Revision School of Pain

Step Three: Thinkin' Deep Thoughts about your Main Character

Creating a compelling main character is hard to do. I really love K.M. Weiland’s CREATING CHARACTER ARCS, both the book and the amazing series of (free) blog posts she has on her website, to help me create well rounded characters who experience satisfying change through the story. Here’s a nifty chart to help you think through the big foundational aspects of a character—who they are at the beginning, the lie they believe that’s the source of their problems, what they (think they) want, and of course, what they (actually) need. This chart is just for Act I character thoughts—perhaps I’ll do the other two if you all like it. Enjoy! The free google doc of this chart is available here:

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Step Two: Read a Writing Craft Book or Five

While you’re pulling apart your novel and placing it in your beautiful, organized scene tracker, you’re going to need something excellent to read. Might I suggest some writing craft books?

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When I think back to the steps I took that helped my writing level up, a big one is undoubtedly when I stopped bumbling around in the dark and actually learned a thing or two about writing craft. Now, craft books may not be your thing. You may think excessively dramatic things like how you’d rather stick pointy things in your tender eye-parts than read one, or think you have nothing to gain from reading a craft book because hey, you’re a maverick, baby. You don’t want to write that predictable crap like everybody else does! Who needs a plot? YOU ARE PLOT!!

Well, okay. That’s fine. I’m not going to argue with you, but I might secretly judge you a bit. Writing craft books helped me learn the rules of writing good stories. I don’t necessarily follow those rules all the time, but 9/10 when a scene or chapter or dammit, an entire act, isn’t working? Knowing the rules helps me diagnose what’s off and find the path of my story again. Writing can feel so abstract, so big, so hard to hold in your brain all at once—craft books help me parcel that big abstraction into pieces I can study and think about critically. It’s made me a smarter consumer of other media, too. When you have the language to study a story and think about what makes it good, you can learn.

And that’s invaluable.

Here are my favorite craft books and the issues they helped me most with:

1) Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder: This is the pacing bible for screenwriters, but fiction writers of all kinds can learn from the practical, easy-to-consume advice contained therein. This book helps you understand the bones of a story, the moments, the twists, the turns, and where those bits should generally fall for a satisfying story rhythm. True story: when I beat out my first novel, I realized my third act was 200% too long. NO WONDER I kept hearing from agents I had “pacing issues.” Ha! I had pacing nuclear apocalypse, not issues. The Save the Cat method keeps my books nice and tidy on the pacing front these days. This should be required reading for all new writers.

2) The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson: An agent recommended this book to me, and after reading it, I’ve been recommending it ever since. This is a fabulous book for teaching you what makes for a satisfying EXTERNAL story coupled with your main character’s INTERNAL story. Sometimes, novice writers just can’t make those two tracks gel. It’s a great all around book on effective story. A++ for the numerous eureka moments I had while reading in my early days.

3) Creating Character Arcs, by K.M. Weiland: This is a great book for creating a really nuanced, powerful journey for your character. It’s the best I’ve read on characterization and arc.

4) The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby: This is basically an MFA in a book. It covers it all—from characters, to plot, to theme, to the meaning of our very existence. It is fabulous, but warning—some passages WILL make your brain hurt from their brilliance. Not for the faint of heart.

5) Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King: This book is routinely prescribed by publishing house editors to writers. I wish I’d read it earlier in my journey—it is the best book by far that I’ve read on the mechanics of good prose. It also contains practical advice on other aspects of writing, too, but it’s primarily devoted to those pesky issues like when to use italics, how to break up dialogue effectively, that sort of thing. Ooh, and it’s pretty good for Showing v. Telling, too.

6) Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron: This is one of the most enjoyable books on writing I’ve read. It’s from a neuroscience view of what draws people to story elements that we see play out again and again. My villains sucked until I read this book. I also recommend Story Genius, by Lisa Cron. It’s the more practical advice companion to Wired for Story.

7) Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. Okay, I hate recommending this book because the guy is a total sexist. It was written in the 1970s, and the examples will make you want to barf. BUT, this is the best book I’ve ever read for helping you ORDER a scene, and even a paragraph, in a logical way that flows. I use this jerk’s advice every time I sit down and write. It’s the theory of scene-sequel, following a format of Goal-Conflict-Disaster (scene) followed by Reaction-Dilemma-Decision (sequel). Here’s an article that shares the crux of the book if you want to deny his estate any more money:

8) Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is what you read when you’re feeling like garbage about writing, about coming up with your next idea, about revising AGAIN in the face of rejection after rejection after rejection. It is the single best pep talk for writing that I’ve ever read. It’s invaluable, and it always gets my head on straight when I’m in the depths of writerly despair.

9) Deep POV, by K. Kazul Wolf: Not a book, but a series of blog posts by the writer K. Kazul Wolf. I recommend these posts more than any other. If you are writing in deep POV, this will go a long, long way towards preventing you from TELLING your reader the story instead of showing them interface with it on the deepest level. Read all the other linked articles about deep POV in the article, too. No cheating!

Okay, those are my favorites for practical advice. I’ve read probably a dozen other ones, but these are the ones that have shaped and improved my writing the most. Best of luck to you as you take the big leap into, gasp, learning what you’re doing!

Step One: What the hell did you write, anyways?

The key before ANY revision is to make a scene tracker. This document will help you to figure out the quintessential question every writer must answer after completing a draft of her manuscript: What the hell did I just write? The scene tracker will take you some time to fill out, but DO NOT SKIMP or CUT CORNERS. This document will serve as your reference guide to your draft in its current state, and from filling it out, you will be able to see your book in a different, hopefully more objective light. Feel free to add extra columns to target things specific to your manuscript. These are my basic go-to columns, but depending on the draft, I customize the columns to contain the information I need to examine and gather for that particular draft. Yes, that’s right—I often fill out one of these beauties for each draft/revision I undertake. They help, I promise, and are worth the time investment. You can make your own based on what you see here in excel or word or even by hand, or you can click on this link to my public google drive file and save it to your own.


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