The Nuts and Bolts of Revision

Shakespeare in Love 02

Sometimes it takes a while to get it just right.

Some people (who shall remain nameless) have been asking about our revision process, so for this week, I thought we might give some specific suggestions, based on what we do when we revise. Not all of these apply in every case, but here are some things to try:

1. Put it away and forget about it for a while.
Yes, I know this is probably the least helpful-sounding advice ever. It’s like when you were little and your parents told you that you just had to be patient on a long car trip. “Are we ready to revise yet?” “No. Just a little farther. Why don’t you look out the window and play the license plate game again?” But if you’ve got the time, I really can’t emphasize how much this helps.

By the time you finish writing a story, everything in it just feels perfect and right, and you can’t imagine how the text could be otherwise. And if your readers see any problems in the story, like a plot hole or a character whose motivation seems lacking, you just throw up your hands and say, “I can’t see how this could be different.” If you put the story aside for a few weeks or months, though, you can see it more clearly and objectively when you return. Suddenly you can see the flaws that readers can see. This is what we’ve done when revising the Quartet. At this point, six or seven years have passed since we wrote certain parts of the original story, so it’s quite easy for us to rewrite it from scratch without remembering what we wrote the first time.

Of course, it’s not always possible to step away from a writing project for six or seven years. As S is learning as both a reader and writer of fanfic, readers are eager for new material. In that case, you can get a similar effect by having two or more projects going at once, and switching back and forth between them. This is something she might talk more about in an upcoming blog, so I don’t want to steal her thunder. But anyway, assuming you don’t have forever, here are some more things you can do to revise your work.

2. Check it against the outline.
I’m assuming you use an outline. If you don’t, then you’re bad, and you should feel bad. No, I’m just kidding—if you “pants” your writing, that’s fine. But if you used an outline, check your story against it as you read through for the first time. Inevitably, no matter how detailed an outline I make for my stories, I end up deviating from it here and there. Often this is a good thing. But sometimes it’s potentially disastrous, because I’ve forgotten to include some important part of the story.

There it is, right on my outline: “Susan tells Bob the combination to the vault.” But Susan and Bob are so much fun, and I got carried away with Susan and Bob’s fun banter in the scene, and I forgot to have her actually tell him the combination. Now I have to find a place to put that in, or the reader is going to cry foul later on when Bob just magically knows how to open the vault.

3. Read out of order.
Currently my strategy, after I’ve done one quick pass through the story, is to go back and read through the story by POV character. But I don’t just go straight through from beginning to end.

Let’s say I’ve got a 25-chapter novel with two POV characters: Susan and Bob. And just to make this simple, let’s say all the odd chapters are Susan, and all the even chapters are Bob. The last chapter, 25, is Susan’s. So I start there. Then I go all the way back to the beginning and read chapter 1. Then I read chapter 23, then chapter 3, then chapter 21, the chapter 5, and so on, moving inexorably back and forth through all her chapters toward the midpoint of the story. And when I get there, go back and I do the same thing with Bob’s chapters: chapter 24, then 2, then 22, then 4, and so on.

I find this incredibly helpful, because it allows me to see how the character has stayed the same, and how she has developed over the course of the story. When you do this, you notice interesting changes. When you finish reading a character’s last chapter, and then go read her first chapter, you’ll suddenly notice if she seems slightly different. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “When I first started writing Susan, she asked a lot of questions and was really deferential. By the last chapter, she’s much more self-confident.”

Now I have to figure out exactly where that change happened. I have to pinpoint where she stopped being a doormat and started to assert herself. “Ah, that fight she has in chapter 13,” I decide. “Before that, she’s Old Susan. After that, she becomes New Susan.” And that means I’ll probably have to change some things as I continue reading her chapters. “She’s being too assertive here in chapter 5—she’s not quite that bold yet.” Or, “She’s too timid here in chapter 19—she would stand up for herself by this point in the story.”

4. Add missing details.
There are a lot of ways of doing this. One way is to think of the various senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing—and ask yourself in each scene if there’s a way you could use it. You have to be careful with that, though, because if you do that in literally every scene, it starts to become obvious to the reader that the author had a sensory checklist.

Another way is to ask yourself what details your POV character would notice. For example, I’m a teacher, so when I go into a new classroom for the first time, I look to see where the remote for the projector is, and I check to see if there are markers and erasers at the dry-erase board. My students, in contrast, are probably looking to see if there are seats still open in the back, and checking to see which desks have good light, and trying to find where the electrical outlets are so they can plug in their laptops or charge their phones during class.

