Novel revision advice from Damyanti Biswas.

As we move rapidly towards NaNoWriMo sign-up time again, I’ve noticed many of us are preparing schedules and/or plans to write for 30 days. Judging by previous years, this will result in lots of lovely new manuscripts. Experienced writers will know exactly what their next steps (after December 1st) should be, but many of us will be wondering…

Wonder no more. Last week I reviewed the novel, You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas. This week, I bring you Damyanti’s five suggestions for getting your manuscript to publishable standard:

When you finish that first draft of a novel, it feels like reaching the top of a mountain, and it is. The first draft is a huge achievement, especially if it is of your first ever novel!

As anyone who writes on a professional level will tell you though, this is just reaching base camp–many other peaks loom ahead before a book goes to press. To get the story working right, we need revisions, rewrites, and several drafts.

Here’s how to revise your way to a novel that holds your reader’s attention:

1. Done with the first draft? What is your story about?

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, a first draft gives you a sense of what you really want to say–who the story is about and what is the arc. To get an objective perspective, let the draft lie for a while as you relax and celebrate (or, if you’re like me, dive into short fiction for a while). After a break, when you look at the novel, you’ll find things that need fixing to give your story its shape. I sometimes use Index cards to plot my first draft. Before moving on to the second draft, I change the index cards that I feel make for a cleaner story, and follow the beats of the novel. This is useful to rewrite/ replace scenes that were not working in the first draft.

2. Make various passes: I learned this the hard way, but trying to revise your novel at one go is a hard, unproductive process (It might work for you–if it does, stick with your process!) What do I do instead? The first thing I check is the character arcs–whether they make sense—and whether the character transforms through the story in a plausible way. Then the plot arc–how does the character motivations affect what happens? If the character and the plot arcs mesh well, the story makes organic sense.

To complicate things, there’s point of view, and sometimes the plot does not work because I’m using the wrong point of view. This leads to a bit of heartbreak, but then POV is my Achilles heel and it might not be yours.

Once all of these are fixed, I go scene by scene, questioning if each scene contributes to the arc. I cannot remember the number of times I have thrown out scenes in You Beneath Your Skin–some of the last scenes to be thrown out got tossed 4 years after I first started writing. It is important to learn the three-act and five-act plot structures, and check your manuscript against them. I use Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to evaluate the plot at this point.

3. Get beta readers–Once I’m reasonably convinced the story structure and the characters and the POV are what I want then to be, I send the book to beta readers. I start with one of two very trusted readers, then move on to try to get in as wide a spectrum as I can, so I have a good idea of how the story appears to others. While I wait for feedback, I again cool my heels or work on another manuscript or short fiction.

4. Check on the feedback, work on it, get an editor: No matter how many stories I’ve written, the feedback still takes time to sink in. I go through every point that has been raised, resolve them depending on whether they chime in with what I want to do with the story. then, an editor.

I’ve been trad published by Simon & Schuster, so my agent was my first editor, followed by my publisher’s editor. If I self-publish, I’ll be sure to hire one, because I think they’re essential to the process. At what stage you decide to get one is completely up to you, but no book should go to press without a professional edit.

5. Get into the nitty-gritties: The final pass is the hardest. I’m convinced You Beneath Your Skin was breeding typos like mosquitoes in a tropical water-clogged pool. I was so blind to the text after many years of editing and revisions, that the only way to read it as it really was on the page was to go at it back to front, and read aloud All of it.

Like with everything else with writing, I’d recommend each of us follow what works for us. In the past, I’ve read about the revision process of other authors, and some of the above is cobbled together after listening to advice picking what works for me.

What works for you during revisions? What is the hardest revision challenge you have faced? Do you agree or disagree with the points above?

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and works with Delhi’s underprivileged children as part of Project Why, a charity that promotes education and social enhancement in underprivileged communities. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.

All the author proceeds will go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.  

Book links:        Outside India: https://buff.ly/2LSv3vw

India: https://buff.ly/2KMXlXN

Social media and site links:

  1. Project WHY: https://projectwhy.org/
  2. Chhanv Foundation: https://www.chhanv.org/  (Their social media name is StopAcidAttacks)
  3. Author website: https://www.damyantiwrites.com/

Many thanks, Damyanti, for this useful list.

