Real Writers Revise: Lecture Notes, Crime Bake, November 2012

Lecture at Crime Bake, November, 2012

B.A. Shapiro


Can’t do it all at once: too many moving parts. What follows is what I usually do:

-       Use only what’s useful, omit the rest

-       Devise your own procedures

Finish the first draft à put it away for at least 2 weeks.


Read it as if you were reading a novel – without taking notes, then consider...


ELEMENTS: A good piece of fiction contains four elements woven into a seamless whole: DO YOU HAVE THESE?


- a riveting story (plot)

- an engaging protagonist (character)

- an enthralling narrative (voice)

- a convincing portrayal of a human predicament (theme)


EXERCISE: What’s your theme, i.e. what is it that your protagonist learns in the course of the story that you want the reader to learn or consider? If you don’t know what it is, figure it out: What’s the insight your character needs to understand by the end that she doesn’t know at the beginning? What has she learned from the story about life and the human condition?



1. the inciting incident

2. the goal

3. the conflicts (a, b, c...)

            - external

            - internal

            - interpersonal

4. the crisis

5. the climax

            - the sacrifice: the price of the choice

            - the unconscious need filled from the back story

6. the resolution


There once was a woman who had a terrible problem enter her life (inciting incident). She decided that she was going to solve/get rid of her problem so she devised a plan (goal). But whenever she put this plan into action, everything around her worked against her (conflicts) until the problem had grown even worse and she seemed even further than ever from reaching her goal. At this darkest moment (crisis), the woman made a decision based on who she was and what she had learned in the story. Through this decision and the resulting action (climax) her problem was resolved (resolution) in either a positive (happy ending) or negative way (unhappy ending).


EXERCISE: Chart these events for your story. If any are missing, you need to create them.



-       major story goal

-       unconscious goal

-       life goal (hopes and dreams)

-       major life disappointments

-       physical description

-       life resume

-       figures of speech

-       mannerisms

EXERCISE: Create a chart for each of your main characters and fill in the eight categories above. If it’s not there, figure it out.


GENERAL ISSUES: consider all the following:


-       Nothing is said or shown without purpose

-       Narrative tug: what keeps the reader turning pages? What are the events the reader is anticipating?

-       Don’t tell the reader anything until she is dying to know it

-       Avoid abstraction

-       Everything in the story has a purpose in the story

-       Less is more: stick to greatest hits in description, character, dialogue, etc.

-       Almost never – but not always – tell what you can show

-       Every scene must move the plot forward and deepen character

-       Avoid stereotypes


With the information above at hand:

-       print out and reread your manuscript

-       write notes on the hardcopy

-       keep a list of changes and thoughts that come to you as you’re reading


Organize your thoughts and ideas and write up a revision plan which includes categories such as the following:

-       theme

-       global

-       plot

-       characters

-       miscellaneous

-       questions, thoughts and ideas to be considered


With your revision plan next to you, go chapter by chapter:

-       read carefully and put notes where you need them

-       rewrite and go on to the next chapter

-       try not to go back to previous chapters à keep notes on changes you want to make in the earlier pages


When you’ve finished, reread the draft and mark it up with your changes and new ideas. Think about how it works globally. Make any necessary changes on the pages. Give this second, but still rough, draft to a few trusted writers/readers to read.

-       Make note of their comments, but remember that this is your book, you don’t need to listen to each one, but if more than two give you the same criticism – or praise – consider it in the next draft

-       Make another revision plan based on:

o   the comments you keep

o   consideration of voice, point of view, progression, attitude

o   make another plot chart

-       Integrate into the manuscript: now your second draft is complete


Put it aside for at least two weeks.


Read the pages again from the beginning, slowly and carefully, out loud if you can, listen to how it sounds and consider it at a lower level of specificity:

-       paragraph

-       sentence

-       word

-       dialogue


Start from the beginning with emphasis on the following:

-       Cut out all unnecessary words

-       Eliminate adverbs

-       Eliminate all passive tense

-       Only use a single adjective: no strings

-       Match sentence to action

o   Crisp and short à the reader races ahead

o   Complex and lyrical à the reader slows down

o   Match to characters attitude/situation at the moment

-       Eliminate clichés

-       Vary sentence structure

-       Dialogue:

o   Dialogue should appear to be overheard, not composed or written for a purpose

o   start in the middle à get rid of hellos, good-byes

o   Greatest hits à eliminate any unnecessary statements

o   Eliminate exposition in dialogue à make sure the characters aren’t telling each other what they already know

o   Dialogue must do as many of the following as possible: advance plot, characterize, set scene, foreshadow

o   Get rid of as much attribution as possible

§  Don’t be afraid of “said”

§  You can’t smile or nod dialogue

o   Dialogue should appear to be overheard, not composed or written for a purpose

o   People rarely use the other’s name in dialogue

o   People interrupt each other

o   People talk past each other

o   People often don’t listen to each other and just talk from their own perspective, completely disregarding what the other is saying

o   Give speakers speech ticks and signature gestures

o   Review dialogue punctuation and correct

-       Grammar check

-       Spell check

Put it away for at least a couple of weeks and then read again and decide how many more times you need to go through the process. I’m usually good for at least five or six, sometimes more. It’s your call.