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Revision quest

I mentioned before that at Shore Leave, I sat in on a writers’ workshop panel in which some friends and colleagues of mine spelled out some basics about story structure that helped me recognize some structural flaws in the spec novel I’ve been working on for a while now. So I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revising the novel to address those and other flaws.

One thing I did was something I’ve been debating whether I wanted to do, which is to add a new prologue to give the book a more intense opening. My opening had been a passage of backstory exposition that I thought I’d found a clever and intriguing way to do, but I realized that just being clever didn’t make it any less of an infodump, and I was still “walking to the plot” rather than getting right into the meat of things. I needed to open the novel with less backstory and more of what was happening in the immediate, urgent present. So I added the prologue to open with a bang, then trimmed down that expository material and interspersed it more with the here-and-now stuff in a way that adds more suspense and mystery. (I may have been influenced by the book I was reading at the time, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Surface Detail; there are a lot of chapters there that jump back and forth between two concurrent scenes.) I also realized that the part with the characters talking about what might be about to happen goes on too long before it actually starts to happen; I meant it to build suspense, but it was too long, dry, and rambling. So I tightened and restructured that as well. I also realized I could greatly improve the big, shocking revelation in the first chapter if I cut out the part (from the original story this is expanded/reworked from, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”) where the protagonists are told about it, express skepticism, and then have it shown to them as proof. It worked far better if they were just shown it with no prior warning. Basically, I reworked the whole first chapter so that it gets to the good stuff earlier.

I also found ways to make the lead character stronger and more effective; I’d been concerned that I was telling what an impressive leader he was more than I was showing it. The problem was, of the two main characters, the one I agreed with less somehow ended up with more really cool, compelling, likeable moments. Which was fine for her; I wanted her to be sympathetic and engaging even though I thought she was wrong. But somehow I didn’t quite manage to make the other lead equally engaging, perhaps because I identified with him more and took him more for granted. This time through, I put more effort into his character, cut out some bits that weakened him in the original story and gave him more of an opportunity to do something really impressive and heroic, and I think I’ve achieved the balance I wanted.

The other main structural problem I had was that one character who became a major player in the third act (plus another who had a moderately important role to play toward the end) didn’t get introduced until the third act, and that was one of the no-nos mentioned in the Shore Leave workshop. The problem, I’d thought, was that introducing this major player too early would be a spoiler for a pretty important secret that the characters needed to uncover another way. But I figured out a way that I could introduce this character earlier and actually make him the vehicle for revealing part of the secret, without giving away the bigger part that a different character had to reveal. I mentioned this problem back in February, when I’d decided that an encyclopedic infodump passage might be the right way to convey the information after all, but at the time I said I wasn’t entirely sure it worked and maybe would think of a better way later. Well, I did. It’s not only a smoother way to give the exposition, but it lets me give this character more to do earlier on — and if you can find a way for two of your problems to solve each other, that’s always good. I was able to seed the other, more secondary character earlier too, but she was a small enough role that it was easier to do.

Speaking of small roles… this book revolves around a ship with a crew of 48 humans, small enough that I was able to come up with names and jobs for every one of them. In the first draft, I made sure to mention every crewmember by name at least once, on the assumption that I’d end up making some use of most of them and didn’t want to leave readers wondering, “Hey, he mentioned 45, where are the other 3?” (or whatever). Plus I didn’t want to artificially focus on a fraction of the crew and ignore the rest; I wanted to give a sense of the full community. Yet in the revision process, I realized that I’d used fewer characters than I’d expected, and there were a lot of names being mentioned that never turned out to be significant. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to eliminate character references unless I could trim enough that it would make a meaningful difference. So I used the search function to find how many times I referenced the minor characters, and found that there were quite a few who were only mentioned 1, 2, or 3 times. By cutting some references and consolidating others, I was able to cut it to the point that just over 2/3 of the crew got mentioned by name — enough to give a good sense of the larger group without inundating the readers with names they don’t need to know. Plus, if I should ever get to do a sequel, I have room to introduce new characters as needed without being locked down. Although of course that’s a distant consideration at best. (Not to mention that I don’t have to burn off quite so many usable character names. I compiled that 48-person crew roster largely by cannibalizing characters, or at least names, from previous unsold/abandoned works of mine, but since I didn’t need all those characters here, I can save them for later.)

Oh yes, and I came upon a science article that briefly had me alarmed that the crucial event that sets the whole story in motion couldn’t actually happen at all, because I’d overlooked something major. For a few minutes, I was afraid I’d have to abandon or radically reimagine the whole thing. But I looked into the matter some more and figured out that I could still make it work given the context of the event — in fact, everything I needed to explain it away was already built into the story parameters I’d established — and I simply needed to add a few more lines to clarify that. Whew.

So anyway, I’m sure it’s still not perfect, but I feel it’s good enough to begin shopping around to agents. And this is a good time for it, what with Only Superhuman about to come out and getting pretty good buzz.

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  1. John Edgeworth
    September 5, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Chris,

    Thanks for the update. It was very interesting in how you toke a con visit, and make it a writing “improvement session for you. I was especially interested in how you wrote the novel, but after some new info, went back, and tightened up some parts. This show to me that you are learning you craft, and are not afraid of saying, I can do better. You are rapidly becoming a favorite artist of mine. So, as always, thanks for what you do, and thanks for sharing.

    John E.

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