Recent release: You Beneath Your Skin, by Damyanti Biswas.

This week, thanks to Damyanti’s new novel, I’ve visited Delhi. Unlike the average tourist trip, this one included glimpses of family life, walks through some of the seamier areas, plus a ghetto.

I’ve had several guides. First was Anjali Morgan, an American born psychiatrist who has lived in the city with her autistic son, Nikhil, for twelve years, and is about to help investigate a horrific crime.

The story opens with a crisis. Nikhil has jumped out of Anjali’s car, as they were driving away from the shopping mal, because he was not allowed to buy an extra toy.

A worried mother, trapped in a queue of moving traffic and confronted by guards who do not understand the significance of Nikhil’s condition and vulnerability, is a strong story hook. It also allows a great deal of information to be conveyed, economically.

We have setting, colour and context, in the dialogue:

Madamji.‘ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed yihin hai.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’

She speaks Hindi as a second language, but as the opening makes clear, to the guard and his supervisor, she is an outsider.

The sight of a light skinned, blond-haired woman, taller and broader than him…

Partial-outsiders, in stories, make excellent guides for a reader trying to settle themselves in unfamiliar territory. They move through the everyday details comfortably, but include things that locals might take for granted. There are, however, some things that an outsider will miss completely, or could be expected to drift off into long explanations.

Damyanti provides us with Several ‘insider’ perspectives. There is an official, and male, view of the action from Jatin Bhatt, Special Commissioner of Crime with the Delhi Police. His side of the story opens in a meeting with his father-in-law, Commissioner Mehra.

Jatin stared at the badge on Mehra’s shoulder… that marked Delhi’s Chief of Police. He wanted it when Mehra retired next year.

A female perspective is presented by his sister, Maya. She’s both traditional and modern. Her role as private detective brings into contrast the modes and methods of the official police-force. Her friendship with Anjali and Nikhil is a key component to the action and outcome of the story.

But there are several other voices too, all providing fresh perspectives on a variety of issues around the crime and the society of Delhi. It’s been an interesting trip, raising lots of questions, even as it resolved the criminal case.

All the proceeds from this novel go to project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks. To find out more, check in with Damyantiwrites.com

First impressions

One of the benefits of researching for my creative-reading groups is finding new authors, and mostly that only means new to me. Recently, for instance, while googling for background information on Lorna Doone, the tome I’m sharing with five groups this autumn, I wandered off route.

I was looking for a concise summary of the reigns of Charles II and James II. Maybe I accidentally miss-typed the date, because I found myself reading about their distant relatives, who took over the British throne two steps on down the line. I’d wanted Stuarts, but found Hanoverians (that’s the kings, Georges I to IV, and William IV).

The problem with having so many Georges at once is that they tend to become blurred and to be known vaguely as the four Georges, or any old man in a wig. How to tell the Georges apart is something of a problem.

This, I thought, is the kind of history teacher I would have appreciated at school. Despite it being of no use what-so-ever for my Lorna Doone research, I read to the end of the extract.

George the first was the one who couldn’t speak English, and didn’t try. …He was brought over by the commercial interests and reigned until 1727 without the least notion of what anyone was talking about.

During this time there was no Queen of England. George the first kept his wife in prison because he believed that she was no better than he was.

What I like, when I’m trawling around for quotes to throw to my students, is something succinct, and challenging. This writer, I thought, would surely have something interesting to say about Charles II or James II. So I checked the title. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. It was first published in 1950, but – oh joy! – there was a copy in one of our local libraries. I put a request in.

‘It sounds wonderful,’ said the librarian. ‘I might borrow it after you.’

This week I picked up my copy. A handy little paperback, with attractive illustrations on the cover. It looked promising.

Imagine my disappointment on finding not a chronological history book, but a random dipping-in approach to history.

Let me qualify that. The essays were delightful. Witty, concise pen portraits that gave me a glimpse of characters and times drawn in absurdist style. But neither Charles II nor James II featured.

