I have a book on writing! www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… Go buy it.
I’ve been doing rewrites a lot lately, and for each chapter I do, I sit down and write these seven questions on the back of the last chapter page. Every. Chapter. (And I just did all 52 some-odd chapters of Mark of the Conifer last night.) If you can answer these questions with one sentence or so, you are in good shape to do a good rewrite. If you are rambling, writing paragraphs, you are losing focus and probably have too much going on in the chapter. You probably need to break things up, remove or cut elements, or move them to more appropriate places. These questions are supposed to help you declare a goal for each chapter, nail down what you’re going for, and help you keep in mind while you rewrite.
1. What is the tension in this scene? “Tension on every page” is pretty important. If you have a chapter where the character idyllically eats breakfast, it’s probably boring and needs tension. Tension can come from all sorts of sources: characterization, exposition, plot, foreshadowing, pacing, and so on. The important thing is that you have it. Please don’t think you have to have the same amount of tension on page one as you do when the climax is happening. You don’t. You can have low and high levels of tension throughout; keeping the tension nonstop becomes exhausting for your reader. But you need to have some tension, some drive, to keep things interesting. If you can’t identify the tension in your scene, it needs work. Most tension is as simple as putting Character A and B together and watching the sparks fly. Other scenes are more challenging.
2. Push and pull? This should help you in identifying tension. Push and pull are the two forces defying each other in the scene. Character A wants A, and Character B is in the way of A. One pulls against the push, and the other pushes against the pull, like wrestling. It might take a few chapters to determine who wins or not, but in the meantime you have tension. Most chapters have two forces, whether it’s Harry dealing with Snape or Tyrion slapping Joffrey around. It is possible to have more than two, but if you are pulling it off without diluting your tension you’re a better author than I am. If you have too many pushes and pulls, cut them or move them to other places. Focus is the key! I can’t pay attention to four lions with Machiavellian plots talking to each other in the same scene. I’ll lose the thread. But if you give me two, and then the next two in the next chapter, I’m much better off. This doesn’t mean nothing else can be mentioned; that’s what exposition and foreshadowing are for. But you give your push and pull the foreground, and other things can happen in the background that keeps the thread of the story going.
3. What am I trying to say in this chapter? “What is the point of this chapter?” is also an equally valid question. This is where you have to come up with a reason to justify this chapter’s existence. “Hero has a huge emotional moment”, “the villain is revealed”: these are valid reasons to keep a chapter around. “My hero’s likes and dislikes are known” is not. Neither is “I tell everyone how my world works in this one chapter.” Every chapter serves a story movement, and if your chapter isn’t serving the story movement, get rid of it. Or redistribute it so it does. It’s very important that you are answering this question in particular with one sentence. If you’re writing stuff like “Well, I introduce the hero’s sidekick, and the reader knows what the hero’s hair color is now, and that he likes grey horses” – uh-uh. Cut it. Tighten it. Go back to the drawing board on story structure and either figure out what movement your chapter is or get rid of it. Even if someone catches you flat-footed with this question (say, in a critique session), you should still be able to say what the point of it is.
4. How is my reader supposed to feel? Rewrites are for readers, like it or not. And you have to take into consideration how your reader feels, because emotion is the greatest window of connection your reader has to your story. It is their starting point. Other things like loving your details and admiring your diction will come later, but to begin with your reader must feel something about your writing. If you are writing a scene with funny dialogue and bright, shiny description, your reader is not going to feel morose and depressed. And if your goal is to make the reader feel morose and depressed, you need a rewrite something fierce. Everything from a single word choice to entire set-pieces affect how your reader feels. Be mindful of it. And again, you’re not writing paragraphs to answer this question. “Well, the reader should feel sorry for my hero, but also cheering him on, and bad about his dead horse, but also think the hero’s witty line of dialogue was hilarious …” That’s exhausting! The story element of mood is what’s being discussed here. Focus! “The reader is supposed to be horrified at the reveal of the killer.” Bam. That’s fantastic. “The reader is supposed to like the hero.” Great! Now go back and look at your writing. Are you writing in a way that invokes horror? Can you make it more horrifying? Is your hero doing things that are likable? Or is he kind of a jerk and you don’t care if the reader likes him or not?
5. Where did I succeed? Rewriting is not about reinventing the wheel, per se. (That’s not to say that yes, it is entirely possible to write entire manuscripts with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I’ve done it at least eight times. At least.) An artist has an eraser, not to wipe out entire drawings, but lines here and there that don’t work. The lines that work they build upon. Writers have lines that work, too. Keep them. Acknowledge them. Yes, these are probably your darlings, but they’re probably also moments where you “feel” the pop of the character, or mood, or world. These will be small and miniscule things, but they are diamonds. And yes, this is the place where no matter how much you hate yourself and your story, you’re supposed to find something positive about it. Even when I’m at a loss, I usually like my dialogue, so I can scribble down “Dialogue was good.” And yes, it’s entirely possible for something you loved last rewrite to be incredibly stupid next rewrite. Whatever. Acknowledge what works and be quick about it.
6. Where did I miss? The author of the book I got this question from was particular to not say “fail.” You MISSED. In that you can fix things, so it’s not a failure. (For you low self-esteemy types.) Whatever the answer to this question is (and it can be multiple things) is to be the focus of your next rewrite. “My pacing was off.” Okay, work on pacing next time, and when you get to this chapter you’re not scratching your head saying “What was wrong with this again?” Try to stay focused. Yes, it is possible that your pacing is bad, your characterization sucks, your exposition is clunky, and your characters aren’t likable. Odds are, those are problems throughout the entire book, and not just this one chapter. I do “pacing rewrites” all the time, where I rewrite specifically for pacing. And I know I have a manuscript coming up that I will have to do a “magic system rewrite” on. If you really want to learn about characterization, make that your focus of this rewrite. Sure, try for the others things, too, but keep characterization as your focus. Rewrites are like sanding. You graduate to finer and finer grades, more minute details, with each pass. A rough draft’s rewrite is broad strokes. Next rewrite more specific areas. Next one is fine details like diction. I have a manuscript that has been rewritten about ten times in its entirety (because it was terrible from the ground-up), and when I finally got a working draft of it, I rewrote it ten times. I just finished round eleven of rewrites, and it STILL needs tweaking on the ending and magic system. Writing is rewriting. Deal with it.