Concept, Pacing & Phrasing: Trifold Revision

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.”


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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The Root of the Problem: Underlying Emotions

Earlier this week, Hubby texted me from work to ask if I was okay because I seemed stressed. I do? I texted back. He proceeded to tell me that I’d seemed angry while cleaning the kitchen the night before, and he wanted to know if it was work or family issues or just what. I thought of texting *shrug*. I hadn’t even realized I seemed angry, let alone did I know why.

Instead I texted a funny by-the-way about how angry the twelve-month-old on my lap got when I failed to relinquish another bite of the peaches I’d stirred into my yogurt-and-granola breakfast. The kid ate half my fruit! But he was so hilarious about it that I didn’t mind (too much).

Two of my favorite picture books are What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? and What Are You So Grumpy About? In the first, by the time the mom is finished with her outlandish guesses, Little Pookie the pig has forgotten his reason for being upset. In the other book, it ends by asking if you’ve got the worst reason of all for your moodiness: because someone made you laugh when you were trying to be grumpy. In either case, the books sidestep the issue with humor, which is a pretty good strategy for kids to learn, in my opinion. Humor usually cures my moods too.

In writing, though, it feels like I’m never allowed to sidestep. When a character is angry, I have to get to the bottom of it. I have to know why.

It’s just such an issue that brought my first manuscript to a halt: I couldn’t figure out why my main character was so worried about her sister. Maybe that’s why I sometimes procrastinate dealing with underlying emotions in my characters, because I’m nervous that I won’t be able to figure out the answer, and that my guesses will be as outlandish as Pookie’s mom asking,

“Did tiny green elephants
with wings oh so blue
fly off with the cookies
and leave none for you?”

So this week I’m breathing a sigh of relief for just one paragraph that finally opened an answer about why, in my second novel, the main character Wendy is angry with her dad after the divorce. My other guesses were clichéd and way off: Because he had an affair? No. (And he didn’t.) Because they both have temper issues? No. (And they don’t.) Because he’s forcing her to stay with him in California for the summer? No. (And that’s a side issue.)

It’s funny how you can tell when you’ve hit on the right answer. It slides into place like the cardboard puzzle pieces my four-year-old matches up next to me while I write. It feels like “Of course!” You can tell that it matches because it “goes with” all your previous discoveries. You feel like you should have seen it so much sooner, it’s that obvious.

Here’s my discovery of the week (unpolished, rough-draft paragraph, so don’t judge my writing by this!):

Her parents had always joked that her brother Brandon was their mom’s replica, analytical and cautious, while Wendy was their dad’s—eager and curious.  Family disagreements split down predictable sides: Wendy and Mitch versus Brandon and Cheryl.  “Fine,” her dad would usually conclude, “you two stay if you want.  Dee and I are going.” But this time he’d gone without her.  Brandon was off to UW; her mom had been impossible to relate to even before post-divorce grieving set in.  Her one family ally had abandoned her, slunk off like a traitor, leaving her alone.

Somehow the dad finally comes alive for me in just these few sentences, especially with the bit of dialogue. I can finally grasp the paradox of how much Wendy loves and hates him at the same time, which makes sense, considering you can’t hate anything you don’t care about first.

It’s also funny how sometimes the right info/insights just land in your lap at the right time. A couple of weeks ago I attended a church class about mental health and one of the speakers discussed bereavement and how you can go through the grieving process with events besides death, like when you have your first baby it’s normal to grieve the loss of your freedom, or how it’s normal to grieve after a divorce. The steps and symptoms of bereavement also helped me understand the underlying emotions Wendy and her mom are going through.

So yeah. While in real life there are plenty of times to let things go and not worry about the past, in writing, the more you can dig down to the root of your character’s emotions, the better you’ll understand them.

Any thoughts? How do you cope with negative emotions? Laugh them off? Purge through catharsis (like a tear-jerker flick)? Eat rocky road ice cream? Take a drive — such as a road trip down the Pacific coast like Wendy does? When’s it important to isolate the cause?

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Writer Meets Teacher: Grading Your Manuscript

When Hubby is around while I’m writing, the poor guy gets subjected to some of my thinking out loud. Like today: “Is there a check mark symbol on Microsoft Word? I can’t find one. Oh, or I could use an X. Just need to check off which scenes I’ve revised on my outline.”

Two minutes later: “I need a code. X isn’t enough. I need to mark which scenes need the most fixing. If I use ABC like a priority list, then A would be the highest priority, which means a scene in the worst shape. But that would totally confuse me because the best scenes would get a C grade, which is average, not best.”