For a fantasy writer, this can sometimes get frustrating, because you’ve done a great deal of period research. But then you have to ask yourself if your POV character is actually the sort of person who would notice those things or not. It goes without saying that a trained knight would notice different kinds of armor and weapons. But if your POV character is a shepherd from the sticks, you’re going to have to explain why he had a copy of Jane’s All the World’s Crossbows under his bed.

Anyway, those are just a few suggestions. No doubt S will have some more sooner or later.



Hopeful Analysis of the One Compelling Thing. Or Something.


Toby Stephens as Captain Flint on Black Sails

Tonight we had a meet up with our local NaNoWriMo group. We haven’t seen several people since our wrap up party at the beginning of December, so it was awfully good to see and chat with them. Lots of topics were discussed, but I’ll admit that I specifically brought up a question that’s been puzzling me lately, no more so than today, and that is—why on earth am I rewatching Black Sails?

For those unfamiliar with it, Black Sails is a Starz show about the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean at the beginning of the 18th Century. But it’s not a light-hearted Johnny Depp kind of thing. It’s a violent, unromantic view of this life, featuring early versions of characters we know from stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, including Captain James Flint, Billy Bones, and John Silver. But trust me, this isn’t your father’s RLS. The show stars Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, and Season 3 just started last night on Starz. In order to catch viewers up, the first two seasons are currently free to stream on the Starz website, so I’m watching them again. Even though I had huge problems with the show on my first viewing. So, again, I wonder, why am I doing this?

UPDATE: The free offer seems to have ended. Sorry folks!


One of my friends at the NaNo meeting suggested that I’m watching in hope that it is better than I remember, that something will strike me differently this time, and I will enjoy it more. I think this is absolutely part of the impetus. Many secrets are revealed in Season 2, and I will admit that I pretty immediately wanted to go back and rewatch Season 1 with this new knowledge, because so many hints had been dropped, and I was eager to see how certain people (particularly Flint and Miranda) reacted to each other in Season 1 knowing the things I learned in Season 2.

I also read a quite good 138K word fanfic after finishing up Season 2, and that made me extremely excited to revisit the characters that story focused on. (Those characters would be Flint and Thomas.) However, since the fanfic is set in the period after Season 2 and its storyline will never be canonical for several reasons, it didn’t necessarily excite me for Season 3 as much as a reevaluation of what I’d already seen. (Also, so far, I haven’t subscribed to Starz, so I couldn’t watch Season 3 even if I wanted to.)

I was also hoping that on this rewatch, the elements that bothered me (namely how much I dislike every female character on the show except Miranda), might not be as bad as I thought. Lots of people enjoy the show. And I know lots of smart women who like the show, so I could be wrong. It was worth another look, especially since Starz was offering it for free. Right?


Another dear friend at the NaNo meeting attributed a much more intellectual explanation for my desire to rewatch—I obviously want to analyze the show more closely. And it’s true, I do. What works about the show really works—once again I cite Flint and his relationships with Miranda and Thomas, but I can also cite the development over the two seasons of characters like Billy Bones, John Silver, and Charles Vane. But what doesn’t work—unnecessarily complex plotting involving characters I just don’t give a crap about, such as Max, Anne, and Jack, and anytime Eleanor is on screen—really doesn’t work for me. Why is that? How a show can hit the mark so accurately in some areas and miss the target so egregiously in others is something definitely worth contemplating. And a second, closer inspection is needed to do that.

One Compelling Thing (SPOILERS COMING!!!!!)

But when discussing my reasons for rewatching with J on our way to the meeting, I suggested my primary motive might be the fact that it has One Compelling Thing. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I watched One Life to Live for 25 years, and no one watches a daytime soap for that long without being able to overlook and forgive some questionable storytelling and unlikable characters. But for 25 years I could never quite make myself stop watching, because there was always at least one storyline I was invested in and couldn’t let go.

