Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.44: How Do I Fix What is Broken?

November is “Revision” month here in the Writing Excuses Season 10 Master Class, so while many of you may be tempted by NaNoWriMo, there’s a different kind of work to be done… Delia Sherman joins us again, this time for a frank talk about the tools and techniques we use during our revisions.

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered in a cloud fortress above Lake Michigan by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Print your manuscript, and with six colors of highlighter, mark it up. Assign one color to each of the five senses, and assign a sixth color to movement.

Thing of the week: Off To Be The Wizard, by Scott Meyer, narrated by Luke Daniels.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Start revision with the big stuff. Does the story work? Is the ending satisfying? Do I like the characters? Do I want to keep reading? Then think about the best solution. Before you start eating the elephant a bite at a time, outline your revision process! Make a task list. Start with whatever you bracketed (or noted) while writing that you need to fix. Then read the book yourself, and pay attention to your reader reactions. What is awesome, what is boring, what is confusing, what is unbelievable? Identify problems, then come up with solutions, to avoid cascading. Pantsers? You may need to outline the book and figure out what you are writing. Keep a list of things to change later to keep going. Let your readers suggest problems to look at. Fix it now, or fix it later? That is the question. Use search-and-replace to put brackets around a character name to help you find all the places that need fixing. Colorcode changes! Or colorcode to check balance. Try using notecards on a cork board to make the plot visible. 

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, adrift. How Do I Fix What Is Broken?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we are, once again, on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Brandon] We would also like to welcome our guest star, Delia Sherman.
[Delia] Thank you.
[Brandon] Thank you for coming back. I’m glad we didn’t scare you off last time.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and talk about revision. So, you have your novel, and you have carefully placed these episodes somewhere, where you can listen to them later on, or maybe you’re just going right into them. You are now ready to revise your story, and you realize it is broken, broken, broken. Let’s talk you through strategies for fixing those things. How do you guys each do your revisions? We’re not going to talk about polishing this time. We’ll talk about fixing the broken parts. Dan?
[Dan] Oh, thanks a lot.
[Brandon] Well, after what you did to me last time.
[Dan] Okay. So I think of revision in several phases. The last one, like you just referred to, is polishing. The first one is the really big broad stuff. Does this story work? Is the ending satisfying? Do I like the characters? Does reading this make me want to keep going? Honestly, most of these questions I can answer either by myself or with beta readers. When I was trying to get some of my very early books, giving them to friends, and going back to them a few months later. “Hey, what did you think of my book?” “Oh, yeah. I started that…” And then never finished it, and that’s a good sign to me that it’s not compelling, it’s not keeping them going. So once I know what all of those problems are, more or less identified, I try to figure out what’ll be the best solution. If the ending is not working, that doesn’t necessarily mean the ending needs to change. It often means something else in the beginning needs to change. If the characters are not working, the plots are not compelling, there’s usually some weird thing that you don’t think about…
[Howard] One weird trick?
[Dan] One weird trick that dentists hate…
[Dan] And I don’t know exactly how to describe how to find what that thing is. For example, when I wrote The Hollow City, it didn’t work for a lot of people. It just… It wasn’t working. Brandon is is my writing group and it didn’t work for him. The solution, in part, was to add an extra character. That extra character, the role that she served, is I realized that there was no one in the story right now who specific job was to kind of demonstrate the difference between what was real and what this guy was hallucinating. So simply adding a character who could do that made the story work.

