Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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Untangling the Mess: Overcoming Common Revision Obstacles

By Janice Hardy

Image of a hand holding a red pen above a manuscript page with corrections in red ink sitting on a wooden desk. in the background on the far left is a green plant in a white vase on the right is an electronic tablet and the a mug of coffee.

Every revision is unique and each one offers a different challenge to overcome.  

Some manuscripts are clean first drafts that fall out of your head and onto the page like they wanted to be written. Other stories fight you every step of the way, and you have to whip them into submission to make the novel work. Still others are stories you wrote and revised countless times until they became a tangled mess you gave up on—even though you still love that story and swear you’ll make it work one day.

I have novels in all of these categories and then some.

Most writers will have a draft that’s ready for revision. These will be split between manuscripts no one but you has seen and manuscripts that have been through beta readers or critique partners. How you approach your revision depends on what stage the manuscript is at.

Let’s take a look at a few revision situations you might be facing:

This is a typical first-draft revision with a manuscript you haven’t shown anyone yet, and you want to make sure all the bugs are worked out before you get feedback.

Remember:

  • Give yourself the freedom to stink: Yes, first drafts don’t always stink, but a lot of them do, so don’t worry if yours is full of issues and problems. That’s normal. Revision is how you clean up that mess. I like to think of first drafts as brain dumps just to get the story out of my head and onto the page. Once there, then I can turn it into a book.
  • Approach it like you’re doing a critique for a friend: Pretend your manuscript was written by a friend. What advice would you give about this story? Where would you cut them some slack? This can also help you be more objective about the work. Taking time off before revising can help give you distance here. 
  • Don’t worry about the time it takes to revise: I know you want to get it done and off to an agent, editor, or publish it, but rushing the work never results in the best work, and this can hurt you and your novel in the long run. If it’s worth doing, do it right.

This is a draft that’s been through critiques and has feedback to help guide you in your revision. It might be a first draft or a later draft. The hard part here is figuring out what feedback to heed and what to ignore.

Some guidelines to consider:

  • Take every comment seriously: Ask yourself why the critiquer said it and try to see the underlying problem, then decide if it’s a comment that needs to be addressed or not. Not every piece of feedback is useful, even if it comes from a good writer or critiquer.
  • If you’re not sure about a comment, think about why you’re resisting it: Sometimes feedback requires edits that scare you, or changes something you love, or even use a skill you’re not sure you have. Maybe that “they’re wrong” reaction is correct, but maybe you just didn’t want to hear it.
  • Think about why the critiquer made the comment: Sometimes critiquers spot a problem and know something is off, but the trouble spot isn’t where they see it—it’s actually in the setup, so the resolution isn’t coming through correctly. So if you’re sure the scene is right, look at the scenes that led to that matter and see if you missed something that didn’t set it up correctly. 
  • If it’s a clarity issue, fix it, even if you think it’s clear: If a reader was confused, something wasn’t clear. Often, this only takes a word or two, maybe a sentence to fix. Remember—readers don’t know the story like you do, and maybe they put the book down for a week between reads.
  • Do whatever serves the story best: Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don’t fit the story you’re trying to tell. 

Every writer gets a rough critique at some point, and it’s only natural to ignore words that hurt or sap your confidence. The danger comes when you consistently ignore the very advice that can help you just because you don’t like it. If you’ve been revising novel after novel (or the same novel multiple times) and don’t feel you’re getting any better, maybe there’s a reason. 

Photograph of a woman sitting at a desk, chin on hand, elbow on desk, while studying her laptop screen. Beside her is a stack of manuscript pages with different colored sticky notes and clips holding different setions.

The more troublesome manuscripts are those you’ve revised over and over. You’ve changed so much you often forget what story you were trying to write in the first place. These revisions require a slightly different approach than a typical revision. Until you decide what you want, you won’t know the steps to take to get there.

And then there’s the Frankendraft.

A Frankendraft has been cut and stitched together so many times the scenes no longer work together, and the story is either so deeply buried or so watered down that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.

Often, there’s not much you can do with a Frankendraft, so be prepared. Some are so terribly flawed that it’s best to be merciful and pull the plug. But there are steps you can take to bring this monster back to life.

