Welcome to the third entry in my four-part series on writing insights. In the first part of this series, I listed the things I wish I’d known before aspiring to become a writer. The second entry was all about how to get through the rough draft. Now I’d like to discuss how to improve your rough draft to get it ready for publication.
Many of the points in this section deal with the craft of writing. You may wonder why these are brought up after a rough draft is complete. Shouldn’t you learn to write before you begin writing? I wish it worked this way, but it doesn’t. You learn by doing, not reading about doing. Rough drafts require skills beyond the skill of writing. They are about endurance and stamina. They require willpower and force of habit. Many phenomenal writers can’t complete a rough draft and never will. This is why much of the writing advice out there is really just motivational advice to get you through that first draft. More “You can do it!” rather than “How-to.”
This is exactly as it should be. Once you know you can write a novel, you can learn through the revision process how to write a better novel.
Having said that, all of these insights are meant to be read at any time. If you haven’t written your first word, I would recommend reading this entire series before you begin. There are insights about the publication process in the next section that may influence how you structure your rough draft. And if you’re working on your tenth novel, there may be something in here that helps you see the writing process in a new light. Or you may see what’s missing from this advice and share your thoughts, which will help me and others in our writing processes. With this series, I mostly have in mind the aspirational writer, someone who is where I was ten years ago. So it assumes nothing and attempts to help anyone starting from scratch.
Before we get to the revision insights, I want to start by congratulating those of you who find yourself at this point of the writing process. It’s an amazing accomplishment. I’ll never forget the day I finished my first rough draft. I happened to be visiting my mother and sister at the time, and that night we went out for a celebratory dinner. A USB thumb drive containing a backup of my work sat on the restaurant table as we ate. I didn’t want to let that manuscript out of my sight! I still didn’t believe it. For the next week, I had to stop myself from telling perfect strangers that I’d written a novel. I also realized during this week that I had no idea what to do next. I’d worked so long and so hard to get to this point that I’d never researched the rest.
Here are the ten things I wish I’d known, sitting at that dinner table all those years ago…
Insight #21: Don’t rush to publication.
For many writers, getting the rough draft complete is the hardest part of writing a novel. It can feel like you’re done at this point, and you might want to get the project out into the wild so you can start on something new, or so you can get some feedback, or see if it’ll be the runaway bestseller that you hope it might. These impulses lead to tragic mistakes. New authors will often submit a manuscript to agents before it’s ready; or they’ll self-publish before the work is truly done.
Now is not the time to waste all the effort you’ve put into your rough draft. Now comes the fun part. The next step(s) will involve perhaps a dozen full passes through the work. Yeah, a dozen or more! Each pass will gradually smooth away rough spots and errors. It’s like taking a roughhewn hunk of lumber and turning it into a polished piece of furniture. You’ll start with heavy grit sandpaper and work your way down to wet-sanding a typo here or there.
The beauty of the revision process is that this is where you’ll learn to become a great writer, much more so than in the rough draft stage. The techniques you pick up as you shore up your story and polish your prose will carry over into the next rough draft. Because of this, the writing process will get easier and easier. The revision process will become faster and faster.
I’ve heard some writers suggest that you should step away from a rough draft for a length of time, but I never understood the usefulness of this. When I finish a rough draft, I celebrate for a day and then go right back to the beginning of the novel to start the revisions. There are a handful of main things I want to accomplish with the first pass: (1) I want to plug any missing sections (scenes or chapters I skipped). (2) I want to make the prose more readable and improve the flow between sections and chapters. (3) I want to give the characters and my world more depth and detail. (4) I want to tighten the plot, add some foreshadowing, close any logical holes.
Now is also the time to think about how you plan to publish this work, which is the area we’ll cover in the fourth and final part of this series. If your rough draft is a 300,000 word epic fantasy tome, and you want to publish this with a major publishing house, your revision process is going to involve cutting that draft up into three novels to create a trilogy. This will require some plot restructuring. One of my keenest insights that I possess now, which I didn’t appreciate when I started writing, is that how you publish will influence what and how you write.