[Howard] Approaching it from a tactical angle, if you will. The problem that many people have with a project the size of revising a book is that it’s a little bit like eating an elephant. You just gotta do it one bite at a time. But where on the elephant do you start? For me, what I will do is actually outline my revision process. The first thing I need to do is dive into this muddy bit in chapter 16, and I need to straighten that out. So I will make that task list for myself. That helps me see that I am making progress on the revisions. Writing a novel can often be very, very linear, very, very sequential. You start at the beginning, you right through the middle, you write the end, and you get to be done. Revising… Starting at the beginning and writing through the middle and getting to the end often doesn’t work because you miss the things that you need to fix.
[Mary] There’s another aspect of this. I have a similar thing… A similar process. As I’m writing… We’ve talked about this before, that a lot of times when you’re writing and you know that you need to change something, just put it in brackets, make a note to yourself and then go back and fix it later. So a lot of times, what I do is the very first thing I do is I go back and address the things that I knew were problems as I was working on it. But then, the next thing that I do is, I actually sit down and read the book myself. I try to just note my reader reactions. I’ve said before that you try to read something as if you’re not the person who wrote it. A lot of times, the reaction is, “But I know how it ends.” But you also have films or books that you have read over and over and over, and you can quote. They still give you that an enormous sense of satisfaction. So there’s no reason that your book can’t give you those same feelings. So when you have a sense of being bored while you’re reading your own book, that’s a sign of a problem. So I just mark down things that I think are awesome… This part really pleases me, because I don’t want to accidentally fix them. Things that are boring. Things where I’m confused, because sometimes I’ve gone back and I’m like, “What the heck was I doing here?” And things that I don’t believe. Because sometimes it made sense in the moment, and you go back and you’re like, “I have no idea. Nobody is going to survive a fall from the 10th floor onto concrete. That’s just…”
[Brandon] I’ve done that sort of thing. Not fallen from…
[Brandon] High floors onto concrete, but I have…
[Dan] Have to one up everybody.
[Brandon] Yeah, I’ve looked at a chapter and I’m like, “What was I thinking? This doesn’t…” And all my beta readers are like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” I’m like, “Wow. Was I…”
[Mary] You get… You’re like, “No.”
[Brandon] Who snuck in here and wrote this chapter?

[Mary] One of the things also is I do not do any wordsmithing at this stage. This is purely a structural draft. After I have gone through and identified the problems, then I go back through and come up with solutions. One of the reasons you don’t want to come up with solutions in the moment is a lot of times it can have a cascading effect. Like you can say, “Ah, so I noticed that my heroine faints a lot. I won’t have her faint in this scene. That will fix that.” Then you realize, well, if she doesn’t faint in that scene… And this has actually happened to me. If she doesn’t faint in that scene, then no one has to call the carriage, and in the next scene, where they have pivotal conversations in the carriage, which they have to have in the carriage for reasons… Which will cause everything else to unravel if I move it. The whole book will suddenly unravel just because I decided not to have her faint. So if I had been doing this in a linear fashion and decided to go ahead… Oh, I’ll just go ahead and rewrite the scene where she doesn’t faint. It would have been disastrous later. So I just make notes about what I need to fix. Then, as Howard does, that gives me an outline and I go back and attack those in kind of in size order. Some of the little things, where I’m confused because I’ve left out a word… Yeah, I’ll fix that right in the moment. But otherwise, I go back and deal with them in size order. A lot of times, the smaller things will go away when I fix a big one.

[Delia] I was nodding madly when you were talking about outlining, but I outline something completely different. I outline my book. I am a pantser. I completely make it up as I go along. I frequently become entirely lost and start one book and end another. So it is necessary for me to sit down and figure out what book it is I’m actually writing, because you can’t write two at the same time with the same words and the same text.
[Brandon] You mean you actually outline your book after you are done? That is awesome.
[Howard] I do the same thing. It’s… Yeah.
[Delia] Because even on occasions when I have made an outline to begin with, I don’t always write the same book that I outlined. So I really do need an outline. If I can’t outline it, then I can see where I’ve gone wrong. At some point while I’m doing this, I have to figure out what the book is about. What… Have a written a book about the human condition? Have I written a book about gender relations? What is the overarching theme? What was my subconscious telling me that maybe I didn’t know I was doing? Once I’ve identified that, then it’s a whole lot easier to make it more like that and take out the stuff that isn’t like that.
[Mary] So you guys remember the episode in which we ask… The homework assignment was that you needed to reverse engineer an outline from a book? This is one of those places where that applies. If you’re in fact a pantser, and then outlining doesn’t work for you, that’s where you can apply those skills. It’s still all about analysis and understanding structure. It’s just a different point at which you apply that.
[Brandon] You mean our homework was relevant?
[Mary] I know. It’s like we planned this.

