Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Revision Process, Part Two by Cynthea Liu

Welcome again Cynthea Liu for her second part in her series on the revision process. No pomp. No circumstance -- just awesomeness!



Now that you have some idea of the problems that plague your writing, you will be able to see more clearly what should be addressed. But again, before you revise, think about what’s wrong with your story, too, before you undertake yet another pass with your manuscript. Problems with story should supercede any written passage in your book. Tell yourself NOW that you are not married to any one particular scene or chapter if that scene or chapter does not serve your book well.

Common Issues with Basic Storytelling
• Lack of suspense
• No clear theme (usually results in unrelated plots, unrelated subplotting)
• Overplotting/underplotting
• Flat characters
• Cliché characters

I’m terrible at creating suspense. Tell me how to do it. Raise questions for the reader but make sure the answers aren’t already known by your characters. Often I find well-intentioned writers creating “suspense” by withholding info from the reader that the character is already aware of. That does not create suspense. It only creates reader-aggravation because readers prefer to be right there with their characters. Instead plot the book to continuously raise questions for both your characters AND your reader that will be mostly answered during the climax and resolution. You can certainly answer questions as you go, but always hold AT LEAST one question in the air at all times. When all questions have been answered, the desire to read-on ends and hopefully, your book has ended, too (and I mean that in a good way!)

How do I know if I have two different books in one story? Or plotting that seems unrelated or unfitting for the story? Know the theme of your story and make sure your plot and subplots all help to reinforce the theme of the story. For example in PARIS PAN, the theme is about knowing who your real friends are. The major plot: events leading up to the Dare and completion of the Dare drive this theme home. The subplots: Stress in Paris’s home life, the circumstances around a dorky crush, and the bullied freak in school also relate to how Paris’s friend-decision-making process continued to fail her. If you can write up your own quick summary about your book, you might be able to more readily identify a subplot that seems off.

I’m not sure how to integrate my subplots into the story so they make the overall story more compelling. The easiest way to truly integrate your subplots into the story is to think about how they work with your theme and make the situation worse for your characters. For example if your theme is self-acceptance, your subplot should somehow make your characters doubt their worth even more. If your theme is a boy becoming a man, think about how your subplots make your boy even more doubtful that he ever will. If you think of it in those terms, you’ll see more readily how to get your subplots to work harder for you. In other words, they shouldn’t just be related subplots; they should be subplots that make it harder for the character to grow as well.

How much plot is too much plot? What is too little? Make sure you have the correct number of subplots for the genre and format of your novel. Usually a realistic fiction middle grade novel has at least one major plot and at least three subplots. Or maybe two or four depending on the level of complexity. But not five or six. Study your format (MG, PB, YA, etc) and genre and do some analyzing. Soon, you will know exactly the right number of subplots for your story.

I don’t know what to set up in my opening pages. A general rule of thumb? For an older MG or teen novel, in the first three chapters or 25 double-spaced pages) you should establish a sense of place, your main character and cast of supporting characters. Kick off the driving plot and all subplots. (In other words, try to avoid having an important character show up in Chapter 15, and having an important subplot kick off in Chapter 5.) For shorter books like chapter books and young middle grade novels, you have even less space to accomplish the same tasks. For today’s contemporary picture book, a sense of place, the main character and the central conflict is usually established within the first half-page.

What about the very first pages. Like my first chapter? Think about how long your average reader will give you to entertain them upon picking up the book for the first time. Usually within five double-spaced pages or first chapter, most authors establish the main character(s), his wants/needs, a sense of place, and introduce the potential major conflict in the book. And they do all of that in an engaging fashion.

How do I know if my characters are cliché? First understand which character roles are likely to fall into cliché: perky best friends, hot boys, soccer moms, drunk moms and dads, strict dads, bossy sisters, aggravating baby brothers, etc. etc. If you have a character you can easily summarize with a few words, chances are your character is at risk for being viewed as cliché. This means you have to work extra hard to show that these characters are not who everyone thinks they are. Let’s face it; every romance story needs the hot guy or girl. So we can’t get rid of the common roles. But how do we twist the expectations a little so that suddenly the hot guy becomes wicked-smart hot guy who never learned how to ride a bike? Or maybe the perky girl is also a skilled photographer. Oh!

How do I know if my characters are flat? If you can flip through your manuscript and point at a piece of dialogue and say, “Anyone could say that…” and that keeps happening as you flip through your book, chances are your characters’ dialogue is extremely flat, and therefore, so is your character. That’s usually the first sign. Then you also need to see if your character has any unique thoughts or actions specific to them and no one else. How your characters says things, think things, and do things are under your control. So strive to make these dimensions of your characters unique. Also be mindful of trying soo hard to make your characters specific that they become cliché. Establish the traits, but make sure you mix them up, too. For example, a pocket-protector-wearing, nasal-sounding boy, with thick-rimmed glasses, gangly limbs, and a stack of books in arms at all times, does not make for an engaging, unique character. But a quiet, gangly boy who stays ten minutes after class talking about Dickens with his English teacher, and who also carries a little worn notepad in his back pocket at all times, might help paint your nerd in a more positive and less-cliché light.

For whatever reason, we don’t run across setting issues in novels as much as we do with theme, plot, and character issues, but it should be said that you should carefully consider setting when you think about where to have your characters act out the story. Setting can be a great tool to help evoke the correct mood and heighten the plot. But for now, that’s an advanced lesson. Also, setting is particularly important for episodic picture books so even though I don’t say much here, I hope you will check out my Revision 9-1-1 for picture books at

Stay tuned for Part III in this series: Revise, coming in just 20 more minutes!

Cynthea Liu left a career as a technology consultant to become a children’s book writer, proving that anyone, no matter how inexperienced, can write for children if one has the drive and patience to learn. She obtained a literary agent within her first year as a writer and sold two novels soon after at auction to the Penguin Group (PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE, Putnam, 2009 and WHAT I DIDN’T TELL YOU, 2012). Her third book sold to Penguin on proposal (THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA, Speak, 2009). Cynthea is also the woman behind www.writingforchildrenandteens, a top ten website on the subject.  She has critiqued over a thousand writing samples and has seen some of her most devout critiquees go on to sell their manuscripts, ranging from picture book to young adult novels to major publishing houses.

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