At the start if this series, I argued that the real difference between game prep and a lack of game prep could be summarized as felicity of style: better-presented maps and illustrations, better thought-out plans, better characterization of NPCs, better depiction of that characterization, and more stylish Narrative. This article is part 3 of a masterclass in the last of these.
To quote from earlier parts of the series:
More stylish narrative, when describing people, places, and events means creating concise, communicative, and flavorful words to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts while being more easily assimilated as a result of their brevity. They enable the narrative to flow naturally instead of being disjointed and fragmented.
The process of creating top-notch narrative is not quick, and the process that I am describing assumes that you have unlimited time on tap for polishing. This article is not about efficiency of prep, it’s about effective use of prep in one particular field within the skillset of preparing adventures. It assumes that you can spend as much time as it takes, however unrealistic that assumption may be. However, efficiency is always a consideration and the technique eliminates as much wasted time as possible.
Even if the process is not carried through to completion, or some of the more time-consuming steps are skipped or short-cutted, it’s possible to get 90% of the quality for about 10% of the time investment. The secret is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the entire process and where those strengths and weaknesses impact on the process, so that you can target the areas for effort that will give you the most bang for your temporal buck. And it’s always great to have an awareness of the whole process on tap to be called upon when the result matters – when it’s intended for publication, for example, and not just friends talking amongst themselves or tutoring each other.
The Technique (continued)
I’ve based the “ideal” process that I describe on that used for the writing of a novel or other piece of fiction. It’s a compilation of many smaller processes and pieces of advice derived from a great many sources over the years that relate to that purpose. As pointed out in part 1, there are a lot of parallels between narrative for fiction-writing and narrative for use in a roleplaying adventure, so this process is directly importable; it’s then a case of determining where to compromise and by how much. Since every individual is different, those decisions should also be different in every case.
The exact technique that I have distilled consists of 56 (!) steps & processes that group naturally into eight stages. Stage 1 was about organizing your activities and your workspace. Stages 2 and three generated a series of ideas in the form of bullet points, organized them into three broad categories (the essential content for this narrative block, the extraneous and redundant, and material not required for the current narrative), then sequenced the essentials in a logical and progressive sequence. The idea is that if the bullet points flow naturally and artistically, and with the correct architecture to kick the plot into its next stage, so will the resulting narrative.
Today’s article details the process of converting bullet points into polished narrative. If I get that finished in time, I’ll look into the consequences of this approach and how to adapt it for use in writing narrative text for an RPG adventure, leaving clean-up and the question of further adapting it to improvised narrative for the final part in the series. If not – and based on part 2, I don’t expect to get that far – then those subjects will be deferred to the next part in the series.
The remaining steps in the process, and hence the primary subjects for discussion in this part of the article, are:
- Stage 4: Narrative Construction:
- Multitasking: Write from what’s been said
- Multitasking: Write to what comes next
- Multitasking: Insert Activity & Dynamics
- Expansion, Expression, and Compilation
- Reality Check: No Longer Than It Has To Be
- Breakpoint 4
- Stage 5: Narrative First Review:
- Reality Check: Re-read and Review
- Reality Check: Visualization
- Revision 1: Visualization and Clarity
- Breakpoint 5
- Stage 6: Second Review:
- Revision 2: Compression
- Reality Check: Re-read and Review 2
- Revision 3: Blend to the break-point
- Breakpoint 6
- Stage 7: Final Polish:
- Revision 4: Nuanced Synonyms
- Reality Check: Re-read and Review 3
- Reality Check: Vividness & Excitement
- Revision 5: Flow, Visualization and Clarity
- Repeat Stage 6 as necessary
- Breakpoint 7
- Stage 8: Completion:
- Aggregate working
- Index the aggregate
- Archive the aggregate
- Replace placeholders in master with final draft
- Archive master checklist
- Done! For Now
So, with no further ado, let’s get to work…
Stage 4: Narrative Construction:
There are three things to maintain awareness of when turning an outline into actual prose. These are detailed in steps 31-33. Step 34 is the actual writing process, while step 35 determines whether or not to throw out that attempt and start this stage of the process over again.
