Three Dirty Birds on James Scott Bell's Checklist

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The Three Dirty Birds are chatting about James Scott Bell’s Revision and self-Editing for Publication. We’re down to the end of it now, with just his Revision Checklist to go through. (And, by the way, he has a downloadable version of this checklist at Writer’s Digest, if you want to check it out.)

Kate: The checklist really was the book condensed down to however many pages it was. A nice concise set of questions (I love questions!) to use as you go over your manuscript after it’s been finished.

Ana: Why do you love questions?

Kate: Because it flips my mind into ‘find the answer’ mode, which is way more efficient than just telling me I should make my character more likeable.

Ana: Why?

Kate: I like to solve problems. Question marks are problems waiting for answers. I dunno–it’s just how my brain functions (when it functions).

Zoe: Yeah, it makes for a good cheat sheet. And if Ana asks “why” one more time, I’m going to flick her off her perch.

Ana: Could you really be so cruel?

Kate: Better change the subject, quick!

Zoe: Everyone ignore that squawk you just heard. She’ll pick herself back up. Meanwhile, the chapter opens with a section on Character. Which immediately made me anxious. By the time I got to the third question—Do my characters sufficiently contrast?—I was doing the fetal-position roll-on-the-bed going, “STOP!” (I write a lot of friends, long-time friends. People grow to be like each other after a while, so…I get nervous.)

Kate: But notice that he says ‘enough’. All you need is enough differences to help drive the plot, they don’t have to be polar opposites.

Ana: Friends can contrast in subtle ways. I know a lot of people think my best friend and I are pretty much the same. Hell, I’ve been called “Alex” more times than I can count, but I know there’s a lot of ways we actually think very differently about certain topics. Maybe you just need to find one or two of those.

Zoe: Is it strange that sometimes I find sanity with you otherwise nutty birds?

Ana: What, you get to ask questions and I don’t ?

Kate: Uh oh, I think I see some more perch-flicking in the near future.

Zoe: There’s one exercise in this section that I’m tempted to half try, the Chart Character Change one, where you highlight all the passages of the characters’ inner life. I think it would be interesting to read through. (I’m just not going to transfer the trajectory to a chart.)

Kate: I was looking at that one too. It makes me cringe a little, dissecting the work like that, but I can see where it would be immensely useful, especially for a pantser like me. That’s the worry I always carry with me, that the story is still ‘lumpy’, that I didn’t fill in all the holes that were left in it.

Ana: I think writing a synopsis can help with that.

Kate: I’m thinking in terms of making character choices obvious to the reader. (Maybe obvious isn’t the right word, but I want readers to go, “Yeah, I see why he decided to do that.”)

Zoe: With the one I’m working on now, I’m worried that readers won’t make the connections (because they’re in my head instead of on the page). That’s probably more of a plot issue…which is the next section!

Kate: I liked his part on the opposition characters (and i like that he doesn’t just call them the villains). I don’t see it quite so often now, but it used to happen a lot that the ‘bad guy’ would be this one-dimensional character that was only there to get in the way or cause trouble for the MC. Or maybe I just stopped reading those authors. But the idea of writing a biography of your opposition character from the point of view of his loving mother made me laugh, and then say, “Hey, that’s actually a good idea.”

Ana: I can see how it would help you sympathize. I’ve had the problem that I felt too sorry for my opposing characters before. I love getting into their heads.

Zoe:~hides her WIP behind her back and whistles~

Kate: Lol.

Ana: No way Zoe is plotting anything sinister.

Kate: Never. There was a good reminder in there too about making your opposing character as strong or stronger than your MC, which kind of brought me back to Story Trumps Structure again, because he talked about that too.

Ana: I kind of liked what he said about adhesive. You know, what makes your MC continue to deal / put up with your opposing character instead of cutting them out of their lives. I thought the same was true for love interests. (Especially in stories where you have a lot going against that couple.)

Zoe: That’s a good point. And I loved the Don’t Hold Back On Making Trouble sidebar. I can sometimes have trouble with that. (Not with the current WIP, but sometimes.) (Oh my poor characters in the current WIP.)

Kate: I always feel sorry for Zoe’s characters, because I know just how mean she’s going to be.

Ana: Seeing as you’re a cat, I’d be especially careful.

Zoe: No cats are injured in this book. (But men may want a stiff drink before they get into the meat of it.) (You may hear my husband scream when he beta reads it. Just ignore him. He’ll be fine.)

Ana: That’s what you said when you flicked me off the perch. My feathers are still ruffled. One of them may never be the same again.

Kate: That’s okay, Ana. We’ll get you a prosthetic.