In the next section, we’ll also discuss how insanely easy it is to publish these days, and this is why some patience is required. In the old days, you didn’t have a choice but to be patient. It could easily take several years (if at all) to bring your book to market. Now it takes a few hours. I want to convince you to take longer. At least ten revision passes before you submit to agents or self-publish. I promise you’ll be glad you took this advice.
Insight #22: It is often easier to rewrite from scratch than it is to revise.
Before we discuss revising, it’s worth pointing out the alternative: rewriting. Yes, I hear your collective groans. We just got done writing the rough draft, and now we have to start a scene or chapter from scratch?! From a blank page?! Can’t we just move a few words or sentences around and be done with it?
Usually, you can. The revision process mostly involves massaging what’s already in place. But there are times when revising actually takes a lot longer than a rewrite. Understanding when this makes sense, and being brave enough to tackle these challenging moments, is often the difference between success and failure. I’ve seen entire manuscripts abandoned and/or destroyed because of this fatal oversight.
This is especially true with the opening chapters of a manuscript, which are the most important chapters for hooking your audience, whether that audience is an agent, a reader, or a publisher. As you wrap up your rough draft and go back to the beginning, now is the time to explore rewriting as well as revising. You know your story and your characters more fully now. Your writing skills have improved through the hours and hours you’ve invested in this project. Maybe your opening feels a little stale. Or you wonder if the story shouldn’t start with a different scene or a different piece of information. You can try revising, or you can open a blank document and see what kind of opening chapter you would write now. It’s a fun exercise. You might surprise yourself.
This technique works wonders, and it works throughout your novel. You can peel off any scene or chapter or sentence and try it again from scratch. There have been times when I’ll spend hours trying to get a chapter or paragraph just right, then pound out something new in a fraction of the time that’s far cleaner and better. Our existing words often get in the way. Learn to step around them and try something new.
This fits well with the last insight from the previous entry in this series, about writing lean. The beauty of writing lean is that you spend more time adding material, and less time wrestling with the pain of deletion or the discomfort of massaging the wrong words into a different order that isn’t much better.
Insight #23: Great books are all about pacing
To become a better writer, it helps to understand how the delivery of words affects a reader’s mood and their retention of information. The most important tool in this regard is pacing. Pacing can mean different things in different contexts. The next few insights are all about pacing in one way or another.
Let’s start with the importance of overall book pacing and construction. It can help to consider extreme scenarios in order to arrive at more general truths. For instance, imagine a 300 page novel with no chapters or scene breaks. I’m sure they’ve been written or considered by people eager to break rules and convention. I imagine they are nearly impossible to read. Why? Because our brains are built to absorb ideas in chunks and to process those chunks individually.
We experience things in the moment, move those experiences into short term memory, and then perhaps to long term memory. If we get too much information all at once, we can’t process it well (or at all). Chapters and paragraphs signal an opportunity to file away what we just absorbed and prepare to absorb another chunk. This is why paragraph length is critical for flow and retention. If possible, paragraphs should be of similar length, each one containing three to seven sentences. This can vary depending on how long or short the sentences are (more on that in a bit). And this rule can be broken to great effect. Those effects are diminished when the rule is ignored altogether.
Short paragraphs stand out – but only if used sparingly!
And long paragraphs have their place in our stories, especially if the desired effect is to ease the readers brain into a somnolent state, like the sing-song of a lullaby. Proust was a master of paragraphs like these; they went on for pages, and were full of sentences that stretched line after line, full of clauses and lists, huddled together between commas and semi-colons and dashes, all with the combined effect not of conveying concrete information and facts, but to get the reader in a certain mood, perhaps to make them wistful, to deprogram their concrete minds so they were ready for the dream-state of Proust’s expert meanderings; in this, the words become like music, more notes than ideas, and the reader’s muscles themselves relax, a hypnotic trance ensuing, perhaps at the risk of losing them to literature’s great nighttime enemy and thief: sleep.
Practice both types of paragraph structure and pacing. Look for examples in your own reading. Ask how the authors you admire are affecting your mood as you read their prose, and then ask the same questions as you revise your rough draft. Chop up that long paragraph into two or more. Be frugal with your short declarations so you don’t rob them of their power. Treat your words like lyrics and listen for the song they sing.