31. Multitasking: Write from what’s been said
It seems obvious, but it’s actually relatively easy to trip over every now and then: what you write has to connect seamlessly to whatever it is that you’ve just written. And when that linkage breaks down, the default assumption (and mistake) that many writers seem to make is that it’s the fault of the part that you’re writing at the time, and not of the part that was just written. Equally invalid is the proposition that you are better to throw everything away and start over on both passages.
One quick test that can save you a lot of grief is to go over the bullet points that you have selected for inclusion, and ensure that you can discern from them what the progression was that you used to sequence them. Of course, this test doesn’t work if there is an inadequate gap between organization of the bullet points and starting this step – one reason why I recommended taking a break from your work to clear your head at the end of Stage 3.
Looking at it another way, treat this as your last chance to get the narrative flow right.
If you have generated your bullet points from pre-existing prose, this step becomes all the more important. Many authors fall in love with their own prose or with a particular turn of phrase; the bullet points place some insulation between the original phrasing and the needs of the completed narrative passage.
32. Multitasking: Write to what comes next
If that was all there was to it, writing would be relatively easy. It’s not. At the same time, you must always craft your words so that they set up and prepare the ground for whatever the next phrase is going to be, and – beyond that – for whatever the next block of narrative or interaction is intended to be. You have to establish the context for what is to follow, and do so without repeating yourself or incorporating unnecessary text. And that’s a lot harder once words are actually on the page.
If dialogue doesn’t seem to be flowing naturally, many authors seem to blame their characters, or write and rewrite that dialogue, or give up and scrap whole swathes of their stories. In reality, the problem can lie with the preceding narrative text and the foundations that it lays for that dialogue; a different context or perspective (even if only subtly variant) can make all the difference in the world.
One of the major elements to be established in that narrative passage for context is micro-setting. Exactly where are the characters when the dialogue takes place? I don’t care how lyrical and poetic your description of the place is, if it gets in the way of the dialogue, you have to at least consider changing the micro-setting. And it’s all a lot less work if you choose your micro-setting correctly in the first place.
I suppose I should explain what I mean by the term “micro-setting” even though I think it’s fairly self-explanatory.
If the setting were a shopping mall, the micro-setting would define what the actual businesses around the characters were, and hence the sights, sounds, and smells that create the backdrop of whatever is happening.
Or let’s say that we’re using the law firm example from part one. You can create a very different context for whatever is to take place by beginning your description before you even get there, setting up expectations in advance. These can either reinforce the overall description that you have in mind or can markedly contrast with it – though the latter is more difficult and always needs explanation within the scene. For example, if the building were a run-down office block with fading paint peeling from the outside walls and an elevator that creaks and groans, your expectations of the law firm would be very different to the decadent polish of the actual description. Or, if the building was polished and modern and well-maintained, you have all sorts of opportunities to describe the law offices before you actually get to them. Or, option three, the description used as an example might reflect the expectations raised by the trappings, only for the reality when the players/protagonists arrive to be very different.
Finally, remember that whatever the superficial appearances might be, they may bear little or no resemblance to the reality behind the scenes; but if you are going down that route, you will need to plant some subtle clues when describing that superficial appearance. These need to be sufficiently subtle as to not disturb the overall surface appearance, and even to go unnoticed; you certainly don’t want to make a fuss about them. They have to be subliminal. It’s also easy to be too subtle – so it’s a fine line to walk.
What you write now always has to flow from what you wrote a moment ago and has to lead to whatever comes next. The second is generally much harder than the first, and is often where the real artistry of writing lies.
33. Multitasking: Insert Activity & Dynamics
The biggest trap that amateur writers fall into (excluding inadequate attention to the narrative block in the first place) is of describing their settings and micro-settings as still lifes, suspended in time. This can be a special danger when dealing with technical explanations as narrative blocks.
Narrative blocks work far more effectively if they contain activity and dynamics that express the throb and pulse of the activities that are occurring as the object of the narrative is being examined. With every type of text block – narrative, action, or dialogue – you should be looking to infuse as much from the other types of scenes as you can.
In action blocks, you want to incorporate little details from the descriptive bullet points that you set aside. In dialogue, you want more descriptive details, and you want movement and activity. And, in your narrative scenes, you definitely want activity, and you want dynamics so that the result is not a monotone whole. Dialogue is a little harder, because your players/protagonists will normally want to react to it, so it is generally better in a narrative passage to describe the background dialogue than to actually quote it.
