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April 5, 2018

6 Ways to Improve Your Big-Picture Revision Skills — Guest: Lisa Poisso

Wide angle image of a long bridge with text: Seeing the Big Picture

For many writers, the scariest step of the editing process is the first one: story revision.

The other stages of the process—line editing and copy editing—involve smaller changes, a few sentences here or a word there. If we screw it up, it won’t take much work to fix mistakes. We can always change more words or different words, or go back to where we started and try again from scratch.

In contrast, the first step of the editing process is to fix the story itself. Revision (specifically, story development or developmental editing) involves much bigger changes that are harder to fix and easier to screw up.

We might create or get rid of an entire character. We might change a character’s arc. We might add or delete whole scenes. Or we might rewrite huge sections.

Revision—when we do it right—is hard, requiring deep analytical thinking:

  • What do we want our story to be about?
  • What impression do we want to give readers?
  • Are our story choices the best way to meet those goals?

We might need to think through those answers from several perspectives, such as plot, character, emotion, theme, etc. The revision step is so hard that many writers avoid it altogether and skip straight to the nitpicky stuff, like word choice and grammar.

However, if we’re writing stories rather than non-fiction, we are storytellers, not typing monkeys who happen to hit our keyboard in patterns of spelling and grammar rules. So even though it’s hard, we owe it to our stories and our readers to work through the revision stage of editing.

Luckily, we have Lisa Poisso with us today to help. As a book editor and writing coach, she’s sharing her top six suggestions of how we can improve our skills for tackling revisions. Yay!

Please welcome Lisa Poisso! *smile*

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6 Ways to Develop Your Story Revision Sensibilities

by Lisa Poisso

It’s no fun trying to put lipstick on a pig.

I’ve been mulling over the proclivity of some writers for getting all wound up about mechanical edits before they’ve even thought about whether the story will keep readers turning pages. Talk about putting the cart before the horse (or, in this case, the poor lipstick-smeared pig).

My frustrations with this habit came tumbling out recently on the head of a hapless journalist who was trying to interview me about revision strategies. I suspect she was hoping I would recommend a crop of tools like grammar and spelling checkers. Instead, I kept hammering away at the need to quit worrying about commas and start worrying about the story.

Self-revision is as much about reexamining the concept and development of your story as it is tweaking your flair for adverbs and commas.

As our hostess here, Jami Gold, confided to me via email, “I’ve seen far too many authors consider themselves ‘edited’ just because someone did a comma check, but my reviews and impressions of a story are almost always about the story itself. We can’t emphasize that enough, IMHO.”

If you’re a freshman novelist, you may be uncertain about your ability to spot story issues in your own book. That’s what editors are for, right?

But developing your story sensibilities is a necessary skill for authors too. A confident grasp of the structure and technique of storytelling will give you that much-needed objectivity, allowing you to spot flaws in your own thinking and process.

Let’s map out a route to get you to that point.

Revision vs. Rewriting

Don’t get me wrong—editing is an important part of effective revision. I’m not dissing editing. But smoothing out sentences (and fixing those infamous commas) comes much later in the revision process than your red pen might be itching for.

Effective revision begins with working out the kinks in your story. If the changes are extensive, this process might more accurately be called rewriting.

Many authors skip this step. As soon as they have a complete draft, they fly straight to clean-up rather than mucking around in the underlying structure first.

  • Does your story draw out the core idea and theme?
  • Do character motivations and goals lead to an organically unfolding plot?
  • Do the key turning points of the story fall in the right places?
  • Does each scene earn its keep by contributing a new twist or lending additional depth?

If you can accomplish these sorts of things first, you’ll lift your manuscript from what author/editor/story coach Shawn Coyne calls “an amateur first draft” to one that generates scenes and a story arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end and hits the major conventions of the story genre.

That’s the minimum threshold before you’re ready to embark upon “comma cleansing.” And getting to that threshold is a journey all its own.

Leveling Up to Revision

Revision is tricky because you’re already inside the material by virtue of having created it. It’s all too easy to read between the lines, even when the words aren’t actually there on the page. The trick, then, is knowing enough about story form to gain some objective benchmarks to work with.