Insight #24: Find your cadence between action and reflection
The pacing in the previous insight deals with how words are lumped together. Their physical structure, if you will. There’s a second kind of pacing, and this one deals with the actual content and type of words used. It’s the flow between action and reflection, and it’s especially crucial for works of fiction.
Action scenes don’t necessarily mean gunfights and car chases and alien invasions. An action scene can be an argument between two lovers. It can be a fierce internal struggle as a character decides to leap or step back from a metaphorical ledge. Action scenes are anytime something major is happening in the plot or to the characters. The reader is usually flying through these passages at a higher rate of speed, eager to see what happens next. Most often, these scenes have large blocks of text and less dialog, but that’s not always the case.
Reflection is what happens after the action. It’s when characters absorb the change that’s happened and plan what comes next. Period of reflection also give the reader a chance to absorb what’s happened and to guess or dread what might happen next. This is the cadence of your book, the rise and fall of action and reflection.
Now, if an entire novel was written with nothing but action, it would make for an exhausting read. And if a book consisted of nothing but constant reflection, it would be difficult to wade through. In the former, you would have change in your plot but not your characters. In the latter, you would have change in your characters but no plot. Every book should contain some balance between the two.
That doesn’t mean the same balance. A literary novel will typically have lots of reflection and very brief spurts of action. A genre novel will have lots of action and shorter pauses for reflection. I haven’t seen a definition of what makes a work “literary” that I fully buy, but maybe this fingerprint of cadence comes closest. It could be why many genre fans can’t read literary novels, and why many literary fans can’t abide genre works. It doesn’t matter if the genre works are as well-written as the literature – there’s simply too much happening. Not enough reflection. I would argue that pace defines these books far more than content. Which is why some great works of science fiction, like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS or THE HANDMAID’S TALE, read more like literary novels (and are often shelved as such).
As you revise your work, look for places where the action goes on too long and consider inserting a pause for reflection. Let the characters catch their breath in an elevator, crack a joke or two, or tend to some wound or primal fear before you pick up the pace again. Similarly, look for anywhere that characters are ruminating too long and figure out how to spice things up. If you’re bored with what you’re writing, chances are a lot of readers will be bored as well. Make a gun go off; a car backfire; someone in the neighboring booth get the wrong order and pitch a fit; a zombie pop up that has to be dealt with, anything. And if you feel like you’ve gone on long enough, there’s always the em dash and a sudden exit—
Insight #25: Don’t repeat yourself. Unless it’s deliberate. And then repeat yourself carefully.
Alliteration and repetition are both an important part of pacing, and they both highlight the importance of grasping reading psychology. Readers love repetition when it is deliberate, for extra punch, for added stress. But our minds trip over accidental repetition, as when the same words appear too near to one another in a paragraph or chapter accidentally.
The psychology of this is strange, and it varies slightly from reader to reader. Common words can appear throughout the same sentence or paragraph without tripping the reader up. Uncommon words draw attention to themselves. If the reader sees a rare word twice, part of their brain will perk up and draw attention to the second sighting, which breaks the flow and distracts them from the content or emotional impact of the sentence. One of the most common things you’ll see from a good editor is similar or same words highlighted if they’re too close to one another in a manuscript. The editor will suggest changing or deleting one of them. This is always sound advice.
Repetition, however, can be extremely powerful if wielded appropriately. Play around and experiment. Pay close attention as a reader to see when you trip up and how you might have avoided that mistake in your own writing.
Insight #26: Reading is aural
I find it fascinating that we can hear ourselves think. When I was very young, I had a hard time telling if this was indeed the case. When I read silently to myself, am I “hearing” those words in my mind? Or am I just thinking them? What seemed to settle the question for me was the ability to hear various accents in my head. I could think with a British accent, or a French accent, which meant the words didn’t just have meaning, they had pitch and inflection and all the properties of sound.
This is why cadence is so important when it comes to writing. It’s why the long paragraphs mentioned (and demonstrated) above have a powerful effect on us. This is also how we can hear our characters’ voices, and why it’s important to make those voices distinct. Common writing advice includes the importance of observation: sit and watch crowds and make note of how they move, how they dress, how their features look. This is great advice. But we have to observe with our ears as well.