These things don’t happen in writing by accident.
Sure, you can always go back after the description passages are written and sprinkle them with such additional content, but this is fraught with the danger of disrupting the flow you have carefully constructed, of being too little, too much, or too attention-getting, or of exposing basic flaws in the scenes you have written such as crowds or background characters who don’t react to events and who should.
This seems a great place to actually drop in something that I wanted to bring up in my recent article, Dr Who and the secrets of complex characterization but had to leave out for various reasons.
Sidebar: Actor contributions to characters
How much input do the actors have to the personality of the character they are portraying? Some people might think it’s all in the script, and almost everything of significance is contained there, in terms of the immediate story. Some people might think that whatever is left is mostly in the vision of the producer or director, who can tell the actor what to do and how to do it on-set.
The fact is that while producer or director can override any choice, there are simply too many characters for them to do it all. In general, actors influence the characterization of the role they are playing in four ways (disregarding the image or associated baggage of the actor from past roles): the focus of their character’s attention when lines are being delivered or action is taking place, the incidental movements and activities of their character at such times when they aren’t doing something directly mandated by the script for the purposes of the immediate plot, the way they deliver their lines & actions (and in particular the emotional content they invest in them) and the expressions on their face when they act. That’s a lot to think of while performing, never mind the cumulative impact of these things on other actor’s performances, and is the reason why a lot of amateur actors give “wooden” performances.
These are what actors are referring to when they talk about another actor giving them a lot to work with, or being “generous”, and what distinguishes a great actor from a not-so-great actor (using the term in a unisex manner, let me hasten to add). All these things add up to two things: characterization in action and believability in the role.
A production’s executives and writers take on board these elements of the emergent persona being portrayed and a feedback loop is established, where the nuances that the actor is bringing to the role are used to refine the persona as written (perhaps with a little tweaking) and create springboards for the actor to further express their interpretation of the role.
Acting is a process and it is impossible to state in any generic way how much input the actor has on the personality of their role. They are one of several inputs to the characterization process. All that you can really say is that the longer the actor has in a given role, the more they will evolve it and the more substantial their cumulative contribution will be to it.
I would contend that it takes most of a season, if not a full season, for an actor’s input to really shine through; they have to grow into the role and come to understand it themselves.
Why doesn’t this phenomenon cause a problem with movies? Why aren’t personalities less well defined or expressed in the scenes that are filmed first? The answer is that much of the development work is done in rehearsals, and multiple takes, and that the best performances are extracted from the whole during the editing process, and furthermore, that many more takes are filmed than are possible under television schedules. So, while it may be there to some extent, it is relatively easily hidden from public scrutiny.
That doesn’t mean that one medium is better or worse than the others, or actors within that medium more or less able; it means the skills required are different, and the two are not directly comparable.
When writing fiction or narrative, the author has to take the place of all these people, supplying all the creative inputs. Characters should always be doing something when speaking, and the background should always have something going on, even when describing a location. Even if the scene is supposed to be quiet, with no activity – when the characters have broken into an office block late at night, for example – you need to contrast that lack of activity with something going on in the distance in order to highlight the stillness of the setting.
Reviewing all the above, I note that I haven’t really said enough about Dynamics in writing. Narrative blocks should never be monotone and expressionless; they should never fail to move the emotions of the players/reader in whatever direction is required (refer to my earlier series on emotional pacing in RPGs: Part One and Part Two for more on that subject).
34. Expansion, Expression, and Compilation
And so, with a clear idea of how the current bullet point is going to link to the previous one, and how it will lead inevitably to the next, and how all that fits into the bigger picture, and actively looking for opportunities to add activity and dynamism to the narrative, you are ready to take that bullet point and turn it into prose.
This step of the process essentially consists of three interactive and interrelated activities: Expansion, Expression, and Compilation.
Expansion is the process of turning your intentionally-succinct bullet point into sentences with an acceptable grammatic form.
Expression is the employment of specific terms and phrases to compact and deliver more strongly, more lyrically, or more poetically, but always more succinctly, what would otherwise take many more words to describe. In particular, it’s about choosing synonyms and metaphors that impart or imply an overtone that supplements the actual words used elsewhere in the narrative block to clarify or enrich the depth of the prose.
