Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

Critiques, Betas, And Editors, Oh My! A Beginner’s Guide…

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The long path to publication is easier with a little help!

All writers at any stage — from beginner wordsmith to seasoned pro — can benefit from a support network to help take their work to a whole other level. If you are relatively new to the writing game, you may have heard some or all of these terms and wondered what they are. I know I did, once upon a time! So here’s a breakdown of what, exactly, a critique partner, beta, or editor does, and how you can acquire your very own…

Critique Groups/Partners

This should be the very first step you take: find other writers who are willing to critique a sample of your work (say, a chapter), usually in return for you taking a look at their own work. Learning to handle critiques is crucial, not only because it can help you spot weaknesses in your writing that you may not be aware of, but also because eventually, if you are published traditionally, you will most likely work with an editor and will need to learn to accept feedback as part of the process in creating an amazing book.

Critiquing comes in different shapes and sizes. There are forums where you can post a sample for feedback, with the understanding that whoever is willing will reply, and that you will critique other samples in turn. For writers of sci fi and fantasy, the SFFChronicles.com is a good place to start, with an active critiques board. Other forums with critique sections include Absolute Write and the SCBWI Blueboard (the last is specifically for kid lit). If you find someone you work well with, you might pair up and work out some form of private exchange, meeting either in person or emailing work back and forth. A trusted critique partner, with a rapport built up over time, is worth gold.

Many people are happy to stick with just the one or two critique partners, working on a one-to-one basis. However, I find I like having a slightly larger pool of peers giving me feedback — a critique group (or writing group). This is exactly what it sounds like; a group of writers who get together in person or virtually to give each other feedback on their work. I belong to two. My local group, the Pandas, connected back in 2014 and focuses on YA and Middle Grade fiction. My online group, the Tri-Angels, has also been ‘meeting’ for a few years; we focus on Fantasy, and email submissions and critiques to each other.

How did I meet my critique partners? My local group met at a SCBWI writing conference. My online one met on the previously mentioned SFFChronicles forum. How can you meet your own? Connect to local, regional, and international writing organizations. Join forums. Go to writing events and meet ups. Put yourself out there, and be willing to do the work, since most groups/partnerships work on a reciprocity system.

Critique partners are an important first step in improving your work, and not just for beginner writers. Plenty of multi-published authors swear by their writing groups, who often serve as the very first pair of fresh eyes upon a new project.

Beta Readers

Yeah, it’s a weird term, I know. Wikipedia defines it as ‘an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work’. Beta reading is an offshoot of critiquing: usually a beta reader will look at a full draft, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, as opposed to the smaller bite-sized submissions a critique partner/group will look at. This means that a beta reader’s feedback will be less about the details, due to sheer size of work they have to read, and more about the whole. Does it flow well? Are there plot holes, or character arc issues? And other things like that.

Beta readers might be people from your critique group, though personally I think it helps to have someone unfamiliar with your work look at it too, if possible. Most of my betas are writing friends whose work I’ve also read in turn, or with whom I have an established relationship as peers. A beta reader is someone you can trust to give you that big picture feedback.

In addition, you might have specific betas for certain things. Author Jo Zebedee, for instance, has a beta reader who revises her military jargon and battle scenes in her space opera novels. I have a beta who checked all the sword fighting in my Blade Hunt books. If there’s something in your work you’re not entirely familiar with, it’s helpful to have an expert at hand.

Editors

Unlike critique partners and beta readers, who are usually peers and work on a reciprocity basis, editors are always professionals, and unless you have a good friend who is an editor and offers to help out for free, you can and should expect to pay for this sort of service. That said, there are different types of editor. The following are the two main ones, from a writer’s perspective.

Developmental editors are people who will do the sort of thing a beta reader does, but coming from a pro point of view. They can be an absolute blessing to help guide a tricky or stuck manuscript out of the mud and back on firm ground, pointing out the weak spots and guiding you through revising your novel. This sort of advice can be pricey, but might be a worthwhile investment if you’ve exhausted peer options, and can’t figure out how to deal with your manuscript. If you sign a publishing contract with a traditional press, they will usually pay for an editor to work with you and make your manuscript as shiny as possible. If you are self-publishing, you might consider this option as part of making sure your work is as professional as it can be before you publish. You can find lists of editors online, or ask friends for recommendations.

