Monday, August 2, 2010

Revising with Gennifer Choldenko

Since I’m painstakingly rewriting my WIP, I thought Gennifer Choldenko’s workshop on rewriting and self-editing would be an excellent choice for my morning break-out session. She talked about Do’s and Don’ts, tips for revising, and gave us a list of questions that we should be asking ourselves as we rewrite our manuscript. At the end she took questions, and I took notes and posted my favorites/ones I thought would be most helpful.

(OMG these intros are painfully boring. I’m so mentally tired I can’t be as humorous as usual. But hopefully the post is helpful and awesome. It was a great session! Also this post is super long, but it's mostly lists.)

Do’s and Don’ts
  • Do get time away from your manuscript. One option for this, if you don’t feel like taking time completely off (you overachiever you) once you finish a draft, start researching your next novel
  • Don’t be lazy
  • Do remember that good work takes time
  • Don’t be defensive
  • Do know that every writer needs an editor - so get someone else to read your book
  • Do be patient with the process
  • Don’t be a good girl. Make mistakes and be ready to do things that might not make the everyone happy, but are right for your characters.
  • Do have the goal to make your book better, not check off every item of your critique letter. If you’re not sure you agree with the crit comment, don’t take it.
  • Do follow your instincts - you can’t write without them. Aside from crit groups, you might also want to send out your finished novel to 3-5 readers (brand-new readers, and maybe they’re readers, not writers) who you really trust. Get their critiques back and see where there’s overlap.
  • Do revise as creatively as you can
  • Do have courage
  • Do believe in yourself
7 Ways to Build a Strong Protagonist
  1. Protagonist needs to be active. It’s difficult to create a good protagonist who is on the sidelines or overshadowed by a sidekick character.
  2. Protagonist needs to be warm and likable - or if not likable, we need to have compassion for him/her because of his/her circumstances. Or at the very least, we need to understand why the protagonist behaves the way he/she does.
  3. Protagonist needs some complexity to his/her personality. In other words, protagonist needs to be interesting. (Have depth.)
  4. Protagonist needs to want something.
  5. Protagonist needs to reveal things to us about ourselves.
  6. Protagonist needs to take things farther than we would.
  7. Protagonist needs to be flawed.

33 Questions to Ask Yourself
  1. What is the single biggest problem this manuscript has? You have to think in terms of the biggest thing you can to improve because you only have so much time. Think BIG.
  2. What am I avoiding? Often you write around the most emotional thing. You’re writing toward it and your writing slows.
  3. What will my reader wish was there?
  4. Is there an off scene interchange that needs to be on scene?
  5. Where does my mind wander when I am reading?
  6. What is my least favorite chapter? How can I get rid of it or develop it to the point it isn’t my least favorite chapter anymore?
  7. Are my best crit sources in agreement about any one point?
  8. What is the climax of the main plot? Ideally this happens around both plot and character. If your book is about Hurricane Katrina, obviously the hurricane would be the climax. But if your character can interact with the hurricane somehow, that’s ideal.
  9. What is the inciting incident? This is the thing that sets the plot up. In HP 1, it’s Harry’s birthday. In A Wrinkle in Time, it’s the father’s disappearance (even though it happens before the book starts, that’s OK.)
  10.  Is my protagonist the same person at the end of the manuscript as he was at the beginning? The protagonist doesn’t have to do a 180 - it can be a small change.
  11.  Do character traits of my protagonist drive the plot to at least some degree?
  12.  Are any of my characters stereotypes?
  13.  Do my subplots add to the book?
  14.  Where do my subplots climax? One way to deal with the middle of your novel not being as tense as you like is to have your subplot climax in the middle. However, make sure that your subplot adds to the book instead of taking away from it.
  15.  Do I have too many characters?
  16.  Have I done a search for each character’s name and checked to make certain dialogue from one character doesn’t sound like dialogue from another character?
  17.  Have I missed an opportunity for humor?
  18.  Can research better this book in any way?
  19.  Is there a way to strengthen the domino effect of my plot? This will help up the tension in your book. Not everything in the book will be a pure domino, but usually there will be one main domino for the plot. 
  20.  Is there a consistent style in my book? Have I violated that style in any spot? Often the troublesome chapter in a book is in a different style or a different voice than the rest of the book - it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book. Usually the style will come out of your writing once you start, you can’t force style onto a book. But it’s important to recognize it once it shows up.
  21.  Where does the text need grounding?
  22.  Are there soliloquies? Can I get rid of them?
  23.  Have I used setting to convey feeling? You don’t want to just say, “I am sad.” if the character is sad. Using setting can be a great way to convey mood, particularly in first-person narratives. If the narrator is feeling desperate, they won’t head to the fair, they’ll head to the moonlit dock by the foggy bay.
  24.  Have I left room for the reader?
  25.  Will applying the rule: show don’t tell strengthen any part of this manuscript?
  26.  Have I read the entire novel out loud?
  27.  Have I searched for my pet phrases?
  28.  Do I care deeply about my protagonist?
  29.  What is fresh and original about this novel
  30.  Are there plot holes? Can I fix them?
  31.  Are there clear motivations for each characters behavior?
  32.  Is the world I’ve created completely believable?
  33.  What is this book trying to say?
Q: I can make people laugh when I talk, but I’m having a tough time putting humor in my writing. Do you have any tips?

