Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start a Revision by editor Kendra Levin

We all know that revising is really the hardest part of writing a book. And who better to help us than an editor at Viking? I mean, seriously. So that's exactly who we got. Welcome Kendra Levin, an associate editor at Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin, to the conference!

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Revising

Today is the day.  You’re sitting at your desk, armed with a fresh cup of coffee, a brave face, and an open mind.  On the desk are your marching orders:  longhand scribbled notes you took at your critique group, or a detailed editorial letter from your agent or editor, or notes you have collected from your own mind over the past weeks or months.  It’s time to slash-and-burn, take no prisoners, and come, see, and conquer.  It’s time to revise your manuscript.

Before you do anything, take a deep breath and let it out.

Leaping into the fray and starting your revision can be a daunting task.  It’s the moment when you truly acknowledge that the unique, special, inspired piece of writing that flowed out of you is not actually perfect just the way it is—that, in fact, it may need quite a bit of work to get where it’s wanting to go.  Luckily, you’ve gotten some feedback that hopefully gels with what you’re trying to achieve.  But applying it isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Here are five questions to ask yourself before you get started on your revision:

What does my main character want?

As I frequently tell writers in the workshops I run, nine out of ten plot problems come from not knowing what your main character wants.  Without motivation, you won’t have anything compelling to drive the story forward.  Before you begin revising, you need to make sure you are clear on what the main character wants and/or needs—these could be the same thing or two different things, and they might even be at odds with each other.  Even if what the character wants evolves over the course of the story, or if he/she doesn’t initially know what it is that he/she wants or needs, it’s vital that you know.

Over the course of writing your first draft, you may have found that what your main character wanted changed.  You might have started out writing a romance and discovered halfway through that your protagonist was really looking for a friend, not love.  You might have even discovered that the main character wasn’t the one you’d originally thought, and that one of your secondary characters was more compelling to you than the one you’d originally placed at center stage.  It’s fine for these elements to shift around during the first draft, but in the revision, you’ll want to nail them down.

Your protagonist’s goal can be a fantastic compass to guide you through challenging revisions.  If you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a suggestion about a plot change, you can always ask yourself if the change is in line with what the character wants.  Everything your protagonist does should be an outgrowth of what he/she wants, so if something falls out of line with this, it may need to be changed or cut.

For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s goal is to survive the games.  Over the course of the story, other things become important to her, but what she continues to want, unflinchingly, is to survive the games and return home to take care of her family.  So her every action and choice, from smallest to largest, is tied to this primary desire.

If you go into your revision feeling clear about what your main character wants and needs, you’ll make everything easier for yourself.

How closely does my plot follow a traditional structure?

I imagine everyone attending this conference is familiar with what we in the U.S. think of as a traditional plot structure.  It’s got a vaguely triangular shape—some people compare it to a wave, others to an upside-down check mark.  Whatever you think it looks like, it’s a basic format for creating an effective plot.  Here’s a good rendition of it that I found on the internet:

Basically every narrative form—movies, novels, short stories, plays, picture books, and more—follows this structure in some way.  A great exercise is to think of a few of your favorite books or movies and map out their structures.  I can almost guarantee they will follow this model pretty closely.

Can you deviate from this structure?  Absolutely, and I encourage you to be creative and play around with it—otherwise, every story would feel formulaic.  But it’s important to be aware of how closely you’re sticking to it and in what areas you’ve chosen to deviate from it.

Before you start your revision, it might be helpful to map out your own plot following this structure.  What’s the inciting incident, the event that leads everything else to occur in the story?  Does it happen because of a choice the main character makes, or is it an external event that happens to the main character?  How do you make sure the action is continually building?  At what moments in the story will you surprise the reader with reversals by revealing that things were not exactly as they seemed?  How can you drive the action so it builds inexorably to a head, the climax?  And what happens after that climactic event?  How are you deviating from this structure, and why?

Asking yourself these questions will help guide you in revising the events of your story to either stick more closely to this structure or, where you’ve chosen to deviate, to forge a structure all your own.

