of the day to rewrite them. The entire selection I’m working with comes from SCAD students only, but they’re from various backgrounds and fields of study. So here are your 9 types of artist bios.

  1. I’M A TEXAN AND IT’S THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD. I’ve gotten a few of these, all girls and all closer to 19 years old. They like sunshine and live a life of dream. Whatever that means.
  2. BOW BEFORE ME, TINY-MINDED PEASANTS. Some people like to brag about their degrees/awards/gold star they received in first grade without giving any other information. Must not be much to these people beyond their awards.
  3. I’M JUST STARTING OUT AND DON’T KNOW HOW MY WORK GOT ACCEPTED. First- and second-years let you know they don’t actually know what they’re doing, are still discovering who they are and what they like to do, and talk about their sincere hope to pursue art for the rest of their life.
  4. HERE IS MY FORMULAIC BIOGRAPHY. Nothing sticks out about these people. They’ve got their name, field of study, work they like to do and where they came from.
  5. F*** YOU AND YOUR DIRECTIONS. We asked for a 3-5 sentence artist bio by a certain date and you gave us a 500-word explanation of how complicated and deep the message of your work is. Oh, and you sent it long after the deadline. Even then, you only did it because we threatened not to publish your work because you can’t follow directions. Now I get to turn your manifesto into a 3-5 sentence paragraph and you have to deal with what I write.
  6. I’M ARTISTICALLY GIFTED AND FUNNY. They’re not just going to give you the basics of their life; you also get a story and a giggle that sick out in your memory. In addition to number 5, I remember these people the most because they mentioned running as fast as their tiny legs could carry them or escaping from a lab instead of being born the normal way.
  7. I’M SO INSPIRED AND DOESN’T MY WORK INSPIRE YOU? These bios are all about the food/weather/scenery/pet/gambling addiction that inspires their art and what they want their art to inspire in others. In other words, they wrote an artist statement instead of what we asked for.
  8. I’LL JUST USE WHAT I PUT IN THE ‘ABOUT ME’ SECTION ON ALL MY SOCIAL MEDIA. Like the Texans of number 1, these sound more like they belong on Tinder or Twitter. Not sure how many people you think you’ll pick up with this bio in a magazine, but you do what you feel works.
  9. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT AN ARTIST. You like to throw in words like “chiaroscuro” to describe your work. If anyone who didn’t go to art school (or knows the word for whatever reason) read your bio, they’d probably think your work is more complex than it really is because they have no idea what that word means. Congratulations! Your work has light and shadows.

I’m sure there are other kinds of bios out there, but these are the kind I’ve been editing. Does yours fall into any of these categories?

Well #?^% XXVI: Goodbye, my minion

As this is the last week of the quarter, it is time to bid farewell to my wonderful evil minion. Megan graduates this week, and I’m sad that she is no longer going to be an assistant editor at District. Also, I have two more quarters to go and she will not be in any of my classes anymore.

And who will visit Sidewalk Cat with me between classes?

It’s been so much fun knowing her since we met in a fiction class. Besides actually offering useful feedback on my writing, she’s been a great friend and a gem to work with. For weeks, we’ve been trying to secretly make her fail all her classes and return to SCAD next quarter just so we can keep her. Alas, she must go.

From the trip District took to the Coastal Empire Fair to celebrate the end of Film Fest. Photo by Daniel Cheon.

I wish we’d gotten to know each other sooner and that we’d started working together sooner, too. Since she only lives in West Virginia, I hope there’s still a possibility for us to get together some time when I’m back in Virginia. Until then, I wish her all the very best.

Also, keep being the best evil minion the world has ever seen!