Ready to tackle a revision? 6 ways to level up our storytelling skills by @LisaPoisso Click To TweetIn her book The Magic Words, editor Cheryl B. Klein gives four Ds for revision: “Revisions should increase the drama of your action, dimension of your characters, distinction of your prose, and depth of your themes and the reality of the whole.”

Jami Gold talks about drawing out the evolution of your story in terms of tone, voice, point of view, motivation, theme, and depth.

Taking apart your story at this level seems like a lot to ask. It is. But you wrote this thing in the first place.

You can open it up, tune the engine and put it back together again. You may not have the experience of a seasoned developmental editor, but you can nurture the same qualities and knowledge that help editors spot how to improve a story.

Developing Your Story Sensibilities

Affecting improvements to your story at this scale requires sound judgment. These practices can help you hone your story sensibilities.

#1: Read

As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Reading widely is the single most important way you can level up your story sensibilities. As a novelist, you need to read both to keep up with the publishing industry and to stretch yourself as a writer.

Novelists aren’t the only ones working under the onus of keeping up with the pros. Self-taught scientists find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they don’t keep up with the full-timers.

To put this into context, simply replace the words “physics” and “mathematical” with “writing” in this quote from Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies who works in something called the phenomenology of quantum gravity:

“My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country. They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood. Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes. But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions.”

Working novelists need to be reading what other authors are writing.

  • Do you know what authors and what kind of stories are hot in your genre right now?
  • What’s considered tired and stale?
  • Are you familiar with the classics and the seminal titles of your genre?

I would submit that there’s more to reading like a novelist than 10 minutes at the New Releases rack skimming the bestsellers.

#2: Learn about Story Structure and How Stories Work

It’s hard to talk with a lot of writers about story structure because they associate “form” with “formula”—as if either were a bad thing. There’s value in understanding classic story structure.

No matter how gifted a writer you may be, if you don’t know what makes a story tick, you could find yourself turning out page after page of beautifully crafted prose without creating anything remotely resembling a salable novel.

And that’s a problem.

The art of storytelling is formulaic by nature. As book doctor Jeff Lyons notes in Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success (Focal Press, 2016), “Every story has a structure. Every story must have a structure. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a story—it’s something else.”

The beautiful thing about story structure is that once you grasp how it works, you can bend it to your will. Creatives in all media do the same thing, whether they’re creating within the boundaries of convention or leaping past the lines.

So study your craft. You can start at absolutely no cost by visiting smart web resources such as Fiction University, JamiGold.com, Helping Writers Become Authors, Writers Helping Writers, and Writers in the Storm. Develop fluency in storytelling and writing by studying writer-friendly books on the writing craft that introduce story structure and the conventions of narrative technique for fiction.

#3: Practice Writing Complete Novels

Sure, you could publish the first novel you ever finished writing. But should you?

Writing is one of the few creative fields or professions in which someone’s very first efforts are frequently lauded—the vaunted debut novel. But many of those crème de la crème debuts are written by authors who’ve already ground out multiple trunk novels, worked their way through MFAs in writing, and otherwise managed to write a number of books before their “debut” struck it big.

A novel presents writers with a lot of different opportunities to run off the rails. In his classic book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill.

Whether that number holds up scientifically is beside the point; the point is that it takes extensive practice to master something as complex as writing a novel. For many people, 10,000 hours is about 10 years.

Have you been writing that long? Have you been writing novels for that long? Are you willing to write novels that long before you begin seeing success?

I’m not saying that first novels are categorically unworthy of publication. However, once you’ve completed another few books, you’ll most assuredly look at your early work with new eyes.

There’s nothing that says you can’t publish those freshman efforts—but with the benefit of more experience, you might decide you no longer want to.

#4: Learn How to Thrive on Critique

One of the most insidious ways to hamstring your development as an author is to hold your pages too close to the vest before publication. When you keep your writing (and your ego) safely tucked inside your shell until you’re “ready,” you block out the possibility to gain the perspective and feedback your book needs to reach other readers.

