KotSQ: Prelude to Revision Round Two (The Improvening)
KotSQ: Prelude to Revision Round Two (The Improvening)

KotSQ: Prelude to Revision Round Two (The Improvening)

I won’t be doing a year-end recap. I don’t particularly enjoy spewing negativity into the world and can’t put a positive spin on another terrible year in a long line of terrible years1, so let’s just bury this fucker and salt the earth.

WARNING: I’ve been muttering into this post for two months because life kept interfering with getting through this phase of the project in a reasonable amount of time. Though this is only highlights from my actual notes, it’s huge and rambling and has copious footnotes (to a greater extent than my customary huge, rambling, footnoted posts), and I suspect it will be incomprehensible to anyone lacking the manuscript for reference. However, I’m increasingly interested in destroying the fantasy that “revision” is a typo hunt2, so gaze upon my fiddly bits and despair!

It took a full workday to turn off the visible spyware poorly disguised as “conveniences” on the new laptop and re-find answers to unnecessary mysteries like how to change the “paper” color in a word processor so I’m not staring into the sun 12 hours a day3, but I was finally able to settle back into a workstation where everything works and I can sit.4 Of course, now I owe people the holiday baking they paid for in advance, it’s time for the end-of-year crunch at my corporate gig, and a parent is having a medical crisis that’s shining spotlights on all kinds of medical negligence and incompetence, so my “spare time” is dribs, but the important thing is I haven’t quit! Hi-ho, onward we go.

Revision Round One was the Embiggening Draft, in which we5 grew stage directions into full sentences and added everything we could think of, even if we suspected it would get cut later. The second draft thus swelled to 160% of the first, which was the expected and desirable outcome.

Revision Round Two is all about broad betterment. The pacing problems identified and “fixed” by hacking scenes and cramming them into new homes need to be properly rooted in their new abodes, including repair of all the “they don’t know that yet” bits therein that are now displaced in the timeline. Redundancies and embiggening that doesn’t serve the story need to be trimmed. Where I quarter-assed things in the last round, I’ll try to bring them up to half-ass. Now that the external stuff has pretty much settled into place, I need to hit the romance harder.

I’m not yet concerned with making it pretty. I’ll shine up prose in passing if it’s easy, but I’m not turning a critical eye toward polishing. In construction terms, we’re waiting for the inspector to approve the wiring and plumbing before we can put up the drywall. We’re still a ways from paint and molding, never mind decorating the rooms.

But before I actually do anything to the manuscript, I must once again take its measure.

Ordinarily, I would print another hard copy to mark up with pen, but my toner is at the REPLACE ME! stage, so we’re doing this the hard-for-me way. Rather than stare at it in the word processor, where I’d be tempted to prematurely tweak, I saved as HTML and sent it to my Fire6 for another straight-through read. It’s still in rough shape, so I’m not going to nitpick at this point, but it’s intact enough that it will be obvious where confusion and errors jump out. It’s easier to spot some things when you zoom through as opposed to looking at one piece on one day and another piece on another day as though they’re not all one entity. There’s no stopping this read except to make urgent notes. (“There’s a typo” isn’t urgent. “I’m not sure this reference survived the last draft and it needs to be verified before I convince myself it still exists” is.) The rough draft read-through ensures the story isn’t unfixably bad and I want to continue; the post first revision read-through ensures the story is now structurally sound so any work I do from this point forward won’t get tossed in a gut-and-rewrite.

Then we set aside the list of big boo-boos we’ve generated and go through once more with a nit comb and make a more detailed list. Not yet picking individual nits! Just taking a broad swipe at the infestation.

