We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Revision

Last week, Roz Morris and I had the third of our four scheduled weekly editorial chats: Talking Prose. The week before we were Talking Character. And the first week we were Talking Plot. We’re running these chats here once a week throughout the month of April.

We were deep and profound last week and taught you exactly how to write beautiful prose. (For the record: it’s not a quick pill.) We gave you examples of the difference between first-draft prose and polished prose from the greats. And, as Roz said on her blog, it’s true—I did threaten to shave my head and move to Tibet. Finally, we gave you a pop-quiz: name that poet!

Now please join us today for our grand finale of these weekly editor chats: Talking Revision.

Roz: A lot of writers don’t realise how much a manuscript can change in the editing stages. How completely a first draft has to be pulled apart, twisted and tested. I think for most writers the intensive creative work happens after the first draft and when they’re into revisions.

I come across a lot of writers who think revision is just about correcting their spellings or finding the more felicitous phrase. And they imagine when they send the manuscript to me that that is mostly what I’ll focus on. It’s a bit of a shock for them when they find I’ve written one page on their prose style, if that, and nineteen on the physics of their story, how the characters could be tested more and whether the subject’s full potential has been brought out.

Victoria: ‘The physics of the story’—such a lovely phrase. Yes, there is great confusion out there about the differences between Copy Editing for correct writing, and Line Editing for beautiful writing, and Developmental Editing for great storytelling. So much of writing a novel happens before you write it. (And then so much happens afterward!) It’s diving deep, deep into the river of this story, swimming at the bottom, feeling into the nooks and crannies between the riverstones for the treasures buried down there.

Roz: Victoria, I know you do developmental editing—working with the client before they’ve even drafted. Can you tell me more about that?

Victoria: Oy! Thank you for asking. What a wonderful time we have!

Say someone comes to me and says, “I’ve been writing stories all my life (or since I went to college or, you know, just since last week), and I have these characters, and this is who they are, and this is what they do, and I want to tell the story about these things that happen to them.” Maybe they’ve already written a first draft of that story. Or maybe they’ve written several drafts and even polished the most recent within an inch of its life. Or maybe they’re already a publishing author and just stuck trying to think themself all the way through this new story, to figure out how to tell it in just the right way. Whatever the reason, they bring it to me because it’s not yet what they so profoundly long for it to be.

Roz: You have hit on something really important—‘what they so profoundly long for it to be’. How do I know if my novel’s finished? Because it is, at last, what I profoundly wanted it to be. And more. That’s not me patting myself on the back saying I’m a clever so-and-so, that’s me knowing I have mined far enough and deep enough, and have not stopped until I could say ‘yes, finally I got to the bottom of this’.

Victoria: I always tell clients, “You know you’re done when your editor tells you you’re done.” [wicked laugh] To a certain degree, you know, that really is the quickest way to tell. If you’re in an all-fired hurry to get published, folks.

Roz: It takes so much time. Often we don’t know what that vision truly is until the book’s finished.

Victoria: No, we really don’t. That’s why we’re writing, always writing toward the Climax, but we don’t worry about the Resolution until we get there. We’re writing to learn what we know, but we won’t know what we know until we’ve written it. And it’s not just what we know about this story. It’s what we know about being alive.

Roz: Before we’re finished we know only this: is there is more potential and more work needs to be done. A good proportion of the thinking and wrestling time is trying to get the idea to talk, to stop being just potential and start being scenes, dilemmas, characters, resolutions.

Victoria: Sigh. All that great meditative mental exercise! Yoga for the creative muscles.

Roz: Eek, not yoga! Yoga makes me murderously cross. You think tartan makes me irritable? You haven’t seen me in a yoga class.

Victoria: [laughing] Oh, no! Don’t make her do lotus position in a plaid tam-o’-shanter!

Roz: But you make a solid-gold point about meditation, as this is a process of deep exploration and refinement. So how do you do this with someone else’s story?

Victoria: Well, the first thing I do is ask the writer, “What matters most in the world to this main protagonist?” (In fact, we just did this exercise on #editingchat last week.) And they say, “He wants his ex back.” Or, “She’s afraid her husband’s having an affair, but she’s also afraid of a lot of even bigger things happening to her.” Or, “They want these nuts relatives out of their life.” And we go into that—talking about where this character’s deepest need is aiming them.

Then I say, “And what does this main protagonist need that keeps them from attaining that goal?” And very often I hear, “Someone interfered.” Or, “There was an earthquake.” Or, “The relatives are just there.” And I say, “Yes, but how does the main protagonist interfere with that goal? In what way is this character buying into their own problems?”

Because that’s the inherent conflict in the story. That buying into one’s own problems is what fiction is all about. Even in a thriller—the protagonist is never just an innocent victim of the dreadful people in black with all that high-tech weaponry. That protagonist needs to save their own life, of course, but they also have a very powerful need to be in that uber-dangerous position in the first place. And that need is what they have to resolve. Then the people in black go away.

