One cannot revise a manuscript
(go into the belly of the beast) without a plan, a tactic, or training.Writing well is both a science and an
art.There are certain skills that are
integral to good writing before a courageous writer can take risks and propel
forward to great writing.
Revision is a scientific, laborious
task and must be done page by page.
Step One: Circle or highlight all
the verbs on one page of manuscript.
Identify each verb as a passive or an active verb.
Step Two: Eliminate as many passive verbs as possible
by rewriting the sentences, using active verbs in their stead.
Step Three: Circle or highlight all adverbs. (Remember
not all adverbs end in –ly.) Can the verb
and its accompanying adverb be replaced by a stronger, more energized verb? Eliminate
unnecessary or redundant adverbs.
Can any of the remaining verbs
(those without adverbs) be replaced by a more energetic or descriptive verb?
Step Four: Circle or highlight
all repetitions: verbs, nouns, phrases, etc. on the page. Are they placed too close together where they
distract the flow of the sentence, the paragraph, or the page? If so, eliminate redundant or unnecessary repetitions.
Substitute repetitive words with appropriate pronouns or synonyms.
Step Five: Find, circle or highlight all clichés. Either eliminate the clichés or substitute them
with new or different (but not forced) descriptions.
Art takes risk and courage.
Step Six: Highlight every other
sentence so that the length of each sentence is readily visible. Remember sentence
length determines the rhythm, the pace, and the tone of the manuscript, so shorten
some sentences for emphasis and combine others to create longer, more in depth
Step Seven: Eliminate unnecessary sentences or add
sentences where more description or explanation is needed.
Step Eight: Vary sentence
structure. Move where the subject and
the verb sit inside the sentence to add interest or emphasize the importance of
Step Nine: Show some courage and
experiment with parallel structure, juxtaposition, or creative punctuation. Learn
how to use clauses and phrases to demonstrate skill.
And Step Ten: Show some unexpected risk: do something
others do not dare try. Do what great artists do: experiment with unusual techniques
and make it your own. For example, look up how to use synesthesia or the
Years ago, a skunk sprayed our
yard during the night and the nextmorning I trekked out to my car to drive to
work and unknowingly stepped into the oily residue. I tracked skunk stink into
my Jeep and onto the carpet in my office, a room I shared with a kind and
forgiving co-worker. It took a week or two and several large cans of Lysol and
air freshener to get rid of the smell.
Ever since my profound Close
Encounter of a Second Kind (I never saw the skunk but it left evidence of its
presence), I became a skunk expert. I learned the way of the skunk. My
experience imprinted itself into my hippocampus and I acquired a heightened
sense of smell. I can detect a skunk
several miles away, outperforming a normal human nose that can only start to do
the same at one mile.
I have the same uncanny sense
about adolescents. After 30-plus years of
teaching teenagers and having raised three of my own, you might say, I have
reached the Close Encounter level of a Fifth Kind: I have actually communicated
with these strange creatures and we have shared knowledge. It sort of makes me
an expert, and I am willing to share what I have learned with the rest of you.
I have come to the conclusion
that teenagers and skunks have a lot in common.
Skunks are crepuscular and
nocturnal; their active hours are from twilight to dusk. During certain times
of the year, they are also semi dormant. They are scavengers, eating whatever gets
in their way.
Skunks have poor vision and
though they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, they are selfish and
selective in the use of these senses.
They are solitary creatures, responding
only to the opposite sex.
Skunks are smelly and offensive, repelling
everyone around them for miles. If
anyone or anything happens to intrude into their space, they will hiss, stomp
their feet, and posture in hopes of frightening them away. If that does not
work, they are forced to fight tooth and nail. As a final recourse, they will
let loose a caustic, oily spray that leaves its smell and stain on the intruder
for several days, sometimes (like in my case) for longer periods of time.
Does any of this sound
familiar? Does it resemble an adolescent
you might know?
Now for the good news.
Most skunks live for a maximum of
seven years. The adolescent stage in a human ranges about the same amount of time,
so get ready for several years of stinky behavior.
A skunk cannot be tamed without the
use of radical surgery, an option not legally available for the parents of a
teenager. A better solution for the parent of a surly and repellant adolescent
is to adopt the ways of the Great Horned Owl, the only true predator of the
skunk. The owl has a limited sense of smell, so it is not put off by the skunk’s
aroma. The owl uses what it innately knows about the skunk for its own benefit.
We could learn a lot about the care and
handling of these strange creatures from the wise old owl.
First, bear through their stinky behavior. Don’t condone it or overlook it,
but understand why the adolescent is acting out this way.