Always look for a way to incorporate what you are trying to say into either the preceding sentence or the next. In general, it’s easier creatively to choose the former (because it is already on the screen) and easier to choose in terms of work-flow to choose the latter (because it is not yet on the screen). This highlights one of the biggest differences to the writing process that a word processor makes possible – the ease of revision – relative to older manual writing techniques such as longhand with pen and paper or with a manual typewriter.
One writer I once knew advocated doing a first draft in black-lead pencil with an eraser handy, then writing in ink over the top. Another took advantage of the contrast of red ink and black or blue to do a first draft in red pen and write the second draft over the top of it in darker ink. Both of these techniques have found electronic analogues in the word-processor approach that I employ in more modern times. For those employing the most basic technique of writing, I thought them worth pointing out.
You can write a novel with a typewriter, single spaced. I’ve done so. I don’t recommend it – certainly, no publisher would even look at such a manuscript.
The editorial standard is generally double-spaced, i.e. one blank line for every line with text on it. This leaves room for notes and corrections, or at least it used to be – I’m not sure that this is still the case, in the modern era of word processors. It’s certainly easy to write your manuscript single-spaced and tell your printer to use double-spacing for anyone who wants to employ the old-school approach. But if you are using the older technology, this is certainly the way to go.
Except for first drafts, where it is even better to use triple-spacing in many respects, allowing room for one line of corrections and another for the inserting of entire phrases and clauses or a complete redrafting of a line during the revision process. Just some food for thought.
How much to agonize
Writing should not be hard work. Writing well might be, but one of the important objectives of this process is to take as much of that “hard work” out of the process as possible. You already have enough to keep in mind during this phase of the literary process; this is not the time to agonize over your word choices. There will be plenty of time for that later – to decide that this word is not as effective or satisfactory as it could be, and to seek out replacements, and to sweat bullets over your choices. The goal right now is to get a first draft down and get the whole passage to flow seamlessly, and that means that your first choices are frequently not only good enough, but by moving you quickly to the next bullet point without interruption, can actually facilitate a better result in the long term.
35. Reality Check: No Longer Than It Has To Be
How much text should one bullet point become? How long is a piece of string?
There is no one right answer; it depends on what is being described in the narration, and on it’s purpose in terms of the greater whole, and on the genre conventions, and on the individual’s writing style. Once you have your first draft of the entire narrative block, it’s time to think about how long you want it to be in the final draft.
First drafts are notorious for being longer than necessary. That’s fine, we’ll make allowances, so use whatever length you think the finished product should be.
You can then apply some reasonable estimate of the number of words per line that you usually achieve if you think that necessary – again, something that will vary from individual to individual (I average 14.8 in the word processor that I use to draft these posts, but that can go down when page formatting is taken into account. I get about 12.5 in the fancier word processor that I currently use to format e-books and create PDFs, for example. 15 and 12 respectively are near enough if you need to use a word count).
But, realistically, a line count is good enough.
So, if the actual line count of your first count is:
- Target or less: Gold star, Look for any additional content you can incorporate. Double-check dynamics and activity inclusion. You have room for more, so is there anything else you can add?
- 1-2 x Target: On the money. Move on.
- 2-3 x Target: If we hadn’t chopped redundancies already, this would have been acceptable. As it stands, either your prose is too long-winded or your expectations are unrealistic. Decide which by assessing the importance of this narrative passage to the big picture. Is your setting too complicated for your plot needs? Can you still convey what you have to by skipping every second bullet point? You may find that for the most part, the answer to that question is yes, though there are one or two specific points that are still necessary. Is your incidental action too big a deal, too detailed in description? If you can’t cut content to get the length down, the answer is that your target is unrealistic for everything you want the passage to do – so either look at simplifying its task within the overall plot, or reassess your target. Either edit or replace what you’ve just written if the target’s not at fault. Back to the start of this phase for you, I’m afraid.
- More than 3 x Target: Too much, and your targets need reassessment. Cut or simplify as above, reassess, then redo.
This step of the process can be a little trickier when it comes to an RPG because at least part of the relative significance is attached by the players and what they will have their characters react to. The best solution is to have a minimalist narrative passage with additional details available for anything the the players decide to investigate more closely or interact with, again using bullet points and indexing key terms as shown earlier.