The same theory applies to regular TV series, and in the case of Black Sails, it has a very strong One Compelling Thing—Flint. Of course, he’s most compelling with—say it with me again—Miranda and/or Thomas. Since Miranda and Thomas won’t be in Season 3 (unless there are some flashbacks planned—it’s hard to know which actors and characters are still on the show, because IMDB doesn’t have accurate cast info), I’m not terribly interested in seeing Season 3. But I can still see them altogether in Seasons 1 and 2. To be honest, there have been moments I’ve been tempted to fast forward and just watch their scenes, although I haven’t so far. The storyline that unites these three characters is fascinating, and all three actors are fantastic and have great chemistry. (I mentioned earlier that Flint is played by Toby Stephens, and I should probably mention now that Miranda is played by Louise Barnes and Thomas is played by Rupert Penry-Jones, an actor I’m always thrilled to see.) Why wouldn’t I want to see them again?


A third noveling buddy at the meeting suggested I write this blog in an attempt to figure out just why I’m rewatching Black Sails. I have to say that having now written the post, I still don’t know for sure. There’s so much good TV, and so much of it I haven’t seen even once, that watching a show I’ve enjoyed, disliked, and found extremely frustrating by turns is not the best use of my time. But, at least for now, I think I need to keep spending my time this way. I feel utterly compelled to continue my rewatch. Is it simply my shipper feelings? After all, after having read an extremely long fanfic dedicated to characters from this show, maybe I’m just so in love with them I’ll put up with anything in order to spend more time with them. Perhaps. Maybe I’ll know when I’ve finished Season 2 again. For now, I need to get back to it—Season 1 Episode 5 awaits. Time and tide, what, what.


Mary Sue and the Boy Scout Revisited

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My edit, @skiku’s hashtag

The long The 100 hiatus is about to end, Season 3 finally returning tonight! In preparation, J and I rewatched the first two seasons over the past month, and while I still agree with what I said in Mary Sue and the Boy Scout, I’ve have some new ideas thanks to the rewatch and nearly a year of chatting with fans. (Some fans have even taken up the #BringBackBadBoyBlake debate, an idea started by my post and brilliantly hashtagged by the lovely @skiku.) My new thoughts are mostly a matter of degree with new examples and comparisons, but I figure what better way to get in the mood for the show’s return than to write them up.

(ASIDE: Super quick recap for people who haven’t seen the show. The 100 is set in a post-apocalyptic near future. The Ark is a collection of space stations where a couple thousand people have survived waiting for radiation levels on Earth to drop enough that mankind can return. This process is speeded up when 100 juvenile criminals are sent down, and it turns out Earth is survivable, and some people have been surviving there all along—some on the ground, some in a military bunker. Naturally, the Arkers, Grounders, and Mt. Men don’t get along.)

Mary Sue
TV Tropes page on Mary Sue

So, I’ll be blunt—I like Clarke less than I used to. Rewatching the show, knowing that no real uppance was coming, at least through the end of Season 2, made Clarke nigh on unbearable sometimes in the second half of the season. There’s a moment in Season 2 Episode 11 “Coup de Grace,” where Clarke says to her mother, the current head of government for the Arkers, “You may be the Chancellor, but I’m in charge.” This moment has become something of a litmus test for me with fans of the show. If you find it badass for a 17 year-old to say this to her intelligent and competent mother, well…I have to respectfully disagree. Because what this makes Clarke look is not like a badass, but a petulant teenager.

And what, specifically at this moment is Clarke contradicting her mother about? Letting a Mt. Man prisoner return to Mount Weather to deliver the threat that the Arkers and Grounders are coming. Clarke’s mother, Abby (played by the talented and lovely Paige Turco), has no choice but to allow Clarke to win this argument, because Clarke is with a rather large, armed gang of Arkers and Grounders who have made this particular decision without so much as consulting Abby and attempting to explain their plan. Now, Mt. Men cannot survive outside the bunker of Mount Weather without hazmat suits and oxygen tanks. To show the prisoner how serious she is, Clarke lets out some of his air, saying that Mt. Weather is an 8 hour walk, and he’s going to do it in 6. This, again, would be terribly badass, if Abby were not the head of medical for the Arkers and Clarke one of her trainees. The fact Clarke doesn’t comprehend that the prisoner is going to burn more oxygen by running and that she’s likely killed him is never touched on. (Of course, the prisoner makes it to a secret entrance just as he’s running out of air.)

