Monthly Archives: September 2013

Writer’s Revision Checklist

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Writing in itself is fun. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. I love it when my brain and my fingers are in sync. In that moment, however long it lasts, a writer’s life is in harmony with the universe. 

Then you type those glorious words, “The End.” Ahh. What a feeling. That means you’re done, right? Wrong. Next comes that dreaded word, the one that makes most writers cringe: 

Revision.

Yes, revision is that ugly, concrete wall separating you from being published. I once heard a literary agent say, “The biggest mistake I see authors make isn’t misspelling my name or sending a bad query, although they do that. The saddest thing is when I love the premise, but the author didn’t revise enough.”

Isn’t that sad? Spending months or years on a project, only to toss it off a cliff because they just don’t want to comb through it anymore? (Oh boy, do I understand!)

This is the point I’m at with my novel (my first book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, is a parenting book…yeah, very different from my current project!).  I go back and forth between wanting to hurl it out the window and wanting to rush it out to agents immediately because “the idea is so good, they’ll look past the poor writing.” Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Revising is a necessary evil. Emphasis on the EVIL part.

In case you’re struggling with it as much as I am, here’s a list of five things to check before you click that Send button. I’ve compiled this list from several books, including Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and from blogs and writers conferences I’ve attended. Enjoy!

1) Look closely at the skeleton.

When I say skeleton, I mean the bones of your story. Is there an inherent arc in the entire story? Is the conflict introduced immediately? Is the ending satisfying, tying off all loose ends and leaving the reader wanting more? Does the ending feel too predictable, or is there a twist of some kind to delight the reader? Is the pacing appropriate? 

If you think your story needs more structure, Dan Wells’ video is a great one. I also like seven time NYT Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson’s lecture series, which goes into story structure in depth. 

2) Look at it chapter-by-chapter.

Does each chapter have a clearly-defined purpose and setting? Does the setting change often enough to keep the reader interested? Do we feel a sense of progression and heightened conflict as we near the end? Does each chapter (and scene) have a natural arc? Sometimes combining scenes and chapters can make for better pace, rising action, and can also cut down on words.

3) Evaluate your characters.

Now that the plot is well-established, let’s examine your characters. Are they unique and consistent? Does each one have a specific purpose, or can some minor characters be combined?  Do they speak and think differently from each other? Are they stereotypical, or does each one have a quirk or personality twist? Are the characters relateable, even the villian?

Does the reader get a sense that these characters have a history, a past that may or may not be applicable to the plot? Does the reader see the best and worst parts of each character’s personality? Do the characters emerge from the ending forever changed? Does the protagonist try and fail several times before getting what s/he wants? Does the dialogue seem/feel natural, like a real conversation? 

4) Look at the Description.

There’s a fine line between too much description and not enough. Go through your manuscript and take out cliches, replacing them with fresh, applicable words and phrases. Think “concise and precise.” Use as few words as possible to effectively get the emotional feeling and message across. Do your descriptions use all five senses where appropriate? Is the level of description appropriate to the scene (fighting scenes vs. walking the beach, etc.)? 

The biggest thing here is this: SHOW, NOT TELL. You’re allowing the readers to create your world in their heads, not shoving a real-estate ad down their throats. This applies to everything, but especially to description. Howard Taylor, a well-known artist/comic, says something like this: “You must make me feel the tree’s bark beneath my hands before I’ll believe the dragons in the distance.” Get the little details right, and the reader is much more likely to be immersed in the world you’ve created. 

5) The Down & Dirty Basics: grammar, spelling, spacing, chapter numbering, clarity, accuracy

Why save this stuff for last? Because while you work on the other four, this stuff changes. I STRONGLY advise you to work with a critique group and/or an editor for this one, because I’ve personally had mistakes overlooked by a half-dozen proof-readers before. It happens. Typos and mistakes don’t mean you’re a bad writer–it’s just part of the process. (You should actually have a critique group look over the previous four things too, preferably as you go.) When you’ve done what you can, have your helpers look for point-of-view issues, verb tenses, common words and phrases, and things that just don’t seem right. If they’re really good, they’ll help you whittle sentences down. Remember, “concise and precise” is key.

You may think “accuracy” doesn’t fit here, or at least it should be done way before this point. Ideally you’d have a grasp on what is and isn’t possible in the research stage, true. But have you ever read a book where the author skipped this step? I bet that wrong detail completely turned you off of the book, right? I’ve done martial arts for five years, and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the ridiculous things people put in their action scenes. Seriously. It goes way beyond fighting scenes, though. If you have injuries or medical-related scenes in your book, check with a nurse at the very least. This is where “knowing people” comes in handy. If you offer to add them to the acknowledgments section of your book, even professionals will probably be happy to help you.  