This poses an additional danger that your writing needs to accommodate: you can fall into the trap of sequence, of leaving something out because it’s covered in an earlier bullet point or narrative sub-section. My solution to this problem is to deliberately write these narrative in a different order and then re-sequence them into a different order to make sure that they still make sense. I will permit redundancy in such narrative sub-sections but enclose any redundancy in square brackets [like this] so that I know I only have to use it the first time. This ensures that delivery of the information can be discontinuous. Another key technique employed is to make sure there is a list – nested as necessary – of the things that the players might focus on incorporated in natural progression.
36. Breakpoint 4
You achieve a lot in this stage of the process, and definitely need to clear your head afterwards – or move on to performing stage 4 for the next block of text, and take a break when you’ve finished with this process.
Some people use one of these approaches, others use the second. I used to swear by the notion of outlining the whole document in chunks (step 1, then repeat steps 2 and 3 until the whole is bullet-pointed, then perform stage 4 until finished, then move on to stages 5+; I employed that for writing a short story every day, and still employ that approach to writing these blog posts.
But for anything longer than a single blog post, this is a dangerous approach. The risks are two-fold: first, you run the risk of diverting yourself down some literary cul-de-sac, or getting too caught up in discussing some side-issue; second, everyone employs a mental shorthand when creating their bullet points, and you run the risk of forgetting exactly what you meant by one.
Both of these have bitten me on the tail more often that I would like. The longer a planned work (page count), the greater the risk of it happening. If any breaks in the writing process are even marginally possible, the risks escalate both severely and rapidly. So it’s no longer my recommended approach for anything of more substance than a single blog post, of more length than 10-12 pages.
For anything of such length, I use a different work-flow organization – I developed it for the Orcs & Elves series, based on lessons learned during the writing of Assassin’s Amulet, and employed it in writing this series:
- Bullet-point breakdown to determine major sections.
- Synopsize each major section.
- Bullet-point each major section into sub-sections only as you come to it.
- Detailed bullet-point only what you expect to write before the next break of 24 hours or more.
- Write each such sub-section before you bullet-point the next. [Make any notes needed relating to future major sections as you go, attaching them to the synopsis.]
- Revise and edit each major section as an independent part of the whole.
- Revise and edit the whole when everything is written.
However you organize the overall writing process, when you stop writing, it’s important to take a break before commencing the revision stages.
Sidebar: The unexpected benefit of collaboration
It’s worth noting that this mimics an essential aspect of the process of collaboration. An effective collaboration requires communication between the different contributors and that starts with listing and then synopsizing each proposed component of the whole so that each knows what they are responsible for delivering, then checking each actual contribution to be sure that it actually delivers on those promises. If the logic of each section is clear to another contributor, it will also be clear to the reader. And so on.
Stage 5: Narrative First Review:
How many times should you review what you have written? The answer varies, but when it comes to narrative, the short answer is more times than you think necessary.
Actually, scratch that: No matter what you’re writing, the short answer is more times than you think necessary!
The reason is that each review should focus on different aspects and attributes required of the whole. I have specified two review stages and one final polish phase in this process. But between them, these contain no less than five revisions, and the only reason why there aren’t more review stages is because some of these revisions are mutually compatible and conducive to being conducted at the same time.
The writing stage is about creating narrative flow. The first review stage verifies that the results contain all the actual content required – and no more than can be reasonably accommodated.
37. Reality Check: Re-read and Review
The first step within this stage is really simple – read what you’ve written, from start to finish. Put a cross or something on every part that isn’t clear. Don’t worry too much about waffling on at this point; compression comes in a later stage.
You want to minimize any interruption to your reading of the text. If there was a way to note sections that need revision without interrupting your reading at all, I’d take it – but that’s unrealistic.
If this is done too soon after your writing, there is too much danger of reading what you meant to say or what you thought you had said instead of what you actually wrote. It’s actually relatively common: the eye skims over the text, picking up a phrase here and there, and the mind assumes that everything that’s supposed to be in between actually is where it’s supposed to be, filling in the bits in between.
Many writer’s guides recommend at least 24 hours to clear your head of the preconceptions that lead to this mistake. I find that a shorter period works, especially if you use a little trick that I discovered by accident: changing the window size or the font. Either causes the text to re-flow, so that assumed patterns don’t register, though some gap is still required.
