Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Revision Checklist

- Does the main plot arc initiate close enough to the beginning that you won't lose the reader?
- Does your protagonist alternate between up and down moments, with the most intense towards the end?
- Are you able to trace the major plot arcs throughout the book? Do they have up and down moments?
- Do you have enough conflict?
- Does the reader see both the best and worst characteristics of your main characters?
- Do your characters have backstories and histories? Do these impact the plot?
- Is the pacing correct for your genre? Is it consistent?
- Is your voice consistent? Is it overly chatty or sarcastic?
- Is the tense completely consistent? Is the perspective consistent?
- Is there sufficient description that your reader feels grounded in the characters' world?
- Is there too much description? (David R. Slayton)
- Are momentous events given the weight they deserve?
- Look closely at each chapter. If you can take out a chapter and the plot will still make sense, is it really necessary? Should some events be folded in with others?
- Do the relationships between your characters develop and change and become more complicated as the book goes on?
- What do your characters want? Is it apparent to the reader? Do they have both conscious and unconscious motivations?
- Do you know what your writing tics are? Do you overuse adverbs, metaphors, facial expressions, non-"said" dialogue tags, or interjections? Have you removed them?
- Do you overuse certain words or phrases? Is your word choice perfect throughout?
- Does your book come to a completely satisfying conclusion? Does it feel rushed?
- Do your main characters emerge from the book irrevocably changed?
- Are your characters distinguishable? Does it make sense to combine minor characters? (Kiersten)
- Do each of your scenes make dramatic sense on their own as well as move the overall plot forward? (Pete Peterson)

Please add your own in the comments section and I'll continue to update the post with the best suggestions.






186 comments:

Kiersten said...

I've found that some of my side characters can be combined so the reader has to remember fewer names and the characters have greater impact.

Julie Weathers said...

This is an invaluable checklist.

Julie Weathers said...

I've found that some of my side characters can be combined so the reader has to remember fewer names and the characters have greater impact.--Kiersten

I just finished doing that. It does make a difference.

Anonymous said...

OMG,
remember yesterday's blog post?

My word verification should be added:

pooflog

reader said...

I've learned in a character-heavy ms to refer to some characters by their last names, it's easier for a reader to identify the surname "Solarno" or "Tellis" as one of the bad guys than if he has the name Kevin, Matt, Todd, etc.

The first four of your list are the hardest, imo, and probably what keeps lots of books unsold.

Lisa Schroeder said...

aHave you created a main character who we can relate to? Who we empathize with? Just a few ways you can do this:

Good at something, has a strength
Liked or loved by someone else
Has a familiar flaw
Shows forgiveness

Ink said...

Do individual names stand out or do they blur together and become indistinguishable?

Scott said...

This is a huge help, Nathan. Thank you!

Bane of Anubis said...

Nice list - w/ my recent work, I feel fairly confident about all of these (except, perhaps, the description part)... the key for me for this vs certain other stories I've written is that I cared about the characters far more... so along those lines (which can probably be inferred by several of your points - e.g., best and worst characteristics - but not necessarily)...

Does the reader experience sympathy /empathy for your characters (not just protags)?

Ink said...

Do you make use of all five senses where appropriate?

(a biggie, I think)

Ink said...

Does anything interrupt the "dream vision" of the story?

Anthony said...

If you read the dialog aloud, does it sound like real people talking?

Ink said...

Do you have a hook?



This is too much fun. I'm going to be here all day. All I need now is a crumpet and I'll be set.

Hilabeans said...

Wow! Great list - especially #4.

HHS

Bane of Anubis said...

"Is your word choice perfect throughout?"

BTW - this one sux big time; I used to be far less critical of my own writing; now the writing's far superior to what I did even a couple of years ago, but I'm never pleased with it; eventually I'll settle on something that conveys what I want fluidly, but I'm fairly certain that I'll never believe it's perfect (though, to comfort myself, I'm 99.99% certain there is no just thing as a perfect book)

David R. Slayton said...

Is there too much description? I think a lot of times it's just as easy to go the other way with that.

Ina said...

Does your dialog reveal something new about the characters or the plot?

Rick Daley said...

Can you sit back and read through it without a compulsive need to continue changing it?

Bane of Anubis said...

David - great point - e.g., Robert Jordan.

Marilyn Peake said...

Yes, in answer to all your questions. :)

Does my book have an ending, meaning the final chapter? Not yet.

Here's a question about something I strive for in my writing and love to find in novels, not always found in best-sellers: Is your writing elegant?

Another question: Is there symbolism present to enrich the story?

Ink said...

Are actions and reactions ligcally connected? Are events causally related? (Also known as "How to avoid deus ex machina)

Anonymous said...

Rick,

Does that ever happen? My Beta readers will absolutely adore my MS, and I continously grow bored with it. I just finished a final revision and am afraid to read over it again, I know I will see something to change.

Melanie Avila said...

Wow, this post came at the perfect time. I'm a couple days away from finishing line edits on my fourth draft and these are all the questions I've been asking myself -- plus a couple I haven't.

Thanks!

Holly Bodger said...

1. Are you showing rather than telling? Ask yourself this question for every single sentence!
2. Does the narrator know the information he/she is giving the reader and does it make sense for them to share it?

Nathan Bransford said...

Everyone is making really good suggestions. I may not be adding all to the main post because I'm going to stick to the most universal ones, and some of the suggestions here might apply to some genres but not others.

But the comment thread will also be a great place to go for more ideas.

Thermocline said...

Do your section and chapter breaks end with strong enough hooks to pull the reader forward?

Lunatic said...

Do you introduce new characters and settings at a pace that doesn't overwhelm the reader?

RW said...

Does the resolution to the conflict arise from who the central character is at heart? If the resolution doesn't depend on them, why are we following them?

Mira said...

This is a wonderful list - very helpful. I like that you've gone right for the important things first - plot arc, conflict, pacing. I love the idea of a readable checklist for this.

