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.

Imitations of style: Setting up the three acts

One of my writing classes this quarter focuses on structure in story. For assignments, we come up with a story and write it in the style of another piece of literature. Our options for this assignment included the Bible, Greek myth (Theseus and the Minotaur), fables (The Lion and the Mouse, The Dog and His Bone), and fairy tales (Cinderella, The Little Match Girl). It’s a 300-level Writing elective and the pieces we write are for practice, not eventual publication.

Overlooking the comma splices, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, confused homophones and a widespread lack of how to properly use “alas” (the editor in me never sleeps), my classmates have come up with an interesting collection of stories.

Some of the more entertaining ones are written in the style of the Bible — one about a bride planning her wedding, another about a student reading scary stories online instead of sleeping. But looking past the narrative, these stories all share a similar structure.

Act I

Each story begins with something to ground us in the story’s reality: setting or character. In these short stories, the exposition can last a whole page or simply be one paragraph. No matter how long, there’s usually some small detail that sets us up for actions later in the story.

Sounds like foreshadowing, right? But on a much smaller scale (especially since we’re working with short stories here, not novels). A single adjective with the introduction of a character sets up for a crucial action they make later on. If you tell readers “there once was a naughty boy named Jim,” that makes the promise that Jim will do something bad. But if you tell your readers Jim is a sweet little boy and he drowns a sick kitten later on, we’re not going to believe it.

Act I is all about establishing your authority as the writer. If we don’t trust that you own the story from the very beginning, we’re not going to stick around for the rest.

Act II

Here is where the tension lies. For books, most of the story takes place in Act II with its minor conflicts rising and falling, building up to the climax. In short stories, we’re probably still going to spend most of our time here.

Let’s say you start Act I describing the setting and introducing us to a character. Act II begins with the action or decision that starts this particular story. After working late one night with his father, the boy wakes up and discovers his dad has disappeared. Bam! Now we’re in the story of the boy’s search for his father. And all the little things that pile up to build tension — dad’s truck is missing, the house is a mess, the mailbox has been knocked over — make up the most of the story.

Tension builds in Act II. You can have your character development going on at the same time, but tension defines this part of the story. By the end of Act II, readers should feel like the tension can’t get any higher.

Act III

The final act begins with the inexorable surprise — the thing that surprises us, but we realize it couldn’t have happened any other way. Remember those tiny promises you made back in Act I? Time to make good on those.

Naughty Jim — who drowned a sick kitten because his father called him soft — finds his father has driven into a ditch and is badly injured. Rather than get help, Jim gets the truck out of the ditch, drives to a lake, and drowns his dad. Maybe a bit morbid and extreme, but it works if you set it up correctly. We wouldn’t believe it if “sweet little Jim” suddenly drowned his father. But we expect bad things of “naughty Jim.” And since his father taught him to kill things to end their pain, of course he’d kill his suffering dad!

The tension jacks up a bit higher in Act III, and then it drops down for the resolution. And that’s it.

I pulled these examples from one of my classmates’ stories. Though I simplified it to help explain the three acts, it’s one of the more successful and memorable stories.