38. Reality Check: Visualization
Having read it through once, and noted obvious problem areas, the next step is to identify the problems and give a more robust examination to the parts that passed the first test. In this test, the goal is to take the words as written and try to visualize the description. Again, this is not possible if there has been insufficient interval between the writing and the review because the original visualization that you built up will still be too fresh in your mind.
There are two things that can be done to aid the process. The first is to have someone other than the author perform these tests. This nullifies any possibility of preconceptions getting in the way. The second trick is to work on a number of different narrative passages before you review any of them; the details of one will be clouded by the more recent memories of another, and hence so will those preconceptions. But this trick is not as effective as the text-re-flow technique mentioned above, and neither is as effective as a more substantial interval.
All that being said, if you are a careful reader, there are advantages to taking a shorter break.
39. Revision 1: Visualization and Clarity
Once the problem areas, in terms of visual coherence and clarity, have been identified, it’s time to fix them. This may involve replacing part of a sentence or it may mean replacing the entire section of narrative, or anything in between.
Read the specific part with the problem, identify the specific nature of the problem, and work out what specifically needs to be replaced, redone, or amended to correct that problem.
Once you think the problem has been corrected, read the passage together with those immediately before and after it to ensure that no flow problems have been introduced. If they have, your solution is not good enough; try again.
If it passes that test, review any later text that relates to the specific narrative change that you have introduced to be sure that you have not introduced an inconsistency or continuity error – the equivalent of a phone jumping from one side of a desk in one scene to the other in a later scene, or something being held in the left hand and then the right. These crop up in movies frequently and in TV all the time, even though they are usually fixed when noticed. Production schedules don’t allow enough time to spot them all, never mind fix them all – and most productions employ one or more people specifically to watch for such things.
You have an unlimited time budget (the base assumption of this process), so you have no such excuse. And trust me, people will notice if you don’t.
Taking a shorter break and more care in the review process can pay off big time at this point, because the original visualization is still relatively recent in mind and can be used as a guide to your clarification text. If you are the type of reader who can force themselves to read every word as written, rather than skimming through, take advantage of the fact; not many can do so with sufficient reliability.
40. Breakpoint 5
I recommend a break at this point, but this is probably the least important break of them all. The reason is that your next set of reviews will be looking for something else completely, so all you really need to do is ensure that you can maintain your focus during the next stage of the process. Ten minutes is frequently ample unless you are tired out from lots of revisions.
As a rule of thumb, assume that stage six will take twice as long as stage 5 did to complete. So if you’ve spent two hours on the first review, ask yourself if you can concentrate for another four hours. If you’ve spent five hours on the first review, can you work for ten hours with minimal breaks? Most people would say yes to the first (depending on the time of day) and no to the second, unless they absolutely had to do it.
Stage 6: Second Review:
The purpose of the second review is to compress your text to a reasonable length. This is best done working on one passage at a time, copying and pasting a copy of each passage as you go. My technique is to change the font color of the whole document to something else – usually blue – then select a passage of text, copy it, change the color of the selected passage back to black, then paste the copied text just below it; with most word processors, it will retain the color of the original. If that’s not available as an approach, you will need to find some other means of distinguishing working copy from original.
There are two reasons for this approach: first, it permits you to scrap your work on a passage and start over; and second, it saves the need to retype everything. Actually, there’s a third reason, but I’ll get to that in a little while.
41. Revision 2: Compression:
Step 41 of this writing process (I know! Fourty-one! it seems never-ending…) is to attempt to rewrite what you have so that it takes only half as many words (judged by the rough standard of number of lines). With most narrative text, without having taken special efforts to eliminate redundancy, this is usually achievable – barely.
Since we have already taken those special efforts to eliminate the soft targets, it should be extremely difficult if not impossible to get down to that length without cutting text. So, as judiciously as possible, that’s what you have to do to try and get the word-count down.
- Can two sentences become one at the price of only a few added words?
- Can you trim an adjective here and an unnecessary detail there?M/li>
- Can you rely more heavily on the broad beginning statement that sets the tone for the entire narrative passage, perhaps padded ever so slightly?