I do wonder, though, about one thing you said: not having too chatty or sarcastic a voice. That was an interesting one. I do think you have to be very careful not to distract from the story.

My 'voice' tends to be chatty to the point of being almost intimate, and I think I can make it work. Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) also uses a 'chatty' narrator to great effect.

I guess in fiction, the trick is if you have a 'chatty' narrator, then they become a character in addition to the others. That's how Daniel Hanlder handles it.

Also, sadly, I have to disagree with one other point. One can never have too many adverbs.

Adverbs are my life. I've started to go through all my books, and add them in myself. There just aren't enough adverbs in the world.

Diana said...

Great list Nathan. But if I take away #8 - chatty and sarcastic, I have nothing left; I'm a one trick pony. Sigh.

Jason Crawford said...

Are there holes and/or contradictions in the plot or in character behavior?

For example:

Susie hopped a train to New York in Chap 5, but Jack asks her if she enjoyed her flight she arrives in Chap 6.

or

Susie has a arachnophobia in Chap 3, but has no qualms about the tarantula her crawling up her arm in Chap 9.

Anonymous said...

Mira, you are awesomely freakishly admirably hilarious!

Will you add them to my books, too? You are so much better at it.

Nathan Bransford said...

mira and diana-

I said overly chatty and sarcastic.

Jason Crawford said...

Also making sure you read through your edits BEFORE you post them....sorry for al the typos above. :)

- Eadyn's Calling said...

Just the post I need, as I'm going to be working through revision on my book in a few months. :) Thanks!

allegory19 said...

Kiersten and Julie - I did the same thing yesterday. I kept feeling like I was creating new characters when maybe I didn't need to. I'm surprised by how much better that made my MS.

Bane of Anubis said...

RTFP, ladies :p

Holly, great point about showing, though narrative telling in some places is sometimes useful.

suelder said...

Can you identify what the story is about - the theme?

Is it clear in the first chapter?

*this is the one that helps me to pare down the story from 180K - if it doesn't echo the theme, it goes.

Suelder

Anonymous said...

Is the point of the novel to tell a story rather than beat the reader over the head with a moral? Or does the entire work read like a sermon or an episode of a bad 80's cartoon?

Personally, any time I read the back of a book and it mentions a character learning "what's really important in life," I gag a little. I say, if you have to get preachy, sneak it in the back door, and cushion it with humor. Do it gracefully, not aggressively. That's the difference between a writer like Terry Pratchett and one of those authors whose cover is pastel and sparkly. Not naming names.

Whirlochre said...

Do you repeat yourself — lines, paragraphs, chapters, themes?

Anonymous said...

Nathan, on the first one do you mean something like Sophie Kinsella's books where the story goes on for most of the book and THEN gets to the plot twist? Example: Confessions of a Shopaholic-- the plot twist doesn't come until near the end and we're asked to sit through the main character's shopping addictions for however many (too many) pages.

Or am I too anal about making my plot arcs within the first 30 pages? Where else does not doing this work? (I'm not sure it really works in the Shopaholic book.)

Kristi said...

This is a fabulous list. I like Ink's five senses suggestion, as I think about that in every scene. The only thing I'd add to the revision process is to have beta readers read the book, preferably with Nathan's checklist by their side. I think sometimes it's hard to be objective when you've been obsessing over the same manuscript for months and a fresh pair of eyes can identify problem areas more easily.

Mira said...

Nathan - it's a good point. I'm not disagreeing with you, more discussing it. It's just very interesting for me, because my natural 'voice' is chatty and personal. So, where to find that line. One can easily distract from the story if you make the narrator too visible. You have to be really careful.

Bane - what does RTFP mean?

Anon 11:58 - Thank you. I'd be honored. Adverb advocates must bond together.

Margaret Yang said...

Have you used the word "toward" correctly, without an S on the end, if you are an American? (Pet peeve, can you tell?)

Lunatic said...

Is your word count still vithin acceptable parameters. (I don't know about anyone else, but my word count can really fluctuate sometimes when I'm revising, in either direction)

Fred

Zoe Winters said...

My characters roll their eyes too much. I've considered poking their eyeballs out with a spork. Or at least threatening it for each infraction.

Anonymous said...

Does your dialect agree with the time period, location of book, nationality of character, age of character? Is grammar getting in the way of the true way a person's speech sound?

I personally think grammar in the wrong areas take away from voice.

Hilabeans said...

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

Mira disagrees irrevocably, wholeheartedly, unreservedly, unabashedly … my brain aches now. Too many stinkin’ adverbs.

Nathan, what's your verdict on the adverb debate?

HHS

Nathan Bransford said...

Hilabeans-

Everything in moderation.

Drgnwrtr said...

Does your dialogue move the story forward or are your characters just talking to take up white space on the page?

Scott said...

Excellent list, Nathan.

Universal but perhaps a bit too general, I would ask if you've huge blocks of unbroken prose running over three-quarters of a page or more. How many readers turn the page, see a huge paragraph of description, and dread reading on?

So much of writing is about an ear for rhythm and a low tolerance for boredom. I often ask myself if my character would be interested in what I'm writing. So often, they're onto something new.

Also, the look of a page is important. White space, quotation marks, indentations, widowed sentences––all of these add variation that helps the flow. Think of it as scenery on your journey. This also goes for shows and tells. Mix them up, stagger them, and jazz without jarring if possible. However, if it calls attention to itself, it's probably wrong.

One final note: nine out of ten thrillers I thumb through in today's bookstores overuse non-said dialog tags which alleviates the reader from doing any work. Surprise anyone?

Mira said...

Hilabeans - re. adverbs, for the sake of harmony, I can tell you that I secretly agree with Nathan.

I just don't agree with Stephen King about writing, no matter what he says. It's a matter of principle.

Hey, I thought of another one:

"Is there suspense? Some element that keeps the reader hooked?"

Anonymous said...