[Brandon] I want to give you a few little tips. I actually do basically what Mary just outlined, so I’m not going to go over it again. That’s my method of revision as well. A couple of things that help with this. I do use beta readers. I do start this document that is like my list of things to change, the moment I come up with the first thing that I want to change, which is often in the middle of writing the book. This is because I really need forward momentum as a writer. Most things I don’t want to go back and fix. If a major character thing is broken, I will go back and fix it, but if it’s something… If it’s most things that need to be fixed, I’m like, “All right. I’m going to try a new character here. Okay. That character worked.” I will add to my thing, “This character needs to show up in the first part of the book, rather than appearing magically in chapter 17.” I actually do this, and I keep it open and I stick it on dropbox. My alpha readers, my assistant, my wife… They can add things to this document as suggested problems that they have come across. Then, when we do the beta read, which works well for us as a Google document. Make a Google spreadsheet, actually, that has a tab for each character. I give out the book to 18 people, sometimes. It’s sometimes fewer than that, but then they will each have their name… Sign their comments, and the right in the chapter, “Here was my response. Here’s my reader response. Here’s where I’m confused.” And signing it. Then others will sometimes respond to that. So when I do a chapter, I can look at this sheet, pull out the things that I think are relevant, because you don’t really ever take everything people mention… They will pick out things, and you’ll see running themes that are like through all these chapters, people are noticing the same thing. Then you add it to your document that you use as you’re kind of revision guide.

[Dan] Now I’m going to make an admission here. Because I have grown into a process that does something that we used to tell people to never do. Which is, I always fix things as we go. Because I used to do it that way, identify a problem, I’ll come back and fix that later. I can’t do that anymore. I suppose I could, but I hate doing it.
[You know]
[Dan] It drives me nuts to know that that character needs to show up earlier, and to not go back and do it right now. Because that will change all of the dialogue. And if that changes the dialogue, then that will change their relationships, and I have to go back and fix it.
[Mary] You know, I think I want to bring this up. I’m glad you mentioned that. A lot of times, advice like, “Don’t revise as you’re going along,” is something that you give to new writers, because when you’re new and still trying to figure out… It’s completely possible to just stop your process. As you train yourself as a writer, one of the things that’s happening is that you are also training your internal editor. A good editor-author relationship makes a book really good. It can make a book that’s fine into something that is actually brilliant. Most of the time, your editor only gets to look at the book at the end, depending on your process. If you have an editor who works with you well, and they’re working with you all along, it can hone that book so that by the time you get to the end, you have a much cleaner first draft. If that editor is your own internal editor, then that’s going to help. But what happens to new writers is that they’re trying to train their writer brain and their editor brain at the same time. That can completely stop the process, because you ask the editor, “Okay. So you’ve flagged a problem. How do I fix it?” The editor has to sit there and go, “Uh… Uh…” Because you don’t know yet.
[Brandon] Well, and one of the things, Dan has written enough books, he knows his process well enough that he’s not going to break more things by fixing this. He’ll know, when he puts that new character in, that he really likes the new character from just the get go. A lot of new writers I’ve worked with, they’ll do something like add this new character, be like, “That’s great,” and then go add them all to the first part of the book. Then write the next chapter, and be like, “Oh, this was wrong.” Then they end up rewriting this character out, and it can just kill your momentum.

[Brandon] We need to stop for the book of the week. We’re going to do this year something that we did at the retreat last year, which is we are going to have one of our Writing Excuses cruise members pitch a book that they have loved.
[Dan] Yes. Today we have Luke, who I had lunch with today and we talked about books and he told me about one that he really loved. So he’s going to tell us about it now. He’s going to be speaking directly into my forehead.
[Mary] Wait, wait.
[Dan] He’s also going to be speaking into this other mic, so that the audience can hear him.
[Mary] Well, also, I was going to pause so that we could give Bert time to get back up on stage. [Inaudible] Okay.
[Luke] So the book I want to sell to you guys today is Off to Be the Wizard, by Scott Meyer, and narrated by one of my favorite narrators, Luke Daniels, who is just amazing at doing different voices for all the characters. Basically, it’s about a computer nerd who discovers that the real world is actually a big computer simulation, where by changing a few lines of code, you can actually change reality. So like any good computer nerd, he decides to program himself back in time to the Middle Ages, to use his newfound knowledge to become a wizard. He quickly realizes, however, that he’s not the first computer nerd to do so.
[Luke] It’s a fantastic, funny book, and one of those few books I’ve actually laughed out loud in public while I’m listening to.
[Brandon] Who is the author, one more time?
[Luke] Scott Meyer, and narrated by Luke Daniels.
[Mary] Luke Daniels is also a fantastic narrator, and a really nice guy, too.
[Dan] Yes. And you, if you want to get a copy of that, you can go out to, start a 30-day free trial membership, and get a free copy of Off to Be the Wizard, by Scott Meyer.

