We have two months to revise Emma Nelson’s novel, whose working title is The Witch’s Bond. We are preparing it for the Pitch Round in November, when participating agents will accept pitches, so the manuscript needs to be pitch perfect.
Emma (whom I only just met but who is so wonderful!) has graciously allowed me to share the revision process with all of you, so I invite you to follow along as we revise so you can learn the process and apply it to your own work. I will add how-to steps and tips along the way.
Here is a quick synopsis of Emma’s story --- the pitch she submitted to PitchWars.
You’d think that talking with the dead would be all in a day’s work for a certified mortician, ghost-hunting tour guide in Salem, MA, but when Cici runs into a time slip—when the present overlaps with a previous time period—and starts seeing actual ghosts and witches on her Salem’s Lore Haunted Tour outings, she quickly learns that coming face to face with legends isn’t exactly the thrill ride she’d imagined.
Forced to confront her new reality, Cici recruits a wax museum owner and a bouncer with a lineage of dark magic. Together, they unearth the legends behind Salem’s most notorious witch, Bridget Bishop, in order to solve the mystery of the hanged bell ringer of St. Peter’s Church. When Cici's lovingly offbeat Haitian-American family becomes entwined in her efforts, she must hurry to break the chain of ghostly time loops before there's no escape for the victims--or her family.
The Witches’ Bond is a wild romp of hauntings, witchcraft, and time tweaking set in contemporary Salem, MA, one of the most cursed cities in America. It is an adult historical mystery, with supernatural elements. It is complete at 71,000 words.
I have an MA in English literature and have taught college writing courses. I wrote a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Fairy-Tale Cultures and Media, set to be released July 2017; a chapter in Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television; and I edited and compiled Dark Magic: Witches, Hackers, and Robots, set to release in October 2016. I work as an editor for Quantum Fairy Tales magazine, volunteer with Teen Author Boot Camp, and I regularly attend critique groups and writing conferences. I love working with others and am always eager for feedback and suggestions on how to improve my work. I look forward to hearing from you.[JN1]
Read Chapter 1 of Emma’s Original Submitted Draft :
1. Analyze the Whole
The first thing to do when revising is to analyze the whole. You can do this yourself, or use beta readers, or work with a professional editor or book coach.
You want to look at the big things – the broad strokes of the story—to make sure that everything hangs together. Books are often written bit by bit, and it’s not until you have a finished draft that you get a sense of the whole sweep of it. That’s what the first job of a revision is: to assess the whole.
When analyzing a whole manuscript, I generally look at the following:
- Age of Protagonist
- Protagonist Development
- What’s at Stake/The Point
- Where the Story Starts
- Scene Progression/Narrative Drive
- Story Logic/World Building
- The End/The Point
Emma’s manuscript is beautifully written, and very well plotted out—things happen in a cause-and-effect trajectory, in a scene by scene progression, and with a certain amount of narrative drive. She’s also very smart about storytelling and narrative design. That is all good news, but still I found weaknesses that need to be shored up in every single area.
Here is a brief rundown of my findings:
2. Break It Down
Genre – There are so many things going on in this work, including witches and ghosts (paranormal), a mystery (suspense), time travel (fantasy), historical elements (history) and even a little romance. I love a multi-layered, complex story, but I wanted to make sure that Emma knew the MAIN genre she was working in so that we were on the same page with that.
Age of Protagonist – At times, the protagonist comes across as a YA voice and at times she comes across as very adult. A wishy-washy age designation would be the death knell for any book, so Emma has to make a decision which category she wants to publish in and tweak the manuscript accordingly.
Protagonist Development – It was unclear exactly what Emma’s protagonist wants. We know what she wants in general—to pay off student loans, to get a job giving ghost tours, to maybe have that cute guy she likes notice her—but we don’t know what’s driving her internally, and we need to know it, from second one.
What’s at Stake/The Point – Because of some of the above, I felt that the point of this book was not yet wholly clear. What exactly is Emma trying to say about human nature through this story? Every story says SOMETHING, and it needs to be saying it starting with sentence one.
Where the Story Starts – There is a lot of ramp-up in Chapter 1 and even Chapter 2. A lot of conversation, a lot of description, a lot of nothing really happening yet. That’s not good! We want the story to start at a moment when there is no turning back. We want to be yanked in right from second one. Odds are good that the start of this novel will have to change.
Scene Progression/Narrative Drive – Although there is great narrative drive overall, there are a few scenes in the middle that drag and need to be tightened up. Everything needs to connect to the main story question—the thing the protagonist wants.