- Can you find a more expressive term to replace a noun that implies any adjective currently attached to the noun?
Trim and cut until it bleeds. Look for wasteful words and phrases like “and” and “but” and “although” and “except”. If you have a sentence of the format [description clause] [listed word] [further description], there is almost always a way to rephrase the first description clause such that the listed word and the further description that follows it can be eliminated.
I have seen it suggested that the more experience a writer has, the harder it will be to achieve such targets, because they will naturally compress as they write. To some extent, this is true, but the more experienced the writer, the more time they have had to develop bad habits (especially if primarily self-edited) – which easily compensates. Experience just means that larger chunks can get taken out.
42. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 2
Once the bloodletting (ink-letting?) is done, it’s time to re-read and review the end product. Are things still clear? Has anything been cut out that you really want or need to include? What’s satisfactory, and what’s now too sparse in description?
As I noted in the previous step, if it weren’t for the redundancy weeding, the half-words target would be achievable, if just barely – but the easy targets were already eliminated. The fact that we’re working on a line-count gives a little wriggle room, but not much; in order to get anywhere close to the target, you usually have to cut too far.
This review is to identify where something needs to be put back.
43. Revision 3: Blend to the break-point
The next step is to copy and paste from the original, longer version into the too-short version until an acceptable balance is achieved. At the same time, review the bullet-point list; anything that doesn’t get described in the integrated version should get cut-and-pasted to join the other deferred material at the bottom of the list, available for use as color and micro-setting detail in action and dialogue scenes.
44. Breakpoint 6
Let’s be honest: this is a lot harder than writing the first draft. That’s why, even though some of the compressed material will be fine, I suggested allowing a lot of time for this stage. This is where all that agonizing over this word or that happens, all that sweat of trying alternative formulations and phrasings in search of the one that expresses the description, and does it succinctly, and doesn’t break the narrative flow, and is accessible to the anticipated readers / players. For any serious length of text, you finish this stage absolutely worn out, mentally exhausted – because if you aren’t, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.
You definitely need a break afterwards. At least 24 hours not spent doing second revision. Get some rest, then work on a different passage of text that is currently in a completely different stage of development; engage some different mental muscles.
Stage 7: Final Polish:
By now, most of the text is in pretty good shape. It’s time for nit-picking and nuance and one last check that you haven’t shot yourself in the pen somewhere along the way – for the final polish, in other words.
45. Revision 4: Nuanced Synonyms
The starting point is to consider each of the terms used in your narrative and actively think about possible synonyms that may be more expressive. In particular, this applies to any subsection of the narrative that wasn’t subject to intense scrutiny in the course of Stage 6.
46. Reality Check: Re-read and Review 3
Once that’s done, it’s time to re-read it again, trying to get an overall impression. Good, bad, too frilly or flowery, too weak, too strong, too direct… the possibilities are almost endless. Clarity, vividness, flow, voice, and style are the things you’re looking for. In particular, you are concerned with the emotional intensity being conveyed and whether it is of the correct tone and intensity.
47. Reality Check: Vividness & Excitement
And, as usual, once you’ve identified the problem areas with a relatively-uninterrupted read-through, it’s time to go through it again and work out exactly what the problems are, ready to solve them. While you’re at it, check on the levels of vividness and excitement that you are incorporating. Exclamation marks are easy to over-use!!
Add these to the sub-sections to be revised, with appropriate notes.
48. Revision 5: Flow, Visualization and Clarity
Make the revisions and corrections you’ve noted in steps 46 and 47, always with the goal of fixing the problems without breaking the things you’ve been writing to achieve so far- flow, visualization, and clarity. This is also the time to bear in mind that the narrative passage will have to be clear enough that its afterimage, reinforced with tidbits from the deferred bullet list, will have to remain clear despite the distractions of whatever is to follow the narrative passage.
While a little fuzziness can help in creating a gestalt impression from the compounding of words, it can also make the narrative too weak for that impression to survive. It often helps to provide a concrete detail or two from the deferred list – even if it’s something you’d cut earlier – by providing a focal point for the impression to hang from. You only need one, somewhere close to the end of the narrative passage, if you don’t have some present already.