“Um, aren’t you wasting more time creating a code rather than just fixing the scenes?” he finally asked.

Ha ha. Yes. But . . .

If only revising were as simple as opening the document and fixing what needs to be fixed. Unfortunately, almost every sentence needs to be fixed on some level, and it’s definitely a matter of priorities. I need to fix the big stuff first before I waste time on little sentence issues. I’ve revised most of the scenes in chapters 1–4, and today I wanted to see a clear picture of what I’ve fixed, where each scene’s at, and what I should concentrate on the most.

And suddenly I realized the solution was obvious. I’m a teacher, aren’t I? What could make more sense than to give an A to the best scenes, B to those that need a little improvement, C to the mediocre ones, D to those in bad shape, and F to the segments I might as well cut and redo from scratch?

Ah, simplicity is wonderful.

(Yes, the outline itself looks complicated, because I have lots of info there, but the left-most column is simply ABCDF, with an X above once I’ve made significant revisions this draft.)

It took less than five minutes to go through my outline and assign grades based on my gut reactions (if only I could do that with student papers!), and now I can see at a glance where I’m at and what needs the most help.

Hooray for a great new strategy!

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The Adoration of Litle Fans

Today my six-year-old saw my manuscript open on my computer screen and said, “Whoa! That’s a lot of words. How many pages is it?”

I told him 340, and it’s a good thing I was exact. The next thing I knew, the scrolly wheel in the mouse was whirling at top speed as he went hunting for the last page.

Which took a while.

While scrolling, he asked more questions, like “what’s it called?” and “did you make any pictures?” Every now and then he stopped to read the current page number in precise soon-to-be first-grader terms: “One-hundred-and-fifty-seven.” He watched the indicator on the edge of the screen like a hawk to judge his progress. And soon the three-year-old wanted in on the action, the two of them watching that scroll bar as it if were the ball dropping in Times Square. “It’s almost there! Keep going!”

Oh, the satisfaction when they hit the last page. I keep the numbers in the top margin, so they had to backtrack just a smidge to confirm they had found it: 340.

And then I couldn’t help myself. “Can you believe I wrote all those words?”

“Wow! That’s a lot!”

I soaked it up. Apparently I’m not immune to the adoration of little children. It feels dang good when your kids are impressed by what you do. To them, it didn’t matter if I have an editor or an agent, if those 95,000 words were good or terrible. It mattered that I’d accomplished something big, something that took ten minutes to scroll through.

I like seeing things a kid’s way.

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The Trouble with Reality: Research Required

Friends and family I haven’t seen for a while often ask the same question when we get together: “How’s the writing going?”

I love it — both that they think of me as a writer and that they care how my (thus far non-paying) career is progressing. But at the same time I feel like my answer is a let down: “The draft’s in the same shape it was in August. Haven’t touched it since then. Baby and all.” So I usually say instead, “It’s so close. Just needs another polishing draft and I can send it off to agents.” And I leave off the fact that that hasn’t changed since Baby #3 was born.

What exactly does a polishing draft mean? How close am I really? Well, every now and then when I find enough time to even open my writing files on my computer and dive back into them, I discover the overwhelming truth of it: there’s a lot to polish.

Now that we’re back from California, it’s dawning on me that I should have made some effort to do live research while we were there. Home for only five days, I’m smacking my forehead on the kitchen table (i.e. “desk”) for not — at the very least — visiting Hollywood Boulevard, where a major turning point happens in my novel. I haven’t been there since a high school choir trip, and I definitely wasn’t looking for the same details then.

Details are what a “polishing” draft boils down to for me.

When I first write a story, it’s a free-flow sort of experience, just letting my imagination pull ideas together without terribly many restrictions. For the road trip in my novel, I glanced at a map now and then to be sure they were headed in the right direction, but I didn’t bother with specifics.

That’s what I’m having to fix now. Even with the internet (and how did anyone research before that, holy cow?!), it’s tedious to find and fix what I need to know. I have Google Earth open in one window (so I can take street-level virtual tours), Google Maps in another (for the “big picture”), photo-search results and specific addresses tossed into a junk-drawer–like document, the manuscript in another window to see what I need to look up, etc, etc.  

It’s enough to make me want to write strict fantasy, where I can totally make everything up.

Except that — even in fantasy — I sincerely appreciate a well-researched novel. I’m thinking of how Juliet Marillier visited Transylvania to capture the setting right for Wildwood Dancing. And then I could be doing something much harder, like *gasp* historical fiction. I heard Sara Gruen spent three years traveling around researching the old circus trains to write Water for Elephants.