Zoe: You’ll be fine. (And I just realized the Don’t Hold Off on Making Trouble is in the next section. My pages flipped when I wasn’t looking!)

Ana: I like the part about the calendar. I always mess up my timelines. Always.

Kate: I’ve seen that happen. And I’ve had to make last-minute adjustments because “oops!”. That’s what I like my whiteboards for.

Zoe: I’ve used both spreadsheets and dated chapters to keep track. And timelines in Scapple! (With a vampire one, I used colored backgrounds on my timeline to denote when it was night and day.) I’m so glad the current WIP takes place in one evening.

Kate: That’s a cool idea, Zoe. I keep meaning to try out Aeon Timeline, because it looks like something I would like, but the learning curve seemed kind of steep when I downloaded the trial, and I never really got anywhere with it.

Ana: Something in me stupidly resists being organized.

Zoe: I haven’t tried Aeon Timeline, but I have found that I prefer freeform tools over purpose-built ones.

Kate: I like the concept of AT, but couldn’t really figure out how to get it to do something in a form I could read after. I’m sure I’m doing something wrong, but it’ll be a few months before I have time to play with it again.

Ana: I also liked the “add a character” bit. I’ve saved at least two novels that way after a horrific first draft.

Kate: Sometimes you need that extra personality.

Ana: Or that extra conflict.

Zoe: “Add a character” saved Man Made Murder. He wound up being an equal POV with the original main character. (It also added a whole second plot.)

Kate: I just added a brother into my ‘entertainment for now’ story. I knew I needed a character to do something, but I realized that it would break the story if I had the older brother do it. (And, weirdly enough, I’ve already identified the theme of this book. Go figure.)

Zoe: I figured out the theme of mine last night while doing my reading for this morning!

Kate: Woohoo! Go themes!

Zoe: I was going, “La la la this book doesn’t actually have a theme…oh wait.”

Kate: i liked his ‘Act, then Explain’. I thought that if someone followed that rule, it would do a lot to get rid of the info-dump first chapters you see so often.

Ana: I sometimes overdo that.

Kate: As long as you go back and fix it before you send it off to the editor, then it’s okay. I know my first draft is, a lot of the time, me kind of taking notes for myself. I strip info out of the chapters I write first all the time, because it’ll come up in a chapter that happens earlier in the timeline, but was actually written later in real time. So my early stuff is really kludgy.

Ana: Haha, I have to write in order because otherwise I can’t keep track of all that stuff. He also mentions having too many characters in your opening chapter. It’s definitely a problem I’ve been struggling with in my first novel.

Kate: It’s hard when you have a character in transition, or a character who is being introduced to a group. I usually change my start point when I run into that problem.

Ana: Making it start any earlier is kind of pointless… starting it later would be even more confusing. The only thing I could do is delete characters (at least one might maybe be able to go)… or find some way for them to pop up later in the story.

Kate: Maybe combine some?

Ana: Nah. I’ll just have to spread out their appearances somehow. I’ll figure something out.

Kate: I have faith in you. 🙂

Zoe: And then Bell gets into middles, which is always my favorite part to see in a writing book, because it’s the part I’m always looking for magic answers to. I don’t know if his advice is “magic,” but it is useful.

Kate: Anyone else think he did a better job on Middles in the checklist than he did in the book? Like, it’s longer than the section in the book, and has more meat in it?

Zoe: Yes.

Kate: Very practical. Upping the stakes, adding in the potential for disaster.

Zoe: Making sure your opposition is strong enough.

Kate: Add in a subplot (always fun! Think it’s gonna be easy, MC? Haha, take that!)

Zoe: I thought the “Add Research” subsection was an odd fit for this part. It seems like more of an overall thing than a middle issue, and by putting it here, you’d almost think he’s saying that research is the way to strengthen a sagging middle.

Kate: I suspect he put it there because the middle is where a lot of change is happening in a book, in terms of plot lines starting and stopping, and this is where it’s easy to get caught up in making them work and forget that the setting needs to work too. (It also seemed like something that was aimed at pantsers. I’ll admit to doing minimal research beforehand, and looking up stuff during the writing.)

Zoe: I’m still mentally moving it to the “Polish” section.

Kate: It works there too.

I liked how he broke the stakes down into Plot, Character, and Societal. I’ve never really thought about it that way, and now I’m looking at WIP and wondering how I can add in some Societal stakes. I have Character stakes galore, and some Plot stakes, but Societal? Hmmm…

Ana: I don’t think I’ve used Societal stakes so far. Always been looking for more personal stuff. Oh wait, I had an ‘if you don’t do this, the world may end’ scenario in my first novel, it just never seemed that important. … which says a lot about my characters’ priorities.

Kate: Lol.

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