A Muddy Revision Slog

I am finally getting back to writing. Not drafting right now, but revising something I have been putting off. Sometimes revision is clear and straightforward. In fact, I usually prefer revising to drafting. But this time the revisions are difficult—muddy.

In theory, I know what to do. Among other things, I am shoring up the “goals” in my protagonist’s scenes. Making clear what she wants. Because the feedback I got was that her goal got muddy after the first few chapters and therefore the reader lost interest in all the confusion.

So I have sharpened in my mind the overall story goal—the one that drove her from the beginning. But I am having trouble bringing that goal to the surface in all the scenes, because sometimes the scene goal necessarily overshadows the book goal. When you’ve been imprisoned and tortured, the immediate goals of survival and escape take precedence over all else. So maybe I have the wrong story goal altogether and that’s why I’m having so much trouble with it. And sometimes what the character thinks they want and what they actually need are not the same. And sometimes what they want changes over time. So I’m slogging along but not sure I’m making the story any better—I may be muddying it further.

The second part of the revision is my struggle with the Points of View (POV). I have 3 POV characters—but have been told that I should lose two of them. One is the villain (an adult), and the advice I got is that adult POVs have no place in YA. Unfortunately for me, I love this villain and find her very interesting, so it’s killing me to lose her POV. I also need to find a way to get some info that only that character knows into the story so the reader can know it, too.

I disagree with losing the second POV, as it is the twin brother of the main character. The genre is also space opera, which by its nature has a large canvas and usually needs more than one POV to tell the complete story. So I am trying to tie his POV closer to the main character’s to make his POV more relevant, as well as trying to find other ways to tell his part of the story that may involve the main character.

Again, not sure if I am helping or muddying at this point.

I’ll just push through the mud and then take a look at the finished whole and see what I think. I’m not totally happy with the way the revisions are going, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not actually going well. It’s just that right now there’s so much mud I can’t find the solid ground underneath.

So, fellow scribes, how do you know if your revision is making your story better or worse?

War Horse: The Use of POV in Book & Movie

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982, was a favorite book of mine as a kid. I remember reading it multiple times (back in the days when I actually had time to read things more than once!). When I heard it was going to be made into a movie, I was a little leery of seeing it, in case the movie didn’t live up to the memory.


Perhaps luckily for me (and Steven Spielberg) my memory is not so good. All I really remembered from the book was that it was told from the horse’s point of view, and that he “fought” on both the English and German sides.

I wondered how Spielberg and the movie writers would handle the whole POV issue. Aside from the rather cheesy option of having a horse voice-over, there didn’t seem a way he could pull it off. Turns out that he did have some non-horse POV in there, which worked well and allowed the human story to come through.

What I thought was brilliant, though, was that Spielberg and the writers understood something about the book that I, as a child reading it, did not. Most war stories are told from one side or the other. Someone is always the bad guy. In War Horse, the horse Joey tells the story. He is on neither side—or rather, he is on both, beginning as English cavalry and then working as a German ambulance and artillery horse. This allowed Morpurgo and Spielberg to simply show the war and let the readers or viewers make up their own minds. Instead of vilifying either side, the movie held up the insanity of war, cast an impartial eye on it, and asked us if this was the best humankind could be.

World War I was especially heinous because the armies were at a crossroads of technology. They were still fighting with cavalry tactics against machine guns and tanks. Thousands of soldiers died needlessly in stupid attacks that should never have been tried. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie (spoiler alert!) was an English cavalry charge on an unsuspecting German camp. The sweeping visuals of 300 horses charging in formation, the thunder of their hooves, and the shouts of their riders made them seem invincible. Indeed, the German soldiers, caught unprepared, fell in droves as they raced for the shelter of the nearby woods. The woods…I nearly jumped up out of my seat, wanting to scream at the cavalry to retreat, retreat!

In an eyeblink, everything changed. The massive cavalry charged right into a line of machine guns hidden in the woods. In a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching few minutes, the machine guns chattered away, and a stream of riderless horses leapt over the gun line. An eternity of riderless horses… It was one of the most powerful images in the movie, and one of the most compelling scenes as a whole that I have seen.

By maintaining this impartial eye, Spielberg was able to show us humans at our best and at our worst. We are left to wonder if we have come very far from the carnage of World War I. If we have learned anything at all. If we could be as strong, forgiving, and noble as the four-legged hero of this film. If we are worthy of a War Horse.

The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

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