By Roz Kay
The battle with the draft seems never-ending. There’s nothing quite like taking a preliminary 70,000 words, pulling it apart and throwing out what doesn’t work, and realizing you only have 16,000 words you can live with. For a full-length novel.
That’s happened to me.
So it was an enormous relief when I heard author Hallie Ephron speak at
the 2015 Writers Digest Annual Conference on revision—and learned the draft she felt was fit to be seen for her latest novel, Night Night, Sleep Tight, was draft number 36. And that was before it went to the publisher.
Not only that, draft number 36 landed at 310 pages, while her discarded content (what she calls her “out file”) came in at a mighty 236 pages.
Hallie’s message? “Writing is about revision.”
Hallie Ephron is a best-selling author, an Edgar Award finalist, and a three-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
Everything that follows here is from my notes taken during Hallie Ephron’s talk. It’s her process and her revision structure. I’ve cobbled bits of it into my own novel-writing process, and so far everything I’ve tried has helped. And it may help you.
Revision is an iterative process, a process of working “from large to small.” The process of revision is lengthy, and that’s before it even goes to the agent, the publisher, the editor – and they’ll want more.
So to get through it, you (or at least I) need to know there’s a method in the madness. (That’s Shakespeare, not Hallie. But you get the picture.)
Here’s Hallie’s method.
First, finish your draft. Then print it. Re-read it. Have your scene-by-scene outline and decide what to fix. Take breaks between revisions. Trust your gut. Repeat.
But how do you decide what to fix?
Don’t jump in and re-write: make a list
These are things to look for as you read your printed draft – and not re-write (yet). Instead, make a list.
- Structure: the opening, turning points, conflict, resolution, stakes
- If it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to readers
- Read for shape and structure
- It doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – it could be a really interesting character who has a conflict in her life
- Look at your main character—what is the goal trajectory?
- Not the same at the end as at the beginning
- Is the character’s voice in the scenes? It needs to be
- Do you have a strong narrative voice? And it’s the character’s – not yours!
- Credible surprises
- Not many coincidences
How to make a scene
Not that kind of a scene!
As she reads her printed draft, Hallie makes a scene-by-scene outline. You want a “hook” at the end of every scene, a “grab” at the beginning of the next scene.
A good way to think of it is like a movie. At the end of a scene, a person exits; at the start of the next scene, a person enters. It might be a different person, but it drives the action. Every scene has to deliver something to the novel, and that takes conflict and action.
Ask yourself: does each scene start with establishing narrative? This doesn’t have to be fancy; the establishing narrative opener Hallie gave as an example was “Half an hour later I was in the dentist’s chair.”
Here, Hallie prints her scene outline and cuts it up, so she can re-arrange and see how things are looking. Like many writers, I use large Post-it® notes stuck on my wall—but the result is the same. You can see the flow and what needs to be moved, added, or taken away.
Make a list of all the changes you’re going to make. In Hallie’s method, you’re going to sort this list, from big to small.
Working from large to small—flying high
Having reached this point, Hallie returns to writing. She has a system: she calls it flying high, then flying low. Flying high is look at the big things—the structure, the story, the pacing.
- Read through by characters
- Read the scenes to see that character’s trajectory
- Characters don’t have as much life when you start writing; now you can go back and enrich them by layering things in that you know, having finished the draft
- Read each scene as a stand-alone
- Does it have a narrative arc?
- A tipping point in each scene? A change?
- Read through the sub-plot
- Make sure it contributes something to the main plot
- Read for narrative voice
- The character’s – not yours
- Pick words only that character uses
Then … print and start over … or if it’s where it needs to be, move on.
Working from large to small—flying low
Flying low, in Hallie’s parlance, involves editing the revised manuscript. And she focuses on specifics here too.
- Pump up the verbs—the verb is your friend
- Replace weak verbs like “is” or “was” with verbs that convey action
- Adverbs must go—editors hate them, agents hate them, they will get you rejected and it’s lazy writing
- Pump up the dialogue
- Add attitude, conflict, and humor
- Stick to “said” or “says” – maybe, “asked” or “asks” – the words themselves and what Hallie calls the “physical business” (brief descriptions of what the speaker is doing) carry the dialogue
- Strengthen your sentences
- Readers pounce on beginnings and ends
- Bridge material and transitions
- Summary narrative
- Make it short
And again … print and start over … until you’re satisfied.
That’s all it takes!
But as Hallie said, “Narrative voice is your single strongest tool as a modern novelist.”
It’s worth the work.
© Roz DeKett