This swipe (during yet another, slower read-through) includes consistency checking, which means notecards! Every time a person is introduced, I need to note their name, description, clothing, props, and any identifying mannerism, and every time they reappear, I need to verify all of the above and elaborate as appropriate with updates to the list. If I don’t have a description and a personality to list, well, there’s another to-do. This information will also be useful for making sure the bodies on page are in fact as varied as I imagine they are.7 Too-similar names laid out side by side will also take this opportunity to mock me.8

Similar for settings: common name/proper name, description, geography, boundaries, props, time of day, weather, changes from one visit to the next. Apart from avoiding glaring inconsistencies in names and descriptions, reiterating identifying details helps fix things in the reader’s mind.9

I subheaded the chapters with dates but lost track of them even before I rearranged the last half of the second act, so the calendar needs to be nailed down.

All this administrative stuff is a much-needed vacation from being creative. The well is never full, but it sure does get dusty at the bottom sometimes.

It’s also full synopsis time.10 Each scene gets a paragraph-long summary and is assigned a hashtag to be duplicated in the relevant place in the manuscript. If I have to verify or change something, it’s much easier to find in a 37-page summary than in a 370-page manuscript, and searching the big document for #dogbreath will teleport me where I need to be more quickly than scrolling or guessing an effective search string in the text.

For lulz, I also include a sentence or two about what the principal non-POV characters in each scene are gleaning from Heroine because if the answer is “nothing,” there are likely several problems, beginning with the protagonist being the center of the universe rather than living in it and ending with the reader likewise gleaning nothing. The answer is “nothing” in nearly every scene that has me thinking “this is flimsy, merge it”—it’s not the only problem, but it’s a reliable flag. MCs should leave an impression on other characters, regardless of whether that impression is accurate or has any demonstrable effect on the plot, unless you want it to be obvious that everyone else in the world is just a cardboard prop the MC talks at. If they are going to have a future encounter, what in this scene is going to affect what the other character says/does at that time? If that character will never show up again, can I loosely imagine their off-page biz has been influenced in some way? It could be as simple as a piece of information/an item changing hands or as major as a task they now must undertake, as long as something is different for them.

This is a great place to “discover” subtext. e.g., After Heroine declines Hero’s job offer, he says she was the only option remaining, but he doesn’t act like all hope is lost because he knows something she doesn’t and believes that will change her mind. I already had her suspect he’s an agent of her enemy, but now I can emphasize this actual evidence that, for a complete stranger, he’s awfully confident about how she’ll behave. If Heroine has the scene to herself, will any of her actions eventually have an effect on someone else? e.g., She tucks something away for safekeeping, and it will never be mentioned again in this book, but it’s going to end up in the hands of a main character later in the series. The reader isn’t going to know that, but the synopsis does.

This is a draft for “discovering” lots of things, actually. The series antagonist has clearly been observing Heroine for years without her knowledge, but why? *lightbulb moment* For the same reason the series antagonist appears to do everything: it was part of a win-win deal in which he received payment for gathering information that now benefits him more than anyone else. THIS DOES NOT CHANGE THE PLOT. It affects maybe two sentences of dialogue but drives home for Heroine that she’s one tiny cog in a machine too vast to behold.

It’s now easier to spot the links between things at the beginning and the end of the book, which means I can develop them so the throughline is less hazy. e.g., Heroine has a well-developed philosophy about the difference between no choices and no good choices and strongly believes people should be free to choose their own course even if all the options are shitty. Hero’s life has been dictated by the whims of others, any choices he was allowed to make were meaningless because everything could be snatched away from him without notice, and he starts out with a fantasy of doing this purely good deed that ends with everybody living happily ever after. He does something near the end that’s uncharacteristically ruthless that he imagines Heroine would do in his position, and although it makes sense when he explains it, the arc getting him there isn’t visible enough in the text. So I hold that in my head as I go through and look for opportunities to show he’s getting the idea that despite his noble intentions, there’s no way to reach the finish line with a squeaky clean conscience and he’ll have to live with the consequences of his no-good-options choice.

There are places where I inserted things in the Embiggening Draft because there was a natural opening for the introduction of the new thing, but there’s a jagged edge where the new thing butts against the continuation of what it interrupted. Those need to be smoothed, moved, or sacrificed to the gods of non-necessity.

