Tag Archives: revising

Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

When is “done” done?

By Sean Curley

One of the things writers ask me is how I know when a manuscript is done? The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. It can be incredibly difficult to just complete a novel. When you are done, however, you aren’t really done. The revision process can be long and harrowing. For me, the feedback I received from (non-friendly) reviewers of my first novel, Propositum – A Novel, prompted me to put the novel on hold for over two years while I improved my craft. Once that was complete, I re-wrote the book, not quite from scratch since I had a great plot, but close.

When that was complete, my editor and I went through a serious of reviews and edits. We started at a macro level and looked at plot and consistency. Then we looked at flow and transitions. Finally we went to paragraph structure and wording. You might think at that point that the novel is complete and ready to publish. However, each subsequent review yielded more changes that improved the book. From cleaning up the sound (try reading it aloud) to making it more concise to correcting outright errors (grammatical or semantic), every review found issues. In revising this novel my editor and I each read the book a dozen times or so. Each time it improved. By the end, after a couple of months of this, I decided I was fed up with trying to make it perfect and gave it to the publisher to generate a test copy. That would be my final review of the novel. I found that reading it in print yielded some surprising results. Issues were found that I had never seen when reading on a screen.

I suspect that we have all read books where there are many errors and been frustrated. None of us want to be the author of one of those books. On the other hand, there is a point of diminishing returns when continuing to review and edit means you are trying for a perfection that, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily worth it. Maybe if you want to publish a single “Great American Novel,” it would be worth the effort. But, in my case, I want to publish a number of novels and can’t afford to spend my life improving every single word in just one.

In general, I practice the following steps when revising a novel (don’t do this alone as your specific idiosyncrasies may cause certain errors to be difficult to discover; find someone who is willing to critique you at the right level – meaning point out real issues, but not try to rewrite the novel for you):

  • Let it sit for a while (after the draft is complete) and then read it again
  • Confirm the plot and story are complete and that the book flows and ends well
  • Review the novel for paragraph and sentence structure and for word choice
      1. Check for replication of unusual words
      2. Check for similar words too close together (within a few sentences)
      3. Check for year/location- and world-appropriateness of words
  • Tighten up the language and make sure it reads smoothly
  • Re-review the text until you are comfortable it is close (so repeat as needed)
  • Read it aloud as a final test of readability
  • Use a POD service like Lulu to print a single copy and review the hard copy
  • Call it good and be proud of it!

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Sean Curley - Author Photo

Sean Curley (1961-) was born and raised in California. His Catholic upbringing shifted to Philosophy and Computers during college. Others have referred to him as a Renaissance man because of his diverse educational background in Computer Science, Philosophy, Management, Space Studies, and Creative Writing. He is frequently found speaking on diverse topics such as Humanism, management, parenting, separation of church and state, and religious history. He has published one non-fiction book, Humanism for Parents, and one novel, Propositum – A Novel. He is currently working on two more novels. Mr. Curley lives in Colorado with his children.

After the Critique: Sorting the Good Advice from the Bad

by Lori DeBoer

You’ve done the drafts and decided to test the publishing waters by sharing your writing with your inner circle.  Or maybe you’ve signed up for a slot with a local or online critique group.  While your manuscript is out and you are waiting for feedback, it’s a good time to calm your Beta reader jitters by developing an action plan.

To wit: How are you going sift through all that feedback?

A plan will help you keep your post-critique bearings. You want to emerge with a good dose of confidence and clarity about how you’ll tackle your revisions.

Here are some strategies for sorting the good advice from the bad:

Consider the Source
This advice comes straight from my mom, who doled it out when I took an unkind comment to heart from folks I shouldn’t have been listening to, anyway. Granted, her advice didn’t make much sense when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate her message.  So, does your oldest arch rival find your most recent short story “trite”?  Does your mom think your memoir shouldn’t go on and on about Great Aunt Vivian? Does your boyfriend cringe at the sex scenes in your romance novel? Does your boss’s nephew who recently graduated from college really know if zombie novels are passé?  Consider the source.  Bonus tip:  Don’t give your memoir-in-progress to anybody in your family, or even tell them you are writing about the family. . . for at least a year. Trust me on this.