Some of your characters will have gravelly voices. Others will have a slight lisp. They should have accents and vocal tics. Be sure that all of your characters don’t have your vocal tics, or they’ll all sound the same. You want these voices to jump out, so try to exaggerate the differences between their voices in your own head. The common mistake is to leave them all sounding the same.
Another mistake writers make is to leave out all the background noises that bring a scene to life. Pay attention when background noise is done well. A great example is the novel THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell. Birds and street-sweepers, mischievous monkeys, the rattling of the wind, all of these things set the stage and help break up the dialog and narrative passages. They also help bring the world to life and make it real. Read this book, and you’ll become a better writer; I guarantee it.
The musicality of silent reading is why punctuation is so powerful. How much pause do you want readers to take? This power lies almost entirely with the choices you make. Liberal usage of commas – and there’s no hard and fast rule on many of the comma choices we make – can change how a sentence sounds in one’s head. The em dash (as used above) is super powerful. So are parentheticals as in the previous sentence; the beauty here is that a parenthetical provides not just a pause, but a hint to the reader to say these words softer, almost like an aside. The semi-colon in the previous sentence keeps things flowing more than a comma but less than a period. And going without punctuation as in the previous sentence, when I could easily have added one or two commas, rushes you right through.
The last sentence in the above paragraph could easily have been written without the middle clause and the two commas that encase it. It wouldn’t change the content or meaning, it just provides an example of what the sentence before it didn’t employ. Each of these decisions is a branch; everything sounds different depending on which one we go down. One of the most powerful skills a writer develops over time is the ability to “hear” these various choices in advance and choose the best one in each scenario. At first, it’ll require typing out several versions of each to see which you like best. Read each choice both aloud and silently. Eventually, you’ll make these choices without realizing it, and your writing will grow stronger.
I’ll say it again: Practice. Take a chapter you aren’t thrilled with and rewrite it from scratch, going for a more breezy style or a more punchy one. Write scenes that don’t have anything to do with your work in progress. Athletes do this all the time. They play a game of HORSE to improve their shooting form. They take a hundred free throws in a row. Actors will sit in front of a mirror and go through different moods and inflections; writers should do the same. Sit down and write a car chase, a bar fight, a sex scene, someone losing their job, someone getting their dream job, someone wishing they could quit their jobs. Do these things to play with your pacing and punctuation. If you go these extra lengths in your writing career, you’ll see dividends. I promise.
Insight #27: Zoom down into your character’s eyes.
Remember those posters that became a fad for a while, the ones that looked like tessellations of shapes but held hidden scenes of dinosaurs and dolphins? Kiosks in malls sold them. People would crowd around them and stare and stare, and then bust out laughing or gasp in surprise. Because if you crossed your eyes just right, 3D images popped out of nowhere. And then they’d disappear. You’d fight to get them back.
When you write your fiction, do you see the words on the page, or the events you’re describing? The chances are, you mostly see the words. I want to convince you that you can see both. And that the more you practice, and the deeper you fall into the flow of writing, the more often you’ll see just the action, and the words will disappear.
When you find this flow, you’ll write with astonishing speed and clarity. This is a truth that surprises most non-writers: On the days that I write the most, I have to edit the least. Quantity and quality often come hand in hand. I’ve written 10,000 words in a single day and had to edit very little of it. I’ve had other days where I agonize over 300 words and use none of them. Some days I get my eyes crossed just right. Other days, I’m staring at words.
The voice and tense you choose have a huge impact here, and we’ll discuss them next. More important perhaps is the zoom level you pick. You have to pinch-to-zoom your manuscript at times. If you are writing a fantasy novel, and you start with a prologue, you might want to zoom way out and write with a detached omniscience about the history of the land, the coronation and death of kings, the foment and ravages of war. If you are writing a thriller, you might start off your story by zooming in to write down the barrel of a gun, deliberately leaving out-of-view the larger context (like who is pulling the trigger). My advice is to stay as zoomed in as you possibly can. See the world through your characters’ eyes at all times.