Is it copycatty? There are a million and one Twilight knockoffs floating around right now and just a few good tweaks could make all the difference. Be sure you're really in touch with what makes your story/characters/setting stand out.

Keren David said...

I'm happy to see that there's no 'Have you got enough description'

What I do is a search/find on the word 'feel' and then ask myself if it's really neccessary to spell out what the character is feeling. Very often that's an easy cut and it sorts out a lot of the show/tell side of things.

Hilabeans said...

Including moderation? ;)

HHS

Matilda McCloud said...

I also have to stop my characters' eyeballs from rolling so much. On my last re-read, I noticed everyone was sighing all the time too.

I do a search and find for "felt" (telling not showing) and all those deadwood words like "all"...or "decided to," "began to," "a bit," "somewhat," "perhaps,"
"somehow," "suddenly," adverbs, most adjectives, "was walking" instead of "walked," weak verbs--well, the list is endless.

Gavin Brown said...

Great summary and it comes at a perfect time for me.

It's good that you're giving commenters credit for their suggestions, but at first glance I read it like this:

- Is there too much description? (David R. Slayton, I'm looking at YOU!)

T. Anne said...

Be careful not to talk down to your reader.

Also; First draft is forgiven of all it's sins but the revisions thereafter must sparkle and shine in the luminous glow of perfection.

Merc said...

Wonderful list, thank you!

Brian said...

- Do you overuse certain words or phrases? Is your word choice perfect throughout?

A tool I've found that's helpful with this is WORDLE. You enter the text and it arranges it into a word cloud where the more frequently a word is used, the bigger it appears. It can help you recognize visually and at a glance which words you overuse.

Plus... it's pretty.

www.wordle.net

Robert A Meacham said...

Thank you for giving out this list. I can work with this.

Mimm said...

Thank you, Nathan! And thanks to everyone who left contributing comments!

Kia said...

I would suggest Googling "cliches in novels" or your genre and then "cliches" to see if any exist in your novel. Surprisingly, my psychological thriller had a few cliches that are apparently common in Young Adult novels:

- A token 'ethnic' friend - usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous
– A dead mother
– Characters who chew on their lip in times of stress
– Raising one eyebrow

I was amazed because something which I thought was very unique to my character (i.e. chewing on lip) is apparently very common *sigh*.

Either way, the novel is out in December so Nathan, I'll expect a plug.

Rick Daley said...

Anon @ 11:45

I believe it is possible. You will always think of ways to improve something, but you should be able to reach a comfort level with your work that should allow you to detach and read the story.

I finally reached that point for the first 50 pages of my MS. It took 3 revisions and then a complete re-write, but something finally clicked and the last time I read it I actually enjoyed reading it.

Now I have about 250 pages to go and I'll be ready to query again.

Béatrice Mousli said...

Hello,
Great post, (as usual I should add). Could you point me/us to a couple of good, useful book on fiction writing, that would have a similar practical view as what you posted here?
I remember a post about books about writing, but I may have missed the one about fiction writing/editing.
thanks and thanks for this blog,
béatrice

Weronika said...

Nathan, great list--thanks for the awesome collection.

I always ask myself whether or not the events happen in the correct order; when looking at background, is it correctly placed and properly built up?

Cheers!

the wanderer said...

great checklist! This is a great tool for new writers.

Anonymous said...

Rick,
I've revised the entire MS at least 7 times , and probably certain areas at least twenty.

Laurel said...

Weronika,

Me too on events. I pulled up several calendars on the internet to make sure that holidays in my story occurred on the right day of the week for one year.

And my search/find adventures have been...illuminating. Ugh.

Brian: Thanks for the wordle tip. I will be using that!

Anonymous said...

Great list! I'll keep it on my wall.

Anonymous said...

Oh and I enjoy reading it everytime, but there is always room for improvement. I will put it away for a while and come back, re-read, and forget I even wrote certain things.

Beta Anon said...

Hello,
I am wondering:
1. When using description (telling)
as a set up, how much is too much?
is 650 words acceptable for introducing a setting, for example?

2.Are there Beta Readers who are regular commenting on this blog? If so, I would think it would be great to have a support group here for just that.

(I am currently looking for Beta Readers and could not ask for a pool from a more qualified group that the readers here –and I know, Nathan that that isn't your job description.)

-Beta-anon

Anonymous said...

smacking head:

typo typo typo

Steve Fuller said...

I pretty much agree with Rick.

I revised a handful of times, always finding something I wanted to change.

Then, I read through the whole thing a couple weeks ago and realized I was done.

I think you eventually get to that place, even if the novel isn't perfect.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Nathan. As with other writers here, this revision checklist comes at a terrific time for me - as I am currently revising my first novel. So, thanks again.

The only general tip that I find missing from this list relates to the "backstories and histories" guideline. While I agree that character must have backstories, such info must come out organically - over time, through dialogue, short inner monologues, etc. Information dumps are a no-no nowadays (which saddens me a little, I must admit). Just consider the essay re: "The Great Gatsby" (I believe it was one of your links last Friday).

Nathan Bransford said...

Laura-

I agree.

David Jace said...

I would add "Do the voices of your characters remain constant? Are the voices of the characters distinct from each other? And distinct from the narrative voice?

Rick Daley said...

Anon @ 1:18

I was stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of revisions, I know what you mean. For me the epiphany was the re-write. There was so much to fix, the only way to do it was to start over from scratch. Same story, but a very different telling of it.

It's daunting to say the least...so much work to do all over again. The joy, though, is in reading it and realizing how much I have grown as a writer. I think that's what drives my satisfaction. It's finally getting past decent or good enough to really good. At least in my own verrry humble opinion ;-)

Laura Martone said...

Mira - The meaning of "RTFP" depends on the context ("read the fine print" or "read the freakin' post" or etc., etc.), so I don't know what Bane meant there. Who ever does?

Brian - Thanks for the wordle.net heads-up.

Beatrice - Personally, my favorite fiction editing book is "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" (Renni Browne & Dave King). A friend gave it to me - and it's been quite helpful (as evidenced by its ragged condition)!