Copyeditors should be the absolute last step in the first-draft-to-book journey, and they focus mainly on spelling, grammar, consistency, continuity, and other details of an otherwise polished and completed work. If you plan to query agents or publishers, DO NOT pay to have your work copyedited. It’s not worth it, really. You will be asked to revise, most likely, and then the publisher will pay for this part of the process themselves. Even if you’ve already had it done. So, who should hire a copyeditor? Pretty much only writers planning on self-publishing. For indie authors, I honestly think that this is a must. You can skip the developmental editor if you have good critique partners or beta readers, but if you want to publish a professional piece of work, you should invest in a good copyeditor. Again, there are plenty of online recommendations, or hit up your friends for help. (For more on copyediting vs. developmental editing, have a look at my blog interview from 2015.)

I hope this not-so-brief post helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. Coming next: what critique or beta feedback actually looks like, and how to critique someone’s work in a positive and productive manner.

Breathing Space

A while back, on Twitter, a question about revisions came up. I mentioned adding ‘breathing space’. See the tweet, below.

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Why breathing space? When I started writing seriously, back in 2012 (seriously as in: outlining, sticking with my projects, and ACTUALLY FINISHING MY DRAFTS!), my manuscripts were a headlong rush of action scenes, with barely a pause between them. There was no time to deepen my characters, or their arcs. It was frantic, it was frenetic, it was… Yeah, it was just too much.

The first time I worked with a professional editor was when Heart Blade got picked up for publication. The wonderful Teresa Edgerton, who had the challenging task of coaching me through a full rewrite, taught me a lot about allowing my stories space to breathe. I picked that manuscript apart completely, and figured out (with Teresa’s help) how to put it back together with enough spare room for full emotional arcs, proper character development, and those all-important moments of stillness.

I’ve progressed in my writing skills (I hope!) since then and have learnt to find pleasure in slowing things down a little, and in those quiet spaces between all the action. But I still need to remind myself of the need for this at times, and that’s definitely something I look for when revising.

There’s a scene from Heart Blade that I love because it’s muted, hushed, and yet it adds weight to my story, grounding it. You can click here to read the full excerpt, but here’s part of it:

He was still by the doorway when she passed, and her arm brushed his lightly in the cramped space. He felt that tingle again like an electric jolt that ran all the way down to his toes. She flinched, and he was sure she’d felt it too. He put a hand out and caught hers. She stopped where she was, waiting. He was waiting, too, but he didn’t know what for. The doorway they stood in was a frame for a captured moment, a stolen image frozen in time.

Giving your words space to breathe can give your work that extra bit of depth, and allowing the reader time to process all that awesome action helps the words hit home harder. Music can’t be all chorus and bridges; you need the regular verses too, or else the rhythm is all off. Writing is the same. Take a step back, find the spots that need some quiet, and let your story take a long exhale.

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Easy as Pie

As I’m sure happens with all authors, I often get asked questions about my writing process. How long did it take you to write your book? How much editing work do you do? Who helps you revise? I thought I’d put together a rough recipe of how Heart Blade and Night Blade (Out soon in November! Shameless plug!) were baked, from pantry to table. Remember, this is how things worked out for me. Every author has their own way of doing things, and their own timelines, and so does each publisher. If you’re a writer, you need to figure out what works for you.

How to bake a novel (Juliana style):

1– First draft. Slow in the beginning, as I play around with ideas during a chapter or two, and then pause for worldbuilding, character development, and plot outlining. Picks up speed after a few chapters. Usually hits a lull at around the midway point, where I pull my hair out for a bit and despair of my writing skills. This ‘wall’ often means I went wrong somewhere, so when the way forward becomes suddenly murky, I find it helps to take a couple of weeks off to do nothing but read other people’s work and binge watch Netflix, while keeping things ‘on the backburner’ until I figure out where I messed up.

The first draft phase would probably take around 2 months condensed, but in reality it’s longer then that because writing gets paused for things like school holidays, day job stuff, other commitments, etc. Much as I love my made up worlds, real life is an actual thing!

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Working on the first draft of Night Blade

2 – Revision notes. While writing the first draft, I’m sending out individual chapters to my critique group and noting feedback. I’m also keeping a list of things I’ve realized will need changing or adding after the first draft is done. I don’t revise much at the initial stage of writing, so I end up with a huge pile of notes in my nearly illegible handwriting. Up to this moment, no one has seen the entire thing yet – there would be no point as the first draft is in part a brainstorming activity in itself, and I make a ton of changes afterward.

