Saturday, May 31, 2008

Revising the Novel - Use of the Ten-Point Revision Strategy

Before we continue on with our discussion about theme in the novel, and how, with a little bit of time and thought, your discovery of the theme of your novel will sharpen and tighten your writing, I wanted to make two quick digressions.

First, I wanted to thank all the readers who've come over and left comments. Your response has been greater than I ever imagined. I created the Ten-Point Revision Strategy out of necessity to finish this (hopefully) final draft of my novel. My agent is waiting for it and I was struggling to get it done. I needed a guidepost, some freeway signs to get me moving in the right direction. I wanted to share with all interested writers this strategy as a suggested tool that may help your writing as well. So, thank you.

Secondly, I wanted to move back to an early point in the strategy, #5 End Chapter Earlier, and add an example. As I'm going through my revision, I've utilized this point at almost every opportunity, and I've been amazed at how much it can improve a chapter.

The goal here is very simple and follows the old axiom: Start after the beginning, end before the ending.

I'd found in my writing, I tended to end with neat little summaries or chapter tie-ups that I believed set up the next chapter or created a cliff hanger ending. After learning this tip from Robert Dugoni, I've rethought this part of my writing, and as I'm moving through this revision, I've tried cutting out at least the last paragraph, or more, of each chapter. And I think it works.

Here's an example from my novel, with the before and after point #5 revision. Please comment back on whether or not you think this simple strategy hasn't made the ending more interesting, less predictable and more ominous. I look forward to reading your responses.

Not much set-up is needed for this scene. The Senator is talking to a member of his inner circle, discussing a research project (our hero's) that has become a hot topic in the upcoming election. For reasons revealed in the novel, the Senator needs the project to fail to bolster his candidacy. The reader, by this time, knows something is up, some sabotage of the research is planned, but not what that plan is.

Here's before the use of point #5.

Roderick nodded. “But that’s not the issue here—“

“But it is,” the Senator said, holding up his hands. “Don't lose sight of that. The failure of Abrahms’s research will bring unprecedented exposure to this issue. The family connection makes it even stronger. We just need to play our cards right. Once his research fails my stock will soar. This will hand us the election.”

“What if he succeeds?”

“He won’t.”

“But what if—“

The Senator cut him off with a gaze so full of certainty it made Roderick shudder. “He won’t.”

Roderick nodded and rose to his feet. “I’ll keep the forces in check.” He turned and headed towards the Pennsylvania Street exit.

McIntyre watched Roderick walk by the Iraqis, then reached into his breast pocket, pulling out his iphone. With deft movements, he typed a message then launched it into cyberspace.

It’s time for action. . . immediately

He knew the recipient would know what the pre-planned course of action would be.

And now here's after.

Roderick nodded. “But that’s not the issue here—“

“But it is,” the Senator said, holding up his hands. “Don’t lose sight of that. The failure of Abrahms’s research will bring unprecedented exposure to this issue. The family connection makes it even stronger. We just need to play our cards right. Once his research fails my stock will soar. This will hand us the election.”

“What if he succeeds?”

“He won’t.”

“But what if—“

The Senator cut him off with a gaze so full of certainty it made Roderick shudder. “Don’t worry. He won’t.”

It's such a simple change. All I did was cut out that last little bit, a concluding action, but I think it makes the ending much stronger. What do you think?

If you like this idea, try it in your own writing and see if it doesn't help.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Revising your novel - Know Your Theme

I had a very interesting experience recently in a conversation with Robert Dugoni. For those who don't know Robert, he's a very talented, quite successful writer, who first books have all been best-sellers.

As we were talking, he asked me what my novel was about. Now, I've been working on this book since before the dawn of time. I've been living with it, married to it, at times divorced from it. I know it inside and out. I already have an agent for it, and Warner Books has asked me for this final revision that I'm now working on, as they're considering it. In other words, I know this book.

But do you know what I said?