[Brandon] Okay. So we’ve got just a little bit more time on revision. I wanted to mention something kind of cool that we do sometimes with my documents. That is, since we live in the computer era, we can do some different things. That is, we can do some cool search and replaces. Now we’re not talking too much about polishing, but you had mentioned, Delia, sometimes looking for… You mentioned something that sparked this in my brain. I will actually do a search where I’m like this is a word like… Oh, this character is broken. I know this side character is broken. Do a search and replace for that character plus brackets around their name. Meaning, you change that character’s name to that same name but with brackets around it. What this does is, as I’m reading through my document, it hits me every time I get to that character’s name. Oh, wait, there’s something broken about this character. I can be reminded of all the stuff I need to fix about this character, every time I see that bracketed name. This is kind of a cool tool that you can use any time you’ve got some large sweeping change that you need to make, particularly if it’s related to a character or a place or something like that.
[Mary] Along those lines, one of the tricks that I used when I was learning to do this, which I need to do less frequently now, but sometimes I’ll colorcode the changes that I need to make. Particularly if I feel like there is… I can tell that there’s some sort of balance issue, there’s something going wrong. I’ll just go through, and I’ll put a line next to the character’s name. Actually, as I’m saying this, I think that I picked this up from doing audiobook narration where I would highlight lines and it became really, really obv… It becomes very obvious when you do that. You can just flip through and look and go, “Oh… I’ve assigned yellow to Elana and she has all of the dialogue.” Which might be okay, but it might also signal a problem. Sometimes, this can help you spot balance, particularly if you’re a visual learner, you’re visually oriented. A lot of times that can… Is another way to do it. One of the other things is when you’re doing the outlining, is… I just experienced this at the thing that we were doing, the…
[Delia] Oh, yeah. Our secret project.
[Mary] Our secret project. So we were doing a secret project, which I think is public by the time this airs.
[Delia] Probably.

[Mary] So… But we’re working on a series with six other writers. So we worked out the timelines for the characters, and we put their major plot moments for each chapter in a note card on a board. You could immediately look at the board and see where the holes were. It was so obvious where the holes work, and so… I am now going to try that the next thing that I am working on because it was so easy.
[Delia] I have to tell you, it works really well. If you happen to be very visual… I have to say most of the things that you have said make me want to crawl under the table and weep gently. I find them incredibly daunting, because I am not an organized person. I have to be able to see something, I can’t… This is all too slippery for me. So those… Figuring out a way to outline with notecards and to be able to pick something up on a bulletin board and move it to another place and look at something that’s laid out. For those of us who are less technologically advanced, and who are perhaps daunted by the amazing organization by which I am surrounded, might want to do the low-tech way.
[Howard] One of the reasons why the film industry is so standardizedly dependent upon the storyboarding process… You have a wall covered with visual elements that show you the movie. One of the reasons for that is that there’s a… For lack of a better word, a committee working on that project. You can’t trust them all to have the whole thing in their head, but when it is up on the wall, you can see it.
[Brandon] When I was… I got to tour Pixar. They have on the wall this cool thing for… They do it for every film, where they take each scene’s coloring and put it as a little ribbon on a long continuum. It’s almost like a timeline, but it’s a timeline of color, so they can see if certain scenes are jarring color palette wise from the scenes around them, and if they want that to be the case. Which I had never considered. If you look… The one they showed me was Wall-e. It actually had this blend of colors that was really interesting going from the Browns into the whites of the spaceship in this space and then in the colors and things, with green and whatnot near the ending, and it was really interesting. That was the prominent colors for each scene. Every couple of seconds, they took one of those.

[Brandon] But we’re out of time for revision. We will come back and talk about this again in a couple of weeks. But we are going to give you some homework. This was actually one that was suggested by Nalo when she was on the podcast. We were talking about revision, and she uses something like this color method, but she uses it for senses. She suggested take… Getting six colors, printing out your manuscript or just doing it on the computer screen, and highlighting… Take the six colors. There’s five senses plus movement. Anytime something’s moving, you’ll highlight it in one color, or someone’s moving. Anytime you mention a sense, mention the color appropriate to that sense. Then see how you’re doing with your descriptions and see if you have enough motion going on in your story. So that’s your homework. Take a chapter and do that. Take a whole book and do that, if you want to. Take a short story and do that. This has been Writing Excuses adrift. We’d like to thank our studio audience.
[Screams, applause]
[Brandon] We would like to thank Delia. Thank you so much for being on the podcast with us.
[Delia] Thank you.
[Howard] Outstanding.
[Brandon] You all are out of excuses, now go revise.