Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Tarnished Crown

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2003,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk

 

hen the last word is written, typed, or even dictated into your work of art, and those glorious letters spell out 'The End', you have created a crown filled with jewels that the whole world just has to see.

But wait!  Now's the time to step back, pick up another piece of paper, open another file on the computer and start your next work, forgetting -- in time -- the wondrous creation you have completed.

"Why?" you ask.  "Why wait when there it is, hot off the presses, glittering and glowing, ready to cross the land, sea or ocean into some editor's loving hand?"

The simple answer is that what glitters is not always gold.  In the first flush of completion, with adrenaline racing through your system and rose-tinted glasses perched on your nose, you will believe that you have achieved the breakout novel, a work that will be read through the ages.

Trust me.  You want to wait.

Let a month, or even two, pass by.  Let the story fade as your focus turns to the next one. Put those characters out to pasture while new ones climb up out of the teaming masses to be your stars.

When that first work of art has turned into a flickering ghost, the crown is tarnished and a layer of dust hides those glittering jewels, only then is it time to take the manuscript up again.  When the glow has faded, you are ready to see both the gems and the flaws, where your characters shine and where they stepped in something your mother wouldn't let into the house.

The Art of Revision

Revision is something that few writers look on willingly and even fewer with pleasure.  However, editing is a critical step on the path to that tiny slip of paper containing the beloved word accepted.  There are no guarantees in life, and certainly none in publishing, but the odds of your manuscript being accepted, or even receiving those sought after positive comments from an editor, increase substantially if you put your manuscript through the wringer.

Everyone experiences the revision cycle differently, and you must find the best technique for you.  One way to do so is to explore techniques that work for other writers and then put your own twist on them.  Whether you borrow from a writer who just wants the manuscript out the door or from one who loves the process, revision is a crucial step that new authors skip at their peril and old authors skip at the risk of nasty comments from their readers.

Whatever your method of choice, the goal of revision is to polish that tarnished crown.  It will never again have the brand new gleam of a fresh idea, but you can make the story stronger and deeper than before.  As you polish, the idea's surface may develop some scratches that reveal hidden depths, or you may carve some extra facets into the gems, bringing more life to your masterpiece.  Some of that succulent prose may have turned sour in the course of time, causing you to pop out a ruby and place an emerald instead.

My method is somewhat simple, but has worked effectively for me.  The steps are detailed below:

Step One: Reread the whole text with both hands tied behind your back

After you've waited long enough that the story is a fading memory, you are ready to pick up the text as if it were a book you just purchased.  I work from printout, but if you're an electronic reader, pull it up on screen or a handheld.  The importance of this step is to stay in the mind of the reader. 

If you cannot keep your hands faithfully tied--it's a hard task--then keep a separate paper and jot down notes with page number references.  What you hope to gain is a sense of how close to publishable the story is.  Ask yourself the following questions:

* Did the plot grab me all the way through, or was I trudging along because I had to?

* Did the story hang together, with a logical progression of events and a nice conclusion to all those pesky threads?  (If this is part of a series, did the main threads resolve with enough connections left open to interest me in the next book?)

* Can I visualize the world or were the characters just floating in a blank room the whole time?  (This is a difficult question because you designed the world, but try to experience the manuscript as a reader.)

* Can I visualize the characters by voice, action or other unique characteristics, or did the characters all seem the same unless they were wearing name tags, i.e. John said this, Mary groaned?

* Is the continuity maintained?  Ever see the movie where the main character has a blue coat but in the next scene, it's pink?  Well, these kinds of errors can sneak into even a short story--and often do.

There are other questions you can ask, but these are the main ones for determining how much work the revision will require.  I find if there are major plot issues or if the characters are plastic, I'm looking at a rewrite rather than a revision which is significantly more work.  Regardless of how tight the first draft is and how minor the required edits, you should heave a big sigh of relief that you didn't succumb to that first instinct to throw it in the mail untouched.

Tip: If you read from paper, it can help to put the manuscript--or at least the portion you're reading--into a punchless binder so that it appears more like a book.  Here's one source of punchless binders but they are available from many office supply stores: http://www.keysan.com/ksud207.htm .

Step Two: Critique the novel using a template

Critiquing is a good way to become a better writer and critiquing yourself is a good way to maintain the objectivity to improve your work.  It also has the side benefit of giving you a jump on your final synopsis, if your template includes a plot summary.  Some templates I've found valuable are available on the Forward Motion site at:

http://www.fmwriters.com/community/dc/dcboard.php?az=show_mesg&forum=15&topic_id=10&mesg_id=21&page

Step Three: Do your first pass at editing

Using what you learned in steps one and two, untie your hands and have at it.  Fix those plot issues, sweep out any awkward phrasing, correct the continuity errors and do whatever else is necessary to return some of the gleam to your crown -- enough that you're willing to share it with the world.

Unless you're under a deadline, set a goal for number of pages or hours processed in a day or week -- whatever you're most comfortable with.  If you stick with the goal, or do it one better, your editing stack will get noticeably smaller without becoming overwhelming.

Note: You can have someone read it right off the presses to help with the first steps, but be aware this person's ability to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes is lost for further versions.

Step Four: Ask a reliable friend to read or submit to a critique group

I cannot emphasize how important it is to get someone else's feedback.  No matter how long you wait, no matter how many distancing tools you use, those are your words, created from your blood, sweat and tears.  A critique group is the best resource because they have no obligation -- perceived or otherwise -- to sugar coat their opinions.  Though proper etiquette requires constructive language, it does not prevent them from tearing apart the places that really need it.  If a scene doesn't work, critiquers will tell you.  No matter how you beg family and friends to be critical, they usually find it difficult to tarnish the crown for you, especially if they think you still see it glittering.

Step Five: Second/final pass at editing

Take all your feedback and polish the crown until it shines bright enough to catch the editor's eye.  That does not mean implement every suggestion; it means listen to every comment.  Then, you become the judge and jury.

* Does the comment resonate with you?

* Can you see how it would strengthen the story?

* Did several people have the same concern?

Take what makes sense and file the rest--those rejected comments may make sense later when editors have added to your pile of feedback.  This is your chance to add depth, to strengthen, to mature that bright shiny object into a treasure worthy of a king or queen. 

This may mean chopping whole sections, adding new subplots or characters, reading the manuscript out loud to check how the dialogue sounds or any number of variations.  You must do whatever is necessary to turn your work from the object that made you grin in delight to a manuscript that will make many people--including at least one editor--smile too.

Step Six: Submission

While this step is not technically part of revision, have you polished and matured your crown just to stick it under your bed to gather dust?  No?  Well then, now's the time to find a few markets and send it off.  Don't fall into the trap of feeling the manuscript isn't ready.  If you've completed all the steps and done your level best, it's as ready as you can make it.

While waiting another five years may make it just a little better--assuming you continue working on your writer's craft--there is a point where you are not qualified to make that judgment.  Send the manuscript round to a few professional editors.  They are quite willing to tell you if it isn't ready yet.  They'll also be the first to tell you if it is.