Joan Mora said...

Excellent timing--I'm in the middle of revisions.
Thanks!

Cassandra Jade said...

Definitely something that all of us in the middle of revisions should read - and remember. You seem to have hit all of the major points. Thanks so much for this list.

serenity said...

Gold, I tell ya. This post is GOLD.

Jenny said...

Did you start out with something exciting in chapter one, only to follow it with an entire chapter of backstory?

Are your protagonists the people who make the plot move or are they passive victims of other people's decisions and actions. (Thanks to Alicia Rasley's Story Within Guidebook for pointing out how this can weaken a plot.)

Mariana said...

Great post! Really instructive, thanks!

To add a comment, I'd just remark something that I bellieve goes in the pacing item: are the transitions smooth, or you twitch your nose when alternating scenarios, points or view, or jumping in time?

Mira said...

Laura - Lol. Thanks for clearing that up. I couldn't figure out why Bane was sticking his tongue out at us.

Weronika said...

@ Beta-Anon: just shoot me an email!

@ Laurel: That's not what I meant originally. My question refers more to the order of chapters and how the conflict arises. Do the right things happen at the right time? Is the story as a whole structured properly--to feel and flow organically?

However, your point is another great one--are dates, facts, places, and events historically correct?

Kristin Laughtin said...

I love this. I generally try to take notes as I'm writing of things I want to look at or revise later, but having this checklist will be useful--especially since it might make me aware of a problem I'd otherwise overlook!

Ahh, the side characters. I had very few in my last MS, so I tried to push myself by having a lot in this one, and now I think I have too many and am trying to decide which to combine once I finish my first draft.

Keren David said...

Oh no...I'd missed it - there is a 'have you got enough description'.
How about: are all your swearwords strictly necessary?

Bane of Anubis said...

Laura, thanks for being my proxy (esoteric as I may be :) - yes, I was bastardizing RTFQ - as a Navy brat, I'm all about dem acronyms.

C.D. Reimer said...

Great timing for the check list. I just finished the rough draft of my first novel. I'm going to put it aside for three months before coming back to rip it to shreds, build a new outline, and start over again.

http://www.creimer.ws/home/one-year-one-week-and-700-pages-later.html

Rick Daley said...

"are all your swearwords strictly necessary?"

You're ^*&^$%#&*# right they are.

Laura Martone said...

Keren & Rick - The "swear words" issue is one that tortured me during the writing of my first novel. In some ways, my story straddles YA and adult fiction, so I thought that swearing might help to push it into the realm of adult fiction. But then, after reading so many agents' and editors' opinions about unnecessary swearing, I ultimately decided to remove all f-bombs, be more creative with my angry outbursts, and insert a few necessary sex scenes instead. Woohoo!

Novice Writer Anonymous said...

Bless you! I've been pondering many of these points and now have a handy checklist to make sure I'm there when revision time comes!

jjhoutman said...

Great list and great comments.
I would add:
-Do you use the active voice whenever possible?
-When you use the passive voice, is it a conscious decision?
-Do you overuse "it was" and "there was"?

lotusgirl said...

What a great list. I'm going to have to print this out and use it always.

Here's a question: Have all the side storylines you started gotten resolved? Do they weave seamlessly into the main storyline's conclusion?

Genre Reviews said...

That's a good list, especially when including reader comments. The funny thing is that I was just compiling a checklist of my own based on problems I've seen in published books. You've saved me some effort. :)

Samantha Tonge said...

Great list.

- have you named characters that don't need naming?

- have you info-dumped, ie stuck in research notes that only you the author need to know?

- take a good look at where you have used "just", "managed to" , "started to" and "suddenly" - you can probably cut out most of them

Being Beth said...

Thank you for this list. I'm in the throes of revisions. This couldn't have come at a better time for me. This post goes into my "Hall of Fame" folder.

Lupina said...

Wow, what a great list. The only thing I can think of to add is the comment an author friend of mine made on my most recent ms, regarding a one-time-appearance character, a doctor in a crowd who was necessary to impart a crucial bit of medical information. I had a bit too much fun describing him and made him more important than he should have been, leading her to expect more doctor when, in truth, he had already played his part. I guess that would be called overwriting the bit players? She was totally correct, and his abbreviated description made for a much smoother passage.

Kimber An said...

And please have critique partners help you with this list!

Oftentimes, I can 'feel' something isn't working, but I cannot figure out what it is to save my life. Crunchy Critters are worth their weight in gold!

Rick Daley said...

Laura,

Your genre in particular is not amenable to swearing.

I just searched my MS and I have five f-bombs in there, out of 105,000 words. Four of them are in dialogue, and by the time I am done with my re-write, I wouldn't be surprised if all of them are gone.

There are no bad words, just inappropriate places to use them.

I try to find creative ways to avoid swearing, too, unless I am doing it for a special emphasis or for humor (like the %^$#& in my prior post).

JES said...

If your story has multiple intertwined plotlines, if you read JUST the bits for Plot A does it make sense, is it consistent, and does it "arc"? What about plot B?

[repeat as necessary, until running out of letters of the alphabet]

Anna Lefler said...

Oh, man, fantastic list!

A possible addition: do you clearly understand and convey your main character's surface problem and story-worthy problem?

Thanks for this, Nathan - it's exactly the post I needed to read today.

allegory19 said...

Lotus girl said: Have all the side storylines you started gotten resolved? Do they weave seamlessly into the main storyline's conclusion?

I was thinking about this in my MS this morning. Trying to wrap my brain around my plot threads and make sure they're resolved to my satisfaction. I hate when writers - and sitcoms for that matter - don't fully wrap things up.It's a pet peeve of mine.

I love it though when everything works and you have an "Ah ha" moment. It's like magic the way plot threads weave together sometimes.

Laurel said...