…Menes, King of Upper Egypt… in 3400 BC… is said to have been devoured by a hippopotamus, a rather unlikely story, since this animal is graminivorous and has never been known to eat anybody else. Modern scholars, therefore, were inclined to regard Menes as a myth until recently, when it was pointed out that a slight error in feeding habits of the hippopotamus does not necessarily prove that Menes never existed.

Cuppy’s subject choices are varied and intriguing. I enjoyed them all, and feel that I might now manage to sound quite knowledgeable, in an irreverent sense, about Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Lady Godiva, Lucrezia Borgia and Philip the Sap, amongst others.

To say the least, I now know that graminivorous means an animal that eats grass and/or grass seeds. Which seems so much more precise than using herbivore.

As for Lorna, and the last of the Stuart kings, I’m consulting elsewhere.

Seven ‘Bookish’ deadly sins

Having boasted of my ‘bookish’ virtues last week – I do love an oxymoron – this week I thought I ought to even up the scales.

I’ve tracked back through a few blogs to see if I should be crediting this tag to someone, but it seems that the originator has either been lost in the mist, or they decided to remain anonymous. Given how much we reveal in answering these seven questions, to ourselves, as much as anyone else, maybe they wisely preferred to disappear.

So, deep breath, and before I change my mind.

GREED
What is the most expensive book you own? Which is the least expensive?

I’ve just treated myself to The Writer’s Map, which cost nearly thirty pounds, and think myself very extravagant.

The least expensive? There have been so many bargain books, and the ones I didn’t value haven’t stayed with me… Recently, I bought The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for fifty pence, in a charity shop. Whether you measure that in pages or weight, that’s a lot of book for the money.

GLUTTONY
What book or books have you shamelessly devoured many times?

Where do I begin? Probably with my earliest memories, ‘See Jane, Spot, see Jane run.’ Those were The Happy Venture Readers books. I was still returning to them after becoming hooked on the Famous Five, Secret Seven and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse. Was it for the sake of the illustrations, I wonder?

I’ve just looked them up on a bookseller site, and if only I hadn’t read mine into bits, I might have used it for my GREED answer.

Lets fast-forward to adult reading, and some of the ones that I turn to most often. The short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, oh, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then, there’s Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, The Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, any Jane Austen novel… all the writings of Angela Carter – yes everything, because all of her writing feels fearless and exciting.

LUST
What attributes do you find most attractive in your characters?

Curiosity.

ENVY
What books would you most like to receive as a gift?

Something that is one or more of the following: witty, challenging, thought-provoking, beautiful, exotic, poetic, prosaic, magical, exciting, shocking, hard-hitting, atmospheric, minimalist, heartfelt, hilarious, relevant, life-affirming, emotive, complicated, surprising, relaxing, warming…

Have I missed something? That’s the book I really want.

PRIDE
What book or books do you bring up when you want to sound like an intellectual reader?

How honest must I be? I want to claim that I don’t try to sound like an intellectual reader, but I used to boast about how many books I’d read. Luckily, no one ever challenged that, or they’d soon have discovered that most of my list was light or pulp fiction.

SLOTH
What book or series have you neglected out of sheer laziness?

I started The Odyssey around a year ago, and do want to finish it, but somehow I keep picking up other books instead. Maybe it’s because I already know the outcomes.

WRATH
What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

I’m trying to think of a writer I find offensive, and yet read. I can’t. I stopped wasting valuable reading time on fiction that didn’t work for me years ago, once I’d realised reading wasn’t a test of endurance or a competitive sport, and that I’d completely missed the true meaning of ‘being well-read’.

But, an author I have mixed feelings about is DH Lawrence. I love most of his short stories and poems. Through them, he covers many on the list of wishes I made under the ENVY heading above. His short writing is often layered, complex and surprising.

His novels, on the other hand, leave me mostly cold. I’ve tried, and tried again, to see them as something other than interesting examples of techniques. I always fail.

You may have noticed I’ve not been tagged. I’ve done that thing my dad advises me is best avoided, I volunteered.

If you’d like to see where the idea came from, you might start with Re-enchantment of the World, or Calmgrove, and work back.