  • Say goodbye: Accept that the Frankendraft is dead and put the manuscript in a drawer. You got into this mess by revising it over and over, and it’s time to start fresh. The idea could still work if you approach it like a new novel, not a revision. 
  • Kill some characters: Hard as this will be, eliminating characters can go a long way toward stripping out what’s unnecessary. Pay particular attention to characters who have their own stories and might be hijacking the main plot. 
  • Trim the fat: Figure out what’s needed in the story and what’s not. What’s the single most important goal in the plot? What events are critical to resolving that goal? If you have a lot of subplot and character arcs for multiple characters, this could be bogging down the story. 
  • Pick five elements and plot from there: What are the five critical events that have to happen to resolve the core conflict? Who are the five (or fewer) critical characters necessary to achieve those goals? Start at the core and work outward, and think really hard about every element you add back in. Is it truly necessary? 

If you’ve been revising for a while, you might have several drafts that explore different directions. This is especially true if you weren’t sure how the story might unfold and needed to write a draft or two to figure it out. Problem is, you’re now faced with several drafts that all contain scenes and ideas you like, and you have no clue how to merge them all into one draft.

  • An outline is your friend here: The first thing to do is identify what you want to keep and what can go, and an outline of the story you want to tell is the easiest way to do that. Then, create a new file and put the novel in the order you want it in. It’s okay if the transitions are missing, or things don’t make sense. Once the scenes you want to keep are in place, you can start smoothing the flow so it all fits together.
  • Rethink your favorite scenes if they don’t fit: Forcing a scene can create a stumbling block for readers—it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t quite make sense, it doesn’t advance the story. Ask: Does it advance the core conflict in some way? Does it offer new and relevant information? Will readers miss something important if it’s not there (be honest)? If not, let it go.
  • Beware of revision smudge: Revision smudge is bits and pieces left behind that reference something no longer in the story, and it gets into every revision. Reading these scenes feels right to you because you remember what those bits all mean. But when you look closely at the current draft, you realize the details refer to a part of the story you cut three versions ago.

What a draft needs differs depending on which draft you’re on and what the manuscript needs. Approaching one of the less common revisions often requires a different tack than the average draft—and a little more effort to make it work. But the results can be worth it if it turns that mess of a manuscript into the book of your heart.

Workshop Heads Up!

I’m presenting a workshop on Creating Stronger Conflicts in Your Romance Novel on June 15 during the Wanna Write Romance 2024 Virtual Conference, June 13-16. The conference is free, and there’s a paid upgrade for additional goodies and a whole extra day of sessions. You can register here.

What type of revision do you usually face?

About Janice

Portrait image of Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones. 

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her ebook, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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Top two images purchased from Deposit Photos.

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Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey

by James R. Preston

Close up photograph of a line typed by an old fashioned typewriter with a black over red ribbon. The line reads "Once upon a time..."

“A beginning is  the time for the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

Princess Irulan
The Manual of Mauddib

The Princess had it right, and so did Frank Herbert when he chose her quote to open the magnificent Dune. Welcome to 

Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey through Openings Old and New

First let’s set some limits. I’ll talk about books I like, or know about. Most of the books will be genre fiction or pop lit. We’ll limit ourselves to fiction since writing the opening to A History of Spoon Collecting has a different set of problems. Hmmm. Ok, there’s one book here that I hope is fiction. Stay tuned. 

In an age of instant books, digital Samples delivered at the click of a mouse, and the AI’s helpful, “You might also like . . . “ (and don’t you just hate it that the AI is right so often) does anybody stand in a bookstore aisle reading the first page before deciding to buy? I think the answer is contained in the question. You can look at two dozen Samples in the amount of time it takes to walk from Mysteries to Science Fiction. So yes, the first few words are still extremely important. 

“I poured a few drops of an ‘87 Mondavi Chardonnay into her navel and leaned down to slurp it out 

Jennifer’s eyes closed and she purred. “Do you like that?” she breathed. 

“Of course,” I said. “Eighty-seven was an excellent year.”

Lawrence Sanders McNally’s Secret

This opening tells you a lot about the story that follows. It says up front that it’s a lighthearted tale, and that if navel-slurping is not, so to speak, your cup of tea, this one’s not for you. Contrast this with — 

“They found me in the gutter.”

Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters 

Ok, here you clearly have a no-holds-barred tough story with Mike Hammer, as tough a protagonist as ever strapped on a 45. 

Both openings tell the prospective reader that it’s a first-person story; both give a pretty good idea of what to expect. 

“On February 24, 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples. As usual, a coastal pilot immediately left the port, sailed hard by the Château d’If, and boarded the ship between the Cap de Morgiou and the island of Riou.

“At once (as was also customary) the terrace of Fort Saint-Jean was thronged with onlookers, because the arrival of a ship is always a great event in Marseille, particularly when the vessel, like the Pharaon, has been built, fitted out and laded in the shipyards of the old port and belongs to an owner from the town.”

Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo 1844 — 1846

Times have changed and with them the way writers entice you to read their work. Here Dumas invites you to settle down, perhaps with a glass of wine, because this is going to be a long story, full of rich detail. He’ll get you to the end, but it will take a while, so enjoy the ride.  

“A MAN WITH BINOCULARS. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fur parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.

He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.

There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leaning against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death”

Michael Crichton The Andromeda Strain

All right, confession time. At the outset of this personal trip I said I was limiting my selections to fiction and, while that is true, Andromeda Strain is fiction dressed, at least in the Introduction, in the somewhat stodgy three-piece suit of a government report describing a “five day crisis,” I imagine some readers who picked up the book expecting dashing heroes wielding ray guns as they fought off a bug from outer space were surprised, to say the least. Here Crichton wants to immerse you in what appears to be real science, and much of it is. 

“NOVEMBER 14, 01:33 A.M.

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

LONDON, ENGLAND

HARRY MASTERSON would be dead in thirteen minutes.

If he had known this, he would’ve smoked his last cigarette down to the filter. Instead he stamped out the fag after only three drags and waved the cloud from around his face. If he was caught smoking outside the guards’ break room, he would be shit-canned by that bastard Fleming, head of museum security. Harry was already on probation for coming in two hours late for his shift last week.”

James Rollins, Sandstorm

Rollins does several interesting things in this opening. First, he sets the time and place precisely. Second, he introduces a character and at once tells you he’s going to die, so don’t get too attached to him. Viewpoint: omniscient. Tone: pretty serious. You get all of that in less than a minute of reading, and readers who notice such things — like you after reading this essay — will be prepared for Rollins’ breakneck pacing. 

This next one is fiction, I think, or it might be a true account of the wildest trip to Vegas ever, layered with exaggeration. 

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I said something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe you should drive” and all at once the car was surrounded by bats. . .:

Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Thompson at once tells you this is going to be a wild ride, told from the POV of an unreliable narrator, by his own admission under the influence of a multitude of uppers, downers, screamers, zonkers and you name it.. (I’ve driven that stretch of desert many times and never encountered the bats.) But it grabs the reader because they know there aren’t swarms of bats attacking cars on the highway.

“Even if she hadn’t been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle. She had what his old mother would have called “bearing.”A way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high, as she pulled on her black gloves while managing to hold on to a somewhat battered black document case.”

Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs

“The tavern was awash with blood. Cidra Rainforest saw splashes of crimson everywhere—seeping from a gash in a man’s forehead, staining the front of another’s shirt, trickling from still another’s mouth. Glancing down, she saw that there was even a spatter of blood on the hem of her early-evening surplice robes. To Cidra the delicate yellow-gold fabric spun of the finest crystal moss was not just soiled but frighteningly scarred.

She was surrounded by a scene she had never before experienced, never even been able to imagine, and she found herself incapable of coping with it. It wasn’t just the sight of so much blood that held Cidra immobilized with shock. All around her the vicious fighting continued unabated, even though Cidra knew that by now the combatants must be experiencing unutterable pain. Yet they raged on. The violence of it horrified her.”

“Grunts, obscene oaths, and desperate shouts filled the long, low tavern hall. One man had been knocked unconscious by a deftly swung tankard of Renaissance Rose ale, but no one paused to help him. Rather, everyone was participating in the free-for-all with an air of what Cidra could only describe as lusty enthusiasm. No one was lying in a fetal huddle, whimpering on the edge of insanity, as Cidra would have expected, as indeed she herself would be doing had she not been using every ounce of her disciplined training to control herself. The scene around her was incredible. It was, she thought, just as the novels had described it.

