Please help me welcome the fabulous book doctor, Anita D. McClellan
Anita D. McClellan http://www.anitamcclellan.com/
In my book doctor practice as an independent developmental editor, I see many, many
writers who pay someone to edit or to copyedit a manuscript that has not yet been
revised and rewritten to near-submission readiness. Most of writing is rewriting and
revising. This, folks, can take years. Revision is looking at big-picture elements of the
current draft--each and every current draft of your fiction manuscript-- reading it, making
notes to yourself about it, listening to it or reading it aloud, and then shifting, fixing,
splicing in do-overs to get the draft closer to the book that you intend to write. Editing,
line and copy editing, comes after revision, when a novelʼs structure, its engineering,
and its major parts are in place and in very good working order.
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really
good.” --William Faulkner
1. In a pocket-size revision notebook that you take everywhere, a day or two after
completing the first draft, write
• a description (50 words maximum) of what your story is about, where it begins,
what is at stake in the story for your lead character, what happens to the lead
character, the plotʼs resolution, and how the lead character is emotionally
changed as a result of story experiences;
• a list of everything that makes your lead character interesting to a total stranger;
• the point of your novel, what you want the reader to take away after closing the
book--in no more than 30 words.
These 3 elements serve as the compass to all revision work (and for your forthcoming
bookʼs jacket copy). You will be looking at each current draft in reference to them, and
you will thus see what aspects of your draft fit or do not fit the novel you intend to write.
In the process, you will run into parts of a draft that do not fit the novel you set out to
write. At those points, you will need to decide whether to delete or revise the parts or to
change the novel to fit them.
"Break up the larger story into its components, make sure you understand the exact function of
each component (a story is like a machine with numerous gears: it should contain no gear that
doesn't turn something), and after each component has been carefully set in place, step back and
have a look at the whole. Then rewrite until the story flows as naturally as a river, each element
so blending with the rest that no one, not even yourself two years from now, can locate the
separate parts." -- John Gardner
• Make an alphabetical list of each character by name or by function (e.g., “mail carrier”). Then in 10-12 words per entry, identify every character through his/her relationship to the lead.
• Map and chart from your narrative each sceneʼs setting, exteriors and interiors--every seascape, landscape, mountainscape, cityscape, roadway, pathway, and interior space. The reader should be able to walk, drive, or otherwise move through all the novelʼs spaces.
Once you finish a draft, put it in the freezer or somewhere it can compost for at least a month. Walk around in your life separate from the novel but always carry with you a revision notebook. Whenever something about your work--about any element or detail in your novel-- comes to mind, write it down there. "You generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship in the ocean. At first you see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you're in the boiler room and you can't see the ship anymore.... What you really want in an editor is someone who's still on the dock, who can say, 'Hi, I'm looking at your ship and it's missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.'" -- Michael Crichton
2. When a draft has been on ice for a while, long enough that you feel you have real distance from it, make a scene-by-scene outline on 3x5 index cards as you read through the manuscript--use 1 side of 1 card per scene and note set, setting, character(s), Point of View (POV) character. Outline all scenes that are actually in the draft. Do not include scenes that you failed to write or omit scenes that you now find do not belong. Do not make a chapter outline. (Chapters are publisher-designed breaks to allow readers to stop reading, go do something else, and then return and find where they left off reading.) Scenes, which are grounded in time and place,
advance plot with action and change. Your scene outline will reveal whether the draft
actually does that.
3. On a large corkboard, a wall, or sheet of cardboard (big enough to attach 50 or so 3x5 index cards) mark 4 vertical columns. Label 1st column Act One for scenes that get your lead character into trouble and the story underway; label 2nd & 3rd columns Act Two and 2-Midpoint for scenes that get your lead in deeper and deeper trouble and reach a dark moment that looks like it's all over; label 4th column Act Three for scenes where lead saves the day in a climactic action and all the plot's & subplotsʼ loose ends are tied up in a resolution.
Cinderella's story as an example Col. 1/Act One: Cinderella's mom dies; widowed
father marries a woman with 2 daughters; father dies; life with evil stepmom and nasty
stepsisters. Cols. 2 & 3/Act Two: Prince's universal invite to ball energizes the
household with prime marriage prospect; C.'s make-work, last-minute chores done, she
is dressed and ready but unable to go with her family because they all made it
impossible for her to get there or be dressed appropriately. Fairy godmother does a
save; C's success at the ball; C. loses one glass slipper. The prince's emissary seeks
the mystery princess throughout the land. 2-Midpoint: Emissary arrives at C.ʼs door;
stepmother locks C. in her room. Col. 4/Act Three: While stepsisters try on the glass
slipper, C. escapes thanks to her allies and manages to catch emissary on his way out.
C. starts to try on glass shoe, stepsister bumps her, slipper shatters on the floor. C. pulls
the matching slipper out of her apron pocket and shows everyone how well it fits her
foot. Resolution: C. is happily married.
“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end...but not necessarily in that order.”
-- Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless
Place scene cards under appropriate columns. Take as much time--weeks,
months--as you need to adjust pacing and flow by shuffling/discarding/adding scene
cards until the narrative moves forward with every scene. Does the novel begin where
the story begins? Does the middle sag? Is the ending just right?
Once you reach a dynamic scene outline, verify goal, motivation, and conflict in
each scene for every character. Check on Point of View--is it anchored? Does it work
well dramatically? (Suspense-thriller author Tess Gerritsen uses the character who is
the most offbalance or uncomfortable as POV.) Does each scene lead the protagonist
emotionally to your desired outcome for the character?
Consider whether every character is necessary. Can some be combined? Which
characters would leave gaping holes or never be missed?
Fill in missing details; make everything consistent with the imagery scheme,
charactersʼ profiles, clues and red herrings, verify that action and character logic fits the
Does all dialogue serve to bring out conflict, however hidden, and to advance plot
as well as to show character? Read dialogue aloud before you decide.
“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.” --Elmore Leonard
4. Put the manuscript back into the freezer. Breathe. Take a walk. Go for a swim. Better
yet, go away for a week or more and leave it behind, but donʼt forget to keep your
pocket revision notebook with you at all times along with the scene outline, list of
characters, settingsʼ maps and charts. Ruminate over the current draft without looking at
“One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her
lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The
story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was
anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that
story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
5. Do the opening 300 words make the reader want to turn the page? No one keeps
reading to find where a book starts to get good.
• Read the opening pages of 5 favorite novels in your fiction genre or of any novel
that engages you, deconstruct and list in your revision notebook what craft tool(s)
make(s) each opening work well. Try any that might work in your novel.
“If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.” -- Stephen King
6. Review the list you made of what makes your lead interesting to a stranger. Does it
hold up in the current draft? If not,
• Read 5 novelistsʼ introductions to and fleshings-out of terrific lead characters.
List what makes those characters engaging to you as a reader. Is there anything
that you can use to strengthen your lead?
7. Does your lead have a clear goal--want something that the reader can identify in the
opening pages? Are there constant, conflict-generating, tension-raising obstacles to
leadʼs attaining it, both tangible, exterior blocks and internal character flaws or
personality quirks? If not, deconstruct 5 gripping novels to see how pacing is done,
how tension is racheted up, how suspense is created, what makes you, as a reader,
turn a page. Write that in your notebook. Try using those craft tools for conflict and
character to rachet up your fiction.
8. Is your setting established so well that the reader is oriented in its story world? Can a
reader smell, taste, feel, see, and hear place in your fiction? Is there sensory
experience on every page? How is place connected to your lead character?
• Read and deconstruct how 5 novelists known for solid sense of place create
setting and set in their fiction and then list craft tools used that might work in your fiction.
9. Check all facts, dates, names, work/school/transportation schedules, weather, climate
and region, calendar dates, and other real-world information for accuracy.
10. Read the revised manuscript aloud into a tape recorder or have someone read your
current draft to you as you listen. Follow along on hard copy, if you can still hear
what is being read, and make notes for revision as you listen. Also notate what you
like, what bores you, what words and phrases stick in your mind, what you fail to
understand, where as the listener you need to know more, dialogue that does not
ring true to character or to situation, where the plot lags, where the pace slows,
inconsistencies, missing details, facts that need checking, redundancies. Take out
all the parts that a reader would skip over.
11. Keep in mind Kurt Vonnegutʼs rules for fiction:
• Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was
• Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
• Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
• Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
• Start as close to the end as possible.
• Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful
things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
• Write to please just one person. If you open a window to make love to the world, so to
speak, your story will catch pneumonia.
• Give readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with
suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on,
where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat
the last few pages.
• Use “SaveAs” in your word processor with a “NewFileName” on the most recent draft
so that you will never lose the earlier version. Keep deleted passages in an “Outtakes”
file for future use or reference.
• Print out each succeeding draft on different color paper, so that in a heap of hard copy
you can identify which pages came from which draft.
Poet and teacher Sheila Bender wrote a wonderful piece about giving feedback to
writers titled “About the Three-Step Response” [http://www.writingitreal.com/cgi-bin/
get_article.pl?ID=162]. To it I would add a book by Joni Cole, Toxic Feedback: Helping
Writers Survive and Thrive.
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Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to
Edit Yourself Into Print
Fiske, Robert Hartwell and Laura Cherry (Editors). Poem, Revised: 54 Poems,
Revisions, Discussions [getting from first to polished draft]
Gross, Gerald C. Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do
Klein, Cheryl. “The Art of Detection: One Editorʼs Tips for Analyzing and Revising Your
McCormack, Thomas. The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist: A Book for
Writers, Teachers, Publishers, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer
Provost, Gary. Make Your Words Work
Scofield, Sandra. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer
Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway,
and Other Greats
Steinbeck, John. Working Days [Before Steinbeck began each day's work on the first
draft of The Grapes of Wrath, he warmed up by penning a journal entry. Working Days
is the annotated version of that journal.]
Woolf, Leonard (editor). A Writerʼs Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf
Yagoda, Ben. The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in