Wednesday, September 7, 2016

90-day Challenge: Writing Hot

Deb McLeod's 90-day Romance Novel Project
By: Deb McLeod

Life decided to intrude into my 90-day Romance Novel project since my last post. So I lost some days and the project isn’t 90 consecutive days, but I’ll still be finished before the 90-day deadline. I’m at day 63 today and I’m almost done revising the first act.

If you’ve been watching my previous posts you know I’m designing and testing a process to produce a genre novel of choice in 90 days – from idea to final revision. When I’m done with the revision, I will hire a proofreader and publish before November.

As a sixteen-year writing coach, my theory is that the writing process I developed should allow both my clients and me to produce quality fiction quicker than we currently are. To that end I decided to test my theory in the genre of my choice – romance.

Now in the final third of the 90-day Romance Novel trial, I’m deep in revision as I write this. Before I move onto the discoveries I’ve been making, I want to talk about revision.

Revision vs editing

I work and socialize with a lot of writers. When I ask them about their revision process almost all of them approach it the same way. After they’ve finished the first draft they begin to read, either online or in print, and jump into editing line by line. But that’s editing, not re-visioning. And it’s editing a story that isn’t ready for editing.

My theory of story is that the first draft is for the writer. It’s a skate across the surface of the story. As the writer you need to find out what happens, you need to know where to plant the tickles and the clues that will pay out down the plotline. You need to focus on the arc and the development of your character. You need to follow the riffs that occur to you, to allow subplots to emerge, and beyond. Basically you need to tell yourself the story on the page.

But the real writing happens during revision.

It’s in re-visioning the story that the book is made whole and becomes an experience for the reader. It’s in revision that all the craft elements in your toolbox should be put to use. The first draft is the figuring out phase. The revision is the deepening phase.

As a story developer and story editor, my job is and isn’t to line edit my client’s work. They expect the line edit. After all, they usually want to improve their writing skills (sentence skills), so I will show them how to improve their work at the line level. But in reality, the most important work I do is at the story level and especially at the scene level.

My revision process, and the one I teach my clients, is to re-vision the story with two goals in mind. To make the work tighter and deeper.
  • Tighter is easy to understand: no loose language, no dangling subplots, no faulty story logic, no bloated scenes, following riffs that matter, and more. 
  • Deeper means creating thematic continuity, honing the facets of the story, revealing layers of meaning, and crafting a felt experience for the reader. 
By focusing on these two aspects of the novel, the work is simply a better read. I’ve helped dozens of people discover the story under the story so the novel they produced was a higher quality novel.

How do I know what I mean, until I see what I say?

The first draft is for what you say. Revision is for what you mean.

At the core of my teaching is the idea that you have to become the best reader of your own work. So revision starts with analysis. Until you deeply understand a scene, its placement in the overall, and its connection to the themes as well as to the plot, you can’t create an authentic experience for the reader. So you must come up with a process that helps you analyze your story at the story and scene levels.

Word edits will come later.

My plot arc choice is Blake Snyder’s beats. There are other story structure maps that you can use to check the story at story level. For scene level work, I’ve had to develop my own tried and true tools. I have a scene arc tool, a conflict tool, and a way to discover and express the deeper meaning of each scene. I use a note card questionnaire in Scrivener for each scene and answering the questions analyzes what I need to know to deepen the scene for my rewrite.

The big discovery in my revision process

Two years ago I took a 22-week revision class from a popular writer/teacher and learned a lot. But as is my nature, as I was going through the class, I saw where there could have been improvements. This particular method focused on the story logic level of revision, the first level in my estimation.

And, the course was designed so that we spent most of the 22 weeks in story analysis and were then let loose to rewrite. The analysis was great, but by the time I got to the rewrite, the scenes I had analyzed were cold. And there was no help to make them deeper.

So writing hot is the main discovery I made in the revision portion of my 90-day Romance Novel project. When I analyze a scene I write the revision immediately – the same day. The analysis itself creates the spell to write it deeper. The discoveries I make show me what the scene really means. The rewriting uses that discovery to focus not only on the plot of the scene but the words I use and the flavor I create on the page.

I rely heavily on the barn exercise from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. It’s been a long time since I looked it up, but here’s how it is in my head after many years of teaching it. Basically it goes: write a description of a scene where a character comes upon an old barn. First write it from someone who is in love, but don’t reveal that fact or any details about the character’s story. Just let the love the character feels pick the words you use to describe the barn and how the scene unfolds.

Then write the same barn scene from someone who’s in grief, say someone who just lost a parent or a lover. But don’t reveal the details, just let the character’s mood and emotions influence the word choice.

What would the two characters see differently? What words would they use to describe the barn, given their state of mind? When you can do that you’re creating the experience of the barn through the lens of the emotion you want to convey. Now the reader will feel it.

Once you understand where your character is emotionally, it’s simply a matter of incorporating that into the plot of the scene, the beat in the story arc, the choice of verbs and what you show in the setting. It’s more fun than I ever imagined to see the story come alive this way scene by scene.

So I’m analyzing and rewriting day-by-day, scene-by scene, in order to write it hot.

When I’m done I will print, read all and comb any transitions that need it. I’ll run my editing cheat sheet over it for the line-by-line, looking for the bad habits I still carry. Then I’ll chapter it and send it to the proofer.

Here’s my stats at 61 days:
  • Total days spent on the project so far: 61 days 
  • Average time spent per day: 3.5 hours 
  • Exclusive days spent on character development: 3 days 
  • Exclusive days spent on plotting the arc: 9 days 
  • Plotting scenes and writing: 36 days 
  • Revision days so far: 13 days 
  • Word total for finished scenes: 52,834 
I’m shooting for a 60k word minimum so I have to add some scenes coming up, but I already know where they go. And I have found that the second half of the second act is a little longer than it should be. If I cut there, I’ll have to add elsewhere so I’m keeping that in mind as I go.

It has been a great discovery process for me. And best of all I’ll have a book when I’m done. So tell me, if you would, what are the revision aha’s you have noticed in your own work?

About the Author:  Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fifteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, 

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