Video games usually come in one of two perspectives. One perspective is the isometric view; it’s a third-person view above the action and at an angle. Unfortunately for many writers, this is the default view we assume when we write our first novels. I think it’s a huge mistake. We end up describing events and scenes as they appear, rather than as they feel. We give too much context about the layout of the scene and the action, and not enough context about the emotions and feelings of those experiencing those actions. If you feel like you’re seeing your story from this isometric, over-the-head view, stop writing and zoom back in.
The other videogame view is the first-person view, and this is what we’re after with our writing. Push down into your characters’ skulls. See the novel through their eyes. What are they thinking? What’s going on in the background? Are they hungry? Scared? Excited? Cold? Angry? Do they have any lingering aches? Is their mind wandering? Did they miss-hear something and need it repeated?
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of describing events to the reader. Live through those events yourself and help your readers do the same.
Insight #28: Play with Tense and Voice until you find the right combo for each work
Tense and voice are basic writing concepts, but they merit mention here. I can’t count the number of times I’ve written a story in one tense or voice and had to revise the entire work to a different tense or voice. It happened in the previous entry of this series when I needed to write a quick chase scene. I thought it might be useful to share the before and after, so you can see the difference.
In past tense:
Marco bolted out the back door, Sarah right behind him. He could hear bar stools and tables toppling, had that last image of Marco reaching for his gun, and now every nerve in his body was waiting for a shot to ring out, for Sarah to cry she’d been hit, or to feel the punch and burn of a bullet slamming into his body. He urged Sarah ahead of him, knowing being shot would hurt less than seeing her go down. The end of the alley was a forever away. Footsteps pounded behind them, one of the goons yelling for them to stop or he’d shoot. Sarah swerved left and threw her shoulder into a shut door, the wood cracking. As the first shot rang out, Juan threw himself against her to shield her body with his. The both of them crashed through the door and into a busy kitchen. Men and women in white turned and gaped, but there was no time. Juan and Sarah scrambled to their feet and kept running.
And now in present tense:
Marco bolts out the back door, Sarah right behind him. He can hear bar stools and tables toppling, has that last image of Marco reaching for his gun, and now every nerve in his body is waiting for a shot to ring out, for Sarah to cry she’s been hit, or to feel the punch and burn of a bullet slam into his body. He urges Sarah ahead of him, knowing being shot will hurt less than seeing her go down. The end of the alley is a forever away. Footsteps pound behind them, one of the goons yelling for them to stop or he’ll shoot. Sarah swerves left and throws her shoulder into a shut door, the wood cracking. As the first shot rings out, Juan hurls himself against her to shield her body. The both of them crash through the door and into a busy kitchen. Men and women in white turn and gape, but there is no time. Juan and Sarah scramble to their feet and keep running.
Present tense is more powerful when we want to leave the outcome in doubt. Past tense often spoils the fact that the narrators lived to tell their story. Even worse, past tense can lose some of the immediacy of action. Anyone who has watched a taped sporting event versus a live sporting event can relate. Knowing that a thing is happening right now is a powerful feeling. But there are times that past tense just feels more apt for a particular story. Many writers are more comfortable writing in past tense, so they default to this. Whatever you choose, be consistent through each scene or chapter (in most cases, the entire book). And choose deliberately.
Voice is another major decision, one that can change in the revision process. This is a laborious amount of editing, so it’s best to think on these things early. But don’t be afraid to try both and see which one works better. There are myriad combinations of voice and tense. Some combinations are more off-putting than others, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make them work. The HUNGER GAMES books are written in first-person present tense, which many find difficult to read. Millions of fans of the books disagree. Here’s my chase scene again, this time in first person:
I bolt out the back door, Sarah right behind me. I can hear bar stools and tables toppling, and I see that last image of Marco reaching for his gun. Every nerve in my body is waiting for a shot to ring out, for Sarah to cry that she’s been hit, or to feel the punch and burn of a bullet slam into my own body. I urge Sarah ahead of me. Getting shot would hurt far less than seeing her go down.