How can I raise the stakes?

A common piece of feedback you might receive is “You need to raise the stakes.”  When I was studying screenwriting in college, I had a professor who’d always ask us, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?  What’s the best possible thing that could happen to this character?”  In most stories, things either start out good for the protagonist and then get bad, or they start out bad and then get worse.  How can you push your character to his or her breaking point?

For example, what’s the worst thing that could happen to a boy in a two-man airplane?  The pilot dies and the plane crashes in a deserted wilderness.  Things get, by turns, worse and better for Brian in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, but it all unspools from taking the character to his lowest ebb and gradually building him back up.

You want to push your character as far as he or she can go, because it makes better drama.  Imagine if Gary Paulsen had hedged his bets and set Brian down in an only semi-remote wilderness with a live pilot there to help him out and maybe a big bag of Power Bars and beef jerky.  With lower stakes, stories lose their ability to make excite readers’ emotions, and therefore their power.

Who is my ideal reader?

Kurt Vonnegut said that he wrote with just one reader in mind:  his sister.  Even after her death, she was always his “audience of one.”  He figured that if something he wrote would make her laugh, it was funny; if it would make her cry, it was touching.

You don’t need to have a single real-life person in mind when you’re writing, but it’s important, especially when writing for children or teens, to think about who you want to read this book.  What’s the age of your ideal reader?  Is the book geared toward boys or girls, or could it appeal equally to both?  How do you picture this kid finding your book—in the library, in a store, as a gift from an adult, passed from friend-to-friend, recommended online?  What kind of reading experience do you want this person to have?  What do you want him or her to walk away with?

Keep in mind that many people will be asking this question all the way down the line.  This includes the agent who takes you on as a client; the editor who acquires your manuscript; the design team who has to create a package for the book that will draw your ideal reader’s eye; the marketing and publicity teams who have to figure out where and how to promote your book so that ideal reader will find out about it; the sales team who has to figure out where the book should be sold so that ideal reader can find and buy it; the bookseller who needs to know how to recommend the book to your ideal reader when he/she walks in the door or logs onto the website; and, finally, the reader, who needs to feel when he or she opens the book that this character, this story, has found a direct line to his or her heart.

What is this story’s heart and soul?

Whoever your feedback is coming from, whether it’s an executive editor or your best friend, it serves the manuscript only if it brings you and your reader closer to the heart and soul of the book.  When a piece of advice doesn’t gel with you, when it strikes a sour note with your inner sense of the project, pay attention—it’s your intuition telling you that particular bit of feedback may not serve the manuscript.  Likewise, when someone’s advice feels dead-on and makes you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” it’s a sure sign that this person understands what you’re working to achieve and can help you get there.

It’s easy to get lost in the revision process, especially if you are trying to please someone else.  And sometimes, when you feel attached to aspects of the story you’ve been told need to be changed or cut, it can feel like that’s exactly what you’re trying to do.  But don’t forget:  You’re the one in whom this story was born, and you’re the one who figured out how to tell it.  You know what’s at this story’s heart, because you’re the one who built the story around some important kernel of truth that you wanted to share.  As long as you keep your eye on the soul that lives in the heart of your story, you’ll be able to distinguish constructive feedback—that illuminates the story’s depths—from the feedback you can reject.

Here are a few practical tips to help you through the revision process:

1)      Create a blank document to sit open on your computer’s desktop next to the manuscript.  Anything you cut, you can copy and paste into this document.  It will make the separation less painful, and if you change your mind, you can always put anything back in.

2)      Do you still have the scrap of paper on which you wrote the first wisp of thought that led to this manuscript?  Or perhaps the article, e-mail, or image that originally inspired the story or the main character’s creation?  Keep this token nearby when revising.  When you’re feeling lost or worrying about whether the story is getting away from you, it can be a kind of talisman to remind you of the idea’s genesis and what about this story is most important to you.

