Some recent back and forth with a reader re a story-in-draft provides an opportunity for a post on things to look for on revision
– which, for me, is best after letting it sit for a time (length of time can vary from the amount of time it takes to make coffee to weeks) and taken in bits and pieces (as small as one note at a time as big as one section at a time) for emotional distance and manageability.
Length and Pacing issues
One of the issues with my story-in-draft was both the length and the pacing. Yes, they were interconnected because I’d let the length determine the pacing, and the length was unfortunately being guided by outside forces. I was angling for a contest submission that had a specific word count. I knew the general arc of the story, had been working on it for some time (before I was even aware of this contest), knew the things that had to happen before I got to The End; but now (my eye on the prize), the prescribed length was causing me to rush certain things, stretch others in a way that was not organic.
Writing a story to a set length is not unusual in the other side of my writing life: I make a pitch and if it’s accepted, I’m given a word count and write to that. Meanwhile, the flash writing prompts I do on this site force me to hone in on only what’s essential to the story arc – good practice on the creative side. While I’m glad I have that discipline, I’m also mindful that fictional pieces can take on a life of their own and sometimes you need to allow it as you figure out what the story is and what makes it work. Characters can and do have a mind of their own, there are plot diversions you really won’t be able to pick up on until you start to write.
That’s drafting; on revision, it’s about determining if that diversion is a necessary detour to get you to your destination, if you’re indulging your characters too much or giving them required nuance, if you’ve sufficiently coloured in the scenery, especially if it’s different or unusual scenery, or rushed past it.
The length ought not to be about a prescribed word count, in the end, but the story’s true arc, and the pacing a matter of finding the right rhythm…contests and other external forces be damned.
The reader said she felt at the end like she’d fallen off a cliff. This can be a good thing, if desired. But in this case, it caused me to question if the end was the story’s true end, and if it was, if there had been sufficient signage to direct the reader there. Signage can be tricky because you don’t want to give the ending away but you want to keep them moving in the desired direction – even if your desire is to push them off an emotional cliff. If it’s not though, you might have to go back and do some tweaking as I had to, nothing heavy-handed, just a little suggestion (foreshadowing) here and there.
You want your characters to stick. Some characters are background characters, of course; part of the world you’re building. But, especially for the characters you intend to move the story, you don’t want them to blend in to the background – unless that’s their role – and you don’t want them to blur together so the reader can’t tell them apart. The thing is to make them individuals – details help give definition, texturing and shading helps them become more full-bodied.
You’ll find as you write that certain characters assert themselves in ways you had not anticipated, and you might find, in taking a second or third look at them that they have a larger role to play than you had anticipated – that plays out in the revision process. When my reader mentioned responding strongly to a particular character, I acknowledged that I had too and that, though she had not been there when I started writing, she had imprinted on me during the process. While she wasn’t central to the story she had imprinted on one major character in a significant enough way to shift the plot (though not the major story arc) ever so slightly. She was never going to be a main part of the action though I struggled with the math of that for a while, but her presence provided inspiration and direction, and the door was left open for her return. By contrast, there’s another character who tried for a bigger role – oh, he tried it – and while he played a pivotal role, it was still my story, and I directed him where I needed him to go.
As it is with character, so it is with shading in the details of the world you’re building. With this particular story – a work of speculative fiction in which the world is different in significant ways from ours, with some elements being the same (e.g. different atmospheres but the rules of gravity still apply). The details that marked the difference, I discovered as I wrote. On revision, I had to make sure that the rules of the world were clear and logical to the reader. Where the language was different from our language, I had to make sure either context clarified it or spell it out if it came to that; but don’t let the confusion over the details of the world become distractions from the story. So the revision process involved some texturing and shading in of the details as needed, making sure the world is clearly articulated but not in an expository way, but through the ways the characters move through and interact with it. The reader feedback was good for pointing me to the things that didn’t come through as clearly as I thought they had and for pointing me to areas of inconsistency in terms of how things were labelled in this world that was in some ways new to me as well.
With a world as different as this one, it helped to have some points of reference from my real world, similar enough to the character of the place I was trying to create, and then tinker with them turning them into an alternate reality version of themselves. Use whatever helps you see it; and then (re)imagine it. There was one particular bit of otherness that my reader really responded to as I would have liked and it was really a matter of taking a familiar detail and making it ‘perform’ differently in this other space. For me the whole thing was an experiment with world building and the main challenges were not inadvertently inserting some detail that served only to distract, or forgetting to tie off the end to effectively hold the illusion (p.s. this last sentence is an allusion to the regency era glamourist series by former editing client Mary Robinette Kowal, which I’m currently reading, and in which both writer and the characters inhabiting the world she creates grapple with this whole thing of helping the audience see and hold the illusion).
Detailing and contrasting were my friends during this process.
The dreaded backstory
Flashbacks can be clunky; exposition can and will bring the narrative to a slow sluggish halt like a backed up Caribbean gutter, the ones where the water is smelly with a green layer of top skin. But your characters have a whole history much of which informs the actions playing out in this particular arc of their lives; simply because it informs who they are. and how they interact with their world and react to the people and things that happen to them in it. Most TV criminal procedurals work that exposition in to the opening 5 to 15 minutes then when you’re all caught up that’s when things start moving forward; in print, different approaches come in to play – and, yes, this can include flashbacks and some exposition if you know how to pull your hand. But mainly you’ll be looking for ways to thread that backstory into the forward moving action. While revising, I learn more about the characters, more than I knew when I first wrote them, but I don’t end up using all of it, only what serves the story. You want to give the reader enough to accept the reality they’re in and accept that the characters are full-bodied people each with their unique history, who would re/act in this specific way…but here’s what’s happening to them now.
This nebulous, often overused, term can make or unmake the story – it’s about how it all comes together and, sigh, flows. Reading out loud on revision helps: do you feel breathy and rushed, do you feel languid, do you feel an adrenaline high as you read? All of these can be an indicator of how its flowing – too fast, too slow, just right. Tension, action, pacing all work together to achieve this; as does word choice and sentence length and constructions, how you vary them. A story’s flow won’t necessarily be the same throughout, at some point you may pull the stopper out of the dam and the water (the words, the action) begin to flow more freely.
How to use edit notes in the revision process
Some notes will point to problems you already knew were there – reinforcing that, okay this is a wrinkle and I need to iron it out (unless keeping the wrinkle serves the story). Some notes will point to problems you had no idea about but need to consider. Some you will completely disagree with – and that’s okay, as long as you do a self-check to make sure you’re not just being defensive because “my story, mine, mine, mine!”
-Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of several books, editor editor of others and writing coach when called upon; she remains a work in progress. Please note, there are many things, particular to your story, to look for on revision. This list is not exhaustive as it applies to the story-in-revision that prompted this post; that said, it touched on common issues which may be of value to you in your revision process. Hence, the share.