November 28th, 2012


Revision: The Details

We had a substitute teacher in dance last night who's a former professional ballerina. Class was a wee bit more challenging, not so much physically as mentally because it was so different. I also had more proof that I'm very much a verbal learner. She demonstrated what to do without talking through it, and without the words I had a hard time figuring it out and retaining the information. Then by the end of the class, I was so tired I went into total klutz mode where I couldn't get my arms and legs to cooperate. It was like they were being controlled by someone else entirely. Now I know what it's like to be a marionette. One with an incompetent handler.

This is going to be my last writing post of the year. I'm taking a little time off from this because of a killer combination of writing work and holiday crazies, but I'll be back in the new year.

I'm wrapping up the discussion of revisions. Once you've got the big-picture story worked out and the scenes flowing, it's time to mess with the words. This may take more than one pass -- one for wordsmithing and one for proofreading. Once you get good at this, you might be able to do both at once, but for a first book, I'd recommend doing it separately because you need to proofread your wordsmithing.

It helps at this stage to change the way you see the book. Change the font or print it out. That way, you're more likely to see what's really there instead of what you're used to seeing after so many drafts. It needs to look like a different book to you. I also like to read it out loud in this phase. Not only does that force you to read every word, so you can spot more errors, but that tells you if the language is flowing or if it's awkward. You'll also get a sense of whether the dialogue sounds like real people talking and if the dialogue fits the characters' voices.

Some things to look for:
Do you have pet words that you use a lot? If you're paying attention, this will become painfully obvious. If it's a less obtrusive workhorse kind of word, you might be able to get away with it several times on each page, but if it's a more obvious word, you'll want to limit it to a few times per book. I remember one book where I described way too many things as "ornate." That had to be changed. This is where you can make your writing more precise. That pet word may be a stand-in that comes up when you don't know how else to describe something. Try to come up with a mental image of what you're talking about in the story and describe it to yourself, then see if that gives you an idea of a more precise word to convey that image.

Are you using the strongest possible verbs? If you find yourself adding adverbs to make the picture clearer, you might need to search for the right verb. "Ambled" or "trudged" instead of "walked slowly," for example.

Do you have a lot of wasteful words? This often comes up in verb construction, where it's easy to get into "was" forms, as well as "tried to" or "started to." In some instances, those are accurate and should be used. In others, you can cut them and just go with the standalone verb form. Try cutting the helper words and see if it changes the meaning. For instance, if your sentence is something like, "When he saw her enter, he started to stand, but she waved him back to his seat," then you need the "started" because he doesn't complete the motion. But if it's more like, "I was starting to feel hungry," you might be able to just say, "I was hungry," depending on the circumstances. Other wasteful words are what one of my journalism professors called "weasel words," which are words you use to avoid committing to an absolute -- like "sort of," "kind of" or "almost." Again, does it change the meaning to remove them? If not, cut them. There's more leeway in dialogue because the weasel words might be a character trait, but you still don't want to overdo it.

Is there variety in your sentence pattern? A lot of standard subject/verb sentences can have a machine gun effect, which is useful for action sequences or building tension but which gets boring and repetitive in slower passages. Mix things up a little, if you can. This is where reading aloud really helps because it showcases any sing-songy patterns that come up. You should also find yourself speeding up for more intense action scenes and slowing down for more contemplative passages. If you don't, you'll need to fix your sentence structure and length to provide the right pacing. Make sure the dialogue sounds like something human beings would say so that it doesn't come across as stilted. Sentences in dialogue should be short enough for you to say them in one breath. Most people generally don't talk in paragraphs, so break up blocks of dialogue.

And always be looking for opportunities to be more precise, more concise and more fluid -- but all while retaining your own voice. You don't want to edit the life out of your work and not make it sound like yourself.