Story Logic/World Building – There is magic in this story—ghosts and witches and some supernatural powers—and there are several places where the logic of the supernatural world doesn’t quite hang together. These are small holes—but they add up. We need to know who gets the powers and why, and what the ghosts and witches think, and how the time slips work. So Emma needs to do some massive world-building development.
The End/The Point – Because the point is not wholly clear, the end is not as powerful as it can be. The scenes leading UP to the end are spectacular, but the end falls a little flat. We need to fix that for sure.
3. Deal With the Overwhelm
When she first saw my edit letter, Emma was not happy. There was a lot to do, and the tendency is to think, “HOLY $&*T I CAN’T POSSIBLY DO THAT IN TWO MONTHS.”
But she can.
Here is a quote from Emma’s first letter to me after she heard I’d picked her, and received my editorial letter:
“I'm so grateful you saw something in my writing, and I'm so excited to work with you! Well, that was my initial response, anyway. Before I read your impossibly hard edit letter! ;)
Just kidding. It's obviously going to be a ton of work, but your suggestions are so smart. There wasn't one thing on your list that I disagreed with. I need to start thinking about them, and my brain is on overload tonight, but I'll start making comments and having a conversation with them in the Google doc….There are so many deep, interesting questions to answer, but based on them, I feel like you really get what I was trying to do with Cici and Bridget and girl power and the awesomeness/tragedy that is Salem. I hope I can get it where it needs to be. I'm more than ready to get to work figuring it all out.”
That “can do” attitude is what is necessary to do a great revision.
So if you get feedback on a full manuscript that makes your knees go weak, or if you read the work yourself and think, “Uh oh,” let yourself have a few moments or a day of despair. Then start making a plan for moving forward.
4. Make a DO-ABLE Plan for Moving Forward
You can’t tackle everything at once, and yet everything is connected. It’s a Catch 22. The way to proceed when there are a lot of things to address is to isolate the foundational elements and work on those first.
Emma and I decided to work on these four elements:
1. Define the Protagonist’s Age
In order to do this, we made a pro-con list.
- Market—fun market, the cult of a debut (twitter buzz, branding buzz)
- Stay lighter
- Love YA as a reader
- Current younger voice fits
- More potential to play up the romantic elements
- I’ve written 4 other novels—all YA
- Lose potential for some dark facets of story
- More drawn to the adult themes of this particular story
- More work to re-craft the life/situation of existing plot
- Market—women’s fiction is a big market
- The chance to do something deeper. Not that YA doesn’t deal with dark/deep themes, but as an adult, sometimes it’s fun to think about adult topics
- There’s something interesting happening with ‘20s/’30s—more millennials questioning what to do with themselves, their careers, their living situations
- No YA debut buzz
- Worry that the lighter tone of the MC is not entirely Adult
This exercise didn’t result in any definitive answer, so I asked Emma to pretend to decide on adult, and to take three days to do a three-part writing exercise (below) around the first chapter.
After that, she will pretend to decide on young adult, and do the three-part writing exercise from that point of view.
The three-part writing exercise sneaks in another big question, which is where the book starts. The exercises is as follows:
1. Start with the opening chapter idea. For fiction and memoir, you know what needs to happen, who it needs to happen to, why it needs to happen NOW, and who is telling it. For non-fiction, you know why you're starting where you are starting, what you are promising to help your reader solve, and the elements that need to be in each chapter. You know a LOT. Use that here.
2. Set a timer for 45 minutes. Write the opening chapter — write fast, and only as much as you can in the allotted time. Obviously, this will not be a fully fleshed-out chapter. That’s okay. A sketch of the beginning is all we need to assess whether it’s the best place to start.
3. Get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water.
4. Now set the timer again and write the scene again, only this time, write something totally different. It's the same criteria, but you start in a different place or with a different narrator or from a different angle.
5. Get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water. Maybe have a little snack.
6. Set the timer again and write the scene again, but this time, write something totally different AGAIN. Perhaps you start in a different place or with a different narrator or from a different angle.
7. This is going to be hard — on purpose. I want you to see all the options for your story and force yourself to really think through the best way to tell it. This exercise does that by getting you out of your head and into your subconscious, which knows story inside and out.
8. If you feel you don't have 3x 45 minutes to spend on this, try it with 3x 15 minutes. It's the concept that counts, not the time you spend.
9. Which of the three beginnings do you like the best? Why?
We will see in the next Volume of this newsletter what Emma does on the adult side, then what she does on the YA side.
And will this be easy? Nope. Here’s Emma:
“Man, I loved my first line. Cutting the darlings!”
2. Define the POINT of the book.
The way to get at this is for me to pepper Emma with a million questions and for her to spend some time thinking and agonizing and wringing her hands and looking at books she loves and trying to figure out why she was drawn to this idea in the first place.
Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:
- And as for the story’s POINT -- in the end, Cici is totally defending Bridget and women and the power of narrative (to change over time, to change history, to change US) -- which I LOVE. But in Cici’s own life that doesn’t feel like a thing to defend. So it’s weird -- it’s like you built this amazing story but forgot to but the foundation in, how it all ties and relates to Cici. We need to go shore that up.
- How does what happens tie into CiCi’s emotional life? Think about Bridget’s quest and problem and how this can be the thing that pushes Cici where she has been afraid to go in her own life. How can being connected with Bridget in this way be the WORST POSSIBLE THING to happen to Cici right now, given everything else going on in her life? How can the accident of being connected be JUST the thing that Cici REALLY doesn’t need (or actually really does, but doesn’t know it.)
- Look hard at Bridget and the other women in the witch’s circle and what they need. And look at the stories you wrote in your time slips — what are those really about? Why would a 20-something woman really NOT want to watch those again and again and again — and if forced to, what would she learn about herself?
TIP: How do you identify your point if you don’t have someone peppering you with specific questions? Imagine that you are on Oprah’s couch (or The Today Show or Jimmy Fallon or whatever your dream venue for reaching readers) and Oprah says, “Can you tell our audiences what your book’s about?” You are probably not going to waste your precious airtime talking about the plot or the what of your book. You are going to talk about the point – why it matters, what it does for readers, why it resonates with them. Don’t worry if your point sounds like a cliché. That probably means you’re on the right track. Write down your point and keep it near the place where you work so it can be your North Star as you write forward.
3.) Define the magic – the who, the what, they why, the when, every last little detail.
Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:
- What triggered the original time slip? In terms of why NOW? And why Cici? And why not anyone else? There has to be a reason WHY HER.
- Why is this story happening NOW? Has it ever happened before?
- How does the magic impact Cici and what she wants? (This harkens back to the question about why she is in Salem in the first place…) We don’t just want the stakes to be external (a plain old mystery, or the people in the time slips in trouble), we want them to impact HER really strongly. What happens to her when she sees all these tragic scenes in the past and can’t stop them? What does that do to HER and to her internal struggle/desire
- Why are deaths she sees haunting her? What about death means something to her? Yes she works in a morgue and is comfortable with dead bodies, but what does any of it MEAN to her?
TIP: Here is a great post from novelist Chuck Wendig on how to think about world building. Beware the adult language.
4.) Define the protagonist—what does she want, why does she want it?
Here are some of the specific questions I asked Emma:
- What is the pre-spirit haunting dream of protagonist?
- What does she WANT before this all starts? Both on a plot level and an internal level. I never understood why she went to mortician school. Or why she wants to be a tour guide. Or why seeing the murders/deaths of the past meant anything more to her than they would anyone else.
- On p 165 you really dig into this and it’s AWESOME. When Cici asks herself what she wants—and how she wants to join the witches around the fire. I want a glimmer of that—her desire—WAY earlier. I mean why does she love her body and her curls in that moment (which I LOVE)—why does that matter to her. Before that we have no real sense of that. When she says, “I am enough…” did she not feel that before?
- On p 166 when she talks about discernment, we don’t know what that really means to her….how it would look. She hasn’t really struggled with that. And when she feels free—we hadn’t really known she DIDN’T feel free
TIP: Here is Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, on getting your protagonist’s desire right:
Make sure your protagonist enters the story already wanting something very badly. All protagonists enter the story with a longstanding desire (even if it’s simply to stay exactly as they are, thank you very much, until the day they shuffle off this mortal coil). What’s more, this thing they want is what defines their story-long overarching agenda. This is something many writers overlook (or don’t even consider). But it is crucial. After all, each of us has a defining agenda, driven by what we want, based on what our life experience has taught us matters. Our agenda is not random or arbitrary, and it’s consistent. The same is true of your protagonist. His agenda defines how he sees the world, what he wants, and what he does, every minute of every day. So, the question to ask of your protagonist as he stands on the threshold of page one is:
- What does he enter the story wanting on an internal level? Remember, this is something he has wanted for a very long time – something like love or acceptance or to prove he is worthy.
- What does he enter wanting on an external level? (Think: What does he want to happen externally, in order to satisfy his internal desire?)
- Why does he want what he wants? What does he believe getting what he wants externally will mean to him? (Don’t forget, what he enters thinking it will mean to him, and what it actually ends up meaning to him might be two very different things indeed.)
For Volume 2 of Revising Emma, I will share the conclusions Emma came to in these four areas, and how we decided what to work on next.