Roz: Buying into their own problems—absolutely! That is satisfying because when they stop, we know we’ve come out into the sunshine. There should be a reason why this story is happening to this character and not to a different one.

Victoria: Yes. Because there are only so many basic plots, but there are as many characters are there are human beings throughout history, meaning: infinite. And how this one, unique protagonist copes with the plot you give them creates this one, unique story. Every protagonist comes eventually up against dreadful people in black. It’s just that sometimes those are symbolic people, they’re things going on around them that they—because of their needs—have to be involved with. Identifying those conflicting needs is the first and most important step. That tension is the muscle that moves the entire story irresistibly forward.

Roz: You know how interesting characters are ‘this but that’? Maybe we should redefine that. Interesting characters ‘want this but do that’ or they ‘do this but want that’.

Victoria: Yes. Those conflicting needs. The characters need to go for one thing, but they also need to go for something else simultaneously. “Do as I say, not as I do!” From this craziness we can extrapolate, “What is this protagonist’s worst nightmare?” It is, of course, the ultimate collision of those two needs. So we aim the protagonist at that collision. And that’s going to be their Climax.

Then we do all the work of identifying how the whole thing starts, the Hook, what you need to know to understand it, the Backstory, and three good, cracking Conflicts of increasing tension, including the Faux Resolution after the last one that makes the reader think it’s all over, the Climax isn’t really going to happen after all.

That’s the basic work of designing a great story. It sounds quick and easy, but it’s really huge and complex and rich. And it’s different for every single story—every writer has a whole world of information and knowledge and understanding to explore, and every story is bursting at the seams with things that can happen, things that can be said, details that can be recorded in tracking the progress toward that Climax. We talk about all that. Tremendous stuff!

Roz: And that, folks, is why stories change a lot as you write and revise them. The more we get to know our characters and our world, the more collisions we get, the more finely tuned the conflicts can be.

It’s funny how seeing the process written out like that, with key stages and instructions to add three drops of conflict and stand well back, can make it look like painting by numbers. Of course it’s not at all, but I’m sure I can hear some people shifting and tutting.

Victoria: Play devil’s advocate, there’s a love.

Roz: They’re saying that they don’t like designing to templates, they want the story to evolve naturally and so on.

Victoria: Tut tut, indeed!

Roz: Folks, this is natural—it is the way storytelling works. It’s about hitting psychological beats. Not every single story has to do them in the same way, and yes you can have four conflicts if you want instead of three, but you have to mine the idea so that it takes the reader on the best journey for the kind of story you want.

Victoria: You know, I objected to the idea of a set number of conflicts for quite some time. I thought long and hard for many moons before finally deciding to call out those three big, main ones. It’s just three-act structure. You need a catastrophe to spin your story at the ends of Acts I and II, and of course things do change at the mid-point of any story—that’s simple symmetry. However, I know, it sounds like formula when you first hear it because that’s only on the grand, macro-scale. Every novel needs a whole, rambling, bingety-bang-boom series of problems for the characters to deal with. Keep throwing catastrophes at them! Readers love that.

Roz: Also, we have to keep that original vision in mind. I often find as I’m experimenting that my story wanders into flavours I don’t want. Of course I’ll stop and examine them, and check if I should revise my initial vision. Each idea probably has many possible stories in it and I spend a lot of time trying to crystallise how I want to explore it—and how I don’t.

Victoria: Oh, the long, luxurious work. That’s really what it’s all about. Taking that original vision and re-imagining it in more and more crystalline layers to get at the gold at the very bottom of the magical river, what you so profoundly long for this story to be.

That, people, is re-vision.

Talking Plot
Talking Character
Talking Prose

And here’s me opening a big ole can of worms—always better to go out with a bang than whimper—What do you guys hate most about revision?

30 thoughts on “We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Revision

  1. Heather Webb says:

    Wonderful post. I’m revising my first novel at the moment and I’m finding what Roy said about the revision process to be true- this is where the real creativity is being tapped. Amazing! I would never have thought it before, but as you both also mentioned, you can’t know until you DO.

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, you’re walking into a whole other parallel universe now, Heather. Roz couldn’t be more right.

      1. Roy here. From the parallel universe… πŸ˜‰

        The lovely thing about this stage is that the creativity comes from deep knowledge – of the characters and the world. The more you do, the more it all fits.

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    What do I hate? I’ll tell you what I hate. I hate when my editor makes the most foolish sounding, ridiculous suggestions; which are totally contrary to way I thought the story should be told, and seem to make a lot of extra work but very little sense, and which threaten not only my mental health and overall sense of well being, but also threaten every unbroken dinner plate and undamaged wall in my kitchen, then turn out to be really good ideas. That’s what I hate.