To paraphrase my babbling: "It's a story about a guy who is working on this amazing medical research project, and his family is dead, and his wife is the daughter of a senator, and there's this company in Silicon Valley, and there's this contract killer, and they want the project to stop, and it all goes wrong, and. . . and. . . and. . . "

In other words, I didn't have the slightest idea what my book was about. What was the core of the story? What was the through story, the magnet that would pull the reader from the beginning to the end? What was the payoff?

We're going to talk about theme for the next several posts, and I'm going to use the term loosely, probably not as academically as a writing professor would, because in this day and age, theme in a thriller is a loosely applied technique. But in the end, it still has to be there.

After you've written the first draft, after you've poured your heart out and bled your soul onto the blank page. Once you've begun the revision process through the Ten-Point Revision strategy, it's time to step back, take a good look at your book and ask yourself, "What is my book about?"

If you're like me, the answer may astound you. It turns out my book isn't about any of the and, and, ands, that I stuttered out to Robert.

It's so much more.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #10 Move the Story Forward

In the end, this is what it's all about.

Move the Story Forward.

Everything we've discussed so far, each of the previous 9 points, have all been aimed at this goal. Keep the story moving, keep the reader involved, or to paraphrase, Elmore Leonard, cut out the parts that readers skip.

Sometimes, in order to be true to this principle, we have to be cruel. In this current revision, I've cut out two of my favorite scenes, what were in my mind grand displays of my writing, because quite honestly, they weren't necessary.

In one scene, my hero has just finished a grueling Grand Rounds conference to get his research approved. In this scene, I have him working with a nurse, Mary, repairing a head laceration on a construction foreman, while he and the nurse discuss the Rounds. I loved that scene. It showed my hero in action, being very competent in the ER. It showed Mary's enthusiasm, and therefore all the hospital's support staff's, for the project, and the construction guy's random comments added a quick touch of humor into a scene that normally wouldn't be funny. I loved that scene.

There was only one problem. It wasn't necessary.

I'd already shown my hero in action in the ER, in a much more tense, character revealing scene. Chapter One to be precise. I'd already alluded to the fact that the hospital was abuzz over this pending research project. And as cute as the construction guy was, he was not a part of the story. In the end, after careful analysis, I realized that the only new bit of information the scene revealed was that the research project was being sent to a Bioethics Committee meeting for another review. This meant that our hero only had 48 hours to show results of his project before the Bioethics committee would cut him off.

Now that's a big point. Adding a time deadline always adds drama and tension to the story. We've got to get something done and we've got to get it done now. But I didn't need a 5-page scene of my hero sewing up some guy's head laceration to show this.

So I cut it.

I took that one simple necessary paragraph and inserted it into a brief memory flash our hero has while he's speeding in his car to his lab. He's got to get his work done because. . . And now the car is in motion, describing through movement, so the story is launching forward while I reveal this one point.

I hated to do it, but I think you can see just from this description that it makes the story better. The reader doesn't want to see another ER scene, they want to see the experiment. The whole book so far has been leading up to the moment this research begins, why would I want to stick another chapter in there, acting as a roadblock to what the reader wants?

Move the story forward. Kill off your favorite writing if it isn't doing that. Cut out the parts the reader's skip.

P.S. For those interested, I've taken the Ten-Point Revision Strategy and created an article for Writer's Digest. I'll let you all know when it's published. But in the meantime, keep moving your story forward.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #9 Shorten as Tension Increases

This little tip is a must for thriller writers.

Shorten as Tension Increases.

By shorten, I mean shorten the length of sentences, shorten the length of words used, shorten the paragraphs. Essentially, shorten anything that can be shortened.

This is a neat tip, because it's not just referring to the act of writing, but how that writing looks and is read on the printed page. Shortening the sentences as the tension is mounting creates a staccato feeling for the reader, a bop, bop, beat that automatically makes them read faster. Using shorter words and shorter paragraphs, intensifies this effect, so as you story is moving faster, so is the reader's eye and hopefully the reader's heart.

Here's a quick example from Robert Dugoni's best-selling The Jury Master. In this scene, our hero arrives home to find his house ransacked, his cat Bud running across the kitchen.