I made myself a note that I’m probably wasting too many words on the physics at the border of the curse zone… and then two minutes later found a spot where I can illustrate proof of concept. The parts where I fumbled toward a good demonstration can be cut. Readers don’t need theories about this particular thing in advance. I can just show them when we get there.

Heroine has another theory about the series antagonist’s plans that makes a great deal of sense. I could have used it, but I didn’t—it just lies there like a groundless fear applying imaginary pressure in a situation that’s stressful enough already. The fact that it never materializes makes it seem like I set up something that I never pay off. Nobody will miss that conspiracy thread when I yank it out.

I’ve decided that being very good at conspiracy theories will be Heroine’s exploitable weakness. She’s already right often enough to prove she’s very good. Now I need to make sure the people who know her well enough to manipulate her do so via confirming her suspicions so she stops digging for the truth. Not a massive overhaul since she’s always right to a point, just have to make sure the book antagonist and the series antagonist are taking it a step further, to her detriment, so it makes sense when she misjudges Hero (and at least one other person, whose deception won’t be important until later in the series) by the same overconfident process. That third demonstration of “they weren’t the problem, you were the problem” is the one that will sell her on changing her ways (though that change may be more discussed than enacted before the end of the story, unless inspiration strikes).

The romance is intentionally underdeveloped in places11, so that needs to be bulked up now. I already have a romance-beat synopsis thanks to that contest entry win a million years ago. It’s no longer 100% applicable, but salvaging the parts that stuck will save me a little bit of work before plugging in the changes and then analyzing where the romance arc is sagging.

Heroine has acquired a quirk that heals some of her injuries and has reason to contemplate how much more unpleasant that would make being tortured, which is fine, but it feels like I did it a lot. I need to either find optimal places to do it once or twice or find some way to evolve her concern so it’s not the same thought six times. (Preferably the former. Torture durability might be more relevant to another character in a subsequent book, so I’d like to plant that seed, but it’s not so relevant now that I want to make a huge deal of it.)

A side character (A) effectively points Heroine at another character (B) like a weapon, but not with any gusto. I know A has a complicated history with C, who has a complicated history with B, and although it’s not the time to go into all of that, an undercurrent of vengeance would not be amiss in the present exchange of information.

Also lots of opportunities to think ahead to future books in regard to the overarching plot. How can this thing that seems straightforward in this present situation to these characters mean something else in the grand scheme of things? One of the drawbacks of using the characters to tell me the story the first time through is that they end up knowing everything I know, even if it has nothing to do with them. I have to go through and clean up all the “SHE WOULDN’T KNOW THIS” and “this is fascinating and NOT HER PROBLEM TO SOLVE” notes, which are fertilizer for the overarching plot farm. At this stage in this book, it’s time to think about wording some things in a way that creates possibilities without committing Future Me to anything. I could give a five-point summary of each of the remaining books right now, but all those events could be achieved a thousand different ways, and it would be great to approach each one with enough available options to declare one “the best” rather than having to work with “meh” because I trapped myself in a previous book. I don’t necessarily want to change anything that works in the present context, but I have to consciously narrow Heroine’s perspective of it to what’s relevant to her while I continue poking it with a stick to see what else pops out.

I found a place to strive for a “High Noon moment,” in which another character openly agrees with everything Heroine is saying but instead of arriving at the shared conclusion that he should join her on the noble path, he swerves into “and for all these reasons, absolutely fucking not” and tells her to abandon the quest. I have doubts about my ability to pull off such a mindblower, but I’ll give it the ol’ public K-12 try.

Heroine encounters all but one of the main characters from the remainder of the series. They don’t yet know they’re going to be main characters (this first book is the catalyst that destroys everybody’s status quo), and I want to avoid flashing neon signs identifying sequel bait. But I do want something for each of them that encourages readers to think, Hey-o, there’s something going on there that I want to know more about. It’s not do-or-die, but I’m on the lookout for ways to create that characterization without being a distraction from the current story. What can they do or say within the boundaries of their interaction with Heroine that tags them as a Person of Interest?