    1. Victoria says:

      Jeez, it’s almost like you’re talking about some editor in particular, Jeffrey! πŸ™‚

      1. Jeffrey Russell says:


  3. Erika Marks says:

    Please promise more of these are to come! They’ve been such a treat and so informative.

    What do I most hate? Frankly, the devil’s in the details for me. I truly love (most)every part of fleshing out a character and/or plot, even if that means a near tear-down and total rebuild (once a carpenter, always a carpenter)–but when signifcant pieces are changed/moved/cut/etc, I am so bad at going back through the draft and finding those inconsistencies.

    All that said, my page proofs just arrived today so now I am facing the reality of reading my draft for the first time and knowing I CAN’T revise anymore. I should be relieved, right?…right?

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, Erika, this is the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald laughing his head off. (He wound up having to pay for some of the revisions he did on the galleys of The Great Gatsby, his revisions were so extensive.)

      Congratulations, anyway! Page proofs are wonderfully exciting.

    2. Jeffrey Russell says:

      Congratulations, Erika!

      1. And a cover! Check the blurb is correct, BTW, and not some older version of the story they’ve culled from early documents…

        Congratulations, Erika. And no you can’t revise now or you’ll annoy a lot of people. But hopefully you have enough cheerleaders around you to reassure you it really can go to press.

  4. Ben says:

    Why can’t independent editors like yourselves be creative writing teachers in school instead of stodgy, political English professors obsessed with so-called literary fiction? Why??? I could have saved years of my life with information that people like you and Larry Brooks are handing out.

    1. Victoria says:

      Ben, thank you! However, I’m afraid I’m totally obsessed with literary fiction. Not current stuff so much, but the greats, particularly the wonderful stylists of the early twentieth-century. . .whee, doggies!

      The problem with being an English prof is that it requires a degree in higher education, and those of us down here in the trenches don’t have either time or money for that. I can’t even teach at my local community college. And my local writer’s conference has given me quite the suspicious eye because—you guessed it—I don’t teach.

      So we muddle along doing what we can. Complain to your college if you like, but they can’t change the rules either. You might be able to wangle an invitation for Roz to do a guest lecture or workshop or something. . .myself, I’m way the heck out here in the boondocks of the US West Coast.

      1. Ben, thank you for the vote of confidence! I actually do have an English degree, but getting it put me totally off literary academia. The reason? It was all about learning the critics and a writer’s place in literature’s development. Yawn. Nothing to do with wonder, or awe, or the ways a writer grabs a reader, takes them on a journey and creates – through nothing but words – an unforgettable, intimate experience. Personally, that’s all I want to know about. Critics and true academics, though, seem to want to keep all that visceral stuff locked up. Grrr

        And now I can’t remember any of my degree so it’s all irrelevant anyway. πŸ˜‰

        1. Victoria says:

          Oh, yeah, I do have a BA in English and most of a BA in computer science, much good that’ll do me. But that won’t get me a job even teaching children in the US without a teaching credential to go with it. Community college requires an MA, and university requires a PhD.

          Being a good editor? Requires the most extensive DIY degree you can imagine. In the trenches, folks.

  5. Ben says:

    Oh, and I like this post’s URL. πŸ˜€

    1. Victoria says:

      That was Roz. πŸ™‚

      1. Victoria says:

        Oh, and Therese!

  6. Margaret says:

    Super post -wish I had read it five months ago, but still marvellously pertinent now.

    1. Victoria says:

      Writing a novel takes a long, long time, Margaret. You made it here now, so you’re all good!

  7. Stacy says:

    What a great post. I’ve just reached the midpoint of my novel (yay,) and I’m doing a quick edit of the first half for glaring errors and making sure the plot/scenes flow, as well as cutting words. In this process, I’ve already realized there ‘s going to be a lot of major editing beyond copyediting before I can even think about sending the story to an agent.

    But this is actually a process I enjoy. Reading what I have as a whole helps remind me why this IS a good plot, and figuring out what works and doesn’t is like a challenging puzzle.

    Writing is learning, and it’s (mostly) a fun process.

    1. Victoria says:

      We write to learn what we know, Stacy. And sometimes what we know best is that we haven’t yet figured things out!

      if it’s any consolation, I know Roz just finished revising her WIP a few weeks ago, and I am now up to my hip-boots in it myself.

      I love the puzzle.

  8. Simon says:

    I heart this little series. I shall miss it.

    Are you ladies available for dinner at my house anytime soon? It’d be like meeting halfway for the two of you. I’d try to keep the kids from spilling things on you, but I can’t guarantee that.

    Let me know.

    1. Victoria says:

      Is it a coincidence that your blog post is called “Regrets,” Simon?

      Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.

      1. Anytime anytime, dear sir! Can’t we, madam? (kick)

        1. Victoria says:

          She’s always kicking me. . .


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