I know, you got your wife or your best friend to read your manuscript, right? Be honest: they’re only reading your story because you wrote it. They’ll tell you what parts they “liked” and “didn’t like,” and they’ll act as if they’ve singlehandedly brought down an international crime cartel if they find a handful of typos or a minor plot hole.

You don’t need cheerleaders. You don’t need readers who have an emotional stake in your success or a personal relationship with you.

You need peer critique from other writers. You need perspective from readers who are going to see the story you’ve actually put on the page, not the one you’ve excitedly promised your buddies is there.

Critique and workshopping are the threshold for your book’s journey from creative heart project to published novel. Open the doors and let it out.

#5: Get Professional Guidance

You could wait to get a professional edit until you’re making enough money from sales of your novel to finance it. Are you sure you’ll make it that far without one?

Professional editing is not inexpensive by any means, but it could save you from years of flailing on your own.

Sure, you still need to put in your 10,000 hours—but that doesn’t mean they have to be performed blindfolded in a closet. No author deserves the kind of “paying your dues” that means nothing more than waiting for your turn because dammit, that’s how it worked for some other author.

Professional guidance is most potent when you have the most to gain. Those 10,000 hours? They’re only effective if you’re learning and growing.

If you’re simply repeating the same mistakes again and again, you’re learning to become a hack, not an author. Make sure you have someone who can help you get on the right track and coach you over the hurdles along the way.

#6: Master the Skill Set

One of the best resources for story benchmarks is right here at JamiGold.com: Jami’s Writing Craft: Master List of Story Development Skills.

You could use it as a revision checklist of sorts by moving down the subheads, beginning with “The Ultimate List of Story Development Skills.” If you come across a bullet point that doesn’t ring a bell or if the point covers something you haven’t consciously thought out, stop right there and consider it now.

If checklists bristling with points to cover stoke your engines, try Janice Hardy’s book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finish Draft. She’s recently split this book into three smaller volumes on character and point of view, plot and story structure, and setting and description, but the omnibus edition will cover all the bases. For the Cliff Notes version, go to her online series At-Home Workshop: Revise Your Novel in 31 Days.

Building your story sensibilities will give you the confidence to begin your revisions where it counts: at the story level. You can put down that lipstick now and leave the poor pig alone—save the lipstick for the beautiful book that will emerge from the pages of a fully revised story.

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Lisa PoissoAs a professional communicator for more than 25 years, Lisa Poisso has coached developing journalists, content writers, and bloggers. Now she works with emerging authors to bring clarity to their novels.

She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and a charter member of the Association of Independent Publishing Professionals. Her studio staff includes three industrious editorial assistants—two greyhounds and a staghound. #45mphcouchpotatoes #adoptdontshop

LisaPoisso.com | Twitter: @LisaPoisso | Facebook  | Pinterest​  |  Instagram

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The Plot Accelerator:
Bring Your Story Up to Speed

Lisa Poisso's The Plot AcceleratorDon’t drain your editing budget on a story that’s not ready for prime time. The Plot Accelerator lets you suss out if your story “works” before you commit to a full edit—even before you begin writing.

A Plot Accelerator is a one-on-one analysis of your story wrapped around a supercharged course in story structure and theory. Concept, genre, character motivation, story conflict … all the elements that drive your plot and make the story work. Think of it as an X-ray of the bones of your story.

The Plot Accelerator is designed for authors seeking a cost-effective way to make sure their stories “work”; authors who want story editing but don’t have the budget or time for a developmental edit; and authors who want the faster writing times that come from well-developed story foundations.