There’s a character who shows up for one page to pay off foreshadowing from way in the beginning of the book. If I give him one more line of dialogue, he can also set up something Heroine is going to do later. A LOT of revision is finding ways to build a web of connections so something that must be consumed in a linear fashion feels expansive and multidimensional. Even if you don’t consciously remember “ah, that dude said something about this 50 pages ago,” it’ll vibrate in the back of your mind when it comes up again. We love resonance!

Since I rearranged the timeline, at least one scene is freed from the constraint of scheduled routine and can take place somewhere more interesting. Since that’s one of two revelatory scenes that happened in the same place at the same time of day, it will be very good to make it less samey-same.

I actually left myself the controversial “show, don’t tell” note! It’s controversial because 99.7% of people who say “show, don’t tell” throw it around as a trite, all-purpose solution to every problem they can’t actually identify, so here’s a handy example.

Tell:

Her preferred source of news responded to her inquiry with an invitation to meet in a prison cell.

Show:

[Hero] titled the scrap of paper toward the light and squinted at the pinched script. “‘We’ll meet at the executioner’s block.’ I don’t suppose that’s the name of a tavern.”

“Not by sign nor by whisper.”

Behold how the characters are now participating with the information. The environment is addressed so the information is no longer floating in empty space. The scrap of paper is a prop. The pinched script came from someone else. We’ve made it more “real” without banging on about it at length.

The “tell” is a functional sentence, but it’s not adding any value. The craft portion of storytelling is making words do more than convey their dictionary definitions to the reader’s brain. Some sentences must be telling, some sentences can be telling, but sentences that bonelessly flop to the point of becoming tripping hazards need to be given a jolt of showing.

There’s a scene in the last act that feels disconnected and infodumpy. It has utility, so trashing it isn’t the solution. I can offload what, here, is clunky exposition to a list of Heroine’s chores way back in Act I. Finding ways to scaffold the sudden philosophical outburst will be more challenging. Maybe Hero shouldn’t be surprised by it at this late date? Yeah, it would be better if he has that insight into her character, which means building the scaffold and a bit of a role reversal in the problematic scene. Bleh. I didn’t want to find that much work at this point, but it is what it is.

The scene in which Hero’s Big Secret finally comes out needs work. A non-POV character has all the information and will, by necessity, be doing most of the talking. In service to the generally good advice to “make it a CONVERSATION,” I broke up his revelations with questions from Heroine. There are, however, sizable chunks that could be cut if Hero volunteered a tiny detail in his preceding statement. Since (a) he’s motivated to convince her this bonkers story is the truth and (b) I’m operating under the general premise that the key to a single-POV story is to make non-POV characters communicative (and the POV character observant), he would really be spilling his guts here. Additionally, Heroine would let the known liar talk himself into a trap of his own making, he’d react to what he perceives to be judgmental silence, and she’d interrupt only if he left out a detail he didn’t think was important enough to include or to throw him off a possibly rehearsed spiel. Characterization demands her “participation” should be mostly mentally picking apart what he’s saying and her lack of response should add to his agitation, “generally good advice” be damned.12

In the final act, it occurred to me that if someone of means wanted a curse broken, that someone would immediately summon the most renowned cursebreakers on the continent. Therefore, when my Heroine of no means exploits her contentious relationship with one of those cursebreakers, THEY WOULD ALREADY KNOW about the curse she needs broken. Again, this does not fundamentally change the plot! But the revelation that this pair is working for the enemy, whether paid to do so or under duress, means none of their aid can be trusted. Are they leading Heroine astray or straight down a path that aids the enemy? So although Heroine gains a lot of information from that meeting, it only complicates her quest. If I add a couple lines of dialogue (“Villain hired you, right?”/”No comment, but we wouldn’t take offense if you proceed under that assumption”), I can tweak what’s already in the scene to punch up Heroine’s existing distrust and frustration.13

The climactic portion is still falling a bit flat for me. There’s a pacing issue with a big battle followed by a negotiation, and since the outcome of the former is crucial to the latter, I can’t really switch the order. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to jack up the emotional stakes once the romance arc is better drawn so it feels more dramatic than an epic fight scene. Letting the pacing suck is always a possibility, but I’m not yet resigned to failure. Just leaving a bunch of SHOUTY ALL CAPS NOTES for now, and we’ll see what happens when the write-through gets there.

