The Writer’s Desk is a new monthly column providing tips for fiction and memoir writers. You can read the previous column, How to make revisions, part 1 — macro, at this link.
“Successes are revised mistakes.” — James Clear
The title of this article says part 2, yet revision is an ongoing process. Every time I revisit my own published work, I find places where I can improve it, yet there is no perfect manuscript. As you revise, ask questions to dig deeper into your hero’s journey:
Who is my hero and are they story worthy? There are no universal characters, but their longings are universal. Most humans share basic desires for love, acceptance, belonging, and self-esteem. Your task is to identify your hero’s greatest desire. What are they lacking in order to feel whole, and who or what is standing in the way?
Bad decisions make great stories, and in a great story, your protagonist must suffer.
Stories are built on conflict, but if your character is too nice and always does the right thing, there’s no story. What is their problem or flaw? (Hopefully they have more than one.) Primary characters don’t need to be likeable, but they need to be compelling. Actors often say they enjoy playing villains because of their complex layers.
Take a seemingly bland character and unwrap his layers. On the surface, Ove, the protagonist in A Man Called Ove, is a grumpy old man whom people avoid. He’s obsessed with parking rules in his subdivision, but otherwise appears to have no interests or friends.
At the outset, what does your character desire? Ove believes his greatest desire is to die, but as his story unfolds, the reader sees the rich life he led as a young man from the action, dialogue, and well-placed flashbacks.
What or who do they believe will fix their life? Ove believes he needs to die.
What roadblocks prevent the hero from achieving the goal? (Internal, external, or both.) Ove’s suicide attempts are constantly interrupted by outside events.
What does your hero actually need? This may not be the same thing as what they want.
What is the universal life lesson learned? Without spoilers, (because you should read Frederik Backman’s book) I’ll say Ove learns he has many reasons to keep living. I also recommend the film if you don’t mind subtitles. Interestingly, much of the film does not appear in the book, yet it’s the same story is told differently.
As you revise remember two things:
The delete key is your friend. If cutting large chunks of text makes you cringe, create a file called “cuts.” This gives you access to words and scenes you may use in another part of your story. Chances are most of what you cut improves the story by its absence.
Find and replace. Each of us uses words we tend to overuse. In drafts, my characters sigh a lot. In Word, I use Find to cut most of the sighs and Replace with other verbs and actions.
Select a moment in your story when your lead is unsettled, disturbed or moved; they’re at a point where they face a difficult choice or learn something shocking. Write down all the emotions inherent with this moment using an abstract adverb. (She’s nervous. He feels shaky, etc.)
Next, write down how your character’s actions. What will they lead do? Will she be explosive or subdued? He punched a wall. She wrung her hands. What would he say that can cut to the heart of the matter? “I’ve had enough,” he shouted.
Add a detail from the setting that is noticeable, but your lead notices in a different way (a ticking clock, a scrape, an aroma… use a sense other than sight). The smell of banana bread wafted in from the window, and he unclenched his fist, remembering fine autumn days from his childhood.
Go back and delete all the abstract emotions and let the actions and dialogue do the work.
For more tips, try Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. His book, Murder Your Darlings, which I featured in my last column, will be in paperback in January 2021.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is currently board of directors president at Edmonds based EPIC Group Writers. Her next novel, The Blue Whale of Summer, is due for release in January 2021. Follow @Lauramoewriter on Twitter and Instagram.