Yeah, I know, this seems overwhelming. Believe me, I understand. This is a lot of work. Take it one day at a time, one item at a time. It may require a dozen readings of your books. There’s one thing every author, agent, and editor can agree on, though: IT’S WORTH IT. Just imagine that acceptance letter and the appreciation of your future fans. 

If that isn’t enough, there’s always that chocolate reward at the end. Doesn’t work for you? That’s fine. Send it my way instead.

Happy revising!

Hero vs. Bully–A True Story

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I saw a true hero today. I don’t know if it was a woman or a man, but s/he drove a silver four-door sedan and made me proud. Yep, this person stood up to a road bully–and reminded me of our number one family rule: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

On the corner of University Pkwy and Geneva Rd in Orem, there’s a relatively new sign. It’s posted in the right turn lane, and it says “Stop On Red.” I remember groaning when it went up because it meant north-bounders on Geneva couldn’t just stop and turn right on a red light. Now we had to wait for both lanes to turn in front of us before the light would turn green. 

I’ve been tempted to cheat a couple times, mind you. Especially during the day when there’s little traffic and no one’s paying attention. 

But tonight, there was plenty of traffic, and I was coming the other way this time. In fact, I was one of the cars turning in front of that irritated lane of would-be right-turners. And I knew something was wrong before I even got to the intersection.

Someone had laid on their horn for several seconds already, and it didn’t let up as I turned. By the end of my turn, they were still, ten seconds later, laying on their horn in irritation. But the front car sat there, waiting patiently, obeying the light and the sign, knowing that if they went they’d get hit (by a turning car like me). 

I was absolutely disgusted. First of all, how do you get a driver’s license without being able to read? I’m pretty sure that was a requirement when I was sixteen. It’s pretty hard to miss that giant sign that says “Stop On Red.” My kindergartner can read all three of those words, dang it.

Secondly, let’s assume that the obnoxious driver missed the sign somehow. How do you not miss a line of cars turning in front of your lane, just feet away from the lead car?

And third, even if you miss the car and don’t see the double-laned army of turning cars, WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU? I think the lead car got the message within the first second or two. So you’re impatient. You want the car to go, so you can too. Yep, we get that. You don’t have to lay on the horn for half a minute. The only message that gets across at that point is that you are 1) an illiterate idiot, and 2) an obnoxious bully with no common sense. What if you’d freaked out the poor car in front of you, making him go when it wasn’t safe and forcing him to plow into oncoming traffic? Would you have felt better then?

But no. The heroic silver sedan sat there, all four wheels obediently behind the crosswalk line, not budging at all. I don’t know what the poor driver was thinking at that point, whether s/he wanted to flip the guy off or whether that was a rough ending to an already hard day. But s/he was a hero for me.

As I drove home, I realized that there are all kinds of bullies–and they don’t stop once they reach adulthood. I actually think they get more subtle and more powerful the older they get. These people believe they’re always right, smarter than everyone else, and above the rules. They feel entitled to the first, the best, and the most desirable of everything. They bowl over those who get in their way and have tantrums when they don’t get their way. And the scary thing is, sometimes these people actually have kids. Heaven forbid.

If we’re lucky (at least in one way), their arrogance extends to breaking the law–then we can finally do something about their actions. But most of the time we just have to shake our head in wonder, reminding ourselves to teach our kids NOT to be like that. We have to step up and become our own kind of heroes. We teach our children “please” and “thank you” and “wait your turn.” We resolve to genuinely thank the waitress who just got publicly flogged for getting an order wrong. We step aside for the guy bowling over people in the grocery aisle. We back up the cashier when she tells a bullying customer that she’s not authorized to use that expired coupon. 

Why do we do these things? Because at least WE understand that it doesn’t have to be a dog-eat-dog world. We have to live with each other, and we may as well help each other out–life’s hard enough without people like that around. Just as our kids are taught in school to stand in line, and each student gets a turn to be “star of the week,” we have to remember to give RESPECT even in adulthood. It’s not Just about any one of us. It’s about all of us.

And frankly, it takes guts to stand up to people like that–even if it means keeping your foot firmly on the brake, like that brave driver I saw today. S/he kept my family safe and obeyed the law, and I noticed. I hope the bully got the message. 

I think I’ll use that intersection more, so I can pass the message on.