The end of the alley is a forever away. Footsteps pound behind us, one of the goons yelling for us to stop or he’ll shoot. Sarah swerves left and throws her shoulder into a shut door, the wood cracking. As the first shot rings out, I hurl myself against her to shield her body. The two of us crash through the door and into a busy kitchen. Men and women in white smocks and hairnets turn and gape, but there is no time. Sarah and I scramble to our feet and keep running.
First-person present tense is great for reader immersion, but don’t rely on it. The number of sentences that start with “I” can be grating to the reader, so you have to work hard to mix it up. And the advantage with third-person perspectives is that we can move between characters from chapter to chapter. There’s also the nagging doubt that our narrator doesn’t survive their adventure, that the reason it’s told in third-person is because it has to be; the protagonist doesn’t make it. Third-person can be just as immersive if we write it zoomed in, as we mentioned above. Give us their thoughts and perspective, and it feels almost like we’re writing in first-person:
Juan hadn’t felt love like this since high school. Since Amanda. Turning over his arm, he studied the scar there across his bicep, the jagged raised whelp with the staggered row of dots to either side. She had told him to stop being a baby, to hold still, but he’d seen the way her hands shook as she threaded the needle. He remembered the blood on them both. There was only so much numb in the world when thread is making its way through flesh, skin puckering up as it’s pulled tight, the girl you love twisting her face up in concentration and worry, and you trying your damnedest to not pass out. Only so much numb in the world . . . What Juan wouldn’t do for some of that numbness right now.
In this example, we remove the reader from the POV by making it third person, and we remove events from the present by describing something about the past, and we write it all in past tense! Normally, these choices would create distance and reduce immersion. But is the passage above any less immediate? It feels like it’s through Juan’s eyes, even though it refers to him in the third person. Details and zooming work miracles, and they balance out our decisions about voice and tense. Speaking of details…
Insight #29: Details, details, details.
It has taken this long to mention my favorite writing technique, and now you’re in for it! Details turn stories into works of art. Details make us believe the stories we’re told. The number one thing that separates a serviceable writer from a great writer is the level of detail they achieve. We’re going to go through several examples here to kick your attention to detail up several notches.
Before we do, I want to stress why details matter. Our brains are wired for telling and hearing stories; there is some good research to suggest that this is a foundational feature of the human brain. We are storytelling animals. Some of these stories are true, and some aren’t. Some are meant to warn us of danger, some stories are meant to just give us information, and some stories are designed simply to entertain.
When stories are full of little details, we tend to believe them. Especially if those details make sense, and we don’t think the person telling the story would know to make those details up. Con men and practiced liars are great at sprinkling in details to distract from their overall fictions. Fiction writers should take note.
Let’s look at some common mistakes I see in early novels. These are problems you might find in your own work. These problems arise because the author cannot see the details of their world and their characters. The absence of these features call attention to the fiction. They create a backdrop similar to the one in the film THE TRUMAN SHOW, a feeling of all façade and no substance.
– The main character has no job and seems to never have had a job. You see this in a lot of YA. The character’s job – according to the author – is to allow the plot to happen to him or her. The character cannot possibly know about the plot that’s going to unfold, so this bit of convenience distracts us. Our brains can tell there’s something wrong, something missing.
– Entire branches of the protagonist’s family are missing. Anyone not central to the plot is absent, or paper-thin. Grandparents especially. This is because many authors don’t know how to include details without distracting from the plot. Great writers sprinkle details in a way that make the plot easier to understand, rather than distracting.
– Characters in poorly written novels often feel naked and empty-handed. When most of us leave the house, we have to plan what we wear, and we hunt and double-check that we have a handful of important items with us. In many freshmen novels, the character only has the plot to attend to. Out the door they go, furthering the plot along. Again, this often comes from improper zoom, inattention to detail, and not thinking about characters while away from the keyboard. As the author, you might know the protagonist is out the door to meet the girl of his dreams, but he only knows he’s going grocery shopping. Have him prepare and think accordingly.
