From the Revision Trenches

(or How to Make Layering Work for You)

I’m back at work revising my historical romance novel. Again.

I let it sit most of the spring and summer. During that time I had a request from an editor (who I still hope to hear back from some day) and had rather encouraging rejections from the two agents I’ve queried so far.

I also entered the first couple of chapters into a historical fiction and a historical romance contest – not for fame and glory but for the guaranteed feedback that came with the entrance fee. The historical romance contest is still pending (fingers crossed!) and the historical fiction contest announced the winners earlier this month. I didn’t place, but I did get my critique back – full of good’s and very good’s for all aspects evaluated (POV, character development, dialogue, historical accuracy, grammar, etc.).

While that made me feel all warm and fuzzy, the person who evaluated my work did not give me any suggestions on how to improve, which little-naive-me was counting on. So I’m left with a glowing critique, no accolades, and no where to go. I’m hoping my feedback from the other contest will be a bit more enlightening so I will be able strengthen my MS even more in time for the Golden Heart.

In preparation, I’m going through the MS chapter by chapter. Tinkering, tightening, and fixing the little typos that (STILL!) keep cropping up. I’m also focused on heightening tension and emotion throughout the story. My scene intros and outros are pretty strong already – provocative breaks that should induce page turning and openings that immediately ground the reader in POV and place.

So now, I’m just need to make sure the scenes, from start to finish, sing. Easy, right?

I’ve discovered during this round of revisions that I have a tendency to understate things. When it comes to the romance genre, this isn’t a good strategy. You want the reader to experience every emotional high and low. They should be put through an emotional wringer over the course of the story so the ending provides the closure they’re craving. That’s not possible if you are always downplaying actions and reactions like me.

So throughout my MS, I’m looking for places where I haven’t capitalized on the potential the story offers. Then I revise it, primarily using a technique called layering.When you layer, you are forced to look at what you have already written and see what is missing. Once you have your answer – whether you need more dialogue, insight into your character’s thoughts and so on – you have to recast the scene to incorporate the missing pieces. This iterative process often results in stronger scenes that operate on multiple levels – a win every time.

Here’s a section from my novel. Alex, the hero, grabs the heroine and backs her into the wall to confront her. Her response: “At least this time you did not hurt my injury,” like he did earlier when his temper got the better of him and he grabbed her injured shoulder.

Example 1

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” He noted the girl’s disappointment when he did not lessen his hold on her and leaned closer into her face. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

Reads ok. We get a sense of Alex’s remorse and that the girl is goading him a bit to get him to back down, but he doesn’t. But I wanted to make it a bit stronger, so I layered in a bit more of what Alex is thinking during the scene:

Example 2

Alex felt a brief stab of guilt at that, but he pushed it aside. “A terrible accident, my lady. You already have my apologies.” The girl frowned when he did not lessen his hold on her. So she would play games with him? He swallowed the blind anger that reared up inside him once more. He leaned into her face, his eyes holding hers. “You know I mean you no harm. Why can you not trust me? With all of your secrets?”

IMHO, this scene is now much stronger with Alex’s internal thoughts leading the reader through the confrontation. Not a whole lot was added, just a line or two and some general tinkering, but the dynamics are clearer and the tension is heightened.

I’m not surprised I have to spend so much time on this, as I tend to write spare the first time around and need to bulk up in later passes. When I finish a draft, I have action and dialogue covered, but that’s about it. Then I need to layer in movement, setting details, description grounded in the senses, and emotion. It’s just how I tend to write (which you can read more about in Anatomy of a Story). My problem now is pushing myself to take sections that work well already and make them awesome.

I have to keep reminding myself not to settle for good enough.

I encourage you to read The Art of Layering, a fabulous overview by romance author Renee Ryan, for more examples and tips to apply layering techniques to your own work. I stumbled upon Ryan’s article thanks to a post on Romance Writer’s Revenge.

What are your tips and tricks when it comes to revision time?
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2 thoughts on “From the Revision Trenches

  1. Thanks for the examples…and the book suggestion.

    Sorry the contest didn't give you the input you were looking for. I hope you get news on the outstanding (hehe) editor, soon.

    Have a safe weekend.

  2. Thanks, Sharon. Like everyone, I'm desperate for validation when it comes to my writing, and I thought the contest would help with that. Instead, it just reinforced that I need to believe in my own work. I'm glad to know I'm doing some things right, but the construct crit is what I'm needing right now…

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