A: I think I’m not funny in person [Heather note: not true] but I am on the page, so I need to get everyone out of my office. So maybe you should try the opposite. Look and take notes on when you’re making people laugh in real life and see what it is that people are laughing about. Maybe it’s the conversation that’s stimulating it. There are also some things that are just inherently humorous. So I just look through and try to see those chances for natural humor.

Q: I find over and over again I hear the same thing about wanting to start the action quickly, but I tend to like to start a story slow. Do you have advice for the beginning?

A: I would look at the big changes first. The tendency is to do 400 revisions of chapter one and then, “Wow! Does that shine!” But you really need to look at it on a macro level. So avoid that chapter one revision and try to look at the whole thing. But in the end it depends on what you like better, so try it both ways - try the fast revisions and then see which you like better.

Q: Do you feel like as a debut novelists editors are looking for something that’s ready to go or were they willing to work with you?

A: I will say that my first novel had the fewest amount of revision notes. A lot of authors don’t revise well. They can’t handle the emotional part of it. And I think some editors, depending on the working relationship, don’t want to deal with writing a long revision letter. But if they find something that could be great, they’ll put the time into it. It’s the most important skill for a working author to be able to revise.

Q: Can you talk a little more about show vs. tell?

A: Show don’t tell just gives the reader room to experience your story. If you’re narrating your life, you don’t say, “This is a sad moment.” You just experience the moment. So if you describe experiencing that moment, we can experience that moment. But if you say the feeling, you’re keeping us out. So think about how you’re narrating your day. That’s the key. You want the reader to feel as if they were there, inside them, not outside them being told.


  1. Oh my God, you've saved my life. Thanks a bunch for posting this!!! Now I have A LOT of work to do :)

  2. Thanks for this brill post, Heather! It's really got me thinking. I'll have to return to this when I'm revising but I'll also keep some of this stuff in mind while I'm working on my first draft. xo

  3. I think the not being defensive part is really difficult for a lot of us. When we see someone critiquing our baby, our immediate reaction is, "What? But there's nothing wrong with that part!" It's something I've definitely had to learn to squelch.

    GREAT post and awesome lists! I will be revisiting this when I start revising my current project. :)

  4. Wow, great tips. I need to keep all this in mind as I'm working on my second draft. :)

  5. This is great! Wish I had been there. Thank you for taking these notes.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I was in another session but thought this one sounded good too. Great info.

  7. Great advice! Thanks for posting!

  8. ooh i starred this - this was a great post


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