Holiday snaps and revision questions

August 12, 2010

Sarah’s in deepest Cornwall on holiday this week, so I’m taking over blog duty.
I thought I’d pose some revision questions to help with any self-editing that some of you might be doing. I’m just back from holiday myself, so as a treat, I’ll cut my questions with some snaps from the Canaries.

Does your main story arc take off soon enough? In those first pages and chapters a reader is looking to see where the story is pointed. We’re looking for intent.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which I’ve just reread, has a great first scene. Christopher finds a dead dog, speared with a pitchfork on his neighbour’s lawn. If the reader knows where the story is pointed, it’s much harder to get lost, lose interest and put the book down. Show your reader due North right from the start.

Do you start with backstory? If so, do it with caution. With backstory you might have trouble hooking your reader. Start in a scene, with a character and a challenge. Browsing first chapters in a bookshop, you’ll see a lot of books start with jeopardy: A chase, a crash, an argument, a dilemma – a mini-drama to hook the reader in.

What do you reveal about your main character in the first few pages? Make a list of what is shown about this character. They should be compelling. Why do they matter? Why are they unique? If there’s a baddy, what’s their USP? My all-time favourite baddy is Cruella De Vil: A woman who makes coats from Dalmatian puppies. What a motif! Give your baddy something extra.


Does every scene need to be there? Does everything develop story, character or theme? Don’t give your reader a chance to look away. John Grisham gives a great piece of writing advice. He says imagine that your reader is sitting opposite you as you write, and you can’t let them look away for a second. If a scene can come out without having an impact on the plot, then question its role. Keep the pedal to the metal!

Do you end your chapters at a good spot – a hook or a high point maybe? Are you entering scenes at the right moment? Take a look at each scene. What’s the latest point you could start? And the earliest point you could leave? Those could well be the cut points.

Have you read your dialogue aloud? Or even better, get someone else to read it aloud and listen to them. If they stumble over it, so will you reader. Does it sound like something your character would say? Maybe highlight and read one character’s dialogue to make sure you’ve pitched each voice just right. Dialogue is difficult. Master it.

Are there too many characters? Is there an overload early on that might bamboozle the reader? If you think there could be, maybe combine two people into one. Do your character names stand out or are they samey?


Is there enough conflict? Conflict holds pace. What is at stake in your story? If the main character doesn’t achieve that goal, what will happen? Does it matter? It must. Is there a cause and effect relationship in the storytelling, in the achievement of the goal? Do actions have consequences?

Have you trusted your reader? I bet the best books you’ve read have made you feel clever, and made you stretch and occupy some space in the reading. Show, don’t tell. That gives the reader a place in your story.

Is your character growing? Does he/she have an emotional arc as well as an outer journey? Do incidental characters have an arc? Kurt Vonnegut said “every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water”. What do your characters want?

Is there too much description? As Lombardi says, “There’s a fine line between lush description and the kind that chokes the reader”. Avoid clichés. Don’t overwrite.

Is your point of view consistent? Decide from the outset who is telling the story and stick to it. Be aware if you’re writing from multiple POVs, you’ve set yourself a big challenge. When it works it’s wonderful, but often a reader will favour one POV/ character/story and then come to resent the other(s). If you favour one storyline, your reader probably will to. So address that head on. And remember that each POV needs to feel and sound different.

At the key moments – the pivots, the shocks, the thrills, the bits with feeling – have you squeezed the juice from the fruit? You know where the buttons are in your story. Press them.

And a piece of computer advice. Back everything up! Twice!

People often ask me for advice on how to find an agent. My number one piece of advice is finish the book. Two reasons for that. First, agents operate at top speed when something great comes along. The last author I signed up was Jeyn Roberts who wrote the storming thriller THE DARK INSIDE. I signed her up at four o’clock in the morning after taking her manuscript home seven hours earlier. She was in Korea though, so it wasn’t her four o’clock. The point is we can be like truffle pigs on the scent (see picture), and once we’ve got that scent we charge.


The second reason I say wait before submitting work to an agent: If you’ve finished your book, taken a break from it, worked on it, looked at the whole and improved it as whole, those first pages and first chapters are going to be stronger. You will know clearly what your book is and where it needs to go – and you’re going to get there more effectively.

Hope this provides some help. It’s been a great month for Greenhouse so far: The transatlantic double for Jeyn Roberts, a picture book deal, GOGGLE-EYED GOATS, for Stephen Davies and a few great things in the cooker…

Happy holidays. And don’t work too hard!