Be Realistic
If you are a total beginner, it’s likely you have a lot to learn. Even seasoned professionals work hard at their craft. Nobody expects to play a professional sport or become a professional musician or actor without years of study, practice and paying those proverbial dues.  If you have just started out and are getting consistent suggestions that you might want to dump your prologue or that your characters are flat, you might want to entertain that feedback.  Remember to say “thank you.”

Set Some Benchmarks
Writers who are successful read like writers. That is, first they read in their genre for pleasure. That out of the way, they reread their favorite and least favorite books in said genre with a (metaphorical) scalpel. They break those books down into what works and what doesn’t and dissect their disparate parts until they can put them back together. Once you do that, you can figure out who critiques your stuff with an insider’s knowledge, who recognizes what you are trying to do and can help you get there.

Avoid Extremes
Did the comments you received make you feel like you were walking on sunshine, on top of the world or in seventh heaven? Or did the comments make you feel like crawling into a hole, under the covers or back into the hell that you were spawned from?  Either extreme should give you a tip-off that this is not the critique partner/group/forum for you.  Even if the folks giving you comments are wildly published, you should find the nearest exit and run.

Get a Second Opinion (Or More)
When I was pregnant with my son, I was diagnosed with a fatal disease and thought I would die in childbirth. Turns out I should have gotten a second opinion.  I was tired and didn’t, but that’s another story.  Unless you are in the throes of a high-risk writing pregnancy or some other sort of extreme author illness, buck up and get a second or third opinion. And while you are at it, check that person’s credentials. Some opinions are more informed than others.

Ask for Specifics
If a reader claims that your writing sucks, is insipid, flat, filled with cliches or, God forbid, “sentimental,” ask for specific examples.  Ask politely. Even if the critique is spot on, it’s difficult to get a feel for what’s not working in a piece when you are handed vague and pointless remarks like “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Likewise, if a reader professes to “love” a piece, resist the urge to leave it at that. Ask him or her to point out moments or passages in your writing that evoke these feelings of “love.” The most recent research on motivation shows that we learn more from specific feedback about what’s working more than barbed remarks about what we are doing wrong. That said, gratuitous praise helps no one.  In fact, no one really believes overinflated, vague praise. Not even kindergartners.

Challenge Your Resistance
If some feedback or suggestions really makes you angry or upset, you may want to take a look at why you threw a tizzy fit in response, even if you threw it quietly. The feedback could be truly terrible. Or it could be that the advice you received is spot on and you subconsciously (or consciously) just don’t want to deal with the ramifications  Because revising is a lot of hard work, like hauling rock, only with your bare-naked brain instead of your bloody hands, and who wants to do that?  So, feel like pushing back?  Try pushing on in your revisions.

Know Thyself
What are the secret, dark and dishonorable impulses that might be motivating you to write? Is your memoir a thinly veiled attempt to tell the world about how your mom/father/ex/teacher/fill-in-the-blank treated you? Are you seeking revenge for all your past hurts in the form of a novel about time-traveling werewolves? Are you writing schlock because it seems like easy money and you have allowed yourself to become a bitter person? Do you dream of instant author popularity at your 20th class reunion?  If any of this resonates with you, it could be that your personal baggage is getting in the way of you reaching your personal writing best. Figure out a better way to schlep that stuff around, or dump some if it altogether, and chances are your writing issues will also resolve.

Be Willing to Experiment
Not sure what to do with a piece of advice?  Try it out! At the advice of others, I’ve overcome my tendency toward being stubborn (I am the youngest child) and overhauled my stories. In one case, I changed the age of a character, in another, I changed the setting and point in time, in a few other stories, I’ve changed the point of view.  Sure, these revisions have taken time and I’ve groused about them, but I’ve always learned something from these experiments. If you feel petulant about undertaking revisions, remember that you aren’t working on a typewriter for Pete’s sake, so no hardships there, and this is what writers do. So just get it over with and see what cool scenes you come up with.

Let it Simmer
Take enough notes so that the feedback you receive makes sense, and then stick that writing in a drawer and let it simmer for a couple of weeks. After you are no longer in the thick of producing that story, you’ll be able to look at your work and the advice you received with a more impartial eye.

Ultimately, what you do with the feedback you receive on your writing is up to you. At some point, you’ll find a reader or two who really understand what you are trying to do with your work and can help you bring it to a level that will earn you legions of fans. My advice?  Those kinds of readers are keepers. Feed them chocolate and and gratitude.

When it comes to revising your writing, how do you sort out good advice from bad?  Please weigh in!

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.