The last 5% of this ‘script evaluation took ages to get through because I was screeching to a halt every page to jot notes about the Series Grand Scheme. Each individual book hangs on humans endeavoring to solve a human-size problem, but those problems exist because they were solutions to non-human problems, and undoing those fixes will dump those non-human problems right back into the world. The full extent of that isn’t going to be clear until Book 5 because the humans unraveling their part of the binding can’t see the entire vast machine. They’re focused on their own problem, and so am I, but at some point before Book 5, I have to know exactly how everything comes together. So there will be long-term consequences of successfully completing the goal in this book, and I have to figure out what they are even though they won’t be written into this book, and then, to whatever extent is possible, I have to find ways to plant the seeds of that future in this book. I don’t have all the pieces of that puzzle, but the pieces I have are sliding into place. Finding ways to use the fact that people other than Heroine and Hero know things they have no intention of divulging would probably help in this regard. We’ll see what happens when I’m actually elbows deep in scene viscera.

I’m not a huge epilogue person, but I like this one. It still needs work! But the general sense that their work is done but other shit has been set in motion is solid. It’s not cliffhangery, not designed to leave your brain itchy. This story feels finished, but there’s clearly another story ahead.

Little worldbuilding things that are meaningless but irritating might get some attention. e.g., What is “the first day of spring” if it’s not printed on mass-produced calendars? As a concept, it’s mostly relevant in terms of agriculture. The frosts are done, the ground will thaw, and we can plant soon. But that’s very regional (and also challenging to work into a non-farmer’s thoughts). Migratory birds, on the other hand, would signal the change to all sorts of people along their entire path. The response to the signal can vary by region (time to put the seedlings in the ground when the birds leave vs. time to start the seedlings when the birds arrive in the colder region where they’ll spend the summer), but everybody can agree that’s the signal. If it’s noted a few days later here than it was there, so what?

A butterfly on a budding flower captioned "It's spring, motherfucker!"

Some teeny-tiny worldbuilding things give me little sips of joy. Like changing the color of the uniform jacket Hero pilfered from the cursed kingdom to “mourning red,” which became tradition, after that kingdom was relegated to myth, because the fiber and fashion folk know what’s really up and are subversive as fuck (a minor plot point in this book with a ton of potential later). Heroine, a retired assassin, assumes a dude showing up in mourning garb wants to hire her for vengeance. How do other people respond to a man signaling he’s in mourning? And what’s going on in Hero’s head that he needs to wear this garment despite being uncomfortable about misleading people? So much fine tuning possible in multiple scenes, just by changing the modifier in front of a color!

Now, armed with a crapton of actionable flaws, I can attack the text once more.

In January, I sincerely believed this book would be done and out in the world by September, and life has been kicking me in the teeth ever since I dared to presume, so I’m not going to express (or, indeed,feel!) any optimism about when the book or even this draft will be done. The universe is out to get me and will do something fun like amputate all my fingers to remind me who’s boss, so I’m just going to mind my business and keep plugging away.


“It’s spring, motherfucker!” quote card via Quozio.