"Sloane looked down at the broken plate at his feet, which a moment earlier had been on the leaning stack amid the contents of his cupboards. Bud had apparently been standing on the stack, licking at a puddle of syrup that had overflowed the counter. That explained the shattered glass. It didn't explain the destruction. That thought came simultaneously with the sound.

Soft footsteps behind him.

Too slow to turn, Sloane felt something hard slam against the back of his head."

Notice the pacing. Two fairly long sentences, establishing scene, placing the hero. Then it gets fast. Shorter sentences. A one sentence paragraph, then POW, the violent conclusion.

Reading this passage, you can't help but get swept up in the pacing as the tension builds.

Shorten as the Tension increases. As I'm doing now.

To get back to writing.

My book.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #8 Describe Through Movement

Another one of my favorite points on the Ten-Point Strategy and one that has had the biggest impact on my writing.

Describe Through Movement.

Back in the day of Melville and Dickens (before television, MTV and Youtube, when reading was the only form of entertainment) it was perfectly acceptable for authors to expound endlessly on the weather, the flow of grass across a hillside, the decor of a room, the fall of a woman's dress.

Not any more.

In today's world of short-attention span theater, things need to be speeded up, and particularly for thrillers, they need to be in constant motion. Now I don't mean a swirling maelstrom of nonstop action, and I don't mean to say that description and setting aren't important to a story, but never underestimate the power of movement as a technique to get a point across.

One of the simplest ways I incorporate this in my writing is in describing a new setting. Say my character Taylor enters a new room, like his lab for the first time. While I'd love to go into vivid description about the chaotic mess that is his basement laboratory, stressing certain details to show how bare-bones, low budget their funding is, in truth, I'd lose the reader right away. They don't want a long dissertation on the room, they want the story. Yet, some details need to be shared, to place the story, to set the tone and to show that these guys are broke. The way to do it is through movement.

Rather than having the narrator jump in and give a quick info dump on the room, I need to show Taylor walking through the room. Describe the furniture as he walks by it or trips over it. Describe the chaos as he steps over piles. Let his gaze shift to the crumbling plaster on the walls or brush the pile of chocolate wrappers off the desk. Subtle movements like this allow the author to include all the detail necessary to tell the story, without stopping the story to do it.

Since I've learned this technique, from Tess Gerritsen, I've gone back to quite a few of my static descriptions and simply put them into movement. And the results have been dramatic. Try it in your own story at any point of static description. When describing a person, have them in movement. When describing a setting, have someone or something moving in or through that setting. See if it doesn't make your writing more lively.

And that's the way I think of my novels today, one beautiful, flowing, moving story. Hopefully one where the movement will sweep the reader up and carry them along for the ride.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #7 Tighten Words

This is where I really go over the manuscript with a surgeon's scalpel cutting out any unnecessary or ineffective words. This can be a fun process as it involves our creative use of the English language.

As I'm reading each sentence, I ask myself, "Does it relay exactly what I wish for it to relay?" Can I find a better word to describe what I need to describe? Can I find a better word to convey a sense of movement, of drama, of tension?

In the prologue of my novel, my character, a young boy, is staring at the ceiling, watching the interplay of light and shadows. Inside this spectral drama, he knows hides the dark spirits of his grandmother's tales. Yet, the word 'hides' while appropriate, doesn't quite convey the fear a young child would experience, alone in his room at night, searching for malevolent ghosts. Sure, the spirits may be hiding in the shadows on his ceiling, but the word, 'lurking' is much more chilling, much more full of the ominous presence that I needed for the scene.

Another little trick that I learned from John Hough Jr., that I like to include here has to do with a very common tendency of mine. Often I'll write, "he paused," or something similar. I use this to create a beat, to give the character time to think, to build tension. For example, "he stepped to the doorway and paused." John taught me that rather than use the word 'pause,' create the pause. Instead of stepping to the doorway and pausing, he should step to the door and give a backward glance at the photo on the table or such. This still creates the beat but is much more evocative, descriptive and revealing of character than simply pausing. Used effectively, I can turn what was once just a pause into a powerful moment for the story.