– Food, water and their disposal. We eat, poop, and piss a lot. Characters in fiction never seem to. You don’t have to capture every instance, but you do have to include enough. Keep your characters hydrated! Make them stop the car and pee in the woods, the wind causing shadows to dance on the forest floor, the sound of something large moving through the branches, hopefully a deer. Food and its disposal are a great chance for reflection and cadence. No one does this better than George RR Martin, but you don’t have to take it quite so far as he.
– Give your characters scars, both physical and emotional. Too many characters are inserted into a plot as a blank canvas on which to drape some action. Their next love is their first love. Their next injury is their first injury. This is because not enough time has been spent daydreaming about these characters, their pasts, their families, their experiences. ROMEO AND JULIET starts with Romeo pining for his last love. The pattern of his fickleness tells us depths about him that a one-time love affair would not (and more about the Bard’s view of love as well).
– Behind-the-scenes knowledge. I read a book recently in which a character went on a talk show. One of the details mentioned was the choreography of cameras dancing and weaving beyond the bright lights, and it not only painted the scene for me, and what it must feel like to sit up there, it made me suspend disbelief because the author was sharing a detail that I realized must be true that I don’t often think about. Small details like this are what make it difficult to be a great writer; you need to know a lot of things about a lot of things. This is why a wide variety of experiences, jobs, reading, travel, and other types of media consumption make for a better writer.
– Totems and object origins. Does the character have a favorite piece of jewelry? Is their car a hand-me-down from a friend or relative? Is there a secret place they keep the things dear to them hidden? The more details like this that you sprinkle in, the more you’ll find use for them later in your plot. Just the mention of an uncle who gave your character their beater of a car might inspire you to bring that uncle in for a greater role down the road. This is the amazing thing about sprinkling details throughout your novel: Each one is an instance of pure imagination, and intricate plots are built on them. The best part is: when you use some detail for later inspiration in your novel, you’ve set up the original mention as a nice bit of foreshadowing.
During the revision process, I’m always looking for places to add detail. In my chase scene from the last section, I originally didn’t have the chefs in the kitchen wearing white smocks and hairnets. With just a few words, we can paint a scene more vividly. In a fast paced action scene, only certain highlights might stand out. We might not see that one of the chefs is tall and thin, another short and squat, one holding a colander, another stirring a steaming pot. But we’d notice they’re all dressed the same, because a group of strangers rarely are. We might notice all are wearing hats or hairnets. Or that one is holding a knife, because our adrenaline is pumping. Which details we choose to add are important. Think about what would stand out to your character if you were in their shoes.
One last example of detail, this one on how to interrupt your action. The world does not come at us linearly. When people talk, they rarely do so in complete sentences. They finish each other’s sentences, cut each other off once they understand the gist of what’s being said, incorrectly hear some words and make mistakes or have to ask for clarification. And some details interrupt the flow of the plot. A plot on rails stands out as being inauthentic. Send characters down dead-end alleys, literally and metaphorically. Use interruptions to sprinkle in backstory, foreshadowing, and missing details.
For instance, your detective might be chasing the bad guy when her grandmother calls to ask her to help with her computer. The detective doesn’t have time right now. You never have time for your grandmother, she might hear. Oh, okay… And she walks her through sending an attachment to another relative, all while trying not to lose the killer. Diversions like this add depth and realism. They wake the reader up. Make sure your story has a few.
Insight #30: Get help!
Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. You might be a whiz with dialog, but you can’t write action scenes that feel gripping. You can build amazing worlds, but you can’t create characters that leap off the page. There are hundreds of small skills that add up to one great writer; no one starts off good at all of them.
Getting many different perspectives on our works during the revision process will not only improve the drafts, they’ll improve the writer. It’ll make subsequent novels better, and they’ll require less editing. Join a writing group in your area; form one if a writing group doesn’t already exist. There are online editing groups out there as well. These groups often exchange rough drafts, and each member makes notes to assist the author. Take this process seriously. You’ll learn much through another author’s strengths and weaknesses. They’ll teach you much in return.
Read about writing, especially while you’re in revision mode. One of my favorites is EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss. It’s a hilarious book about grammar that will clean up lots of technical mistakes, leaving room for your editors and critique partners to comment more on story, characters, and pacing.