3)      Take breaks!  If you can tell your brain is getting fried, and you’re having trouble distinguishing between what you truly want and what the feedback says, you may need to step away from the manuscript for a while.  Take a walk, call a writer friend, meditate—whatever helps you refocus and step out of the world of your story.  You may feel ready to return, refreshed, in an hour, or you may feel it’s better to just come back to the work tomorrow, with a cleared head.

4)      If you can, communicate with the person/people who gave you advice.  You may have questions about their comments, or find something they said ambiguous.  Don’t sit there parsing their words—just pick up the phone or shoot them an e-mail, if you’re in a position to do so, and ask what they meant.  It will save you a lot of time and energy, and whatever they say may generate some new ideas for you.

5)      Remember that no matter how much you revise your manuscript, it is never going to be perfect.  Perfection is not your goal.  Your goal is to tell this story as clearly, thrillingly, and beautifully as possible.  So let go of the idea that you must get everything perfect, and instead have fun playing in this elaborately detailed playground you’ve created for your brain.

So, take one more deep breath.  Take a sip of that coffee, which has probably gone cold by now.  And jump into your revision, not like you’re going off to war, but like you’re at the start of another scary but fun experiment.  Because that’s one of the best things about being a writer:  There are always more adventures waiting for you on the other side of this revision.

Kendra Levin is an associate editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), where she has spent the past five years working on a wide range of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.  Prior to that, she worked at Scholastic in several different capacities.  An award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced Off- and Off-Off Broadway, Kendra also helps writers as a teacher for Mediabistro and as a certified life coach. Authors she edits include David A. Adler (the Cam Jansenseries), Susane Colasanti, Sharon Robinson, Madaline Herlong, Mike Knudson , and others.


Unknown said...

Rather than having a "cut and paste" document, I just create a "Save As" document. My original (unrevised) work stays intact in case I ever need to go hug it again (or rescue something from it). It's much easier to locate material and everything stays in some sense of order.

Rebecca Gomez said...

This is timely advice for me since I'm nearing the end of a first draft. Thanks!

By the way, is there a problem with the write on con site? I keep getting a "forbidden" message when I try to go there.

Jiggs said...

Thanks, Kendra. I think I need to make this into a poster and put it on my wall when I revise.

Rebecca, yes! Haven't been able to access the home page or forums all day. Thankfully, I can read the blogs on Elana's blog site.

Patricia A. Timms-McGehee said...

Perfect article for me right now as I trudge through the first revision of my novel (I don't mean an edit, which has been done plenty I mean taking my book and changing key elements, backgrounds and plot). This was a very helpful article, thank you.

Jeff King said...

Thx for sharing these tips... it’s what I needed at this point in time.

Anonymous said...

By far, the BEST industry article I've ever read. I'm going to blog about it and sing Kendra's praises on twitter. WOW.

Elena DeRosa said...

Excellent advice...thanks!

Author Guy said...

On a technical note, I heard the plot structure graphic you used above named Freytag's Pyramid in a recent blog. I used it as the basis of a blog of my own on story structure. This blog answers some of the questions I asked there, so thank you for that.

Marc Vun Kannon

Anonymous said...

That is such a helpful post. I think revisions can feel overwhelming, even when there is detailed feedback, but these questions really do narrow the focus. I particularly like the one about the "heart and soul" of the book. Thanks for sharing such great advice.


Andrea Wenger said...

This is the best advice I've read about the revision process. I especially love the part about not wasting time parsing the words of your critiquing partners. Chances are, they didn't put nearly as much thought into expressing those words as you are in trying to understand them. So get clarification. I often find in those circumstances that the critic is responding to something they're bringing to your work, based on their own life experience, rather than something you've actually written.

Unknown said...

Such a timely and an amazingly detailed post. I'm getting to the point of editing.

Thanks Kendra.

I've emailed this link to myself to go through again when the time comes.

Jessie Mac

Amie Kaufman said...

Like Jessie, I saved this link for when I needed it. That's this week--I'm finally ready to revise, woo! I'm blogging on the subject and have linked back here today. Thanks so much for the info!

See Elana's recent blog posts

Recent Posts Widget