3 – First major revision/rewrite. I may have done smaller changes to the first draft along the way, saving each version under a new file name each time. But this is when I do a full read-through and revision. First I organize both my personal notes and the comments from my critique partners. Then I rework the entire thing. Now it’s ready to be seen…

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Organizing Heart Blade edit notes

4 – Beta readers. I send my manuscript to a few writing buddies who are kind enough to beta read the whole thing for me. They send me their feedback, which I consider and work into my manuscript. I dive into another round of edits, fixing things my beta readers have pointed out. Last read through, fixing minor details.

5 – Deliver manuscript. It’s time to hand my manuscript in. The novel is pretty much as tight as I can get it without further eyes on it. Now I wait for feedback from my publisher. Bite nails.

6 – Final revision. By now, I’ve received the official editorial notes. Anytime I get major feedback, I always read through it all and then give things a few days to sink in, and to come up with solutions to problems. Criticism is hard, but very, very necessary. No one wants to rip your work apart; they want to help take out the wobbly bits and build it stronger so the building soars. (And now I seem to have strayed from baking analogies to architecture. Oops.) Heart Blade, my first Blade Hunt novel, needed a full rewrite. My editor didn’t ask me for this, just for revisions, but I felt the changes I wanted to make went deeper than simple edits could handle. There was a lot of character building I wanted to work on. So it was easier to rewrite the entire thing from scratch, using the previous version as a reference, which I did over six manic weeks of non-stop work. With Night Blade, though I did rewrite a few sections entirely and added a chapter or two (and deleted another), I was on firmer ground, having all of the work I’d done on the precious book to guide me. This stage might include a few back-and-forths; Heart Blade went through three rounds with my editor before it was declared fit for consumption.

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Checking notes during final Night Blade edits

7 – Copyedits. Now the whole thing goes to the copyeditor, that saintly person who will make sure I haven’t done ridiculous things with commas, or named my Space Council different things on different pages. (Spoiler alert: there are no actual Space Councils in the Blade Hunt Chronicles. Or actual space. I mean, space is there, I haven’t erased it or anything.) After the copyeditor has had their say, the manuscript comes back to me so I can go over all the suggested changes and approve them. I thought this was going to be boring, but it was rather fun. And eye-opening! Once copyedits are approved, the almost-baked-book goes to my proofreader, who acts as a final set of (very sharp) eyes on the whole thing. Again, the manuscript returns to me for approval of changes.

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Going through Heart Blade copyedits

8 – Dish and serve. It’s ready! There’s nothing else for me to do, in production terms. Now it’s all up to my publisher, and next time I set eyes on my story it’ll be a shiny new ARC, and then an actual-factual book, fresh from the oven and piping hot. It’s time to relax, and enjoy. Easy as pie. A really, REALLY long-baked and complicated pie…

(I don’t actually have a book-pie image. So please enjoy a cup of tea and some sweet treats instead.)

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Night Blade, book 2 of the Blade Hunt Chronicles, will be out on November 7th. Cover reveal coming soon!

Buy book 1, Heart Blade, here.

Spring 2017 Updates

Connecticut finally has its Spring on. Tiny baby leaves have tiptoed over the treetops like a green mist, and forsythia is blazing in glorious yellow splendor. The sun is shining. I have daffodils in the garden, and Easter chocolate is on sale everywhere you look.

 

So, what’s new in my world?

I’ve finished Book 2 in the Blade Hunt Chronicles, Night Blade. Now the manuscript is off being looked at by eyes other than my own. Until I get all the revision notes back, I can’t do anything else on that front. I’ve already outlined a lot of what will happen in Book 3, Star Blade, and I’m really excited about it, but I’m holding off getting a start on writing that one until I know if I have any substantial changes to make in Night Blade that might affect my Book 3 plot.

What’s in Book 2? No spoilers, but I can tell you there’s a heist, and Rose may have bitten off more than she can handle. Del gets to wear a ballgown. And you all get to meet my lovely new character, Ben Kelley. He’s a witch and, well, you’ll just have to wait and see.

I’m trying to get my head back into a stalled sci fantasy YA while I wait for Night Blade revision notes, but it can be hard switching worlds and projects, and to be honest it’s been slow going. I’m looking forward to this weekend, where I and some 700 or so New England kid lit authors and illustrators will gather at the NESCBWI Spring Conference for workshops, panels, and lots of great conversation about books and writing. I always go home revved up and inspired after these events, so this should be just the kick I need to get back into my rhythm again. Follow the #NESCBWI17 hashtag on twitter this weekend for lots of kid lit pearls of wisdom tweeted by event participants.