Find a loved one who can be an honest critic. My mother has been a wonderful collaborator over the years. She never hesitates to tell me where I can improve a story. It also helps to know when she’s confused, when I’ve left out too much information, or perhaps where I added too much detail.
When the revision process gets to the last stages, and you’re reading along looking for typos and rough edges, rope in some beta readers if possible. Some authors employ dozens of beta readers, but this is only easy to do once you have a following. Starting out, you might have to cajole friends into helping. Whatever you do, don’t be worried about “giving away” your work or your ideas. If you’re this far along in the process, you’ll know by now that execution is the difficult part. Ideas are the cheap bits.
Those are my top ten insights on the revision process. If you’ve made ten or twelve passes through your work, and you’ve had some editorial assistance to find the things you missed, you should have a nicely polished draft of an interesting story clearly told. Now what? How do you get as many readers as possible? Or as many sales? Or win awards? Or ensure the best chances of making a livable income?
The final part of this series has those answers:
15 replies to “Writing Insights Part Three: The Revision Process”
I’ve always found your posts about writing informative and inspiring. Keep it up. I look forward to your next work. Meanwhile, I am revising one novel while I write another. Time to read!
Great points…. I love the way you’ve broken down the mechanics behind these steps in your article, as a lot of the time, I don’t think writers are consciously aware of them.
As a writer, it’s one thing to know what I meant, or how I pictured a particular scene. It’s entirely another to ensure that communicates with clarity, brevity and impact to the reader. I often revise by listening to my own books read back to me by the computer, wanting to catch the pacing, etc. I’m trying to listen to the story as a reader would perceive it afresh.
I love Eats, Shoots and Leaves too! I also enjoyed a humorous one called How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, it had tons of examples of hammy, stilted, clichéd writing to avoid and the edition I had featured a kitten and a gun on the cover.
Staying tuned, Hugh!! How are you going to edit our work? Do you want a guinea pig or a paragraph to edit? I’d volunteer gladly.
Such a great series!
Wouldn’t this be the reverse: “The semi-colon in the previous sentence keeps things flowing more than a comma but less than a period.”
I always think of the semi-colon ‘slowing’ the reader more than the comma but less than the period.
Continuing excellence here, Hugh; lots of good tips. #24 really caught my eye. Many writing gurus talk about the flow between Action and Reaction, which you call Reflection. I like that and will make use of it. Thanks for this series!
The opening paragraph for the original WOOL is what hooked me. The details, details, details drew me in. I came back from my break at work EARLY to write a review based on how that paragraph made me feel like I was following him up the silo stairs. Thank you for these reflections on writing. Very inspiring.
#29 PURE GOLD… most of my revisions and rewrites are about adding detail – sometimes my chapter length will increase by 50% just from fleshing the details out… #26 as well, so important when I’m writing dialogue to “hear” it and then write it they way it should sound not the way I sound… have to get inside the character and hear them speak… Great stuff Hugh – thank you.
Does this mean you’ll be asking for shorts to have reviewed? I’d love to submit something. I’ve been working in spare time on a novel and would love some comments and suggestions. I’m always nervous about critique too early but the things you’ve been writing about really have struck a chord.
Critique too early can really ruin a piece for me. I need to have my voice right before I share anything. If I have the voice right, critique is a huge help, but if the voice is shaky, critique can mean the death of a piece for me.
These are great posts, Hugh. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Since reading parts 1 and 2, I’ve been setting the timer and writing, practicing scenes, practicing voice and setting and sentence length, practicing anything that comes to mind, so that my fingers keep moving across the keyboard. I’ve had wonderful moments where I set the timer for 15 minutes, and I’m so deeply involved in a scene that when the timer rings, I’m shocked so much time has passed. Thank YOU. Your rock.
I’d like to buy stocks in your career, please. :)
I’m loving these insights, and so far #29 hit me the hardest ❤️
I was looking forward to your edits of other writers’ works – in fact I wish I was one of them, but your reference to them seems to have disappeared…
Did you drop it, or am I looking in the wrong places, Hugh?
Love these posts, Hugh. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!
Question: Is Marco supposed to be Juan in the first line of those story examples?
I really like this informative post, Hugh! Looking forward to reading your next book!