Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing Wednesday: Revision Edition

In my morning reading of writer's blogs I was struck by the number of writers who are in the stage of rewriting where they are totally frustrated. Since I'm still on a high from finishing my rough draft of SHOWGIRLS AND ALIENS and finished the final draft of MIND THIEF a month ago. I'm in a good state of mind to talk about revisions.

One thing that gets writers down about revisions is not having a plan. It doesn't matter if you wrote the first draft as a plotter or a pantser, for the revision you have to break it down into manageable chunks.

I do this in steps by answering questions.


If you answered because of my great characters, great plot, incredible prose, or anything else that most of my Literature Professors talked about then you've got a problem. That's not why a reader invests their time in a book. The reader needs an emotional investment in your book.

To give them emotional investment you need something happening to them. Something that keeps raising the stakes throughout the book.

I've talked about my three P's of writing before. Peril, Ponder, or Polar Bear. In the two books that I just finished up I had all three for different characters.

In MIND THIEF, Howie, the protagonist, was hit by the Polar Bear, the WTF moment, throughout the book. Why was he dreaming of living a different life? Why did it seem all the people around him were lying to him? Why did he have these horrible visions?

In every chapter with Howie I made sure these WTF moments showed up and were prominent. He spent the first two thirds of the book asking “What is going on?”

The Antagonist, Joe Harriman's P was the Pondering. I made sure each chapter showed how he made a decision that changed his life. His deciding to kill a football player to get into the Navy's flight program. To kill millions to advance his research. To kill... Okay his decision were always to kill people but he did have to ponder them.

In SHOWGIRLS AND ALIENS Nomi's life was in peril. So I needed to raise the stakes constantly. At every turn she needed to defeat the bad guys only to have them come back stronger.

So in one revision look to see what is influencing the characters. Are they in danger for most of the book? If so make sure it's mentioned in each chapter.

Do they need to make decisions on which course of action to take? If so it should be in every chapter.

Are they trying to make sense of a world gone mad? Again, every chapter.

It will make the reader continue reading.


Character need to battle themselves as much as they need to battle the bad guys. My character Nomi was an Olympic level gymnast. Her parents devoted everything in pursuit of that goal. After they were killed she couldn't perform. In order to beat the bad guys she needs to use all the skills they trained her. So she has a internal conflict going on. She has to trust herself when all her life she just trusted blindly in what her parents told her to do. In order to win she must grow up. Something she resisted.

In one revision go back through and find every major character's internal conflict and make sure it is not only shown, but that it relates to the external conflict that is going on. By amping up the internal conflict it makes the external conflict more powerful.

Those two steps bring out your character, now how about the plot?


Every book has a theme. An overriding message. What's the theme of book? Write it down in one sentence.

MIND THIEF – True love conquers all.

SHOWGIRLS AND ALIENS – Believe in yourself.

Look through your book and find what that overriding theme is. Then go through make sure that theme comes through in actions your characters take. Throughout the books twists and turns make sure that theme is there.


After doing those three revisions the book suddenly isn't hard to edit anymore. It has clear powerful characters and a clear path from start to finish. Sure there are some points that seem impossible to fix. Those will come, sometimes out of the blue, but they will come.

In MIND THIEF I spent a year with a huge plot problem. Howie was in extreme peril. He had less than two weeks to live. That's peril! The problem was only the bad guys knew that fact. Over and over I wondered, “How do I show the reader the peril he is in?”

Out of the blue it hit me. Start with the bad guys POV. They know that Howie is in danger, they are planing on taking his life. Sometimes major plot problems are that simple to fix.

By Darrell B. Nelson author of I KILLED THE MAN THAT WASN'T THERE


Stephanie Barr said...

Some really good advice here. I kept thinking about BEAST WITHIN and nodding my head. Plenty of Polar Bear (sucked across the universe unexpectedly but conveniently near a habitable planet), peril (said "habitable" planet and potentially unfriendly co-castaways) and pondering ('cause I like my characters to think their way out of problems).

The internal conflict of my stand-out badass was key, I thought to the story, his insecurity largely offset is overwhelming badassedness, not the least of which was his distrust of himself having so much power. Hence the control that was the key to success above and beyond his badassedness.

I guess that's why I like revising, too. And, when you find that key that unlocks a whole bunch of plot or character issues that weren't quite meshing so they fall down like dominoes - one of the best moments ever for a writer.

Darrell B. Nelson said...

If you are planning on Revising Beast Within, I can email a few ideas. Last time I read it I had a broken finger so my comments were too brief.

Stephanie Barr said...

I'd be happy to read them. Can't promise to take them, but I'll always consider them. And you always have such an interesting perspective. Even if I go a different direction, I find your ideas thought-provoking (and sometimes, I just use 'em). I was going to look at BEAST WITHIN again, as a matter of fact.

Gotta make sure I'm not in a I-hate-my-writing frame of mind, though.

Did I ever send you the sequel? Favorite line(s) of the book (CATSPAW):

"I drank green bug shit."
"You have had a full day."