When I reached the end of my first draft of ASSASSIN'S HEART, the story was in place, but I knew I had to bring out and uncover other elements, like themes, setting, and especially character arcs.
Column by Sarah Ahiers, author of ASSASSIN'S HEART (Feb. 2, 2016,
HarperTeen). Sarah has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults
from Hamline University and lives in Minnesota with three dogs and a
house full of critters. She has a collection of steampunk hats and when
she’s not writing she fills her time with good games, good food, good
friends and good family. Follow her on Twitter.
Revisions are some of the hardest things to tackle as a writer. Many times we know something needs to be fixed, but we don’t know how to fix it. Or we might not even know what it is. But revision is where our novels really take off. Where we massage and mold them into something grander, deeper. Something whole.
Here are three questions to ask when tackling revisions:
1. Are my themes developed enough?
The first thing to do is cut. Look at each scene and ask: Does this scene forward the plot, the character arcs, or the theme? If it doesn’t, it has to go.
If it does forward one of those things, can it do double duty? Can it forward the plot and the theme? Or what about all three? Now that could be a killer scene.
And what are the themes that developed while you were drafting? Sometimes, they’re different than what we expected. Are the themes hinted at in the beginning, and more apparent by the end? Can you touch on them more, throughout? We don’t want to hammer the reader over the head with the theme, but a sprinkle here, a whisper there can make all the difference.
2. Does my setting feel grounded and encompassing?
With fantasy, world building is key, including clarifying spots where the reader might get confused. There’s also research—like when were indoor toilets first used? Or what were renaissance kitchens like? For world building, often times it’s the small details that really bring the entire world into focus, to make it feel vast and whole.
But setting isn’t just for fantasy. Even your contemporary novel is set somewhere. Again, small details carry a lot of weight—where does your character eat ice cream? What kind of movies show at the local theater? Are the roads freshly paved or riddled with potholes? These details can help a reader grasp a full picture of the world your character inhabits.
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3. Are my characters’ emotional arcs where they need to be?
In ASSASSIN'S HEART, two characters had to go because they didn’t further the plot or themes in any way.
Once the fat is trimmed, it’s time to build upon things that need growth. Look at your characters and where they start at the beginning of the novel, and where they wind up at the end. Have your characters changed? Are their arcs believable? Surprising, yet inevitable? Are your characters’ motivations and goals clear throughout the whole novel? And though this is super important for your main character, don’t forget your side characters as well. Just remember, everyone is the hero of their own story.
Revision can be time consuming work, but when it’s done, your novel may have a resonance it was missing before. And those novels are the ones that tend to linger with readers the most.
And taking your time will pay off! The manuscript will be tighter. Every scene will be clean and scrubbed. Your characters will grow and change and the themes will be delicate when they need to be and robust when you want. And you won’t miss those cut characters—even if one was pretty cool—or any of the cut scenes—you may not even remember some of them.
Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. Cut those major characters and scenes, even the ones you think the story can’t live without. Cut them, and see how you will rewrite the story with them gone. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to the old version. Nothing has to be permanent.
Writing a draft is hard, but revision is a different kind of hard, and while the results are worthwhile, in the midst of revisions that can seem far away. Still, it is worth it. You spend all that time and energy writing the book, don’t sell yourself short by not revising as much as your book needs. You can do it.
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