Rick and Laura and whoever else cares about the f-bomb:

If your reader target is old enough I think sometimes it's safer to use it than not. I don't believe dialogue that's too clean coming from a strung out teenaged drug dealer, for example. It's an ugly word that is used VERY frequently and let's face it, actually does make you feel better after you drop an anvil on your foot.

For artful judicious use of the f-bomb I highly recommend "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles." Very discreet and elegantly done.

PurpleClover said...

Is there TOO much conflict leaving the reader confused and overwhelmed?


This list is awesome Nathan. I would be ecstatic to see it placed as a tag or FAQ link on your blog. It is something I think we could all use through out the process!

PurpleClover said...

Rick -

I'm not sure if you are quoting a question or if you came up with the "swear word" question on your own, but I have seen people that obviously don't curse on a regular basis and so it seems awkward when I read it. But you can tell reading someone's work if it comes naturally or not. At least I think so.

I'm a closet potty mouth but the expletives used to flow full force when I was a teen to the point of making sailors blush. I like to think I'm not hanging up my readers on a curse word because I don't know my material. ;) I guess there is some good points to "writing what you know". muwahahaha.

I just think cursing is like a tic. If you haven't experienced it or been around enough people with it, you may not be able to pull it off.

Pete Peterson said...

One more I'd add:

-Do each of your scenes make dramatic sense on their own as well as move the overall plot forward? Do they have a beginning, middle, and end. Do they contain both conflict and some sort of resolution?

Laura Martone said...

Laurel -

I agree that the use of "swear words" (including the f-bomb) can be critical, depending on the character and central story. If you're writing about modern-day soldiers - or, as you suggested, strung-out teenaged drug dealers - then it's imperative that you be true to their style of speech, which usually includes naughty language. But, in the case of my literary/mainstream novel (with which Rick is familiar), the few f-bomb instances seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. I mean, my main character is a disgruntled housewife and mother (NOT a strung-out drug dealer... although...).

I think the bottom line is that you must always be true to your characters' voices. In other words, it doesn't matter that I am, in fact, a potty mouth myself. (Yes, Purple Clover, I only WISH I was a "closet" potty mouth like you.) The question is... would my characters use that language in a given scenario?

--

wv: fiblent - inclined to lie through one's teeth

Jude Hardin said...

Have you eliminated all cliches?

macaronipants said...

Do each of your scenes have a turning point? Either surprise, increased curiosity, insight or new direction (thank you Robert McKee)? Do the events lead up to and then away from that moment without extra hoo-ha?

Does the character change in some way in each scene?

Laurel said...

Laura,

Your MC could be any one of my friends. We talk like sailors. Or HBO after midnight. It's the last form of rebellion once the kids get old enough to smell it if you've been smoking.

But you're right, though. If you "know" your characters instead of just invent them you know if they would use words like that. I think avoiding it deliberately can be just as awkward as using it gratuitously, though. Either way it shows.

Laura Martone said...

Laurel - Good point. I'll add that to my list of concerns for my current revision... I don't want it to seem like I'm TRYING to eliminate swear words... Ah, so much to think about! This writing stuff isn't easy, I tell ya. :-)

--

wv: glogue - (pronounced GLOAG) the latest style magazine for bloggers and their commenters (you know, with articles that help to bring out the blogging fashionista in all of us - because, even in the comfort of our homes, it matters what we wear - you never know who's watching!)

Cass said...

Great Checklist Nathan.
I so want to be done so I can be in the "revision process".

word ver. - supper - uh oh - I better get off the computer and fix the kids something to eat!

PurpleClover said...

Hey Jude.

(I've been wanting to say that all along. Is that a cliche'? lol 'Tis one of my fav songs!)

I have to agree that seems to be an important one. I keep getting updates on the latest and greatest feedback from the conferences and one of the things I'm hearing is the overuse of cliche's. I had no idea and I'm pretty sure I use them in abundance. I am one big cliche'.

Christine H said...

I finally wrote today, breaking my two-month fast. Yes to all that stuff Nathan wrote. I think about all of it, but that's why I get so overwhelmed, too, and think I'll just never be able to do it.

One thing at a time. That's what I keep telling myself. Pick one thing and start with it.

marye.ulrich said...

Do you have internal and external conflicts?

Christine H said...

PS I don't curse unless I'm really, really upset and even as I do it, I'm aware of how unladylike it is. So I either say "He cursed" to get the emotional state across without actually swearing, or I make up fantasy curse words.

Fantasy writers can do that.

Joy said...

From a former English teacher, "Did you replace most of your exclamation points with periods?" I understand that you're excited, but your dialog/description should tell us that without the exclamation point at the end. (Yep, you know what that means--show, don't tell. Ahh, the teacher lives on).

Christine H said...

Is it enjoyable to read? Or, if being enjoyable is not your goal, can the words be read smoothly and coherently out loud?

Minnette Meador said...

This is something I get all the time when I'm editing:

Are we living the story with the character or just watching the story?

Diana said...

Great list! I would add: Does your MC do something stupid to move the plot along? Can they do it differently, instead?

As a reader, nothing will make me throw a book across the room faster than the MC doing something really stupid for the sake of the plot.

Diana

Laura Martone said...

Christine H. - Not to beat a dead horse [to use a cliche - ;-)], but as to the cursing issue, sci-fi/fantasy writers can (and should) have more fun with it! Just look at the now-expired show "Battlestar Galactica" - the characters said "frack" (sp?) so often that I hardly heard "frack" anymore - I heard you-know-what instead. Same goes for the show "Firefly" - the characters cursed in a whole made-up language - it was awesome (a wonderful way to swear without really swearing on network TV). Grr - stupid Fox for cancelling it.

Marilyn Peake said...

Laura,

I was thinking the same thing. Battlestar Galactica used the word "frack" so often, I found myself thinking of it as a real swear word after watching a marathon of Battlestar Galactica shows. I thought the constant swearing fit the characters who talked that way. I’ve started listening to Ronald D. Moore’s podcasts about the show. I think he’s a brilliant writer, and his podcasts are fascinating.

