I’ve launched into the revision of my novel, so it’s time I showed you my weapons and merciless strategy. Over the coming few weeks, I’ll post on Mondays about manuscript analysis and revision tactics as I apply them to my own draft. I’ll try to keep them as factual and general as possible, but it’s very likely that some of them won’t be applicable to other genres or types of novels.
As a reminder, I write science-fiction psychological thrillers, and thus don’t take elements into account that are out of my scope, such as romance, humor or mystery. Also, I don’t pretend to have any field-tested experience, just a lot of theoretical knowledge, high expectations from my own fiction and no qualms about working as hard as it takes. And about 100K of Frankensteinian wordage that needs to be whipped into shape.
Hm, maybe this needs a disclaimer, just to clear potential misunderstandings out of the way.
The principles and techniques presented on this blog are in accordance with my own standards, and thus they’re personal choices, not universal rules. They’re not “the one true way” or even the “best way”, but they’re my way of seeing and doing things. Should anything presented here be useful to others, I will be glad to have helped, but if it should offend or discourage anyone, too bad. I’m not interested in playing safe, I’m interested in writing gut-wrenching fiction. So we cool? Cool.
Now let’s get on with the goodies!
The following list is a close look at the promises every longer work of fiction implicitly makes. Since revision and editing is a time of sober, impartial gauging of a draft, we need to remind ourselves that we’re doing all of this to mesmerize our readers. So we have to keep the readers, and our promises to them in mind while we revise.
A. General promises
1. I will not waste your time
The biggest investment readers make is not their money, it’s their time and trust. Any waste of that is a betrayal of the writer-reader relationship and is unacceptable. This is the most important law of good fiction, that no page of it is wasted and every bit of it is milked for all the power it’s got.
2. Everything in this story matters
A story comes with the implicit promise that the things happening on the page are important enough to write about them, that they matter. So every information, character and event in a story must be indispensable in one way or another. In real life, we’re flooded with all sorts of redundant information, but in fiction, every single thing is present because it must be, it’s there on a need-to-know basis, and all redundancy must be ruthlessly eliminated.
3. I will respect your intelligence
Readers are educated people with a thirst for knowledge and a fine nose for good entertainment. A good work of fiction always makes the silent promise that all factual information in it will be either accurate or shown to be plausible, that all characters are people in full right, and that their problems are real. The writer must never cheat or take shortcuts, but do all necessary research and then strip it down to the bare requirements of the story. Also, nothing will be explained that is self-explanatory, nothing will be named that can be implied, and nothing will be told that the readers had better discover by themselves (i.e. don’t take all the fun out of reading the story).
B. Personal, planned promises
1. The story has a theme, not an agenda
The theme (or meaning) of the story evolves organically out of the conflicts and character arcs, and everything in the story pertains to it in a subtle way. There will be no opinions hunted down, speeches made, or cases stated. Also, there will be no contradictions in the overall meaning unless they’re an intentional part of the theme.
2. The story has a central conflict, and everything ultimately relates to it
Stories are not about something, they are about something happening. Every scene and sequel of the story must contribute actively to the core conflict in an indispensable way. Also, every side-conflict and subplot must be relevant to the core conflict eventually.
3. The cast is unique and indispensible
All characters the reader will meet will matter in a decisive way, and all actions of these characters will matter to the evolution of the conflict. There will be no lazy stereotypes substituting real people, no hoards of meaningless props running around, and the amount of time and detail invested in each character is in accordance with their role and importance.
C. Unplanned, unintentional promises
1. False leads and dead ends generated by rampant worldbuilding
Every information is need-to-know, so the writer will not include any kind of worldbuilding that distracts from the story’s progression of events. Each element that is given attention contains the implicit promise of being meaningful to the overall conflict. If that is not the case, then sacrificing story-space to it is basically making a false promise to the reader. All such false promises eventually cumulate into a feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration.
(Note: worldbuilding that contributes in an essential way to mood and atmosphere is allowed, as long as it doesn’t promise events that won’t happen).
2. Character actions that take the story into unwanted directions
Fictional characters cannot perform any action that strays from the conflicts in the story, or has no effect on these conflicts. Characters are the engines of the story, everything happens because of them, and so each action they take and information they reveal about themselves must pertain to the story. They are always bound by causality. Tangents and straying from the interesting path will be perceived as a distraction or annoyance.
3. Structural inconsistencies
The structure of a novel is established within the first two to three chapters (or scenes), and it must be consistent throughout the rest of the story, or the reader will feel like he’s been planted in the middle of a crumbling building. Length of chapters, depth and nature of POV, rhythm of prose, narrative tense — all must be set up as soon as possible and maintained throughout the story. Abrupt and unwarranted breaks of established structure are very jarring and wreck the suspension of disbelief. And yeah I know, some brilliant famous writer did that successfully somewhere, but let’s assume we’re not that brilliant or famous just yet.
Alrighty then. These promises are the backbone of fiction, and should be kept in mind during all those detailed checks and corrections a revision requires. I know I will. They’re kinda essential in trimming a story into a satisfying reading experience, and that’s the ultimate goal of any story—making an emotional impact on the reader.
Next in store are checklists, such as scene/sequel elements and character motivation questionnaires, and precision tools like scalpels, pincers, and bazookas. And one of the colorful boxes in the corner contains a really pissy Freddy Kruger waiting to be unleashed. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
“Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” ~Michael Crichton
“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” ~Henry Green
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage as long as you edit brilliantly.” ~C. J. Cherryh
“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ~Don Roff