Skip to main content

Hints for Revision



Welcome back, everyone. I've had a lot of conferences and conventions over the last month and feel like I've been neglecting all five of you who faithfully read this space. I'm sorry. I'll try to let less time pass between each post.

Though I must admit, November will probably be light, too, as I'll be cranking on a book for National Novel Writing Month. I haven't been working on drafting a new novel in a few months. I did take a break and wrote a feature-length screenplay in the time between this post and my last.

But I've been doing a lot of revision lately. Like, a lot. I got into this cycle of just writing novels and then writing the next one. And then the next one. I literally have 11 manuscripts I'm sitting on. And I'm in the midst of editing my fifth one in this cycle. It's slow going work. I feel like it takes me longer to revise a book than write it. It's more thoughtful work. And it's more discerning. You're rewriting things from sentences all the way up to whole pages.

My philosophy is always to pack more story and detail into fewer words. It can be hard. But not insurmountable.

One of the conferences I did was the League of Utah Writer's Fall Conference. I did a really fun presentation there (that you can listen to on my Patreon) about how studying movies can make you a better writer.

I attended quite a few panels, too. One of the presentations I enjoyed the most was with Angie Hodapp, an agent at the Nelson Literary Agency. It was about great description, but she laid out a few strategies that I've been incorporating into my revisions that are worth repeating. I mean, the whole presentation was worth repeating, but this was what I found most helpful in my revision process. It's stuff I know, but it was a real kick in the pants to see it laid out like this and have a really smart person present it to you like Angie did.

First?

Punch up your verbs to avoid passive voice

This is one I struggle with a bunch in my first draft, but it's so easy to spot later on. Take this sentence for example.

The fish was caught by the shark.

This is super passive. How could you make this take up less space and say the same thing? It's all in how you use the verb and make it work more for its place in the sentence. Was is a good word to look out for. Delete it and fiddle with the verb and reorder the subject if you need to to make it work.

The shark caught the fish. 


The shark swallowed the fish. 

These are very basic examples, but I think you get the picture.

Do a search in your document for "with" and "ing."


This is another one that makes a lot of sense. In Angie's presentation, she offered two example sentences and asked everyone to rewrite them. Here they are, unchanged, and we'll take a few different cracks at them below.

He was tall and dark with a rugged face, and he had a dazzling white smile.

The piano was sitting in the corner of the room with a layer of dust and spider webs covering it.

So, how can we fix these so they're tighter and do more with less? Here are a few of my attempts at both sentences.

His bright, wide smile was a contrast to his tall dark features and rugged face. 

That's reasonable, but it doesn't really sing. Is this a little too "telling" instead of showing? Maybe we do need more words.

A full head taller than everyone else in the room, his rugged face and dark complexion stood as a contrast to his dazzling, white smile. 

Or:

From his height, he could look down on everyone, and if he wasn't smiling so widely, I'd have mistaken his grim, rugged face and dark features for trouble.

Here's the next sentence:

A layer of dust and the fine glisten of spider webs covered the piano in the corner. 

But, again, how do we make this a little creepier?

Spiders crawled across their glistening webs strung across the dusty piano in the corner of the room.

Or:

A layer of dust and the fine glisten of spider webs coated the old piano resting in the corner. 

Regardless of how we rework the sentences, the originals are problematic. Searching for "with" and "ing" in your document will help you highlight these cases and help give them special attention. That's not to say every use of "with" and "ing" are wrong, but it's not a bad thing to look out for them. In most cases, you can improve.

Do a search in your document for Have/Has/Had

Again, more passive voice work here.

Have, has, and had all imply a passive use of the word. Again, not every instance of them is wrong, but this is another great way to search your document and find places where you can punch up the prose.

Here's an example:

The long dark passageway had stone walls that were overgrown with moss and vines.

But what if we got rid of the the "had" and the "with?" Does the sentence work better this way:

Moss and vines covered the stone walls of the long dark passageway.

But, again. Is that too straightforward? What if we tried this:

A tangle of vines and moss gripped the stone of the long hallway, disappearing in the distance with the light.

Or:

Moss and vines clutched the walls of the stone passageway, disappearing into dark infinity where the light couldn't reach.

I don't necessarily think these are the right answers, per se, but they're definitely better than the original sentence.

These are just a taste of the work I'm doing on my revisions. And it seems like it's a lot harder to do it with your own words in the context of your story than it is in isolated incidents like this. Because you're paying attention to a lot more, too. For one, you're looking at how the individual sentence works in the paragraph, how the the pacing might be affected, what lyrical quality does the writing contain elsewhere on the page, etc.

Revising is hard. But maybe this sort of thing can help.

--

As a reminder: Please join my short story Patreon here. Your contributions to the Patreon help me write more like this. When I hit 50 patrons, everyone will get a copy of Lost at the Con.

The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page. 

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process. 

 As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.

 And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook!

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of an Opening: The End of the Affair

Instead of breaking down a scene from a movie, this time we'll break down the opening of a book. (Previously, I've done scenes from City Lights, Citizen Kane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I've also broken down the opening to Starship Troopers.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is absolutely one of my favorite books. The writing is lyrical and story heart-wrenching and beautiful. Greene's style of writing is such that he always has me gripped, whether it's the beginning of the book or the end. And he shows you so much about the character in his opening lines.

So, here are the first two paragraphs from the book:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who - when he has been seriously noted at all - has been praised for his technical ability, but d…

50+ Rules and Tips About Writing I've Collected Over the Years

I have twenty or thirty notebooks and journals filled up with snippets about writing, my plans for stories, bits of dialogue, interesting ideas, plotlines, scraps of short stories, and a dozen other things. I carry one with me at all times and it takes me a couple of months to fill one up.

One of the things I've kept in one of my notebooks was a collection of writing tips and rules that I've collected over the years in my travels. From teachers, from books, from wherever. Most of my career has been spent screenwriting, so a lot of these are most applicable to that, but I wanted to present them so they might be of use to you as well.

I've never stopped collecting these over the years and I never will.

To start the list are Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of writing. They are the first in my notebook and, I think, the most useful. I'll add a star to those I think are applicable most to screenwriting. Some of these aren't applicable to everyone in every situation, but…

Anatomy of a Scene - City Lights

We're going to break down another scene this week, and it's one of my favorites in cinema history. It comes from the ending of City Lights by Charlie Chaplin, which I think is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. 
It's a touching film from 1931 and I would make it mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to learn to tell a story.
The scene we're going to be breaking down comes from the very end of the film, so if you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you. Go watch the film. You can rent it for $3.99 in HD on Amazon or for free on Hulu with a free trial or plus subscription. You should just buy the Blu-ray, though. You're going to want to revisit it.
For those of you familiar with the movie, or for those of you who are going to ignore my pleas to watch it and go ahead with this post anyway, I'm going to set this clip up a bit before you watch it.
City Lights tells the story of Chaplin's Tramp and how he falls in love with a blind flower …