My two favorite TV shows are Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Like you, I was really disappointed that Firefly never came back!

cindy said...

thank you for this. i'm just writing sequel rough draft and it's helpful!

Dawn said...

I so needed this right now. Thank you.

Laura Martone said...

Beta Anon -

Sorry that I didn't address your question earlier in the day... sometimes, reading the comments on Nathan's blog can be overwhelming. :-)

Anyway, what kind of beta readers are you looking for? I'm currently swapping manuscripts with a fellow writer - in other words, we're helping each other as beta readers/critiquers. If you're interested in that possibility, feel free to email me (laura@rubyhollow.com) and we can discuss it off the blog.

Tally-ho!

--Laura

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post Nathan

Diana said...

Wow! I just printed out the completed first draft of my manuscript ten minutes ago, and stopped by your blog to find a revision checklist!

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Nathan!

Kat said...

Perfect timing- I started revising today.

Morgan Xavier said...

Um, yay Firefly!!! Totally shiny!

And, also, YAY discussing the use of swearing! This is something I have wondered about, especially because my characters tend to swear...a lot. Nothing like Stephen King, mind you. Maybe three words per chapter (which runs around 5000 words). Until chapter Five. Lots of potty mouth punks. But they totally get what's coming to them. Yup. Awesome.

My reason for using the actual word instead of saying, "he cursed," is that my I want my scenes to pull the reader in, as if they are actually watching what is happening. Hearing the character saying it makes it seem more real. But I don't know what an agent or editor will think. I guess the words can always be replaced, if it came to that.

All I can say is be true to your artistic integrity. I find the really good stuff comes when I'm not even trying. And if the 'voice' includes a f#$@, then chances are, it is meant to be included. So long as it isn't every other sentence. Have I mentioned Stephen King?

mkcbunny said...

This is a fantastic list. Thanks Nathan. There are some great additions within the thread, too. I'll have to investigate wordle.net. Word reps are my pet peeve.

Another suggestion: Step Away from the Novel
Set your book aside for a while before giving it that final read. *Especially* after making dramatic edits. I revised my novel several times before giving it to beta readers, and then I did another round of cuts and additions after hearing their feedback. Then I caught the chickenpox.

Although suffering the 'pox in adulthood was no picnic, the benefit (and the only one I can think of) was that my final copy edit was delayed for three weeks. When I re-read the revamped version, I found tiny things I'd changed that affected plot arcs and timeline details, as well as continuity errors that I'd just missed from the get-go.

Being so close to the story and characters all the time, I had the "logic" in my head. But what's in your head may not be what's on the paper. You have to take time—be it two weeks or two months—to get your mindset out of "informed writer" mode and into a more objective place to identify problems you create when you fix all of the other problems.

mkcbunny said...

Oh, and congratulations to all of the blog readers here who seem so close to finishing their works! It's so nice to hear everyone say that they're almost done.

Anonymous said...

apparently, one must be politically correct for contemporary readers even this is in conflict with the time and place of your novel. For example, I was told I could offend readers because in 1920's Paris, my pregnant character drank wine with her meals. Hardly an alcoholic, she is sociable and in keeping with HER times. Any thoughts?

Carmen said...

Thanks for the checklist. It'll be very helpful when writing.

Keren David said...

As the first one who mentioned swearing I'm happy to see that others find it a problem - and Rick, I agree completely!
I'm writing YA books so I don't want to frighten off parents, teachers and librarians but I do want to write something reasonably realistic. So I do a lot of referring to the fact that people are cussing without using the actual words. Even so my editor thought I used one swearword - Christ - too often and asked me to swop a few for other swearwords. So it's variety as well as frequency that made it work in the end.
I think the main difference between writing for a YA audience and an adult one has to be in the liberal use of swear words and perhaps how explicit and frequent the sexual references are.

Simon said...

I think an important consideration is whether your story would be interesting to other people, even if they don't share your experiences, opinions and ideologies.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, the politically correct thing drives me crazy, as I wonder all the time whether someone is going to take something out of context and say I'm promoting some behavior. I don't know the answer, though.

Regarding the swearing making the story authentic, I once tried to write a Christian romance in which the hero was a construction worker. I'm married to one, so I know how they talk. It was very difficult to write the scenes where the guys are talking amongst themselves. I finally gave up and shelved the project, but I may resurrect it as a contemporary novel one day.

Regarding adverbs... I believe a carefully chosen adverb adds a lot to a sentence. They are a part of our language for a reason.

Anonymous said...

Regarding characters coming through the book changed:

I hate being drawn into a long, complicated, heart-rending story, only to find out at the end that nothing really changed. I feel very frustrated and let down, even manipulated.

Scott said...

I think the use of expletives comes down to the tone of the novel. Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff, yes. But then, the entire novel is steeped in Trailer Park despair. The curses soon disappear and become as vanilla as said tags. However, I'd point out that the swearing is part and parcel to the purpose of the work. In other words, a curse often holds so much weight as to steal the scene. So when I use one, it's usually in a moment that defines everything around it.

Short of that, I find rereading them in the editing process a little embarrassing. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I can see that I've threw it in as something of a lazy place holder in order to go back and find a better way to express the essence of the moment.

Justus M. Bowman said...

When I first read "David R. Slayton," I thought you were referring to an author who uses too much description. Ha ha.

reader said...

I like Joy's comment @ 6:49. Take out those exclamation points! It screams amatuer.

Also, is there so much drama that it reads like melodrama? Obstacles are great, but there is a fine balance between creating tension that furthers the story and creating tension that distracts from the story.

Conflict should mean something. Having a character do an internal monologue for three pages because a hot dog stand didn't have mustard might be entertaining from a writer standpoint, but as a reader -- heck, get on with it already.

terri said...

More applicable to genre works. Have you eliminated any and all deux ex machina plot devices? If writing in an action genre, does your ending depend on a car chase? Have you double (triple) checked your factual references?

