Monday, November 24, 2008

Make A List, Check It Twice

I recently attended the 4th Annual SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day, with an absolutely amazing lineup of speakers. I tried writing up a summary of the day in one post, but just couldn’t do it. So this will come in a series. And out of order. So, for those of you who were there, sorry for the confusion. :)

Jennifer Rofe, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, talked about Revision. She showed us examples of submissions that had come to her, the kinds of revisions she asked the author to make, and also the number of revisions editors had requested of the author. One editor asked author Cynthea Liu to cut 20,000 words from her MG novel, PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE. 20,000 words!! The entire room gasped.

The examples Ms. Rofe gave were really interesting and useful, but they’re just one piece in the puzzle of Revision. There’s no way I could write an entire blog post on that, because it was one of those things where you had to be there...

Then, Gutsywriter asked a great question: is there some sort of Revision Checklist that writers can utilize?

Aha! :)

Using this question, I was able to go back through Ms. Rofe’s examples and pick out her more generalized comments (plus a few of my own).

OPENING HOOK. Does your story start in the right place? Is the main plot apparent on page one? Has the backstory been introduced such that it doesn’t slow down the story? Above all, is this interesting?

CHARACTERS. Do they seem real? Are they flawed? Do they know what they want, and is there something opposing this (i.e. constantly keeping them from getting what they want)? Also, are all of them necessary? That is, do they contribute to the story in such a way that there would be a hole without them?

SETTING. Is this vivid? Can the reader close his eyes and picture exactly where the characters are? Is it realistic? If it’s a fantasy/sci-fi setting, has the world been defined and adhered to, without paragraphs of info-dumping?

PACING. Is there anything that slows down or takes the reader out of the story?

THEME. Have you said what you wanted to say without preaching or being message-y?

PLOT. This is huge, but this is generally asking if you have a beginning, middle, and end. Also, does the reader react sufficiently to the story as a whole?

RESOLUTION. Does it fit the story such that the reader will be satisfied? For example, a story about a war building, with anger and anxiety on both sides, ending with peaceful negotiation – it’s a good ending, but can leave the reader feeling let down. Are all subplots resolved? All necessary questions answered?

VOICE. This is also huge, and generally asks about the voice of the story as well as the characters. Is it obvious who is speaking simply by the dialog (and not the tags)? Does the story have its own Voice (I.E. can the reader see an obvious difference in narration between this story and another)?

STRONG WRITING. This encompasses everything from word choice to evoking emotion from the reader – far more than I can put into this simple checklist. But, basically, are all the words you’ve used necessary? Both to the story and to the characters? Has each word been purposefully chosen?

OBJECTIVITY. This is the single most important thing when revising. Distance and objectivity allow you to see your work for what it is, not what you want it to be. If you don’t have this on your own, then find at least one critique partner who can be both honest and constructive.

It’s hard to put together a checklist for revising, simply because the things involved in writing are so huge. One could easily create checklists for each of these main points, but then we could get mired down in the details and not get any actual work done. :)


Keri Mikulski said...

Wow. Great revision list. Thanks. :) Perfect timing for me, since I'm in the middle of revising a WIP. :)

Marcia said...

Great list. It's so helpful to make the concept of revision somewhat concrete so you know what you should be doing and looking for as you go through the ms. again.

But I'm still kind of stuck back at the cutting 20,000 words thing. I wonder how long the ms. was. I wonder if the rationale was "20K shorter is more economically sound" or "this is really 2 books in one" or some such thing. I'd also like to reach a point where if I sent in a book THAT far from what they wanted, it wouldn't be a form reject regardless of whether I was their author or not.

Carrie Harris said...

20,000 words?!?!

My problem seems to be the opposite. I need to add instead of taking away. I'd probably have a heart attack if they asked me to add 20,000 freaking words.

I think I need to go lie down. ;)

Unknown said...

20k I bet the book was a lot tighter after that, though.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great list! I'd say for me, pacing and objectivity are ones I really struggle with. 20 K, that's

C.R. Evers said...

Great list! Thanks for sharing it!

a 20,000 word cut!!!???? Yikes!


Gutsy Living said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for the detailed list that I've been looking for. My biggest challenge is Objectivity, and I need to find a good critique group in my area of Orange County, California. So far I haven't. P.S. You really help us with all the great information on your web-site. I looked to see if you were a freelance editor, but didn't find that. Probably in the near future?

Mary Witzl said...

Yet again another VERY useful post and one I will certainly come back to. My problem is that I don't know whether all my characters are necessary or not, but I can't bear the thought of trimming any out. They all contribute to the story as far as I'm concerned, but a few people in my writing group felt otherwise (sob). I think I need more distance... And I absolutely DO have an info dump -- and no, not every word in my MS is absolutely necessary...

I guess recognizing the problem is the first step!

PJ Hoover said...

Nice list! I've been meaning to come up with my own revision checklist, so maybe I'll start here.

Gottawrite Girl said...

Ugh for objectivity. I can get too sensitive... I always think of that quote, "Kill your darlings..." : )

Tabitha said...

Keri - excellent! I love the way the world works sometimes. :)

Marcia - I had the same thought about the 20k words (imagine that). It could be that, since it was MG, it just needed to be tighter. Her other novel is YA, which is more forgiving word-count-wise.

Carrie - I have the same problem you do. And I would keel over if I was asked to add 20k words. Yikes!!!

Beth - yeah, that's my guess; and that it was more fitting for MG.

Angela - I struggle with Voice. So frustrating. :)

Christy - glad you liked it! And double yikes on the 20k words!! :O

GutsyWriter - thanks for asking the question!! :) And wow, what a compliment!! :) Thanks!

Mary - you can at least take comfort in this: don't kill your characters, just cast them in a different story. :)

PJ - I totally agree that revision checklists need to be personal, because not everyone has the same skills. It was really hard to put together a generalized one...

GWG - you don't have to kill your darlings! Just put them in a coma and use them in another story! :)

Kelly Polark said...

Awesome checklist!
I was one of the gaspers when she said 20,000 words! Yowza!

Tabitha said...

I gasped along with everyone else around me. :) Gads...I can't imagine cutting so much. Makes me wonder how long that draft was! :)

Brenda said...

Great tips...Thanks for posting them...

I understanding tightening, but OMG...20,000 words!!! I would pass out...grin...

Anne Spollen said...

Ok, 20,000 words. I just finished a first draft of a middle grade and it was 19,183 words - the whole story. Yikes.

I love the revision checklist. When I go through exercises like this, I look at my draft and go, "Well, that recommendation probably pertains to a different novel. I'll just leave itin this draft because here, I think it really works..."

Tabitha said...

Brenda - I would too!! :)

Anne - thanks! I tend to do the same with aspects of my novel. When I'm trimming, I'll set aside the pieces that aren't working with the full intent of using them in a different novel. I just can't make myself think that maybe they'll never work anywhere... :)