Accelerate Your Story

*****

Thank you, Lisa! I found myself nodding along to every point you made, and I’m so happy to share your wisdom with everyone here. *grin*

Here are some of the main takeaways and thoughts I had with each of Lisa’s points:

  1. Read: How can we know if we’re meeting our genre’s conventions—much less twisting the tropes a unique way—unless we’re keeping an eye on trends in our genre.
  2. Story Structure: As my post about quiet Black Moments from last time demonstrates, the more we understand story structure and its purpose, the more we can make it work for our story.
  3. Practice: My “debut” novel was actually the fifth story I started and the third one I finished. I completed about 100 editing passes on my second story to practice everything as I learned the skills.
  4. Critique: Feedback is the best (and sometimes only) way to ensure our words are making the impression we want.
  5. Guidance: Practice won’t do us any good if we simply make the same mistakes over and over. We need new insights to make progress.
  6. Master the Skills: It may seem overwhelming, but we can learn the necessary skills. Help is out there. *smile*

Do you have as strong understanding of the difference between revision and the later stages of editing? Have you ever faced an intimidating revision? What aspects of revisions do you struggle the most with? Do you have any insights to add from revisions you’ve done? Do you have any questions for Lisa?

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Lisa Poisso

Thanks so much for having me, Jami, and for your succinct summary. I’m going to have to go pop that into the summary I posted that links over here. 🙂

Deborah Makarios

I spent ten years writing Restoration Day, my first ‘full’ novel. And boy, did I learn a lot! On the other hand, part of the reason it took so long was that I didn’t know back when I began that pantsing wasn’t the only way to write – and that you didn’t have to start all over again every time the book “wasn’t working”. (I just hope no one ever hacks my computer for those first attempts at drafts, because they are prime blackmail material.)
With my second book, I’m trying out life as a plotter (cloak? check! dagger? er… letter-opener? close enough!) and trying to revise these big-picture issues of the story before I write it. It remains to be seen whether this approach works for me or if I end up sitting somewhere in the middle of the plotter-pantser spectrum.
In this job, you just keep on learning! Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for writers to feel that they have “arrived” – hence impostor syndrome.

Lisa Poisso

Oof, that sounds like a painful lesson!

A lot of people take story structure to be something that’s only useful to plotters, but the difference between plotting and pantsing is really only about when you apply your knowledge of story structure. Plotters think first, write later, and pantsers write first and then revise, revise, revise. Pantsing is tough to pull off without wasting a lot of time and words unless you have a firm grasp on story structure. You need to know what you’re working toward and why. Once you do, though, you can really enjoy that room for exploration.

The main thing is to keep practicing, to keep finishing novels, to keep figuring out what works—and it sounds like you’ve already got that well in hand. Onward!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I enjoyed the post, thanks Lisa! I completely agree that we need to read a lot and write a lot. I’d also recommend getting feedback, and putting it to work. At that point, the novel might be suitable for publication. Or it might be best to put it aside and start another work, come back to the first when the second is finished. We learn so much with every book.

Lisa Poisso

A novel is a big thing to “practice” on, isn’t it? As you say, every one has something new to teach. Thanks for commenting.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Hey Lisa,

There is something very pleasant about your writing style–maybe it’s the rhythm, the verbs, or the images and metaphors you use. ^^ Your prose is very nice to read! 🙂

For other comments: Oh yeah, I doubt that 10,000 hrs would be enough, lol. And yes, from what I learned in my psych courses, the 10,000 hrs have to involve improvements and challenges. What I’ve been wondering, though, is whether these challenges and improvements in the 10 K need to be major. I think it’s hard to not get better at all as you gain more practice, but maybe little improvements aren’t enough. There’s no rush, though. We can achieve great things given enough time, patience, and perseverance! Plus, I think that one of the most enjoyable things about writing, is that you can always learn something new. ^^

Big picture edits are daunting, but they’re also exciting!

Lisa Poisso

What a kind comment—thank you!

I think that not all improvement as you progress toward mastery will be as apparent to others as some of your initial steps. These are often the steps that unlock other abilities rather than concrete “improvement” that others can see. Google “deliberate practice” to find an avalanche of information about the process. What a trip to watch unfold. Bon voyage to you on your own journey!

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[…] more of the work on an editor. But how can I help myself to see what’s broken in the story? Lisa Poisso, writing for Jami Gold’s blog on improving your big-picture revision skills, reminds us […]

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