Notes

  1. I think this is year seven of this particularly grim phase. If we blame it on Saturn’s quarter cycle, we can say there should be a turning point soon, but I have some trepidation regarding in which direction that turn might occur. Historically, change seldom works in my favor.
  2. That’s proofreading, the absolute last thing done to the text before publication. An important step! But it’s not revising.
  3. We Olds remember a time one could go into Control Panel and assign a custom system color to every single element on the screen, universally applied. Now one must dabble in the forbidden magic of Registry Edits.
  4. The Old Desktop had to be placed on top of a dresser to accommodate its multiple short power cords, so I had a standing desk for a month. I chronically pace during the thinking parts that don’t require fingers on keys, so it might seem being on my feet all the time would be ideal. Alas, when there’s no physical transition to Typing Mode, I’m an object in motion that tends to stay in motion. Did a lot of overdue dusting, window washing, and sweeping while I wasn’t getting paid, though!👍 And the water balloons that developed around my ankle joints went away after the first week of no sitting, yet another endorsement for “just wait it out” as the American medical treatment plan of choice!
  5. The Royal We. Or Past Me, Present Me, and Future Me. There is neither another human being nor a multiple personality situation going on here, though there’s likely a dissociative element to my chronic use of “we” and “you” when I mean “I.” I’ve tried to break myself of the habit in public spaces because it confuses people who don’t compartmentalize like their lives depend on it, but it makes things harder for me and therefore goes in the “ensuring the uninterrupted comfort of perpetually comfortable people at my own expense isn’t my fucking job” cubby.
  6. The volume buttons don’t work and the screen is detached on one side, but since it’s a third generation (the current model is apparently twelfth gen!), it’s doing the best it can in its senior years. Side view of a small tablet. The screen is separated from the body and blue light shines from the open seam.
  7. This is way down on the list of “because people exist” priorities, but I keep leaving myself notes to give people glasses. I’ve needed corrective lenses since second grade (well, sooner, but that’s when I got them), so all these worlds full of people with perfect vision (except maybe one scholar) are absurd. Google serves up a lot of questionable numbers obviously churned out by “content producers,” but even at the CDC’s light end of the scale, 1 of every 4 children uses vision correction—and they’re obviously not counting kids whose need for it goes unmet. Way of life certainly influences that number, but even if you drastically reduce the prevalence to adjust for a society that doesn’t stare at glowing boxes most of every day, 1 of every 12 people remains a very notable presence!
  8. I’ve been aware for a while there are too many names that end with the same letter. I’d convinced myself it wasn’t a dire problem, but I’ve now come across a paragraph with three such names in close proximity, and it’s… borderline dire. Plus, the series antagonist’s name, when said quickly, sounds a lot like “raccoon,” which isn’t terribly fearsome, so my naming trials are not yet behind me.
  9. Copy-pasting all this information to the series bible is a project to undertake before diving into Book 2, so when we revisit a person, place, or thing, it’s consistent across books. Why not do it at the same time? Until I’m absolutely committed (i.e., clicked “publish” at retailers), anything is subject to change. ADHD brain can’t be trusted to change things in two places, so I maintain one master reference in the form of cards and transfer from that only when the book referenced therein is a done deal.
  10. I’ve heard this referred to as “reverse outlining” a dozen times in the past 2 weeks, which seems in the same vein as saying, “I invented 4-act structure, which is identical to 3-act structure except I drew a line through act 2 at the midpoint!” Maybe people are too scared of the word “synopsis” and feel it necessary to rebrand, but I’m not adopting that terminology. I hoped it would be something neat, involving working from the end of the story back to the beginning (you know, in reverse) for some hacky purpose and I’d learn something new, but no.
  11. Yes, intentionally. If that chunk of external plot I moved from the end of Act II to the midpoint had well-developed romance attached to it, I’d be a sad panda, so I leave that thread floating on the surface until I’m sure what I’m weaving it into.
  12. That’s the thing about “generally good advice”—in specific situations, it’s not good enough. One must therefore learn to recognize when the tried and true isn’t working. This requires much more thinking than obeying “rules,” which causes an uproar in the subset of writers who prefer to think as little as possible.
  13. Second Revision is largely developmental. We have all the parts now, but many of them have thin, weak, flaccid areas that need to become more robust and substantial to support the weight of the story. We’re not making drastic changes, just doing reps with what we have until it builds more muscle.

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