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On Reworking Your Manuscript: Shaping a Story

So. We’re reworking your novel. What exactly does that entail?

It entails voice and style. It entails characterization and foreshadowing. It entails hooks and cliffhangers, suspense and resolution. This is the point in the story where you put in all the beautiful little things that will go unnoticed by your reader even as they work their magic. This is the point where you impress all the English teachers.

Enhanced Flavor

If you don’t know how to do all those things, there’s no way I can explain it all in one blog post. Unstressed Syllables in general is a good place to study, though. Stick around. Poke through the archives and you’ll find some good pointers, and I’ve already got some new material on these topics ready for next month.

The important thing for me to share here isn’t necessarily how these writers’ techniques work, but how you should apply them. Suspense, foreshadowing, symbolism…they’re all beautiful rhetorical devices, but they’ve got no real place in the first draft. They belong right here, late in the revision process.

That’s because none of these devices by itself makes a good story. The only good way to make a good story is to write a good story — characters and situations — and that’s what you spent November on. There’s no place for style in November.

But the style you work on in December isn’t a new thing. That’s why I made you read your book twice before you really touched it.

The goal right now isn’t to make up suspense, but to find the suspense that’s already promised in your situations and draw it out with some good techniques. Add a ticking clock. Make your Sword of Damocles more pronounced. Figure out what your story-as-it-is promises, but doesn’t deliver. Then find out how to deliver it.

Maybe that means adding punch. Maybe that means toning down some melodrama, but far more likely it means building some up in just the right places.

Look for symbolism. Find the things in your story that come up at critical moments, find the artifacts you sprinkled in subconsciously, and then draw them out. Maybe plant one or two more in critical locations, maybe change some of the wording to make them shine a bit more brightly.

But what you’re doing here isn’t new invention. You’re finding the flavor that’s there, and making it stronger.

Stephen King said that writers have to be ready to kill their darlings. During this phase of the revision process you’ll do some of that — pruning out scenes and even characters that dilute the flavor of the whole — but the real darling, the real vision, the real promise is not any one character or situation. Those are just the base. Your real darling is the story, and right now, you finally have permission to make that amazing.

Revisiting the Scene List (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopWhile you’re at it, even though you’re finally working on the book, you’re already doing another read-through. This time, I want you to look specifically at the scenes you used.

What are the situations that add up to tell your story. How are they connected? How does the narrative tension flow from one to the next? How do they move your characters, and how do your characters move within them?

We wrote all that out back in October, before we really knew any of these characters. It’s time to go back to that. The longest of your pre-writing assignments, the Scene List attempted to capture every scene in the chain of your plot.

As you work your way through the novel this time, have your scene list handy. Go back to it after every chapter and bring it up to date. Describe what actually happens in each scene, and which characters are involved.

When you’re done, you’ll have a roadmap to your story’s plot. The characters make the reader care about your story, the setting or the premise might be the bits that intrigue them, but the plot is always the piece that keeps a reader moving.

Next week, we’ll work on the plot. That’s a big task, though. Might as well get a head start now.

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