Tag Archives: revision

The Unplotted Plot

Recently I picked up a book by an author whom I’ve enjoyed in the past and which I was very much looking forward to reading. It was a big Science Fiction novel, and the author is one of those rare few who’s managed to break out of the narrow confines of SF and become a mainstream bestseller. His books, which often feature mysterious alien artifacts, are filled with wonder, his stories painted on big canvases–all stuff I love, unlike so much of today’s SF which I find either preachy, tediously dystopian, downright timid and petty, or all three together.

After enjoying the first few dozen pages, however, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable. Despite the great setup, fine writing, wonderful worldbuilding, and solid characterization, the story felt as if it was on rails. It was meticulous, precise. It was too damn plotted.

The more I learn about this craft, the more I understand how very different every writer’s M.O. is. There’s no right way to write, there’s only what works. Some people are plotters; I’m not. I write largely by the seat of my pants, but I learned some years ago–a hard lesson, the result of having painted myself into an impossible corner on several occasions where I began a story without any sort of preparation–that even a “pantser” needs some notes and waypoints from the outset.

So today, when I embark on a long work such as the novel I’m currently about, I make sure I have a few things down on paper when I begin: a good setup and a rough outline of the first few scenes to serve as a launch ramp; full notes and backstory on my principal characters, including some psychological profiles about their deeper goals and motivations; an understanding of the “flaw in the universe”, the core conflict that drives the plot; some vague notion of the development of the story; and an idea of my ending (all of which can, and likely will, change). But I don’t even attempt anything resembling a full outline.

When I wrote my novel “Sutherland’s Rules”, two authors I respect a great deal made comments (and rather nice ones) worth examining here. One told me he wished he could plot so well–which made me laugh, as all I’d done was set the characters free to act and react, then chased them around with maps, calendars, and finally stopwatches to make sure it was all possible! The second comment about the book was that I did a fine job of not telegraphing my intentions in advance; well, how could I? How was I to know what my characters would get up to from one minute to the next? All I do is watch, and write it down.

Notice I mentioned “plot” earlier, but only as a noun. The reason for this is that I don’t believe in plotting. Like Stephen King (I was immensely happy when he made this point in his book, “On Writing”), I don’t trust plotting in the sense of a detailed, premeditated outline of story events. Plot is something that occurs spontaneously, a hyperdynamic web of forces that, for me, needs to develop organically as the writer’s well thought-out and very real characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or that flaw in the universe the writer has conceived as the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, doesn’t have a verbal form–it’s a noun, and another word for story.

When I read a book where the author has mechanically plotted everything out carefully in advance (the generic MegaName thriller authors that turn out several books a year are egregious examples of this), I can quite literally feel–at least I imagine I can–the poor characters struggling to break free, to have autonomy, to do something spontaneous and unpredictable, all the while screaming, “I am not a character, I am a free man!” It’s painful. It’s boring. Now, I don’t know if this is the way is the way these authors work, but their books feel that way to me–choreographed and mechanical. And that’s the kiss of death for me.

If, on the other hand, the author has done their preliminary work well, and has some clue what he or she is about in terms of craft, their characters will act like real people in a real situation in the real world rather than like marionettes on a stage set. Oh, there’ll be some tuning, and they may need reining in occasionally, but I find that’s more a question of keeping control over their time in public view rather than limiting their actions. I mean, why would you want to do that?

I think also that when some authors talk of plotting, they’re often referring to a rather different process than the premeditated, scene-by-scene working out of story events I’m grumbling about. What I think some writers do is write an initial outline that’s effectively a barebones first draft and in which the characters are organically involved as actors, and then expand that more and more; and I think this is where a good deal of misunderstanding arises as to what plot and plotting are.

My personal belief is that the time to plot is after you’ve got the first draft down. Even then, plot in its verb form isn’t the right word–I like to think of it as outlining after the fact. And the reason for this is that when you have eighty or a hundred thousand words, dozens of chapters over hundreds of pages that have taken you several months even years to write, you need to get an overview of the whole. At this point, writing a brief summary of what happens in each chapter and scene is something that I find vital to help me see what needs doing in the rewrite.

But, plot from the beginning? No way. If I can’t trust my characters to act independently, I’ve probably not done a very good job on them, have I?

*     *     *

What do you think? Do you find some books just seem to be too obviously plotted? If you’re a writer, what’s your own process?


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Perfect and Good Enough

My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:

Good, better best;

May you never rest

Until your good is better,

And your better best.


It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”

Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.

When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.

Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.

I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters.  A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.

So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything.  If you simply  use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.