Awesome checklist, will be printing out.

verify word: moggin

Mira said...

mckbunny -

I really like your point about stepping away from the novel for awhile. Getting some perspective is crucial, and I think alot of us tend to rush the process in order to get the our work out there.

Sorry to hear about your chicken pox, though!

Re adverbs - Although it's true that I spend my spare time going through Shakespeare, popping in adverbs all hither and thither (verily, verily), I admit that adverbs in most cases should be used judiciously.

Just not in Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan, I've been following you for some time now and I just want to say the following: I don't know how you do it, but I really appreciate the time and effort you're putting in to maintaining the quality of today's changing literary market. We can't stop technology or development, but we can and we should protect the high standards of literature. It's a great responsibility to keep on offering publications that are more than good reads or must haves (nothing against these); to prevent the extinction of Literature. Thank you for helping out.

monchichi and the serendipity berries said...

Great list, Nathan-- thanks! I've bookmarked it and will return to it often.

Thanks, Brian, for the worldle link-- a great find (and yes, it is pretty).

And if people are putting together a beta readers group, I'd love to be a part of it! You can email me via my blog. Thanks!

Chuck H. said...

That would be me arriving extremely late to the party. Rain, mud, farmwork, etc. Nathan said "everything in moderation" but I prefer Lazarus Long's (Heinlein) version. "Everything in excess. Moderation is for monks."

WV: arrhaphi - too many "arr's"?

ryan field said...

This is a good list. It's a great example of what the best copyeditors do all the time.

I also think something else could be important. It doesn't always happen, but sometimes it does. If you think you're holding back too much with a certain character's emotions, fix it. Listen to your instincts. It happened to me with a book and I didn't listen to my instincts. And each time the book was reviewed, the reviewers mentioned that they wanted to see more emotion from that character. They felt let down. And they were right. One or two sentences could have fixed this, but I hesitated.

Christine H said...

Ryan - What you said.

I know that's the problem with my current book. It has a romantic subplot and I'm so afraid of it sounding like a romance novel that I'm really shying away from anything that resembles deep emotion. But my test readers have told me the story feels flat, so I have to grit my teeth and do it.

Didn't someone say that a story without love is like a meal without salt? Or something to that effect?

susiej said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
susiej said...

Thanks, Nathan! Fantastic post.

And Jason- I will always, always have qualms about the tarantula crawling up my arm. (smile)

JStantonChandler said...

Thanks Nathan! I'll be printing this list out and pasting it to my writing desk :)

~Jennifer

ryan field said...

"It has a romantic subplot and I'm so afraid of it sounding like a romance novel that I'm really shying away from anything that resembles deep emotion. But my test readers have told me the story feels flat, so I have to grit my teeth and do it."

It's hard, but you can add emotion and romance without having it sound like a romance novel. It sounds like less is more in this case, so keep it simple. But get the point across that the emotion and the love is there. If your readers are all saying this, and it's consistent, listen to them. And listen to your own instincts.

KayKayBe said...

Does anyone STOP reading a book bc it doesn't have curse words in it? Yet there are some who put a book down for that reason, myself included. I'm fine if everybody else wants to throw it around, I just don't, partly bc when I read it, I think it more, and then it comes out of my mouth, and I don't want my kids repeating.

I can't have my character saying "oh crud" like I do, so I say "He swore" or something like that. "Heck" "Dang" and "Sugar" just aren't the same.LOL

And about pet words- I searched my MS for 'just' last week, and cut 250 instances, leaving me with about 30 places where it changes the meaning of the sentence. It was pretty dang amusing.

Anonymous said...

Perfect list, an invaluable source for aspiring writers. But I find that the problem isn't always intending to do these things, it is knowing whether I've achieved them or not.

If you're a fantasy writer and want to avoid cliches - read Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. It is at once the most terrifying and wonderful book you'll ever read. Try it - but don't say I didn't warn you!

Abbi.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Have you put it aside for a couple of weeks, a month, or more and then reread?

Anonymous said...

Cynthia - is that directed at me?

Yes. I put it down and I re-read and I see new things. But for instance I read lots of 'how to' books and decided to work on my 'show not tell'. I thought I'd worked it out. I gave it to a friend and she said, "No because..." and I agreed. So the point remains that while I might know what I need to do, I don't necessarily know how to achieve it and more importantly whether I have achieved it.

I know the answer is to have that reader - but she is as unpublished as I am - we are both guessing!

I'm not trying to deny that this is a fantastic list, it is, and the fact that it has come from someone current within the industry makes it gold dust. I've printed it out - let the guessing begin!

Abbi.

Tonnie said...

Great tips!

amber polo said...

If I didn't think m current WIP was done after every edit, I wouldn't have an excuse to celebrate.

Miss Mabel said...

Don't forget--is it the right length for your genre!

Bonnie said...

A day late, as usual, but I wanted to add my thanks for the excellent advice in convenient format. I'm trying to get a contemporary novel ready to submit, so everything in the list and the discussion will come in handy.

word: flogwayo. An uncommon sexual practice, no doubt.

Elizabeth Barrette said...

Are your protagonist's powers or virtues sufficiently balanced by weaknesses or vices?

Have you fact-checked historical, scientific, or other nonfictional points?

Have you removed or modified genre-specific cliches (dead lesbian, whole-planet weather, etc.) from the story?

sruble said...

Thanks Nathan, just what I needed today!

Stephanie

Anonymous said...

This kind of checklists kill literature... You end up with books that all read like they were written by the same computer...
Real literature, books that change your life, ignore plots, ignore tension.. They tell a story, first of all and above all. they lift the curtain on a part of the condition humaine. Constructed books, like you present here, just don't do that. they can't.
(Do you think Reve wrote that way? Or Kundera? Dostojevski?)
(pardon my english, I'm dutch)

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

There are an infinite number ways to bake a cake, but you still need some essential ingredients and you still go about it essentially the same way.

E. Hartshorn said...

I'm just diving into a serious revision . . . just what I needed, more things to keep track of!

