Laura Stanfill Discusses the Art of Revision

Laura Stanfill is a writer and blogger who blogs about writing as well as making writers feel like part of a community.  She interviews other authors in her Seven Questions Series, talks about the things she loves and ties it back to writing in beautiful ways, as well as offers challenges to help us writers when we need it most. 

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Laura Stanfill as she discusses revising her novel BODY COPY.

When Emerald asked me to guest blog, I settled on the topic of revision. It’s a tricky art—and an incredibly necessary one to master for novel and novella writers. Revision is what makes books succeed or fail, especially in this tough economic climate. A good manuscript can be edited into a great one.

My completed newspaper novel, BODY COPY, took 12 drafts over the course of six years. The process of slogging through the same story over and over again really taught me how to revise.

Here are some of the problems I tackled while rewriting BODY COPY and how I went about solving them. If your novel suffers from similar issues, take heart! That’s the joy of revision. If you (or your critique group) can identify a problem in the text, then you can work on fixing it. Try to think of such problems as opportunities to shore up the structure of your manuscript and to bring your reader deeper into your fictive world.

PROBLEM: Your protagonist isn’t likeable.

SOLUTION: This was a serious stumbling block for me in BODY COPY, where four girls are living in a rental Victorian the year after they graduate from college. Two are popular and beautiful. The third roommate, Chloe, is a total suckup. My protagonist, Megan, considers Chloe her best friend.

It took other writers asking, “Why are they so mean to each other?” and “Why would Megan want to be friends with these girls?” for me to realize I had gone way overboard in ratcheting up the tension. So I toned down the housemates, gave them a few redeeming qualities, and allowed Megan to quit traipsing after Chloe like a sad puppydog. That swung readers back over to Megan’s side.

PROBLEM: The story feels slow.

SOLUTION: Before you start cutting scenes or rearranging pieces, which are both useful exercises, set aside some time to think about what you’re writing about. What does this story mean? What point does it try to prove? What’s its overarching theme? Lajos Egri, author of The Art of Dramatic Writing, calls this the premise.

For BODY COPY, my premise is “Exposure leads to humiliation.” Megan is a 23-year-old journalist, and she’s terrified of people knowing how little she understands about the world. Protecting her friend’s secret backfires, inadvertently causing the girl’s death. And later in the novel, Megan works on exposing a corrupt but powerful politician through her newspaper job.

Those major plot points fit with the premise, which I developed fairly late in the writing process. Once I conjured up that magic sentence, I went back and looked at my scenes to make sure they worked with the exposure theme. When something didn’t fit, I tweaked or cut it.

I can’t say anyone reading BODY COPY would say, “Hey, this is about exposure leading to humilation!” but hanging onto that key phrase allowed me to give the manuscript a kind of cohesion and clarity that it was missing before. And it gave me a consistent framework for my editing and chopping.

PROBLEM: Your flashbacks aren’t working.

SOLUTION: Look closely at the stories you’re telling within the flashbacks. Do they fit with your story’s premise? Do they add something significant? If so, is there a way you can convey that same information in real-time?

For me, in BODY COPY, the solution was much more cloudy. I chose to tell two stories—the present tense narrative, where my protagonist moves to the Oregon coast and doesn’t want to befriend anyone, and a parallel back story about her roommates. One story informs the other, and they both move forward together, so therefore they’re not really flashbacks, but dual-track narratives. That being said, I needed to rework a lot of those back story chunks so they fit more seamlessly into the present-tense narrative. Each one had to reveal a certain amount about the plot and characters, but not too much, or there was a flattening effect. It took a few years to finesse all that.

PROBLEM: The protagonist is too full of grief (or fear or fill in the blank). In fact, he/she is nearly incapacitated.

SOLUTION: It’s important to show real emotions on the page, but in the case of a character stunted by grief, or another big emotion, tread carefully. You want the reader to remain sympathetic, and if your protagonist goes around moaning or cringing, the reader will lose interest.

Set up the grief, or the fear, or whatever, and then get the story rolling so the protagonist can do something active with those emotions. The wallowing needs to be a springboard to the rest of the story, not the whole story. It’s worth working this out, although it was probably the hardest issue I tackled in BODY COPY.

PROBLEM: You’re holding too much back.

SOLUTION: I’ve attempted slow reveals about big plot points in my previous two novels and really studied what works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot to be said for letting the reader hang on for another tantalizing clue about what really happened, but at the same time, there’s a limit. In BODY COPY, I played around with where to place the true circumstances surrounding Megan’s friend’s death. Ultimately, I decided that scene should go pretty near the front, because even though Megan is hiding the truth from her friends (and the police), she knows what happened, and it’s her story. She wouldn’t hide it from herself, and the story’s first-person, present tense, so it didn’t work to withhold that scene. But I did withhold a big moment related to the friend’s secret, because Megan discovered it late. That one worked and it’s probably the most unnerving moment in the novel.

There’s a phrase that goes something like this: if you’re going to make your reader push a Volkswagon up a hill, there better be something amazing on the other side.

Thanks for letting me guest blog today, Emerald!

