Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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I’m deep into revising my second novel — five full drafts deep, with multiple “sub-drafts” in between each full one. And it’s a great feeling, but at times it’s like I’m at all stages of the writing process at once — because every scene in my manuscript is at a different level.

As I started thinking about it, I can pretty much lump them into three categories:

  • scenes that aren’t working at all, and so need to be revised on the conceptual level (which often means scrapped and replaced completely);
  • scenes that are working conceptually but read either too slow or too fast, and so need pacing adjustment;
  • and scenes that are working well in both concept and pacing but are still “off” at the word or sentence level, and so need to be re-phrased.

At the risk of boring you, I want to offer a sample of each. I love to see how other writers revise, so I’m hoping this demonstration will be helpful to those who feel the same way — or even just those who might be curious to peek at what an unfinished novel looks like. Enjoy!

Concept Revision

Sometimes a scene might seem to work on the pacing and phrasing level but not with the big picture of the novel. If you don’t revise for concept first, you get stuck in a rut: polishing and polishing the pacing and phrasing but unable to figure out why the scene is “off.”

Conceptual revision is a matter of stepping back and asking what needs to happen in the scene as far as character and plot development. How does it need to build off the scene before it? Where is it leading for the next scene?

This is a sample of a scene like that for me — that seems okay when you read it but didn’t fit the arc of the novel:

Draft 5c

“You’re here!” The interruption came from up on the balcony, from a girl with designer clothes and long blond waves of hair. She hurried down the steps to the parking lot, talking the whole way.

“I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you guys in person! Isn’t this crazy? Did you see my note on your blog? I tried to talk my friend Cami into coming with me, but she’s totally into her boyfriend right now. They’re at that disgusting PDA stage. I can’t take them anywhere together. So believe me, it’s better I came alone.”

The girl planted herself right in front of the boys, holding her hand out to Zander. “I’m Brianna, and you must be Zander. I recognize you from your picture. And wait, let me guess everybody. Phil, right? And Topher? Drew?”

Wendy coughed. “We were just about to take a picture.”

“Oh!” Brianna exclaimed. “Sorry about that. Here.” She turned to face Wendy, backed up so she was in the middle of the guys, and put a huge smile on her face.

This scene just never worked for the story I’m trying to tell. I didn’t like it, readers didn’t like it, but for several drafts I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

Then it occurred to me that it doesn’t even make sense on a technical level. Brianna couldn’t have gotten there before them. So I cut it completely, and replaced it with a scene that instead puts focus where I need it more: on Dee’s confrontations with her dad. When they arrive at the hostel, Dee’s phone rings and she goes off into the trees to answer it without the guys seeing her get teary-eyed.

Conceptually, the new scene is way better than the Brianna one. It deals with the character arcs I need to address and simply makes more sense in the story line with the scenes before and after it. (As far as pacing and phrasing, however, it’s so terrible that I’m too embarrassed to give a sample of it yet.)

In order to introduce Brianna, I added a few lines to the next chapter:

STATUS UPDATE: Out on the deck watching the sunset, hanging with new comrade Brianna of the Goldilocks ringlets. ~Drew 10 minutes ago

Zander huffed his usual noise from over on one of the deck’s low wooden chairs.  He shoved his chin into his fists.  “Brianna, tell me there’s something to do around here.  Anything but sitting around.”

The blond invader laughed, and Topher thought how glad he was Brianna sounded nothing like Gina.  In the two hours they’d known her, it hadn’t taken long for Brianna to fix her attentions on Zander, and Topher was more than happy not to have her superficial, flirty laugh directed at him.  If she’d had an ounce of Gina’s perceptiveness . . .

Well, no.  He wouldn’t want Brianna’s attention then either. 

He only wanted Gina.

Brianna is a very minor character, and this introduction keeps her in her place while also allowing me to explore Topher’s character a little more. The pacing and phrasing will still need adjusting, but conceptually I’ve now dumped a scene that didn’t work and replaced it with pieces that do.

