Multi-Level Excellence – Revising with James Scott Bell

I attended James Scott Bell’s “Multi Level Excellence” workshop at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference on October 24, 2010.

James (JSB) is an excellent presenter, and offered  writing advice I found practical and sometimes exciting. At a workshop the previous day, JSB had mentioned Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain, two of my favorite authors writing about writing. I found JSB’s ideas consistent with Bickham’s and Swain’s, with some interesting new tactics. His system for revising to achieve multi-level excellence is very thorough, and I’m planning to use it once I finish my current draft.

The following are my notes about the lecture. Any inaccuracies are mine. Parentheses are my own comments/thoughts.

JSB’s rules for writing and revising:

When Writing

  • Write hot
  • Push limits
  • Don’t revise

When Revising

  • Revise cool

Q: How much should you revise as you write?

JSB: Revise only previous day’s writing

When writing, JSB also uses a “20,000 word step-back.” He pauses, fixes major things, maybe raises stakes for protagonist, then goes ahead

He suggests a rolling outline for people who don’t write a complete outline before the first draft. He describes these writers as usually knowing the ultimate destination but being able only to see the details as far as the headlights (of a car on a journey. This is definitely the kind of writer I am. I need my characters to show me the details of the story, so don’t outline. James’ rolling outline is very close to what I tend to do while writing my first draft, a system of driving up to where the headlights showed the road, then being able to see more. James suggests outlining what you can see – maybe 3 chapters ahead – then writing the next stage of the outline.

Revising strategy after finishing the first draft:

  1. Cool off. Put first draft away for at least 2 weeks. Work on something else.
  2. JSB prints out hard copy after the rest, suggests e-fans  put it on Kindle, it’s up to you.
  3. JSB prepares a cover for his book for a real book experience. Give yourself a new blurb.  Sol Stein suggests putting the name of an author you love up there, to make it seem real and important.
  4. Read your draft like a reader.  Resist temptation to make copious notes or revise as you read (this has always been very difficult for me to do, I itch to fix what’s wrong right away)
  5. Mark up the manuscript. JSB uses check mark for sections where story drags. Parentheses around incomprehensible sentences, metaphors, or similes that don’t work well. Circle when material needs to be added or expanded. Some writers are putter-inners who write lean first drafts and add content in later drafts, some are taker-outers who write copious first drafts – they might want to use the circle for things to take out. Use ??? for sections that don’t make sense (For WTF)

Now come the questions that determine what needs to be done in the revision process (and JSB’s revision process is extensive and deep)

  1. Does the story make sense, do characters act like real people? Do actions make sense? Are they doing stupid things?
  2. At every significant juncture in the story, look at situation from every viewpoint character’s point of view (POV), and ask are they doing the thing they believe is best for their agenda at that point? (Every character has an personal agenda for each scene they are in)
  3. Are there any coincidences that help your lead character?  Coincidences that hurt the lead are OK, but the reader wants lead character to solve his or her own problems without benefit of coincidences.
  4. Are the stakes high enough? Is physical, professional or psychological death threatening at every stage? (JSB deals with this concept of the need for death of some sort to threaten the character in a powerful novel in his writing books, which are published by Writers Digest Press
  5. Is there a way societal stakes can be involved? In High Noon, gunplay could cause town to “die” and there is pressure on the lead character to avoid a howdown.  If there is something like that which can be put into the story under revision, great!
  6. Do the main characters “jump off” the page?  You have to do something to make your characters different. You can use old plots but a modern writer needs to dress old ideas up in the author’s own clothes. It must be the characters that make it fresh.(Listening to this, I thought of the way that the Sherlock Holmes story has been made fresh in two modern series that took their inspiration from the sherlock character: House MD took Sherlock’s personality and characteristics and applied them to a medical setting; in the New Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock is placed in modern times and given a complex and intriguing Dr. Watson with a dark past.)No wimps, active characters only. Characters need to believe passionately about something. Think about your characters in off stage scenes. What are they doing, thinking? Use a free form journal getting your subconscious mind going on your characters.  Get these unique character elements into your opening pages. Go to the author’s dark place, inner conflict is one of the great keys. (I’ve often written my characters’ journals and pivotal scenes from their backgrounds. These don’t get into the book, but they help bring the character to life in my mind.)
  7. Where is there no conflict, no fear/worry/tension in lead characters? Take those scenes out, or fix them
  8. Is there enough of a worry factor? Where could an editor put the book aside and not care what happens? Cut out what’s weak, or “bring in a guy with a gun” – some immediate threat to raise those stakes of death.

Once you’ve analyzed the required revisions in the above steps, write a 2000-3000 word summary of your novel as you will reshape it. Keep working on this summary, writing it over and over again for a couple of weeks, until you are happy with it.

Then do next draft according to new summary.