In truth, Tightening Words is a difficult step for me. Some authors have a tremendous command of the English language. I can barely remember the word 'hello' when someone approaches me on the street, so I really have to stretch my mind. But I do, using that scalpel, searching out the bad words and excising them.

In the end, my patient, the manuscript, will be healthier because of it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #6 Kill Adverbs

This is an easy one.

Kill adverbs.

You've all heard this before. Adverbs are, by and large, an unnecessary aspect of writing. They are the sign of a sloppy writer, too lazy to think of a more creative way to say something. And almost always, they are clumsy.

In an earlier post I mentioned Iris Johanson's use of the phrase, "she nodded her head jerkily," three times in the first sixth of one of her books. As a quick writing exercise, I bet we could all write down three ways that we could convey the same message more elegantly, more clearly, more creatively. Better yet, I bet we could think of three ways that the same information could be conveyed that do a better job of revealing character or moving the story forward with more drama or tension.

Yes, one little phrase can do all that, if we stretch our minds and think creatively.

One place that adverbs tend to creep in is as a dialogue tag. This is a practice we need to stop. People don't shout angrily. They shout. The anger should be conveyed in their choice of words, body language or action. Not with a clumsy tag.

At this point in my revision, all adverbs need to be removed. They served a purpose in the early drafts, holding space, telling me what I wanted to say. But now it's time. I am an adverb hunter. I simply put the search tool on --ly and search them all out and destroy them.

It is almost aways better to replace a weak verb/adverb combination with a stronger verb. Don't have your character walking quickly, have him rush. This conveys a better sense of action and movement.

Now, every once in a while, I'll find one adverb that I'll keep. In one scene, my character the Senator looks directly at the camera. I believe that adverb does reveal information on character and intent; it takes a certain type of person to look directly into the camera, rather than avoid its peering gaze. Besides, it's hard to have someone looking directly at the camera without using the word 'directly.'

But none of my characters will nod jerkily. I promise you that.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #5 End Chapter Earlier

This is probably my favorite item on our ten-point list, because it's so simple and can be so effective. End Chapter Earlier.

This is a tip I picked up from Robert Dugoni, best-selling author of The Jury Master and a fantastic writing teacher. If you ever get a chance to take a course from him, do it. He's extremely talented, very enthusiastic and an incredibly nice guy. You can learn more about him

End Chapter Earlier. We've all heard the axiom, "Start after the beginning and end before the end." While I find this to be a powerful truth for plotting the novel, I need to remember that this applies to each individual scene also. Often times, I find myself ending the chapters with what I think is an excellently written summary, detailing the heroes tension or fear, setting up for my big final sentence. It usually feels good when I'm writing it, but in revising, I've learned to cut it out.

Bob's advice was to go to each chapter and cut out the last paragraph. While that may sound frightening, especially after I've performed one of my beautiful summaries, he's right. It may not apply to every chapter, but more often than not, after I've gone through the chapter, I find that by simply cutting out that last paragraph, the scene ends better. More drama. More tension.

I encourage you to give it a try. Go to each chapter and cut out the last paragraph. Just do it. You can always put it back if it's not right for that scene, but try it. You just might find that it ends a little better.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #4 Tighten Dialogue

Moving on down our list, today's entry is Tighten Dialogue.

Now, we're not going to do a whole, big dialogue entry today. Book's have been written on that; listening to how people speak, making sure each character has their own voice, etc. We're in revision mode remember. (By the way, I'm up to chapter 11 now. Had a great day yesterday. Plenty of time to write and got a lot of work done. Good work. You know the kind; when you finish you really feel like you accomplished something).

Back to the post. Tighten Dialogue.

To me, this means two things.

1) No direct answers. We do it all the time in our writing. Bill asks, "Did you see the paper yet?" and his boss replies, "No. Not yet." Technically, there's nothing wrong here, but it doesn't do anything either. To tighten dialogue, add tension and reveal character, try never to have your character answer a question directly. In real life, we rarely do. We're always to busy thinking about our own stuff to answer someone's question directly.

So how about if we change the above to:
"Did you see the paper yet?"
"That's what I pay you for."

Now we've got something. Bill's boss is revealing character here, impatience, domination, directness. How Bill responds can now really move the scene forward.