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From First Draft to Final Polish

As I enjoy the very last pass through my novel, I’m struck by how different in its specifics each revision is. Of course, writers vary enormously in their technique and approach. Still, I think we can make some general observations.

Here’s what happens—at least, for me—between the first, rough draft and the final revision pass.

The first revision, (which I strongly believe is best left until at the very least a month after the first draft is completed, since I need to get distance from the work), is for most of us actually a partial rewrite, involving sometimes substantial work on characters, plot, and pacing. I expect to move, transpose, add or toss out whole scenes; new subplots may be introduced; information and backstory management will probably need work. In SFF, add issues of worldbuilding and infodumping. In the worst cases, or if the draft was written at breakneck speed (which is why I don’t do NaNoWriMo), this revision may amount to a complete teardown.

In my own work, I usually find I need to add wordage at this stage, mostly in the form of description and ‘stage directions,’ which I tend to skimp on in my first draft; I may need to amp up conflict, too, as well as introduce some foreshadowing. I fix inconsistencies such as abruptly morphing character names and physical details. And then there’ll be factual errors.

The second revision pass will hopefully be easier and more limited in scope. During this stage, I typically find myself refining character motivation and behaviour; replacing camera-eye narration with more subjective character judgment (yet another aspect of show v. tell); and tweaking dialogue so that it’s more distinct and true to character, trying to make it snap and crackle.

This is a good time to strengthen my theme, by which I mean asking myself what the book or story is really about, and making sure that I reinforce this wherever possible within the context of believable character and action. I also find myself noticing words and gestures I tend to overuse (the dreaded, ‘he/she nodded/smiled/sighed,’ etc.).

On my final revision, I’m getting really granular and looking at the fine detail: essentially, I’m copyediting, looking to smooth every bump and buff out the most minor defects. This polishing pass isn’t about what the story is and how it unfolds, but rather about how I present it to the reader in a way that’s efficient, engaging, and pleasurable.

By now I should have a really clear vision of who my characters are and what my story is about. I’m still tinkering with dialogue, ensuring that’s it’s as crisp as can be, and watching for redundant, leftover words from earlier revisions, as well as malapropisms and the like.

But most of all, I’m looking to make the prose really sing (within reason— where I once used to think a sublimely lyrical prose style was everything, I now care a great deal more about telling a really good story, because I think that’s actually what readers want. It’s what I want when I read).

What do I mean by making the prose sing? Well, since by this stage I’ve (hopefully) eliminated scene-level structural issues with regard to pacing and plot, I’m now looking at structural issues in the prose itself at both paragraph and sentence level. As I read, I’m looking to see if my paragraphs are properly structured and sequenced in relation to their neighbours as well as internally, within the paragraph itself (a subject which merits a post of its own).

Next, is the syntax working? Do I repeat words? Can I improve on word choice, strengthen verbs, punch up a metaphor, slip in some symbolism? Have I committed unconscious rhymes, or clunky sequences of sentences that all begin with the subject (‘He did this. It was Monday. He did that. She said this. The cat grinned.’)? Are there words or even sentences I can cut? Are there filtering words (direct speech such as ‘felt’, ‘seemed’, ‘thought’, etc., often accompanied by supporting adjectives) that can be lost and replaced with the stronger, deeper perception of free indirect speech either literal or metaphorical (e.g., replace, ‘he felt very tired’ with, ‘he was exhausted,’ or, ‘he could sleep for a month)?

Finally, as I work my way through the story, I’m looking for slips and inconsistencies in both voice and tone.

Voice needs to work at every level: dialogue, internal thought (free indirect speech), and narrative (in character viewpoint). It needs to be true and consistent to each character. Skill at handling voice is critical to making readers care about a character, as well as keeping them engaged during breaks in the action.

Tone is a slippery thing, best defined as the overall effect, quality, or mood of a work of fiction, the sum result of theme, voice, prose, and much else. A dark theme approached in a sober voice may yield a Tragedy; but a humorous, upbeat voice will change the tone and transform it into Black Comedy. The point here is to understand what tone you’re trying to achieve and not break the effect with false notes or drastic changes. Start as you mean to continue.

And now? I’m done. After this final revision all that should remain is light copyediting and close proofreading (best left to others), and the work is ready to go out and earn its keep in the world!

What’s your experience with rewrites and revisions? Is your approach comparable or different?


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The Horror! The Horror!

I’m not sure about Joseph Conrad—history does not tell—but I’m prepared to bet that a majority of writers out there whimper at the prospect of revising their work, especially if the revision involves structural rewriting. The thought of having to do something akin to removing, remodeling, and replacing several floors of a high-rise without the whole building collapsing is daunting, to say the least. To extend the analogy, what about all the plumbing, electrics and ductwork that run through the floors you’re refitting? How will changes on those floors affect the rest of the building? It’s enough to make you crazy.