A large, scarred, brutally strong hand clamped around Cidra’s arm, shocking her out of her stupor.”

Jayne Ann Krentz Sweet Starfire

This one’s subtle. At first glance it’s the same old “innocent hottie in a bar fight about to be rescued by the hero,” but look again; Cidra’s reactions are not what the cliche calls for. She’s not afraid. Her only thought is for the pain the combatants must be feeling. Yes, this opening drops you right into the action, but it raises many questions.

Full disclosure: I have not read all of Sweet Starfire; this Jayne Anne Krentz title was suggested by my wife and editor Nancy, but when I read it and gave it some thought I realized it was something special. Starfire is now in my “stack” of books to be read.

And we’ll close with perhaps the greatest opening of them all. 

“Once upon a time . . . .”

Start by sharing an opening you like and tell us why. Feel free to share the opening to something you have written. Here, I’ll go first. ‘I was folding Kandi’s underwear when the home invasion began.” That’s how I start Pennies For Her Eyes.

I think Princess Irulan would approve your effort to get the balance right at the beginning by this bit of study. Now it’s your turn. 

About James

Portrait photograph of James R Preston wearing a black t-shirt. The photo is taken outside against a partly snowy background.

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

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The Triangle of Writing Structure

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer

Story triangle with child hands spelling story.

Most writers have heard of the Hero’s Journey; a basic structure of how stories have been told from the beginning of storytelling. We always start with a protagonist, whether a hero or a heroine, who has some sort of a quest, and has to learn lessons, gain allies, create enemies, and fight a huge battle at the end.

There are dozens of different folks who teach this process, from Joseph Campbell, who did much of the original research on storytelling in the 1950s, to Christopher Vogler, who was instrumental in  Hollywood’s use of it in the 1990s, to Blake Synder, who popularized it for novel writers.

Each of them (and many more) utilize a different number of stops on the journey, from twelve to one-hundred-twenty, all depending on how deep a writer wants to go.

But what I’ve discovered is that even the best of writers can have glazed eyes by the time we try to use all the information these systems entail.

What if we can make the Hero’s Journey easier?

How about three steps? We really can simplify it by reducing the journey to its core elements: the Inciting Incident, the Reversal, and the Black Moment.

Different people call these three steps different things but they all are found in the story in basically the same three places, which break down into points on a triangle.

Triangles are the strongest structural element in buildings, so why not use them to build our stories?

Go look at any old bridge. Or an old screen doors. Or even the legs on some tables and chairs. Many of them use the shape of a triangle because it provides a solid, stable base. Some of those bridges have been standing for thousands of years.

The strength is in the distribution of weight. We do the same in our books. We need a huge hook at the beginning (the Inciting Incident), a strong, heart-wrenching ah-ha moment in the middle (the Reversal), and a satisfying ending (the Black Moment) in the stories to create great ones.

And, even if you don’t use any of the other nine or one-hundred-seventeen stops, if you can make these three powerful and solid, you have the basis of an amazing story.

The Triangle of Writing Structure

So, let’s break them down in a simple and easy way. (There are thousands of articles and blogs on the internet if you want more information.)

The Inciting Incident is also the “exciting!” incident.

It’s the place where the protagonist (in a character-driven story) figures out there is something missing. Most protagonist goals are centered around something – to find the treasure, to protect the family, to get the job, to have the relationship. So first, we have to decide what the protagonist wants badly enough to do the work. The Inciting Incident is where that realization hits. It changes the direction of the entire story and, ultimately, is determined by the journey itself. (The Inciting Incident is usually about 1/8 of the way into the story – in a 100-page story, it falls around page 12.)

The Reversal is usually almost dead center (page 50 in a 100-page book).

Prior to the Reversal, the protagonist is searching for the treasure, but everything is going wrong. At the Reversal, the protagonist realizes that, without an inner change of attitude, the treasure will never be found. It’s a place of deep thinking and immense soul-searching. But once that understanding has been made, the character now has the ability to go forward with new knowledge.