49. Repeat Stage 6 as necessary
It would be great if this only had to be done once. For most passages in a work of fiction, that may well be the case. But there will usually be something that needs greater attention because the changes have broken one of the many objectives you have for this piece of writing: Narrative flow, vividness, clarity, tone, intensity, and accessibility – and conveying the actual content of the scene. Once you have made a change, re-read the passage from the subsection before through the one that follows and verify that everything still works the way it should. If it doesn’t, scrap the changes to that subsection or sentence and try again.
You can find at this stage that you have fixed something that wasn’t actually broken, while failing to fix what was. Non-writers would be astonished at how frequently that happens; it’s a manifestation of being unable to see the forest for the trees.
50. Breakpoint 7
There are – or should be – fewer passages that need revision within phase seven, but the ones that do need further work are generally the most difficult to work with. This is especially true if you’re trying to subliminally hint at something more than is obvious, which adds a whole new layer of difficulty. Is the narrative supposed to capture a metaphor for something? Does it do so? Does it represent a metaphor when it isn’t supposed to? While this stage should take about the same length of time as stage 5, it is easily as intense as stage 6. Afterwards, you need a break.
Stage 8: Completion:
The final steps all deal with clean-up and compilation.
51. Aggregate working
The first thing to do is to aggregate all the working that you’ve done so that it’s available for later use. In particular, you want the bullet points and finished text together so that you can refer to both when working on later passages of text. It does no good to establish a staircase in the initial description and then have people trapped later on without mentioning – and explicitly dismissing as an exit – that staircase. There will be action sequences and dialogue and narrative descriptions of people, and this compilation is your notes on where they will be and what parts of their environment they can be interacting with while those things are happening.
52. Index the aggregate
I showed this in the law office example at the start of part 1, at least in part. I number the draft paragraphs by draft number and paragraph number and put a list of them at the end of the document where it will be out of the way, make any notes on color coding, and so on. This is so that you can find whatever you need to from your working if you later need it.
There was a time when I would have suggested including features in your narrative simply to provide something to react dramatically to whatever the action sequence was. A shop-front sign, a billboard, a glass fish-tank, whatever – I made sure that it was specified in the final description so that it was at the ready to demonstrate catastrophic damage later on.
This approach sometimes works just fine; but if, for whatever reason, your action sequence and the chosen object don’t correctly interact, if the sequence evolves or changes before it’s finished, you can be left with the extraneous and superfluous detail contributing nothing.
So these days I advocate leaving such details in an accessible format – the bullet list – until you write the action sequence, and if it turns out that you need it, you can go back and prepare the ground for the action sequence by inserting mention of that narrative element in the appropriate place.
53. Archive the aggregate
Once you’ve got the aggregate ready to use, file it away until you need it again – someplace where it will be safe. How would you feel if, after months of solid work, you were in the final stages of creating an adventure or a book and there was a computer crash in the middle of saving the document, corrupting it? It’s happened to me!
Hopefully, you would have a backup, and hopefully that backup would be accessible (unlike most of the backups that I used to make with WinXP’s basic backup software – something discovered the hard way).
Okay, let’s consider a more likely scenario: you have your description done, and three chapters later, you have something else happen at the same location. Obviously, you want access to the master description of the location without having to search the whole document for it. Equally obviously you don’t want to simply repeat the same description that you gave the first time around, and there will be some differences from that appearance anyway – different things should be prominent if only because the characters have already been there once. Throw in all the differences in emotional tone and intensity and it’s a lot easier to go back to an earlier draft, copy-and-paste it, and then develop it through stages 5, 6, and 7 to achieve these different goals.
54. Replace placeholders in master with final draft
Next, copy the final version from the archive and insert it into the appropriate location in the master document. As soon as you have done that and saved it, your text is “official” and you’re ready to move on/
55. Archive master checklist
Finally, put away any checklists that you may have used, and make permanent copies of the blank version of any new checklists that you may have put together so that they can be used again.
56. Done! For Now
This process doesn’t try to do too much at once. It’s a lot of small steps, and as both Marco Pierre White and Ray Lewis have noted, quoting Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, “Perfection is many small things done well” (though Lewis may not have known the source).
And so, hopefully, is this article! But done well or not, it is at least done, leaving us ready to move on to part 4, which (hopefully) will wrap things up – if I can get it all written in time. But, even if I don’t get that far, it will bring us one step closer!