Something I picked up from reading Fire in Fiction: Have you honed the first and last lines of every scene? Will they draw the reader onward? (Clearly, the last line of the book should draw the reader on to read your next book.)

Michelle Madow said...

I can definitely combine characters. Thanks for posting this!

Sue said...

Great checklist. I combined my MC's two best buds into one, creating a much more interesting best friend. I, fortunately, did this before I was finished with the novel. I'm still not finished, but am so glad I figured this out before I tried to tie it all together. It saved me and gave me motivation to finish.

Savanna Kougar said...

Hmmm... maybe it's just me and my particular limitations as an author. However, the list seems overly complex. Or, as an example, if you're learning tennis 'thinking' about every move rather than simply playing tennis doesn't work. Isn't it simpler to discover what isn't working and go from there. Just like playing tennis there's a certain 'right' feel to writing a story, imo. Correcting what doesn't work when you get off track, or as you revise seems like a more natural process. The story and characters become deeper because you as the author learn more about them and their motivations.
To be honest, if I had to think like that, remember all that, instead of penning organically what occurs, I'd never get anything written.
Yep, I'll say it, so no one else has to ~ I'm probably a lousy writer.
To be fair, that is an excellent list overall, and helpful. I just can't think like that.

tuffy777 said...

Still reading comments, but anxious to add my 2 cents while I still remember them.
Avoid cliches. (see above, 2 cents)
Avoid misplaced modifiers. Example:
"Why won't the plumber tell me how much it costs to unclog my drain over the phone?"
Well, maybe it's because they can't unclog your drain over the phone!
Do you use enough detail to enable your readers to picture people, places and things?
~~ Tessa Dick
~~~

Suzette Saxton said...

Thank you for this!

Roy Hayward said...

KayKayBe

I totally agree. I know that when I was young, I was frustrated by many authors that thought that because I was a YA that I thought and talked dirt.

I may tick off everyone here, but if you can't make your point without using the F word, then you have a vocabulary problem. (and that problem is not an excess of words) Yes I have met people who had to express themselves using profanity, but I was never impressed by them. And I could write their characters without letting verbatim quotes become jarring to my readers.

It is just like the exclamation point. Show me what is happening and who the characters are. But don't cover up a lack of imagination with an ! or a @#%!

You, the author, are telling me what happened. So you can't describe the seen of people cursing without using the exact language they used? That is a poor epitaph to your writing.

Huff huff. This is a real pet peeve of mine. I may be too much of a reading addict to put a book down. But I certainly don't to get another. I search for authors that write books that have clean and compelling dialog. And sometimes they are very hard to find.

Susan Parran, Amherst, NH said...

A writer friend of mine just sent me the link to this blog. What a great idea!
Comment on "side" characters: As a reader and writer, I appreciate when these bit players are handled well. After all, they do everything from supporting the main character and plot to providing necessary breathing spaces between active passages. Make them memorable by making them active in their own right; embue them with enough of their own identity and character that they stand out. One might have a dog with one eye, the other a gambling problem, or an ex-wife who married the ice cream truck driver. Stuff like that. Also, nicknames (rather or in addition to last names, which can be harsh in some usages), are also a good way to go.

Bethgem said...

so helpful

Annabel Candy said...

Brilliant, thanks! I've been through the list, made each point red, orange or green depending on how much I think I need to work on them. Green means I think I'm doing OK on that, red means I think I need to do serious work on this, orange well, you get the idea! Lots to do.

My big question is how long should it take me to edit, revise and rewrite a 65k manuscript? It is good to have a deadline!

Aimee said...

wow thanks this is helpful!

i used that www.wordle.net site for my rough draft and, besides my charcters' names, the word "eyes" was the biggest! i guess i shouldn't describe their eyes so much i guess...

Sean P. Farley said...

Wow, as a person having written a mystery (a first draft anyway), this list amazing. Thanks, Nathan. I will use it wisely. :)

Samantha G said...

Thanks Nathan. I will be printing this off and (hopefully) will end up ticking them all off.

Question: How on EARTH do you make relationships between characters change as you go further on in the book? That's really bugging me!

tuffy777 said...

Samantha, your characters need to learn something, come up against obstacles that they can't overcome, change their minds about themselves and others with regard to moral issues, find that people they like are really bad or people they hate are really good, be forced to admit (at least to themselves) that they were wrong, etc.
~~~

Kevin said...

Fantastic checklist. It's given me a lot of confidence, in that those (all except one) are all the things I already look for when I'm revising, and the book I'm trying to sell is strong on all points. Thank you.

Kieron Heath said...

If you read your book aloud, does it sound right?

Anonymous said...

Do any of your characters have names that being with the same letter?

Chandra said...

Can I ask? Your checklist sounds like it applies the same criteria as the Hollywood formula for screenplays (e.g. as propounded by Robert wassisname and Aristotle). What if the reason you like fiction is because what you like is not formulaic? What if dialogue should not serve any end other than entertainment/character definition (but not plot arc)? Jane Austen follows an almost perfect 3 act play structure but who reads Jane Austen for the plot? Or am I just an idealist and doomed to (continued) failure? BTW FWIW I like your blog - you are a very clear writer and if I can ever get over the mental block of my own literature/writing theories your advice is v good on a v practical level

Kia Abdullah said...

This is really useful, Nathan. Thank you. I just finished reading American Psycho and noticed how many times Patrick Bateman 'shakes [his] head to clear it' or is 'filled with a nameless dread'. Writing tics and recycled phrases can be so difficult to spot when immersed in writing a novel. Your post has served as a timely reminder.

Anonymous said...

Incredibly all inclusive list. I should think if I check each of these off after accomplishment, I will certainly begin to get published.
Thanks so much.
Marlene A Hibbard
www.marlenehibbard.com

warjna said...

Thank you, Nathan, this post is awesome! I'm still in the first draft stage, but that doesn't mean I can't apply these ideas - and I most certainly will!

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