26 thoughts on “Laura Stanfill Discusses the Art of Revision

  1. Pingback: A Very Personal View of Revising a Novel | Laura Stanfill

  2. Sandy

    Although I am not a writer, I really enjoyed Laura’s article. Emerald(my daughter), is the writer in our family and I know she has struggled with some of these things at times. I see how this could be a great deal of help. Thank you for sharing your article on Emerald’s blog.

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    1. Thanks for the great comment, Sandy, and thanks for the opportunity, Emerald. I really enjoyed putting this piece together, and doing something a little different than what I usually write for my blog.

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  3. You’re welcome! I really enjoyed reading it! It has helped me a lot in thinking over my revision. 🙂

    And, if anyone else would like to do a guest post for my blog, please feel free to contact me. I hope to do more of these in the future.

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  4. I’m reviewing my WIP for the first time in almost four years, ready to start revising, and I’ve already identified two problems (well, I knew about one of them already).

    One: Too many scenes answering questions from the last novel. It bogs down (and it’s answering questions because I know the answers, not because anybody asked).

    Two: I don’t really have a single protagonist, and I’m fine with that (I’ve talked about that on my blog), but I think it needs an antagonist. There is danger and tension and all, but the opposing force is pretty faceless. In the last book I had a pretty good villain, but he got killed, so I need somebody in that kind of role, but not a copy of the last one.

    I’m sure I’ll identify more as I get going.

    Oh, and in terms of a protag who is too full of grief, and how far you can go with that, there was a good discussion of that on Sonje Jones’ blog recently:
    http://www.sonjejones.com/blog/2011/6/20/the-depression-challenge-in-genre-fiction.html

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    1. I read through my first novel with intentions of editing it and getting it ready to send off. Yeah. That didn’t happen. It needs a complete makeover. Let’s just say it has more than one problem that needs fixed that Laura has mentioned, and well, probably more than what she did mention! After I finish my current one, I’m going to go back to it and see what I can do. I need to distance myself from it at the moment.

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    2. I really believe recognizing a manuscript’s problems is the biggest step in fixing them. Having an antagonist makes so much sense, especially with lots of protagonists. In fact, I’ve done some thinking about increasing the strength of my own antagonist, and I’ll probably write a post about her at some point.

      Thanks, too, for the link, Anthony. I’ll go check that out.

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      1. What I’ve thought about more recently is that the fourth novel (which exists only in my imagination and in a few scenes I’ve written and stashed away) has a great antagonist.

        I’m considering bringing him forward into Book #3. It will require a ton of rewriting, but I’m going to have to do that anyway, and he’s a great villain, and very different from the one in the last book.

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    1. I have never written a series of books before, but I have an idea I’m working through for one. It is really hard to decide how much to reveal and when to reveal it. That’s a problem I’m having in my novel (that doesn’t have a sequel) right now.

      Thanks for stopping by. I wish you luck in finding out the right amount to reveal!

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    2. I sometimes tell people that the most essential art of writing is deciding what to reveal and when to reveal it. You can show exactly same conversation, for example, and have it come across completely differently depending on what the reader knows and doesn’t know in advance.

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    3. My WIP is the first book of a series, and I’ve mapped out a basic synopsis of the next 2 books as well. In deciding what to reveal when, I pretty much ask myself “does this information further the plot of THIS book?” If the answer is no, leave it for later.

      eg. The underlying theme (aka Laura’s premise sentence) of my WIP is ‘you are who you are’, so information that isn’t relevant to that theme can wait.

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    4. It took me a lot of time to figure out where to place the fateful dinner scene when a policeman shows up instead of their friend. I can’t imagine trying to make those decisions over the course of two novels, but have faith! You’ll figure it out because you’re thinking about it. And you can always take a little more out or put a little more back in on the next revision…

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      1. I have struggled with the same reveal issues in my manuscript as well, but have chosen to solve the equation a little differently. As I worked through the scenes I realized that more tension was created in sharing some secrets with the reader, but not with the other characters. The tension is now focused on how, when, and what reactions will occur when those secrets are revealed into the world of the story, rather than what the secrets are themselves. Not the right solution for every story, but it’s helping the slower first half of my manuscript gain some momentum.

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      2. I like that equation though. I dealt with something similar just last night in my revision. It does add a lot more tension. I’m glad that you’ve found the right solution for you manuscript!

        Thanks for stopping by!

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    1. Thanks, Jo! The comments have been wonderful. There are so many ways to tackle a revision, and so many different answers to the same problem–from the reading perspective, that’s why opening a new book is so exciting. It could go anywhere!

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  5. This was great!! I struggle with the balance of holding back too much OR giving away too much too early, which takes away the suspense. It is tricky and this is where critique groups came in handy for me. I found it so hard to know if I was creating enough suspense bcz I already knew what happened…The fresh eyes were a huge help.

    Thanks Laura. Great post.

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    1. Thank you, Paula! You make a wonderful point about critique groups. The issue how revealing too much, vs. not enough, was one that I diagnosed and resolved thanks to my critique group’s input. I thought I was getting away with withholding such a major scene, but too much withholding ebbs the tension and frustrates the reader.

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  6. Pingback: A Week in Writing: Suffering from “Lack of Motivation” to Actually Making Progress with Something | Emerald Barnes' Dreaming Awake Blog

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