Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Revision Questions: Sandwich or record?

I think Motown's Berry Gordy may have had the best test for a work of commercial art. Each week, he'd review the new songs and ask employees this question: Would you buy the record or a sandwich if you were down to your last dollar?

If you're writing for yourself, your friends, or "high art," this question doesn't matter. But if you hope to make a living writing or make the bestsellers list, you must provide an experience that is emotional, entertaining, and free of distractions. While we may appreciate the information and insight, we read commercial fiction for the thrills, tears, and laughs. We expect to be immersed in the story and to be carried along through highs and lows by a need to know what happens next. We have little tolerance for malformed sentences, impenetrable prose, leaps of logic, inconsistent characters, or scenes that don't go anywhere.

Few people can create beautiful, enticing, and clean copy in a first draft. The jewels are cleaned, cut, and polished during revision. Below are ten questions aimed at helping you with this process. They are not comprehensive, but they might provide a starting checklist as you develop your own list. As always, successful analysis and reworking of your manuscript needs to take into account your target audience. The changes you make to engage with a young adult who loves well-constructed fantasies will not necessarily be the ones you'd make to reach a middle-aged fan of technothrillers.

OK. Here's your starter set of questions:
  1. Is it clear? Does it make sense? Does it confuse rather than raise interesting questions? Are elements (characters, world, plot) inconsistent?
  2. Is it fresh? Does the premise intrigue readers? Are there surprises? Does it avoid cliches? Does it raise questions?
  3. Is is it a page-turner? Is there a problem with the pacing? Where did you stop or slow down? Are their long blocks of backstory and narration? Do you raise the stakes? Does it have hooks?
  4. Is the ending satisfying? Does it pay off the story question? Are important loose ends tied up? Does it fulfill genre expectations?
  5. Does it have the right scenes? Are there important holes in the story? Could some scenes be cut?
  6. Is your main character someone readers can identify with? Is he or she likable? Someone readers can sympathize with? Are there any "too stupid to live" choices?
  7. Did you pull your punches? Could some scenes be bigger? Go further? Did you risk your own emotions?
  8. Does a clear voice come across? Does it sound like you? Or an amalgam of your favorite writers? Is the voice right for the story?
  9. Is it poetic? Did you read it aloud without stumbling over the words? Does it include images you can't forget and phrases that feel wonderful in your mouth?
  10. Is it a clean read? Do sentences work? Are verbs strong? Is it typo-free?
This doesn't address genre specifics (e.g., sparks flying in romance novels, clues in a mystery), and answering all of the questions satisfactorily does not ensure that you have a work that works as a whole. There is no formula. Instead, like Gordy's sandwich question, this provides a first-order quality control that can save you from errors and omissions that make editors say, "This is not for me."
Upcoming classes

January 20-February 17 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) https://writerscenter.org/courses/science-fiction-and-fantasy-writing-workshop
February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online) http://ce.savvyauthors.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=2149
Februrary 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College http://www.sunywcc.edu/continuing-ed/ce/

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