As I work through my own current novel rewrite, I’m learning—not without struggle—to enjoy the process rather more. See, much as I hate this and wish the damn book had come out perfect the first time so I could send it out to earn its keep and make a start on the next, I know that it’s going to be a far better book after the revision: more to the point, it’s going to be a saleable book after the revision, which, in ninety-nine percent of cases, our earlier drafts aren’t. And when you consider that the first draft probably took you several hundred hours, what’s the big deal? It’s unlikely the rewrite will take even half of that.

So why are rewrites scary? Well, for one there’s the, ‘I’m done with this!’ factor above—which, after spending several months in labour with your novel, is not unreasonable. And the work of revising your ms. seems so much less glorious and magical than birthing the thing in the first place (note we’re talking about revision, aka rewriting, here, not simple, putzy editing). Why? Because there’s a good deal more analytical than creative process needed in the rewrite.

That’s how it should be. You’ve taken a good, hard look at the raw love-child you’ve delivered your muse of, and maybe had some writer friends offer their two cents on, and discovered that there’s room for improvement. Your antagonist is thin as cardboard, and why on Earth would the empowered female protagonist risk her neck for a guy who’s an insufferable misogynist? You could drive a truck through some of the plot holes—nobody can swim three miles in 45-degree water towing a mini-submarine by a rope between their teeth. And the cultural mores of Mongolian yak herders are not going to be those of twenty-somethings from the San Fernando Valley. What were you thinking??

Well, okay. Once you’ve got over the sting of critique and finished beating yourself up, it’s time to square your shoulders and get on with the rewrite.  Here’s what works for me.

When the story’s cooled, and I’ve reread it and fully digested the notes from my trusted critiquers, I first of all try to pinpoint exactly what the story is about—in other words, idea or theme. The answer should be very clear, and admit of brief, unambiguous definitions, like, ‘Crime doesn’t Pay’; ‘Freedom comes at a price’; or, ‘There’s no place like home’. Knowing what the story’s about when you begin your revision will allow you to prune and cut out stray tendrils and offshoots and make your whole story point in the same direction.

Next, I go through the ms. and do a scene-by-scene, ‘after the fact,’ outline of what I have. Armed with this three- or four-page structural overview, it’s much easier to follow the plot thread and spot breaks, missing connections, loose ends, and all the rest. I note down where I need to move, add, or delete scenes, introduce or alter plot events, etc.

If you believe, as I do, that the writing process is entirely dependent on a collaboration between the conscious and unconscious mind, then the whole success of the writing process is founded on communication. What’s your creative subconscious trying to say in this story? And when you took dictation and wrote that first draft, how much did you get right? You’re working—or should probably be—fast in a first draft. You’re going to make mistakes. Get over it.

Looking back over my current novel draft, as well as some earlier stories, it seems to me that, at some level, the whole story is there, but in the process of transcribing that raw unconscious material, I’ve put things in the wrong place or left something out: I’ve misheard.

I repeat: at some level, the whole story is there.

Thus, in the process of revising my current novel, I realized that I had two characters exactly reversed in their major traits—no wonder they weren’t working! As soon as I switched them around, everything they did suddenly made sense.

Similarly with plot: although some of the first-draft plot events weren’t working, when I looked carefully at my setup and all the strands available to me to pull on, I saw that all the elements were in place for the fix—like a jigsaw, it was all there, I’d just been trying to pick up the wrong pieces in the first place. Once I realized that, the fix was easy.

Many rewriting issues, from plot to dialogue, can be solved by looking hard at your characters and making sure they’re fully alive, real people with their own hopes and fears and agendas. If a character isn’t working, or isn’t behaving credibly, look hard at their goals and motivations, work on their bio and backstory—in short, breathe life into them.

Of course, there are going to be side-effects and repercussions to any changes you make, and you’re going to have to track those diligently and make adjustments as required throughout the story. And some of the solutions will take time: my advice is, don’t force the pieces. But do talk to your characters. All the time.

As for the more minor mechanics of revision, I’d suggest that you keep a copy of every major draft and dump your deletions and cuts (at least those you’re fond of) into an ‘out-takes’ file. But don’t be afraid to make cuts, even whole chapters, and especially those scenes or lines of dialogue or description which—although they no longer work—you think you can’t bear to get rid of. Kill your darlings! You have an inexhaustible supply of imagination, and will find lines every bit as good or better to replace them with.

In summary, revision may not be always easy or fun, but it’s vital work that will make the difference between a great book and a dull or so-so one.

Which would you rather have?


Filed under Writing