Second, know that the teenager’s
rebellious behavior is dependent on his innate
need to grow apart from his parents and to stake his own identity,
especially if his parents have strong identities of their own. Stand firm and
Third, their minds and bodies are
going through great bursts of chemical
and psychological stops and starts. They are loveable kids one moment,
strange aliens the next; lethargic one moment and prowling the house like caged
animals the next; sweet one moment and venomous the next. Let go a little. Give them some responsibility and pray for
Fourth, the best time to communicate with them is during their
cute, yellow Minion stage; the worst time to try to get through is when they
break out in hairy purple. Remember to listen, listen hard.
Lastly, getting skunked is no fun. It hurts and offends, but in the end, after
the stink has worn off and Lysol and air fresheners have saved the day, both
you and the adolescent will have learned from the experience.
One thing I learned as I
transitioned from writing short pieces to longer manuscripts was that I needed
to outline or structure my plot or else I would stray and lose control of the
story. Without a plan, my characters wander off course.My middle sags.My plot becomes pedestrian.
I am highly “field dependent.” I
need to see the whole before I can distinguish the individual components. If I
know where I am going, I can map my way there.
I start off with an exciting or
controversial idea – a topic, an alluring beginning, or a surprising ending,
but the real creativity begins when I plan the delivery of that promise.
I don’t want to start off with Bang! … then
lose steam after the first few chapters.
I don’t want to wander about lost in the middle of the story, or worse
yet, end it all with a disappointing, impossible, or rushed ending.
I need a plan! I need an outline!
Characters have to be cast, pertinent
information has to be delivered according to genre, and scenes have to be
ordered just so to keep the interest of the reader.
Without an outline, I cannot keep
my characters consistent. I cannot bring them into the story at necessary times.
Without an outline, I cannot keep track of time and place and how it affects
the story. Without an outline, I cannot take the pulse of the plot, moving it
forward at a steady and meaty pace, and then ending it with a satisfying
There are those who write without
an outline. They let the story or the
characters “take them where they want to go.” I envy them, but according to
research, there are more writers like me, the plotters, than those who write by
the “seat of their pants” – the pantsers.
How do I do this?
I am also visual-tactile. (Yes, I
a complex woman.) I learn by seeing and doing, so I draw and scribble. I talk to myself a lot. I write it down and move it around. I create charts and tables. I “see” scenes and “hear” the dialogue. I write that down too. I analyze and study, and in the end, I come
up with a loose outline that looks a lot like poorly written Cliff Notes. By
then I have created 5 by 8 cards on each of the characters. I know their inner and outer conflicts, their
idiosyncrasies, the color of their eyes. I will have positioned an enticing
plot nugget into the middle of the story that will capture the readers’
interest and entices them to want to read the ending of the story.
It said to check in
fifteen minutes before my appointment with the literary agent. I was there
I had declined dinner
the night before to revise (for the umpteenth time) my written pitch. Thankfully I had packed extra 5 by 8 cards in
my luggage. I worked on it over and over
until it lost all its previous cohesion and was now a babbled mess. I would
need the freight elevator to carry my formerly stream-lined fifty word “elevator
pitch” up to the third floor of the hotel.
I lied myself into a
show of confidence. I showered and changed into my jammies, praying that I
would wake up refreshed, perky, transformed.
I attended two
workshops that morning just to keep my mind off the impending appointment;
besides I had spent half of my monthly income paying for this conference and I
wanted to get some sort of return for my investment.
I skipped the session
before my 3:40 appointment to go back to my hotel room and “freshen up.”
My hair refused to
cooperate and laid flat. My breath rejected
all attempts at minty freshness and my deodorant had stopped working two hours
before and the smell of FEAR permeated the room.
So there I was, in line
with all the other 3:40’s, all of us marching off to meet our fate. The young
woman in front of me bragged about how EVERYONE asked for a manuscript. This was her third year and had sent her work
numerous times as requested. All had been rejected in the end. A lady my age
standing behind me said the same thing and with the same result. So even if I got a nibble, this was no
guarantee I was on my way to published authordom.
A buzzer rang and they
marched us in to meet our agents or editors.
It reminded me of Speed Dating. (I
didn’t do well with that either.)
I introduced myself to
the agent. I shook her hand. I pulled out my fistful of five by eights.
The rest is a
blur. I read my cards (more like
babbled, I think). She told me I did not have a novel; I had a piece of
episodic work. She wanted a novel: one
man, one woman, a romance.
I tried again,
comparing my masterpiece to The Joy Luck Club. She didn’t like The Joy Luck Club. It too was
episodic but not to her taste.
I said it emulated the
work of Cisneros and Alvarez, and I got a blank stare before she told me my work
was “too literary” for what she wanted. There would be no “sending it off” to
The interview was over.
We shook hands. I stood and walked away.
The first thing I did
was go back to my room, hide my stack of five by eights, and take a quick
shower. I took the elevator downstairs
and drowned my sorrows in a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappucino. I called my husband.
Don’t get me wrong. I
liked the agent. We were just not compatible. I believe in my episodic, too literary
manuscript. She didn’t, and the agent I hire has to like it as much as I do.