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.

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.

Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?

I’ve been looking around for The Abomination to continue my series of posts heckling my first attempt at a novel, but I misplaced the manuscript while cleaning this summer. Like most objects of extreme evil/stupidity, it’s bound to turn up. However, I did find a detailed critique from the one person who actually read the first draft of my second novel attempt. One of the points of what was wrong with it was “Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?”

This story had very few side characters. Good, bad — zilch. The few it had only existed as long as they were in the main character’s line of sight. Out of sight was out of the novel.

Aside from creating a few logical flaws (a large ship should have a skeleton crew at the very least, not just the only two people in the world opposed to mass genocide), it got boring. The whole thing became about the main conflict between the main protagonists and antagonists — dramatic, to be sure, but overbearing without side characters to provide well-timed distractions.

Side characters are a great source of conflict. In a perfect (or halfway decent) novel, no one gets along perfectly. Real people don’t, either. There are love triangles all over the place. Not all are the traditional sort:

Fighting over affections. With any blend of genders, you can have two people in love with the same person. Whether they started out as friends or enemies, everything from personal hygiene to physical prowess becomes a competition.

Fighting over attention. Not all triangles involve love. Maybe you have two candidates for a promotion and both want to impress their supervisor. Maybe the sorcerer from Over the Mountains needs a Chosen One and he’s holding tryouts.

Fighting over Object of Power. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed was after the One Ring — no shortage of conflict there. And how many people wanted to get the four stones in The Fifth Element? A lot. Or maybe the Object of Power is a floppy disc or a cell phone.

Fighting over property. Take your pick from large and small scale: land, livestock, jewelry, keys, pens, staplers, seats in the cafeteria… As a bit of a possessive freak, I can assure you that even touching something someone has claimed can begin a duel to the death.

Fighting over nothing. Ever disagree with someone just to spite them? They might be right, but damned if you’ll admit it! Your characters can be that way, too. Maybe that guy slept with your hero’s sister’s gardener and now the hero hates that guy no matter what he does. Or he just doesn’t like people who smell like chicken and have beards.

A well-placed diversion from the main plot gives depth to all your characters — readers see them in a less critical situation — and a breath to your readers. It might even add tension to the main conflict. If your character’s embezzlement scheme is about to be discovered, she really doesn’t want to argue about all the pens she borrowed and never gave back to that guy in the office who will not let her leave until all his pens have been returned.

Just make sure you’ve set it up throughout the story and have her dump all her stolen pens into a safety deposit box or something. Then it will make sense.

The Actual Good Part of Critique

After describing some of the ridiculous things my peers said last quarter, I figured I should give some attention to the good things that came out of my fiction class. Even though I returned to my dorm after almost every class, swearing and complaining about these people I had to share a class with, I did learn a few useful things.

Based on the overall content of critiques for everyone in my class, I’ve come up with a few problematic areas when it comes to the short story (although they can definitely apply to longer works, as well):

Titles. I wish I had a dime for every time a classmate said “I hate titles,” or “I suck at titles.” It’s hard to come up with a good title for a short story, but what part of writing isn’t hard? You can take a line from the story, refer to a theme, an image, a mood . . . Whatever you do, give it the attention it deserves. You didn’t write a short story just so you could slap a random title on it.

Sympathetic Characters. Horrendous things happen to these characters, but we don’t care about them. As the writer, you will probably know more about your characters than you know about yourself (but you’ll let your readers get to know them through the character’s appearance, actions, speech, and thoughts). Your readers don’t necessarily have to feel chummy toward your main character, but they have to understand him and feel something for him.

Endings. Sometimes an ending doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. The important thing is to show that the character changed/has seen the light and will soon change. Without change, there isn’t a story. Whether the ending is ambiguous, resolved, or symbolic, there is a strong possibility that your readers will want the story to go on. That’s not a bad thing (unless your ending is nonexistent, in which case they want the story to go on because you never finished it).

Notice that these are all basic things, but they’re no small challenge. Now that the new quarter has started and I have another fiction class, here’s hoping this one will be a little more helpful.

The Best and Worst of Critique Comments #2

So we had another full-class critique of short stories. This time, the story had to be 500 words (as opposed to the last story, which was 8-10 pages). After some of the comments I received last time, I figured I’d get another healthy dose of nonsense with the occasional constructive comment. My classmates did not disappoint.

For context, this short story featured a girl named Adelaide breaking out of jail in a country-western type setting. She picks the lock on her cell door, then fights off two guards. She dispatches the second guard by grabbing his crotch and twisting.

“Ew.” (Written above a line that reads “The stench of old piss clung to the dirt under her face.”)

“If the locks are modern-day, they might not be possible to pick.”

“I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Medieval fantasy stories have this kind of sequence (the knife in the boot, the lockpick, the thief escaping prison. . . almost like a Tamora Pierce novel.)”

“Whether it was intended or not, the piece ended on a humorous note because of the man’s ‘buckling knees’ after he gets grabbed in the balls. It was hilarious and lovely!”

“Is this a prison with both men and women?”(and a few sentences later:) “Is she in a co-ed prison?”

“Story does not stand on its own, more like an excerpt. How big is this girl? Modern cell?”

“Fast paced–me gusta. Thank you for making it a kick ass woman and not the stereotypical male assassin/thief. I liked it a lot. The concept is super witty and yeah. I’m going to draw you a cactus.”

She definitely drew a cactus

“We don’t know her well enough to support her escape, and for all we know she’s not exactly a Robin Hood.”

“Cool story.”

“Feels more like a slice-of-life than a fully contained story. Perhaps because of how casually Adelaide handles the situation. Not a bad thing, just an observation.”

“It seems like she would put up a more sophisticated fight. She seems smart and aware and I wish she would have fought more easily.”

“Would that be in her pockets?” (written next to the underlined phrase “…her coat, her satchel and all the jewelry she’d stolen…”)

“I wish we knew why she’s in jail.” (See previous comment for the answer.)

“Fun. A cute little adventure story, has a beginning, middle and end.”

“Your descriptions are literally out of this world, I literally have no stylistic complaints.”

“She is a girl and obviously she is strong, but I feel that she recovers from that punch way too fast. She could be a little disoriented or surprised by it.”

And now the story in a series of drawings (sadly, there is no name signed on this copy):