Before the #PitchWars showcase goes live, I wanted to post an entry on my revision process. Hopefully, this can help anyone else who might be tackling revisions themselves. Also, I wanted this for me so that the next time I’m ready to dive into revisions, I can remember all the steps I took with THE RECKONING OF TWIGGS TALLOW!
STEP ONE: Plot Questions and Answers
Once I finished my rough draft—before I let anyone read it—I did a simple exercise I learned during a class I took with Brian Malloy at The Loft, a writing center near me. The exercise is so simple but so effective. Basically, I read through my story as if I’m just a regular reader going through it for the first time, but I jotted down every time a question was raised in my mind.
For example, in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION when Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, first walks into the prison, you might have questions like: did Andy really murder his wife? Is he ever going to befriend Morgan Freeman’s character, Red? Or are they going to be enemies? How is Andy going to do in prison—is he going to be bullied? Later, when he asks for the rock hammer, you might have questions like: what’s he going to do with that rock hammer? Is he going to do something violent with it? You get the idea.
So as I was reading, I put together this whole list of questions. Then as I kept reading, I jotted down every time one of my questions was ANSWERED. By the time I was done, I could see plot holes that needed to be addressed—because there were simply no answers to those questions!
My worksheet looked something like this (with info redacted so I don’t give away the story!):
Q: When has Twiggs killed before?
A: She confesses all of her killings in CH20
Q: Being an outlaw and a killer, Twiggs has it coming… will it come? Will she be hung?
A: *Spoiler* but something happens in CH22 that answers this question
Q: Who is this bounty hunter they call the Hatchet? Will she ever meet him?
A: Yes in CH 19
Q: What's going to happen to Twiggs and Ned’s relationship?
A: *Spoiler* but something happens in CH 5 that answers this question
By going through and answering these questions one by one, I was able to cut things that weren’t important to the story. Conversely, it let me easily see where I needed to beef up answers to questions that were already posed to the reader.
STEP TWO: Adding Emotion and Urgency
I like to linger in my scenes and dwell on beautiful descriptions and landscapes and great dialogue. And I have a tendency to leave out character emotion. For me, I have to go back into my draft and consciously think about what my main character is feeling in every scene. Then I have to somehow show that on the page. Not everyone is going to write like this so if you don’t need this step, skip it. Also, it probably varies by genre. For Young Adult, character emotion is pretty important, I think. Basically, know your strengths and weaknesses. This is a weakness of mine.
So I used THE EMOTION THESAURUS quite a bit. I tried to SHOW and not tell what my characters were feeling, using body language and action. I also tried not to rely on a bunch of adverbs. Urgency is also an issue for me so I went through re-examined any ‘urgent scenes' and tried to increase the emotion there as well.
STEP THREE: Getting Feedback!
I think it was around this point (or maybe earlier) where I started sending the manuscript out to critique partners and in-person writing groups for feedback. This was so helpful and important for me! After incorporating all of their notes, I also had the opportunity to work with a mentor during #PitchWars, which was HUGE! Her feedback sent me down a whole new path of revision. Get people to read your writing!
STEP FOUR: Using a Chapter by Chapter Outline for Big Picture Edits
I have to credit my #PitchWars mentor, Cat Scully, for this technique! Thank you! Basically, she had me write down every chapter of the whole story in a detailed outline. It was tedious. It ended up being 13 pages. But when Cat and I started addresses big plot changes, I worked with the outline first before EVER going back and touching the manuscript.
Highlighting was super helpful here so I knew the sections that needed to be changed. Also, I added little revision notes for bigger picture things. Here is an example:
Chapter 1 – Killing Chickens
November, 1867. Town of Pernicious in the Sierra Nevada. 17-year-old TWIGGS TALLOW struggles to slaughter chickens, one of her duties as a hired girl at Mealing’s Boarding House and Saloon. As the last chicken succumbs to the chopping block, Twiggs is flooded with dark memories of how she’s killed before.
Twiggs shirks her duties and wanders to a stream with her dog, RIB BONE. As she washes the blood from her hands, 17-year-old NED LARKIN stumbles out from the trees. An alien ship descends and the two of them run off into the woods. They take cover by a stream where Ned tells Twiggs THE HATCHET, a ruthless bounty hunter, has captured LUCKY SPARKS, an outlaw wanted for murder.
Okay, there is no alien ship. REPEAT: THERE IS NO ALIEN SHIP! But by going through and revising the outline first, I was able to see where I needed to make changes in the manuscript. And if I changed my mind, I didn’t waste any time actually DOING the changes until I got everything figured out.
I should note that when it was time to go back and make the changes in the actual story, not everything worked. But by having the outline as a roadmap, I could easily shift things around.
STEP FIVE: Thinning out my writing
I tend to write wordy. And after the earlier step of adding emotion using THE EMOTION THESAURUS, my word count shot up! It was so useful for me to go back through the manuscript and thin out my writing!! Again, know your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a terse style, maybe this step isn’t as important for you. However, I still found it useful to go through to check for weak writing and sentence mechanics—things I didn’t even notice when I was reading my chapters.
During Pitchwars 2017, a fellow mentee recommended THE WORD-LOSS DIET by Rayne Hall. I think it was free one day on amazon. I got it and oh my goodness, it opened my eyes. It’s not ground-breaking by any means. As writers, we hear this stuff all the time. But it was nice having a guide on how to search through my document for filter words, watery words, unnecessary dialogue tags, adverbs, etc.. I also took the time to check for crutch words I know I overuse: heart, tight, wind, lunge, tremble, breathe.
It made a huge difference in my word count and, I truly believe, in the quality of my writing too. Also, it was helpful looking at my manuscript in BITS AND PIECES rather than entire chapters at a time i.e. I skipped ahead to a small section/paragraph and focused on the sentence construction and word choice of that section only! And then I moved on. This was a much easier way to get my writing to shine.
At this stage in the process, I was slashing away fairly liberally. My sole purpose was to cut words, thin out the unnecessary, and distill what I have into its essence.
One side note: the use of a smile. I admit, I love to use smiles in my writing. But I found this blog post by Margie Lawson that was so interesting and made me rethink all of my smiles. I went through and reexamined each one and hopefully made them stronger. :)
STEP SIX: Read out loud and check for voice
I’m a big proponent of reading my chapters out loud. I put on a terrible twangy accent that my husband thinks is just terrible, but in my mind, that is Twiggs speaking. By doing this, I think it helps with overall flow and rhythm, plus it helps keep the voice consistent.
Here’s a story about voice. During #PitchWars, I was struggling with the new chapters I wrote for the ending of TWIGGS TALLOW—the final confrontation between Twiggs and the villain. These chapters were sucking, and I couldn’t figure out why. They had all the elements: the blow by blow of the fight sequences, the running, the urgency. And yet they read like terrible fan fiction. I had a chat with my mentor, Cat Scully, because I felt so dejected. Well, she had some incredibly insightful advice. “Don’t forget the voice. Picture Twiggs sitting at a bar shooting back slugs of whiskey. She’s been telling this story from page one so how would she describe these fight sequences?”
Oh my goodness, light-bulb moment. Thank you, Cat Scully! I went back and rewrote those chapters as if Twiggs were sitting at that bar talking to a friend. And it made a huge difference. (At least I hope!)
STEP SEVEN: Printing the final document
Print it all out and read it again from start to finish. Super tedious, but so helpful!
AND ONE FINAL NOTE: Sensitivity Readers
I strongly recommend hiring sensitivity readers if you are writing outside your culture. I did for this story and the feedback was invaluable.
That’s it, my friends! I sincerely hope this helps. If anything, it will help me the next time I head into the revision cave.