But for mildly fantastic contemporary fiction, here’s one example of how reality, once researched, can mess with my story.

In the Hollywood Boulevard scene, they park along the street, separate to find the celebrity stars they want to see, and then something happens at a particular star that sends them running to that spot. Well, now that I’ve actually looked into it, I’ve found out a few things, like that the stars my characters go to find are at opposite ends of the Walk of Fame, and that the star where the pivotal moment happens doesn’t have street parking next to it.

Minor details, in a way, but now that I’ve literally mapped out the scene, I can polish it by making it more real: judging when each character would make it from where they were to where they’re going, figuring out how they’ll get back to the car since the street parking is at least a few blocks away, adding descriptions of the shops around them to give readers a clearer mental image (now that I have a clearer image), and throwing in one or two relevant bits of trivia, like when one of my characters asks where Alfred Hitchcock’s star is, the character Googling the addresses can ask, “Which one? He’s got two: film and TV.”

Okay, actually, that doesn’t sound like so many changes. I can totally do this! A little research goes a long way! Don’t stop believin’! All of that!

That took one day of research to map out the scene. It’ll be at least another day to implement the changes. And only several dozen more scenes to go. (Other recent research questions: How does a torn wing affect a butterfly’s flight? What’s the layout of the parking lot at Wilson High School in Portland, OR? What style of house would my main character likely have in southwest Portland?)

At least it’s a start.

And if I’m being honest, researching is kind of fun. Especially thanks to Google Earth.

Even more fun will be to actually travel the route my characters take and add the fun sensory details of sounds and smells that Google Earth can’t give me, but I’ll save that for once the manuscript actually sells and my baby’s a little older.

What do you think of research? Tedious? Fun? Painful? How much do you notice or appreciate research that’s gone into a novel to make it feel more real?

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When It’s Time to Call, “Retreat!”

re-treat \ri-´treet\ noun 1. an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable 2. a place of privacy or safety (refuge) 3. a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study [etc]; verb 1. to make a retreat


A few of the potential signs:

(a) It’s been over a month since you made progress on your manuscript besides monkeying with word choice here and there (i.e. progress anyone besides you would actually notice).

(b) Suddenly coming up with some small idea for revision while blow-drying your hair is the most time you’ve found to consider your manuscript in weeks — to the point that you feel proud of yourself for considering it at all and pat yourself on the back for a productive, multi-tasking hair-styling session.

(c) You can sympathize with cars that won’t start without a jump: stuck in your current routine, there’s no way you’re going to get back in the writing habit.

(d) Every time you notice that the kids are playing well down in the basement and you open your laptop to take advantage of the stolen moment, someone cries or rushes up the stairs with an urgent problem or needs a drink or food or has just wet their pants.

(e) The job you’re getting paid to do (regardless of how little it pays) leaves little room for the “hobby” that currently pays nothing, regardless of your fantasies about future six-digit contracts.

(f) Said job currently involves reading and marking and grading hundreds of pages of student writing, leaving you with no time/energy/willpower to accomplish your own writing.

(g) You’ve mapped out exactly what you need to revise on your manuscript and are dying to have a chance to really dive into it, and fifteen minutes here and there is just puddle jumping, not diving; you need days, not minutes, to really get the momentum flowing.

Yeah. In case you’re wondering, my answer is “(h) All of the above.”

This Thursday evening I’m ditching my family, ganging up with nine other writers, and spending nearly 48 hours forgetting about job, kids and other distractions so that we can all get a jump-start on our writing.

Admittedly, it’s a strange sort of vacation. We’re going out of town in order to get work done, not recreation. There will be ten of us making very little noise besides the clicking of keyboard keys for hours at a time. It’s quite likely that some of us will seclude ourselves in various rooms and floors away from the others, sort of negating the social aspect of getting together. Rather than eating out and other usual vacation meal pleasures, we’re planning the menu around what can be prepared the fastest so as to waste the least writing time possible. And the most sight-seeing we’ll probably do is surfing the internet for bits of research.

In other words, we’re creating our own ideal writing environment. Few other people would be enticed by it, I’m sure, but for writers, all of us juggling jobs and families, it sounds like heaven to have two days without interruptions. Despite the lack of activities on the agenda (okay, except we might take breaks now and again for swimming, games, or movies), the comment I hear from everyone attending is “I’m SO EXCITED!”

If asked if you’d like to pay to spend 48 hours holed up in a condo with ten people, eating and speaking as little as possible, would “SO EXCITED!” be your response? What would your ideal retreat be like?

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