When writing the second draft, watch out for:

  • Weak opposition. Does the lead character’s opposition have the power to (kill the lead, crush lead’s spirit, or crush lead’s professional life?) The opposition should be stronger than the lead to work well.
  • Slow openings
  • Happy people, happy opening. Book should begin with a ripple of disturbance.
  • Too much backstory. Readers will wait a long time to understand backstory if they see a disturbance happening, but have little patience with backstory before they’ve bonded to the character. JSB advocates marbling in backstory. Dean Koontz and Steven King do this very well in their early books.
  • Don’t open with the weather or dreams before you get to a character.  Editors don’t like it. Don’t open with the character acting alone, experiencing solitary feelings. (I thought of Bickham’s stimulus and response here – the reader needs to see the stimulus that causes character to feel emotions before the reader can understand – or care about – that response) JSB wants to see a character doing something. One test – is dialogue possible in this scene? Well done dialogue elevates first chapter.
  • Have you tried throwing out chapter 1 or even chapter 2? Try it and see if you get a better start, and action closer to the beginning.
  • If you write in first person you have to have a voice, have to have attitude.

About scenes and dialogue:

  • Elmore Leonard – cut out the parts that people skip.
  • Description – try to have a tonal feel to the description, or cut it out.
  • Start deeper. Can you start your scene further in? Every scene has a hot spot, the reason you are writing the scene. Can you begin your scene closer to that hot spot?
  • Action or reaction – the action scene shows viewpoint person trying to get something. Reaction is what follows – feel emotion, then analyze, make decision to take further action. (If you’re a Bickham fan as I am, think Scene and Sequel). The reaction can be marbled into the action scene.
  • Concentrate on understanding what your characters want in every scene. Is there a character in each scene that wants something and is being opposed? (I would add to this, do you understand what the agenda is for every character present in the scene? Years ago Elizabeth George’s statement that “every character present in a scene starts with his/her own agenda” was a big AHA! moment for me)
  • If characters aren’t worried, readers won’t be worried either (and readers want to worry about what will happen to characters)
  • Action-emotion mirror: a scene with a sense of great impending doom should have lots of emotion. Emotion should be consistent with the nature of the action.  Intensity of scene shows characters’ emotion and elevates the quality of the manuscript.
  • Dialog is an extension of action. Talk is an action because (when) the character wants or is resisting something.
  • There should be tension or conflict in dialogue even among allies, friends. Great dialog begins with orchestration. Are characters distinct enough to sound different and to gave tension between them?
  • In each act, JSB wants at least 1 memorable line of dialogue through “curving the language”. (I love his concept of curving the language, taking an ordinary line of dialogue and giving it a curve, a modern metaphor, an attitude. This was a great idea and I wish I could remember any of the examples he gave. If anyone reading this attended the workshop, maybe you can add examples. I couldn’t find it in the index of his book “Revision and Self-Editing” but I expect I’ll see examples in there when I read the book.)
  • Don’t forget to use silence as a response sometimes in dialogue.

Theme – (This is a big one and I believe its very important. As I listened to JSB talking about theme, I found it nicely complemented what Anne Perry had said in her workshop earlier in the day about the “the driving idea behind your story”. I’ll be putting up my Anne Perry notes in the next few days on this blog.)

Try to home in on your theme by the end of your revisions (Anne Perry recommends nailing down your theme or driving idea by the end of the first draft, and ideally earlier. In my experience, the earlier I can nail down my theme, the easier it is to write the book. The book I’m working on right now is about 50% done in rough draft. I thought I had a clear idea of theme, but I realize after listening to JSB and Anne Perry’s workshops that I want to go deeper. I’ll be doing this right away, before going on with the rough draft.)

JSB’s strategy: Imagine your lead character 20 years after the time of your story. Some asks the character why they had to go through “all that” – the challenges and events in your novel. What is the lesson your character would say she/he learned? Write what your character would answer, then go back and try to find a place where that character can make an argument against learning that lesson early in the story. (This was a great suggestion for me. I immediately realized that the very thing that my character wants to achieve is wonderfully tied to the lesson she’s going to need to learn. My character won’t thank me, but it’s made my story deeper, and therefore better.)

Once the second draft is complete, it’s time to polish the writing:

Polish, concentrate on

  • Scene openings and endings, maybe turn events around. Go through all chapter endings and try cutting last couple of paragraphs. Is it better now?
  • Compress dialogue. Look to cut whole lines, action beats, cut individual words in dialogue. Dial up or down 25%. Dial overwritten emotion down, dial intensity up.
  • As a writer, meet the needs of your manuscript. The more craft you know, the better. Rewriting, you become a better writer.

JSB played a final film clip of “The Hustler” with Paul Newman, the scene where the heroine and he picnic and Paul talks about being called a “loser”. It’s a great scene with wonderful character revelation and development. I’m going to rent the movie to watch it again!

This was a great workshop from James Scott Bell. I left the conference with 3 of his writing books from the Chapters bookstore: Plot and Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. I’m going to enjoy poking through these books over the weeks to come, and I suspect they’ll earn a place in my library right beside Bickham’s .

Vanessa

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