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New bookmarks, ready for NESCBWI 17

The Pixel Project’s Read for Pixels fundraiser is almost over. The donation page will be open until April 29th, though the main event has ended. I contributed three Heart Blade paperbacks with character art postcards to this, which were bundled together with 1st Edition hardcovers from bestselling YA Fantasy authors Kimberly Derting (The Taking) and Alyson Noel (Unrivalled). I was very happy to hear from the organization that all three bundles were snapped up.

You can find my mini interview on the Pixel Project blog.

What else… Heart Blade had a sale! (Yay!) The sale is over… (Boo!). But you can still find the Kindle version at a very reasonable U$ 3.99 on Amazon. *waves cheerleader pompoms* For those interested in a paperback, I’m planning a giveaway on Goodreads in May, so keep an eye out here and on GR itself.

And last (but not least), today I received a lovely letter from blogger Marguerite Gibson with two beautiful handmade book plates that I’ve promised to sign and send back. It’s always wonderful to hear from readers, whether on social media, or in reviews, or by snail mail, like Marguerite from Australia. Gives me warm and fuzzy writer feels!

Happy Spring to all. May your words be plentiful, your flowers beautiful, your mornings sunny and bright…and may your leftover Easter chocolate last many, MANY days.

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Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes

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Oh, hey! It’s another character naming post! (And here’s one I made earlier… *gestures like chef on cooking show*)

This time, it’s about naming difficulties I ran into while working on Heart Blade.

Changing a name after a first draft is done is always tricky. A new name can change a character in unexpected ways. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Here are three naming hurdles I came up against while revising my novel for my publisher.

1) Sometimes the character shifts and outgrows a name. Take Alex, who first emerged from my odd little writer brain as Brother Jerome. Jerome was originally supposed to be a sort of Old Master type character. The name was perfect at the time. He’s a vampire, almost 1000 years old, and he used to be a knight in the Crusades. But Jerome insisted on, well, not being Jerome. He’s perpetually eighteen years old, ruggedly handsome in a shaggy blond, broad-shouldered-from-sword-work sort of way. He’s covered in tattoos. And despite being an honest-to-goodness monk (though ‘recently’ ordained, I should add – only a couple of hundred years ago!), his penchant for wearing jeans, black tees, and an old pair of converse sneakers under his robes were a dead giveaway that I had the wrong name.

I renamed him Alexander of York and the poor guy got a whole new lease of immortal life.

2) Sometimes a character is too close to another writer’s character with the same name. I had this problem with Rose, née Lila. I have big plans for Rose in book 2! She’s a little edgy, and a little angry, with a lot of abandonment issues to work through. Her original name was Lila, which I loved. But then a couple of my critique partners had a Lyla in a co-authored story, and after a while their Lyla began bleeding into my Lila. They’re very different characters, but there are also a few similarities, and the name just stopped working. I needed my Lila to be 100% mine. So I ditched the name. It took me forever to find a new name I liked, one that showed her as she is in Heart Blade, but could be changed slightly by Rose herself to suit who she starts to become in book 2. I won’t tell you what she renames herself – you’ll have to wait for Night Blade for that. But I’m happy with Rose, and I’m glad she’s made the name her own.

3) Sometimes everyone just hates the name you pick! My main guy, Ash, was originally called Jimmy. It made sense to me: his full name in that first version was James Arthur Deacon III, after his father and grandfather. Jimmy matched the sweetness inside him. But although – interestingly enough – the guys who beta read the story for me were fine with the name, it got a resounding NO from all my female readers. This one took me a long while to puzzle out. I still wanted the family legacy thing to go on: Ash/Jimmy carries a pretty hefty family burden on his shoulders. So I decided to keep James Deacon and change his middle name. The men in his family would all have the same first and last names, but different middle names. The catch: it had to be a bible name. Ash’s family is descended from angels and they have an important role in policing the preternatural community. I went through a gazillion naming websites before I hit on Asher, a beautiful Old Testament name that just sounded right. (Kudos to my daughter, who suggested it in the first place.) I tried it out on a few female friends and relatives and everyone agreed it was a keeper. Jimmy was out – Ash was in.

I love the three new names, and can’t imagine my characters being anything else now. And the time I spent agonizing over the changes meant time spent thinking deeply about who those characters were and what really made them tick. That’s the light at the end of that particular tunnel: once you find the right shiny new name, you’ll feel you know your character even better than you did before.

May all your character naming problems be easy to solve! And now (because how could I not!), the gentle reminder that maybe get a second opinion if you’re in doubt. Courtesy of Friends and the inimitable Phoebe Buffay.

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