Pacing Revision

For me, pacing has to do with fleshing out a scene once I’ve cemented the concept. I have to imagine it more deeply and picture every detail: facial expressions, tone of voice, mood, clothes, props, actions, setting. I can tell that a scene is ready for this when the idea is working well but feels bare, like this one:

Draft 5c

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Wendy stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

“Yes,” Wendy said. “I’m so okay that I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

“Sorry.”

She sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

It’s like Maggie Stiefvater points out in her post “How to Turn a Novel into a Textbook,” how you have to pace a scene by filling in between the dialogue. We need clues about how the characters are feeling, clues about what’s happening in their physical surroundings, clues about where the story’s headed. A few drafts ago I thought short beats like “she sighed and tilted her head back” were enough; this revision below shows how the potential goes way beyond short beats.

After Drew says, “Sorry,” there needed to be a long pause. He’s not good at conversation. He’s not good at driving her car. It would be awkward. Plus, he is so hypersensitive about Wendy that he would be thinking about her, noticing things about her.

I’ve marked the changes in blue:

Draft 5d

Drew’s heart was still racing from seeing Dee stagger like that. “You’re okay, right?” he asked for the thousandth time as he turned onto the main road and shifted into second gear. The car groaned and lurched, and Drew felt his face get hot.

Dee did a half-reach, like she’d wanted to grab the wheel and then thought better of it. “I’m so okay I could definitely drive my own car right now. She’s old. You have to be gentle.”

Letting her down dropped a sour pit in his stomach. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and then had no idea what to add to it.

Traffic had congealed, moving like rubber cement from all the high school students on the road. First and second gear were not going to prove his driving skills well. He’d only driven stick a handful of times. But in between shifts he managed to glance over at her and see her eyes squint shut and her fingers dart up to her temples.

She was not okay. But if she wanted to pretend she was, he wouldn’t say otherwise. He focused instead on the essentials: getting her home without stalling her car or rear-ending the one in front of them.

Dee sighed and tilted her head back. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”

He couldn’t think what she was talking about. “What isn’t?”

“The road trip. No car, no money, and now Zander’s messed things up so royally that I don’t see how he and Topher could stand to be in the same vehicle anyway.”

The lines still aren’t quite right: the half-reach and the sour pit and the part about first and second gear definitely need to be tweaked as far as phrasing. But the pacing feels right to me now. It needed those extra sentences to slow down the dialogue and round out the scene.

Phrasing Revision

To be honest, the phrasing of my novel still makes me cringe. That’s the revision stage I always want to skip to even though I know it’s a waste of time until concept and pacing are in place. But once I get to play with phrasing, I love the way these changes finally sync everything else together and make the scene feel right.

Here is just the briefest example of tiny changes I make at the word and sentence level:

Draft 5c

But she felt reckless with the success she’d already had. Wendy was falling for him and glowing stronger than ever. That had to make it easier for Caprice to borrow a slice of it soon—so long as she could keep the selkie himself from stealing all of it. Having Phil on guard duty had reassured her a bit, but there was still so much at stake.

Draft 5d

But she felt reckless with the so-far success. Wendy was falling for him, glowing stronger. Surely Caprice could skim a slice of magic soon—so long as she kept the selkie himself from swiping it clean away. Having Phil on guard duty reassured her only a smidge with so much at stake.

In this case, the concept and pacing were fine, but the earlier draft didn’t sound anything like Caprice. I needed to alter the phrasing to fit her character better. The changes were minor, just tiny cuts and changes within each sentence, but it makes a difference.

There’s no guarantee that I won’t tweak it more, or even decide to cut these lines altogether down the road, but it’s a decent example of how I revise for phrasing — trying to hone in not just on the idea and the details but on how that character would express it all.

Once all three levels of revision are perfected, that’s when each scene comes alive.

Do you differentiate what kinds of revisions you need to make when you write? What helps you break a novel down and see what changes it needs?

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