Revision, Part 1: An Early Fiction Checklist

My backpack-on-wheels travels everywhere with me. In it I schlep my old, heavy laptop, my iPad, if I stack them right quite a few books and my Kindle, at least one three-ring binder and my trusty pencil bag, which includes a highlighter, pencils, erasers and a pencil sharpener; different color pens, a mini-stapler, small post-its for note-taking, a flash drive, and paper clips. I'm ready to work, either electronically or on paper, at the drop of a #2 pencil.

Writing on the Run
Deep in the throes of revision while having to go on a recent short trip, I had to face that writing time would be hit or miss; normally squeezed in whenever there's a free moment. To really dig in, though, I wanted to take more than could possibly fit in my catch-all bag: a dictionary, my thesaurus, reference books, as-of-yet unread writing books, etc., etc. Knowing this was impossible, I took a break to think about what I could realistically get accomplished on the trip, sat back and read an article, "4 Tips for Writing Scenes," by Ingrid Sundberg,

Sundberg's article changed everything. Maybe I couldn't have all my tools, but I was at a place in my story where a preliminary check would be helpful. After a cursory look at my WIP with Sundberg's advice in mind, I made a startling discovery. The drama and emotion I thought I'd poured into my draft--heart, gut, and soul--didn't have the impact I'd envisioned. An editor might even call my scenes downright flimsy! I chose three areas that Sundberg suggested need to be present in each scene and decided not to wait until the end of the entire draft to consider them, but to review them early in the draft and see what would happen.

Three Scene Booster Musts
I backtracked to Chapter One and evaluated each scene according to Three Scene Boosters suggested in Sundberg's post. In each scene, I isolated these three areas:
  • Significant Emotional Change: Does your character go through some sort of emotional change?
After a thorough scrubbing this is what my I came up with: In Chapter 1, my character is sleepy and bored after starting out in the wee hours of the morning on a long ride home from a camping trip. Her grandfather's VW Bug starts to pick up speed. She stiffens as his car careens down a narrow mountain road, faster and faster. She is thrown side to side clinging to her stuffed animal, her only comfort.  Her short life flashes before her, like the car's headlights that are sweeping ever faster past a thick forest of trees. These minutes--seconds--could be her last.
Revised emotional change: I needed to show a starker contrast between my character's boredom and fear.
  • Dramatic Action: What action does your character take to get out of the bind she finds herself in?
Her grandfather shouts, "Hold on!" She grabs the door handle. He taps the brake but the wind whistles even louder past her ear. She shouts, "Quick, do something!" He pulls up on the emergency brake--the skinny little lever next to her seat--and the little VW Bug shudders and shakes. Her palms are slippery but she hangs on, with only her stuffed animal for comfort.
Revised dramatic action: As the car picks up speed, I needed to show how frightened she is more clearly, which was to show how helpless she feels. 
  • Scene Summary: What is the main action in the scene? At the end of the scene go back and look at your character's main action(s).
Stuck in the car; realizing it's out of control flying down a narrow mountain road. All she can do is hang on to the door handle, her palms slick, her arms hurting from holding on so tight.
  • What is your character's main emotion(s)? Fearing for her life.
Though likely not my last run-through, these early scene boosters have strengthened my scenes by looking for my character's emotional change, how dramatic her action(s) is, and giving her the maximum emotional punch. This technique has helped make my scenes more exciting and dramatic. The bonus? This effort should save time later during the final editing stage. That will be when most of the polishing is complete and each run-through is to make sure all the other essential story elements are in place.

Just think, if another short trip comes along I won't have to take so many writing tools in my backpack. All I'll need is a pencil, eraser, colored pen, post-its, and extra paper. Oh, and a book to read in my spare time!

See if this plan works for you: In coming months more revision highlights will be explored to help narrow down important areas in your manuscript, one at a time.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, recently completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction course. She has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is currently developing several works for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great advice on adding more emotion to scenes. It really is difficult to read your manuscript with 'fresh' eyes, but having pointers to look out for does help. You'll certainly have a lighter traveling 'writing load' thanks to Sundberg's tips!

Linda Wilson said...

Yes, thanks Karen. Next trip I think I'll take less and focus on something else "small!"

Unknown said...

I recognize that bag :)

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great revision questions for character development.

Linda Wilson said...

Ha Tracy, it's a great bag, isn't it?! The only problem with it is it doesn't carry the entire office! Thanks, Mary Jo. I hope the idea is helpful.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Whoops--off to revise again. Great advice..

Linda Wilson said...

Ha Annie, I hope it helps!

Unknown said...

I read Ingrid Sundberg's article and finished your's. What great information. I like how your revisions change with your understandng and applying. I'm looking forward to introducing them in revisions of my short stories.

Linda Wilson said...

Hello, Margaret, I'm so glad these revision suggestions have helped. Best of luck revising your stories. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Dallas Woodburn said...

This is such a helpful post! I particularly loved the examples you gave from your work-in-progress. Thanks for writing!

Linda Wilson said...

I'm glad it's helpful. Best of luck with your writing. Thanks for commenting.

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