But that’s only a single instance of Clarke clearly being the leader the writers want the audience to want, without making that choice reasonable. Let’s look at why Clarke is informally in charge of the Arkers. The first people sent to earth were teenagers, and within that framework, Clarke rising to the top makes sense. Because she and the others who were first sent have had relations with the Grounders, the adults should listen to them and garner what knowledge they can. But the original 100 juvenile prisoners did not start talking with the Grounders until they had been on Earth for 19 days. The adults all arrived 10 days later. So Clarke and her group didn’t actually have that deep a relationship with the Grounders by the time the actual government arrived. And since the one Grounder leader Clarke has a significant relationship with, Anya, dies days after the adults arrive, Clarke isn’t really in a particularly better place to negotiate and work with them than anyone else.

All of these sorts of issues are exacerbated by Clarke’s veneer of flawlessness. She needs to be tone deaf, like Horatio Hornblower, or something similar to break up the monotony and show she’s fallible. The writers actually had the right idea early in the first season when Clarke gets teased for being humorless. They should have stayed with it. But they did not, so everyone continues following her through all her humorless mistakes (although no one now seems to care that she’s no fun). And they do so even though she was wrong about leaving the dropship camp at the end of Season 1 and wrong to bring armed teenagers to the meeting with the Grounders at the bridge. In Season 2, she was ultimately wrong to form an alliance with the Grounder leader Lexa, because as she pointed out herself, that alliance failing meant she had killed Finn, the man she loved, for nothing.

But who tells her she’s wrong? Two people do after Clarke and Lexa allow hundreds of people to die in the missile strike on TonDC that they knew was coming. (For anyone still reading who hasn’t watched the show, the episode in which this happens was apparently almost called “Coventry,” which should explain the situation.)  Octavia is furious, in part because she was in TonDC and survived entirely by luck. But her outrage feels personal, as opposed to a direct question of Clarke’s leadership. (I could be reading it wrong, and should give more weight to Octavia’s rebuke. I’m willing to listen to arguments.)

Abby is also not happy with her daughter when she realizes what has happened, because unlike Octavia and everyone else, her mother is the one person Clarke gets out of TonDC before the missile strike. But when Clarke and Abby have a moment to talk about what happened, Abby says, in the most pissed off mom voice you’ve ever heard, “Their blood is on your hands, and even if we win, I’m afraid you won’t be able to wash it off this time.” But by the time the finale rolls around, and Clarke has been forced to sacrifice hundreds of more lives, many of them innocent, she comes crying to her mother. In a call back to their parting a few episodes before, Clarke says, “I tried to be the good guy,” and Abby responds, “Maybe there are no good guys,” tacitly rescinding her previous rebuke.

What does this mean for Clarke’s future? Well, hopefully things can stop being entirely about her and her feelings and reactions to them, and we can remember that humanity is at stake. J and I both felt one of the worst scenes of season 2 was Clarke and Lexa talking after the funeral pyre had burned out in Episode 9 “Remember Me.” They were both talking about their pasts and their pain in a fashion J has dubbed “Dueling Narcissists.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed for less of that, and more of people seeing Clarke as flawed as everyone else.

The Boy Scout

To be honest, I have a lot less to say about how I feel about Bellamy Blake on rewatch, other than I like him even more. Yes, he becomes a straight-up hero in Season 2 after having been pretty awful at the beginning of Season 1. His leadership feels more believable, however, because people question it from the very beginning, and eventually in Season 2 he’s working with Clarke and Abby and the other primary Arker leader, Kane, instead of against them. (But not before being a Boy Scout and going on some unapproved rescue missions, of course. The rule breaker is still in there, after all.) And Bellamy has had a true character arc. In the first episode, he proclaims there are no rules and everyone can do “Whatever the hell we want.” But by Episode 12 “We Are Grounders: Part 1” of that Season, he’s hugging Jasper, who he wanted dead back at the beginning of the season, and Jasper specifically says, “Long way from ‘Whatever the hell you want.’” Let’s hope the evolution continues, and Bellamy grows beyond hero, perhaps even circles back around to rediscover some of his Bad Boy Blake roots.

But whatever happens, it all starts happening tonight at 9:00 on the CW! Hope to see you there.


Who’s Driving This Thing?

Harry and Ron

Flying cars: far more plausible than Ron ending up with Hermione.

We’re in the middle of an epic rewatch of The 100, and we’ll probably have some thoughts about that soon, but in the meantime, we’ve been thinking more generally about characters and their relationship to plot.

One of our friends likes to say that the difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature will sacrifice plot for character, whereas popular fiction will sacrifice character for plot. In other words, in literary fiction, character drives plot, while in less exalted types of writing, it’s the other way around.

