Breakout 3: Revision & Self-Editing: James Scott Bell – RWAuS14

Revision and Self-Editing for Publication (2nd edition) James Scott Bell


No manuscript is ever submitted exactly the same as it will be published – revisions will be required.   Just accept that.

Have a strategic approach to revision to make it consistent and easier.

Robert Heinlein’s 2 rules for writing

1.  You must write
2.  You must finish what you write

You will learn the most about writing a novel by making yourself complete one – and learning how to fix things

JSB’s corollary: 

3.   You must learn your craft as you write

eg  Read books on writing and craft, go to conferences, learn technique


 JSB rule:

don’t bore the reader

First draft:

  • write hot – when you are putting the words on the page, ignore the inner editor and write what you feel.  You can fix things later

I do a fist draft as passionately and as quickly as I can.  I believe a story is only valid when it is immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious.  If you  interfere in any way, you destroy it”  – Ray Bradbury

  • write
  • Revise cold

Revise as you write?  Here is one technique:

  • revise previous day’s pages  – do it lightly, not to restructure or rethink, just grammar, spelling etc.  Gives momentum to start writing the new pages
  • 20,000 word step back
  • keep going until you finish
  • rolling outline – after you have written first 4 chapters, write an outline of what you have written, and plan the next few chapters.  Outline is both behind and then ahead of what you are currently writing.  this outline is then very useful in the revision process


Outline first act because it is crucial

Signpost scenes – know what is going to happen but can leave flexibility as to where/ when it happens


First Read Through

  • cooling off period – JSB says at least 3 weeks minimum before you look at it again, think about something else.  (eg products in ‘development’, concepts that are one line ideas that can be developed later)

Asimov was a prolific writer (700+ published works in different genres etc).  Had 5 typewriters in different rooms.  When he was tiring of his current novel, he would go to a different room and work on say a science project (uses different part of the brain)

  • print out a hard copy (or e-reader etc) – can jot on it quickly
  • prepare a cover.   Put title, author name, a fake review about how good it is
  • read like a reader, as if caught up in it, in as few sessions as possible
  • take minimal notes, don’t interrupt your reading experience


Make notes while reading.  For example:

  • mark where story is dragging, being bogged down  (tick)
  • incomprehensible sentences, clunky writing ([square brackets])
  • where something needs to be added – details, information etc (circle)
  • what was I thinking (?)


Questions to ask:

Are the stakes high enough?  Is it clear that they are that high?

1.  Is ‘death overhanging’?  Three kinds of death

  • Physical – actually dying
  • professional –  reputation, business, etc
  • psychological

2.  Does my story make sense?

  • do the characters act like ‘real people’?
  • “at every significant juncture in a story, consciously look at the situation from the viewpoint of every character involved – and let each of them make the best move they can from his or her own point of view”  Stanley Schmidt
  • Are there any coincidences that HELP the lead character.  Readers want character to succeed themselves, not have it handed to them.  A coincidence can make things worse, but not solve problems

3.  Do my main characters ‘jump off the page’?

  • unpredictable
  • wounded
  • yearning – if you know the characters backstory and lack, you can find a way to show it in the story
  • passionate – they care about something, something is moving them to action
  • complex – characters showing strong emotion, and try to get a counter-emotion
  • resourceful – able to use a skill because of their
  • gutsy
  • noble



  • the chair through the window
  • the ghost (something from deep past)


Is there enough ‘worry factor’?

Weak opposition

  • does the Opposition have the power to kill your Lead?, like a mafia don (physical death)
  • Does the Opposition have the power to crush your Lead’s professional pursuits, like a crooked judge in a criminal trial (professional death)
  • does the Opposition have the power to crush your Lead’s spirit (psychological death)


Slow opening

  • happy people in happy land is a weak opening
  • too much backstory.  little to no backstory in the first 50 pages
  • is the character alone, looking at feelings?
  • is dialogue possible? Show them doing action of some sort if possible
  • Chapter 2 switcheroo – Drop the first chapter, start with chapter two.
  • what about prologues? If you want to have one, go ahead and write it but don’t call it a prologue.  Call it chapter one.  Or have nothing, just text.  then next is chapter 1


Opening lines.  Make them strong and memorable:

They threw me off the haytruck at noon

~ The Postman always rings twice, James M. Cain

(first person:  voice has to be distinct, have attitude, out of the ordinary, show the reader that this person has something worth reading)


Scene structure:

  • cut the parts people skip
  • scene structure
    • objective – that can be put on the page (might be emotional thing)
    • obstacles – source of conflict
    • outcome – almost always want this to make the situation worse.  If it is a success, make it lead to something worse
  • Fear factor



  • dialogue is a ‘compressed or extension of action’ – John Howard Lawson
  • flows from one character to another
  • it has tension or conflict, even among allies
  • begins with orchestration
  • curve the language
  • use silence as a response



  • 20 years later … what lesson have they learned?
  • set up something early on, and have it pay off later


The Polish:

  • scene openings and endings – give the readers the feeling that something is left over, to keep reading on for
  • compress dialogue – make it use faster
  • dial up emotions 10%


Use all these techniques on your first draft and it should clean it up a lot.

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