No direct answers.

2) Keep it short. Find the beat. Rarely, if ever have one character speak for more than three sentences. In real life, we can rarely get three sentences out (if we had that much to say) before the other person interrupts us with their own thoughts, a question, a burp, whatever.

Keep it short.

That's how I'm tightening my dialogue.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #3 Know Each Character's Motivation

Todays trip down the Ten-Point Revision Strategy lands us at Know Each Character's Motivation.

While this might seem incredibly basic, I find that at times, it's one of the hardest things to do. When we're writing a scene, we usually pay careful attention to our hero's point of view (or the POV of the main character in the scene) but we often ignore the fact that all those little secondary characters also have their own lives, ideas, desires and reasons to be in the scene.

For example. In my novel, Deadly Vision, the hero, Taylor, has many significant scenes in the lab with his research partner, Malcomb. In each scene, I know exactly what Taylor wants and why. His backstory is imprinted in my brain. And I think I know Malcomb as well. He's a little awkward, a brilliant scientist, and a touch of comic relief compared to the much more serious Taylor. But when they're in a scene together, do I really know what Malcomb wants? Or do I know how to make him say things that act as drama compared to what Taylor wants?

In order to really flesh out the novel at this point, I need the answer to be that I know Malcomb as backwards and forwards as Taylor. Sure, I've already created a character profile and history, and written Malcomb's story arc as it will evolve throughout the novel. But what I really need to focus on is that scene. What does Malcomb really want? Why? What is he afraid of?

Just because he's Taylor's partner, doesn't mean they want the same things. Even in the research, they have different reasons, goals, levels of commitment. Now, it's important that I don't drop a big info dump on the reader (see Ten-Point Strategy #1, RUE) to explain why Malcomb wants what he wants, but the point remains, he wants something. We all do. Each scene I write will be clearer if I, and therefore the reader, know what that something is.

Drama and tension comes from the conflict of two people wanting two very different things in the same situation. Not violence or anger. But desire. That is the real fuse for conflict.

Know each of your character's motivations. For each scene. Then let the drama unfold.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #2 Show Don't Tell

This one is an axiom for all fiction writing, regardless of genre.

Show Don't Tell.

I fall into this trap more often than I'd like to admit, and it rears it's ugly heads in a number of ways.

Narrative exposition
Overuse of adverbs
Horrible dialogue tags

All of the above take the reader out of the story as the author insists they step in and make a point. At my writing group last night Les pointed out that three times on the first CD of the Iris Johansen book he was listening to she wrote, "She nodded her head jerkily."

I don't think I've ever nodded my head jerkily. That is lazy writing. That is the author (a mega-bestseller) not taking the time to show us an action, or create a visual through her use of action, and instead relying upon the most clumsy adverb I've ever seen.

Usually, Show Don't Tell, is a corollary to the first point of our Ten Point Revision Strategy; RUE, Resist the Urge to Explain. It is the author feeling that the reader is too stupid to understand why a character is behaving the way they are without first telling us why. It appears in situations like this.

Bill is an angry guy. He get's pissed off all the time, traffic lights, slow Starbucks lines, commercials on T.V. It's just the way he is. But rather than writing what I just did, the way to bring this into a story is to simply show Bill getting mad. It's much more effective at describing the character than telling me that he's an angry guy.

The trick for the good author is to create a situation where we can see Bill getting mad, through action or dialogue, that is actually a part of the story and moves the story forward.

In the end, that's the key to all ten points of our revision strategy. Move the story forward.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy - #1 RUE

For the next few posts, I wanted to go through the Ten-Point Revision Strategy, point by point, try and highlight some basic concepts and throw the whole thing open to discussion. This is my strategy, created out of need to make my novel better, but that doesn't mean it's the only strategy or necessarily complete. I'm open to amending it, changing it, rearranging it. Whatever. The goal is simply to write the best fiction we can.

So once again, here's my current strategy, the one I'll be implementing as soon as I finish this post. (I'm on chapter 8 of the current re-write, by the way. I'll keep you posted of that progress also.) I want to emphasize that this applies most to the writing of thrillers and similar works, where story movement is key. Writer's of literary fiction may have different guidelines.