So when a character does something in a book we’re writing, we try to make sure that it feels natural and true to that character. The action should feel like it’s being spurred along by the characters, doing what these characters would naturally do, rather than a succession of plot points that happen simply because “Hey, it’s on the outline, and this has to happen for the story to move forward.” That always has the potential to feel artificial to the reader.

For example, you can look at what happens to Ginny and Hermione in the last two Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling has since admitted that she forced Harry together with Ginny, and Ron with Hermione simply because that’s how she originally plotted it out. And she stuck with that idea straight to the end, even though it was pretty clear by the end of the fourth book that Hermione and Harry ought to be together. Her admission of that fact a couple years ago was no great surprise to us, since we both thought at the time, when the books were first coming out, that she was clearly straining to create chemistry where none existed. Ginny’s and Hermione’s characters changed—Ginny suddenly became more of a badass, while Hermione became weepier and more useless—in an increasingly desperate attempt to make the plot work out the way Rowling had meant for it to. If she had allowed the characters to do what felt more “natural,” then clearly Hermione and Harry would have ended up married, Ron would have ended up…with basically anyone else (or possibly dead), and Ginny would have remained a background secondary character, where she belonged.

In contrast, think of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. The plot of the novel is driven by the choices she makes, and all of the choices feel completely natural and organic to her character. When she makes fun of poor Miss Bates, she earns a well-deserved scolding from Mr. Knightley, but we as readers can’t honestly say that Emma’s actions were out of character for her. His rebuke stings, and we readers fully understand her mortification, precisely because we know that what she did is the perfect expression and encapsulation of Emma’s flaws—she’s too clever for her own good and a bit of a snob. When you read the passage, you don’t feel as if Austen shoehorned the incident in there simply because she needed a “dark night of the soul” for her heroine. You feel as if Emma did it because, being Emma, she could not have done any differently. It’s exactly the sort of thing, you feel, that someone like Emma would really do.

But it’s not only in classic literature that we find characters driving plot, rather than the other way around. When we were in the car driving home today, discussing ideas for this blog, one of the first examples we thought of was Aramis sleeping with Queen Anne in The Musketeers. Here’s a spoiler for those who haven’t read the Dumas novel; he doesn’t do that in the book. But when it happens on the show, it feels entirely natural and true to Aramis’s character. The first time we meet him, he’s sleeping with Cardinal Richelieu’s mistress. When he and Anne hook up, we viewers don’t think, “Wait, where did this come from all of a sudden?” No, we sigh, roll our eyes, and think, “Yep. There he goes again.” And of course his decision to sleep with the queen changes everything and drives the plot for the second season.

In our own writing, we try to make sure that character drives plot, rather than letting plot drive character—a real danger when you outline obsessively like we do. It’s always tempting to say, “Well, clearly character X has to do Y, because that’s what it says here.” So when we write the outline, we try to ask ourselves whether Y is really what X would do under those circumstances.

This is also why we do our character prompts whenever possible. It helps to get to know a character outside the context of the plot, so you really have a sense of the kind of things he or she would be likely to do. After all, it’s hard to make character drive the plot when you don’t even know who the character is yet.


Winding Down Our Vacation

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Where we are now, metaphorically speaking.

S’s vacation is coming to an end. We’ve both been working on various writing projects. S wrote some more fanfic before doing a brilliant little mashup of The 100 and Battlestar Galactica called 100 Galactic Battlestars, and if you happen to be a fan of both shows, you should really check it out.

I just finished working on my Myrciaverse books and lit file. It took a bit longer than I expected, frankly, because I was trying to make sure to put down every place we’ve mentioned each of the books or stories or poems. The idea is that in the future, if we’re writing along, and we suddenly think, “This character should be reading a romance novel in this scene,” or something like that, then we can open up the file and see if there’s something appropriate among the fake books we’ve already made up.

I’m not really sure what I’ll be doing next. I’ve got some other reference materials I could be working on, or I could start thinking about what I’ll do for Camp NaNo this spring. It’s never too soon to start thinking about April, after all.

Tonight, as we watch the Golden Globes, S is working on Fiat Justitia, the third Oleg Omdahl novel.  And when she’s done with that, she’ll be carrying on with her epic Musketeers fanfic series.  Her fans can be assured that she hasn’t forgotten them—she’s just making them wait to heighten the anticipation.