The Black Moment

Finally, the Black Moment is the place where the conflict escalates, the sacrifice is made, the battle is won. It usually falls in the last 1/8th of the story, in between page 80 and 90. It can be short – one scene and over – or long, across a dozen scenes. Regardless, it is where the protagonist takes the new knowledge and applies it to the situation. And the original goal is re-evaluated. Was the “treasure” what the protagonist really wanted? Or was it simply a will-of-the-wisp dream and the real desire now is within grasp?

Some Movie Examples

I’m going to show this in a couple of different movies, one old and one new, with the hope that the reader has seen or at least heard of one of them. I also am willing to help with any movie in the comments.

The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of OZ, which most have at least heard of, Dorothy’s goal is to save Toto. (No, it’s not “to go home” until later in the story.) So, her Inciting Incident is when Toto is going to be “put down” by the neighborhood witch because Toto snapped at her. Dorothy will do anything to save Toto and runs away. But she doesn’t have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to save either Toto or herself.

Dorothy is transported to Oz via tornado and accidently kills a witch.

She’s told that all she has to do is “follow the yellow brick road” because the Wizard will send her home. But that’s not what happens. Even after she makes the long, perilous journey, the Wizard demands that she “pay” for his help by bringing him the Wicked Witch’s broom.

Here, in the Reversal (right in the middle of the story), Dorothy realizes that she can’t depend on someone else for her safety; she’ll have to figure it out on her own. (This particular reversal is not the strongest example but more people know the story.)

After more problems, she kills the Wicked Witch by saving Scarecrow and marches back into the Wizard’s great hall to demand her payment – a much different attitude than the last time she was there. The Wizard offers to take her home in his balloon.

Black Moment? Toto jumps out of the basket and chases a cat. This leaves Dorothy in a quandary. She’s done what she had to, she’s learned all her lessons, and she still may not get home.

But has she indeed learned everything she’s supposed to? Which will she choose? To stay in Oz with Toto or to go home without him?

Since her first and most important goal was to save Toto, and she now (because of new understanding of herself and her role in life from the Reversal) has the courage to take charge of her own life, she stays with Toto and is rewarded by the knowledge within to go home.

Do you see how the three points of the triangle all fit together perfectly? Each is directly and intimately connected to the other. Without one, the other two collapse.

Dune, Part 2

The “new” movie is based on an old book and is a part 2 of a series, but it also works well in the triangle.

Paul starts the second movie with revenge in his heart. His Inciting Incident is a series of things – Paul’s father is murdered in the first movie, he and his mother have to escape, leaving everything they had behind.

The Fremen rescue them but Paul has to fight Jamis to prove himself, and he has to admit that he is not the Lisan al-Gaib and ask for training to survive in the desert. Every one of these things could be called the Inciting Incident, so you can pick the one you want, but they all are wrapped around his goal of avenging his father.

His Reversal comes in about the middle when he is basically forced to travel to the South deserts, even though he knows it’s not only dangerous for him but for the woman he loves and his mother. He’s transformed by the Water of Life and then has to make earth-shattering and terrifying decisions that will change his entire world.

The Black Moment is when he knows, even as he’s telling Chani that he’ll “love her as long as he breathes,” that he’ll betray her by marrying the Emperor’s daughter.

This one also hangs together beautifully – Paul never wavers from his desire to avenge his father and every decision, even when he has access to the memories of all the Reverend Mothers of the past, is directed towards killing the perpetrators of the murders and also keeping his family alive.

Final Thought

This is VERY simplified. Of course, there are all of those steps enumerated in the Hero’s Journey that I’ve left out but, at the point of developing or editing the book, they aren’t as important as these three.

I hope you consider the Triangle when you write your next book. Having that journey mapped out, at any level, can help immensely!

Do you have any questions or observations? Want or need any more clarification? Please weigh in and we’ll chat about it more in the comments!

About Sally

Sarah Sally Hamer

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com and hosts symposiums at www.mindpotential.org. Find her at info@mindpotential.org.

Photo credits:
  • Top photo built in Canva by Writers in the Storm
  • All others from Sarah Sally Hamer
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