I write about this as much to help anyone who can benefit from all that I've learned as to help myself. By going through this strategy (or any other lesson) point-by-point, I help to cement that knowledge deeper into my own brain. Perhaps, if I cement it deep enough, it will finally stick.

So then, here's our first point.

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy

1) Remove unnecessary exposition - RUE (resist urge to explain) - keep them guessing

Show don't tell

Know each character's motivation

4) Tighten dialogue - no direct answers

5) End chapter earlier - cut last paragraph

6) Kill adverbs

7) Tighten words

8) Describe through movement

Shorten as tension increases

Move story forward

Today's lesson is simple: RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Write those letters on a piece of paper and tape it near your writing place. I have it in big letters, taped to my printer. RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Nothing can kill a story faster than the author's perceived need to explain the story, or a character, or a motivation. Even a scientific point. The exposition literally stops the story in its tracks while the author jumps in. "In order to understand this, first let me explain why Jeff behaves this way. You see, as a child . . blah, blah, blah."

Don't do it. Writer's call this the dreaded Info Dump. Character backstory, character personality sketch. Scientific information.

What you need to do is show this information, not tell it. Create a way to show your character is a bitch, don't tell us she was mean to her friends in eighth grade. Show us the scientific process, describing it as it's happening. Don't simply drop a paragraph of stuff at us.

Sometimes, the best way to do this is through action or dialog. Other times, it helps to put the information you need to express into a character's thoughts. But briefly. We really don't soliloquize about this stuff.

Always the best way to present information is in the context of the story, with the story moving forward.

This is an area I need to work on. As a doctor, Professor and Lecturer, I'm used to explaining things. Writing scientific/medical fiction, the urge is to tell them the history of my science. Who did what, when, to try and establish scientific credibility. When what I need to do, is tell the story. Drop in the necessary facts, but show the science as it's happening. This makes it real. This makes it interesting.

Resist the Urge to Explain. RUE. Memorize it. It works.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Welcome to my Writing Life

Just a quick note to get things started.

What I hope to do here is pass along all the little tricks, strategies and lessons I've learned along the way of striving to be a professional writer. I've had some success on this path. I've published a health/wellness book, TriEnergetics: Balancing Nutrition, Exercise and Meditation for Lasting Wellness with New Harbinger Press that's in its second printing. I've published articles with Men's Fitness and Men's Health, penned some ten to fifteen cover features in various national magazines. Not a bad start.

But my main love is fiction.

On those lines, I've published about ten short stories in regional and national journals, but my passion is novels. Thrillers. I've got stories brimming in my head, dying to be put to page. Currently, I'm working on what I hope to be the final revisions of my medical/thriller Deadly Vision, and my plan is to pass onto you, various lessons I've learned as we go through this writing process together. In addition to writing tips and techniques, I'll share what I've learned about getting an agent, writing a query, promotions, publishing, as well as the tears and joys as we go along this path together. Just so you know, I already have an agent for this book, who's as eager as I am to see this revision completed.

Please comment as much as you care to, argue and debate. I'd love for this to become an open forum on the joys and sorrows of our writing lives. I expect this blog to help me as much as it may help any of you.

The first lesson I want to share is the process by which I'm working right now on revising. Importantly, this is the final revision. Early drafts had cleared up plot points, expanded character, added detail. Now, I'm trying to pare down to a desired length of 100,000 words.

At the side of my desk, on a big pad of paper, I keep this list visible at all times, to remind me of what is essential for me to do at this stage of revision.

The Ten-Point Revision Strategy

1) Remove unnecessary exposition - RUE (resist urge to explain) - keep them guessing

Show don't tell

Know each character's motivation

4) Tighten dialogue - no direct answers

5) End chapter earlier - cut last paragraph

6) Kill adverbs

7) Tighten words

8) Describe through movement

Shorten as tension increases

Move story forward

Most of these steps are self-explanatory, but I'll describe each one in depth in future posts.

For now, keep on writing.