WFMAD Day 18 – Revision Roadmap

The process of Boiling Down The Bones (aka Revision) is the hardest part of the writing process to teach, but I'll give a shot.

I'm starting with one massive assumption – you understand that nobody writes a publishable first draft and everyone's work can be made better with revision. For the record, my novels usually go through eight drafts. 


I always work with two levels of revision: LOGIC and POLISH. Today is LOGIC day.

The goal of the LOGIC edit is simple: make sure each scene flows smoothly and inevitably to the next.

I start with the biggest piece of paper I can find. On this I list all of the scenes of the book, summarizing them in as few words as possible (bullies corner Yoda, Tyler confronts bullies, bullies run off, etc.). You will likely have several different scenes within each chapter.

To the left of the summary line that I make a note of the date and time of day when each action takes place. To the right of each one I place an up arrow or a down arrow, indicating if the scene ends on a negative or positive emotional note for the main character. For a few books, I've noted the location of each scene as well.

Note: if the significant action in a scene is an important bit of dialog, add CONVO to the summary line.

What you end up with is a roadmap of sorts; an overview of your story all on the same page or two, depending on the size of your handwriting. (Some people prefer to use index cards – one card per scene – which they either pin to a line strung across a room, or lay out on the floor after they've penned up the children and pets. Do what makes you happy.)

Now the fun begins.


Forget about what you know about your story. Forget the backstory that you didn't put on the page, or the real-life situation that inspired a scene or the whole book. The goal is to see only what is on the page in front of you. 

1. Which scenes can be removed without causing any major effect on your story? (I always find a bunch of these.) If a scene is not vital – if it doesn't further our understanding of a character or move the action forward – get rid of it. It's useless fluff. If the thought of cutting it causes your gallbladder to flare up, reconsider the scene itself: what changes can you make that will either further our understanding of a character or move the action forward (or both!)?

Draw a line thru the scenes you want to cut.

Sometimes a scene seems out of place, or you realize that the scene is important, but you haven't set it up properly. Make a quick note (on a stickie if you're out of room) about where the scene should go and what you're missing.

2. Now read through your road map, paying attention this time to pacing. Are there sections that drag on, with scene after scene hitting the same emotional point without either adding to or dispersing tension? Are your sub-plots properly extended through the major narrative? Make a note of what needs to move where to tighten your pacing. I do this by drawing a lot of arrows. By the time I'm done, it looks like a battalion of drunken ants has staggered all over my roadmap.

3. Read through again, this time paying attention to your location notes. If all of the action in your book only happens in a small handful of locations, ponder this awhile. Is that really the right approach, or is there more you can do with the story by introducing new locations? In my new book (The Impossible Knife of Memory, comes out in Jan 2014), there are many scenes at the main character's house. Most of them have to be there, but a couple became much more powerful when I changed the location because the new setting allowed my characters to engage in actions that strengthened the narrative.

4. Go back to the scenes that you maked CONVO. Are they actual scenes, with action, or do you have two or more talking heads? Maybe you want talking heads, but be advised that too much of that reads like a screenplay. 

Here is a real life roadmap from earlier this year showing my dissection of the last two-thirds of my new book (we abbreviate it to TIKOM around here) back when it was Draft 3 and very far away from being complete. (No one saw the manuscript until Draft 5.)


Once your road map is complete, you dive back into the manuscript, slicing, dicing, shredding, adding, and, believe it or not, enjoying yourself because making your story stronger always feels great.

Next post: How to POLISH.

Non-fiction prompt – Make a roadmap of your manuscript, or of the first ten chapters of a favorite book. 

Fiction prompt – Take a scene from your book and flip it into an unexpected location. Instead of at school, move everyone to the zoo. (Where in the zoo? Specificity is everything!) Instead of the mall, put them in a subway car, or at a county fair where the rides are all run by creepy-looking carnies.

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

It’s Getting Silly Around Here & Revision Tip 23

The Creature With Fangs Elfed yesterday.

My Beloved Husband Elfed yesterday.

Queen Louise Elfed yesterday.

And I did, too.

A most merry time, indeed!

Revision Tip #23

I rarely have the image systems of my books in mind when I start writing. But by the end of the first or second draft, some image (symbol for Eng lit majors) has cropped up and I realize that I can riff on that symbol throughout the book to tell the larger story. In a subtle way, I hope.

In SPEAK, it was the image of the tree. There was only one mention of it in the early drafts. When I realized the power of it, I wrote in all the art class scenes, and made the tree into a year-long project for her.

WINTERGIRLS was interesting. The first paragraph of the first draft of the book was this:

"The crows stalk me, wings folded neatly behind them, hungry yellow weighing my soft spots. They circle around me once, twice, three times, claws scarring the stone floor of the church.

I curl up on the frozen altar. They flutter close, black feathers filling my mouth and eyes and ears."

I really don’t know where that came from; I just wrote it down, plus a bunch of other stuff. The reference to the "frozen altar" is what got me thinking about ancient religions and mythology, which in turn led me to ponder if there was a mythological story within Lia’s story. Ofcourse there was: the story of Persephone. That became a central image system for the book, with references to pomegranate seeds and the death that is winter, along with mother/goddess figure at her wits end, trying to pull her daughter back from the grasp of hell.

(For the record – that opening paragraph wound up migrating to page 264. It fits much better there.)

Is there a small detail in your draft that could be expanded into a central image system?

The care and feeding of julenisse & Revision Tip #22

All work in the Forest today will grind to a halt as we enjoy the ceremonial viewing of Elf. And we might even make spaghetti with maple syrup.

I got to thinking about my family’s tradition of setting out rice pudding for the julenisse. Nisse have been around long before Christmas celebrations. English words that describe them as elves, or gnomes; I’ve seen "pixie," too. If properly cared for, nisse will watch out for your farm animals, your house, and your barn. If you don’t take care of them, they will cause all kinds of mischief on your property.

Nisse are low-maintenance creatures. All they require is a bowl of rice pudding (risengrød) set outside your door or in your barn on Christmas Eve. We’ve always done this faithfully and I think our nisse appreciate it.

But as the sun was setting yesterday and I was lighting candles in honor of the solstice I realized that the nisse have been around a lot longer than Christmas celebrations. Ack! Have I been disrespecting the nisse all these years? They are ancient creatures… do they wait, forlorn, on the night of the winter solstice, their tummies grumbling, while the Big People go about their ignorant business? And when the pudding FINALLY shows up on Christmas Eve, do they call up the other nisse and complain?

So last night I put out rice pudding for them. And I will again on Christmas Eve. You can’t be too careful with nisse.

Revision Tip #22

Are you sure that you’ve chosen the right point of view for your novel?

Take your favorite chapter and rewrite from a different POV; shift from third to first, or first to third, or if you are bold and way smarter than me, experiment with the second person POV.

Or…. (and…..) fool around with the tense structure. If your story is told in present tense, rewrite that favorite chapter in past tense. If you’ve written the whole thing in past tense, try out that chapter in present tense.

What’s the point of all this mucking around? It helps you see your characters and the Story from a slightly altered perspective.