On October 31, 2012, Seawritesforfun wrote, I was wondering how can you make a book fluid? Mine is rather all over the place because I write very sporadically, (started in ’10, still not finished but very close now). I plan to do about 20 rewrites to try and fix it, but I’m not sure whether or not that will disrupt the plot.

First off, when we revise our first principle should be, must be: Everything is up for grabs to make the best book we can at this time.

I don’t mean we have to toss the first draft, because then we’ll be writing a new book, not revising. And I don’t mean that every element always has to change, only the ones that need fixing. For me, some drafts need just a little tweaking; some need much more. We work within the established framework, but we may have to move a few walls and change the furniture. We may have to add characters, drop characters, change POV, and even adjust (or disrupt) our plot. I’ve begun my revisions for my second Elodie mystery. I don’t foresee adding characters, but I’m doing everything else, and my plot is definitely changing.

If you’re young, say you’re fifteen now and you started your book when you were thirteen, of course the story feels jumpy. The you that started and the you who’s writing now are separated by eons of growth and change and learning. So I suggest that you try to go through this revision in the span of a few months, tops, because you’re still on a steep maturing slope. A year from now you may again be vastly different (although, naturally, many essentials will remain). If you start and then stop, fluidity may again elude you.

A lot of the feeling of fluidity comes from voice. Try reading a few paragraphs from page 3 and a few from pages 25, 80, 130, etc. What do you notice? What are the differences? Which do you like? Maybe one of the pages has a contemporary voice, another goes even further into slang, another is more formal, and another has a distinct old-fashioned tone. Decide which best suits your story.

Can you identify something that you can replicate to give the narration a sense of continuity? For example, in the Elodie books, when Elodie is surprised, she has a habit of saying or thinking, Lambs and calves! Just that expression helps create the sense of a single personality presenting the story. I’ve switched to third person in this revision, although I’m not sure I’ll stick with it, but in most chapters Elodie is still my POV character, and the reader still encounters her Lambs and calves!, not in every paragraph or even on every page, but often enough to remind the reader that this is Elodie’s tale.

In the past I’ve mentioned a novel for adults, or for kids high school and up, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a fascinating mystery that switches from first-person to third, that changes tenses, and that intersperses the narrative with newspaper articles. The effect is jumpy, I guess, but the reader comes to expect the discontinuity, and the story works as a whole. The key is repetition. We can change tense or POV once right at the beginning or we can sandwich our narrative with a beginning and final shift, but if we’re going to do more, we generally need to do it frequently. If there’s just a single switch a third of the way into the story and not again, the reader is likely to be confused, but if it’s a regular thing, she’ll be prepared.

Here’s another, possibly weird solution. Think of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, which was written over several years, and which, admittedly, isn’t fiction. Anne changes in the course of the book. The youngster at the beginning and the young adult at the end are vastly different. The reader accepts this because of the time span. Maybe you can work something into your structure that accommodates the two years you spent writing your book. Maybe your book can be presented as a journal. Or, if you can’t separate the parts by time, maybe you can by distance. The first part takes place in an earth city, the next on recently colonized Venus, the next in a scientific station on the ocean floor. Or, separate them by narrator, so the voice is different in the different parts. Then, possibly, the revision won’t be so radical.

Here are four prompts:

• Use the scenario I suggested. Your three MCs are geographically apart. Earth is running out of some resource, say, fresh water. Your characters are engaged in a project to save life on the planet, but there are conflicting allegiances among them, and there’s a romance. Write the story, and make it jumpy, with different narrators, different time periods.

• Tell a story within a story within a story, like those Russian nesting dolls that fit inside each other. Your MC is writing a novel about an actor who’s in an original play. Your story includes all three: the life of the MC, chapters of the novel, and scenes from the play. Give your MC problems in her life that find expression in her novel and in the play inside the novel.

• Write a contemporary story but tell it in an old-fashioned, fairy tale sort of voice.

• Retell a fairy tale in a modern setting using a contemporary voice.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I had a question that involved voice. My story might be from the middle ages or 1800s or something like that, but I also wanted to include things that were modern, like a camera, a cafe (yes, a cafe, not a bakery)and also events like Valentine's Day, but I'm not sure how I would express it in the story to myself and the readers. I'm also finding it hard to include religion, like a church, if my story is a fantasy and includes a witch, or a sorceress, because some religions can be against this. How could I express these things in a story without making it sound too complicated?

    • On your question about including religion and magic simultaneously, I thought you might find this article on created religions in George R.R. Martin's saga A Song of Ice and Fire. The book series and show are themselves quite mature, but I don't think you need to know much about them to appreciate this article's analysis on Martin's use of religions in his fantasy. In my personal opinion, the hardest part of putting religion in fantasy is the ambiguity, showing how it affects different people in different ways, showing the different ways people can believe or disbelieve, showing the different religions people can believe in. For example, a witch or sorceress could exist alongside the church because maybe witches or sorceresses subscribe to a different faith (an excellent example of this is in Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel The Mists of Avalon, also mature however). Including multiple faiths or belief systems, I think, actually makes your world more believable and interesting, because it creates clash, something that is very much present in the real world.

  2. Wonderful Post, Mrs. Levine!! I was wondering if you have any advice on self-editting. This past NaNoWriMo, I cheated a little and finished my previous manuscript. After deleting my midnight-german rants that ended up just being word count boosts, the novel is hovering around 92-94k words. There are several passages that need expansion, and some details must be added in.

    However, I'm not really sure where to start: do I add in the passages and lace it up, or edit the strange, awkward layers first? As an extended note, I have three different perspectives from the third person omniscient- would this be considered acceptable in a writing community, or strange?

    Thanks so much for your help and wonderful posts!

    (On a side note, how long is Ella Enchanted?)

    • From the website:

      @ Athira Abraham

      I think that you actually free yourself up a lot more than you think just by having your story be a fantasy. Because it's in a world other than this one, your details don't all have to line up, so you can pull in things from different time periods and places to form the new world. Like say you've made a new world, and you call it… um… Newbia. In Newbia, it could be that the cafe was invented long before the wheel, and maybe agriculture was never invented at all. Things like Valentine's Day and real religions are a little more complicated, since they have a specific backstory that may happen in our world but not in Newbia, what with the sudden influx in cafes, but another one of the really great things about fiction is that you don't have to explain every single detail. If your world has cafes, and churches where witches are welcomed, and a charming number of knights running around, and the characters don't question it, the reader isn't necessarily going to either, especially if the story itself is more interesting than nitpicking, which it usually is.

      That being said, I've tried the mixing fantasy and history thing in a story before, and one big thing I did was what Gail already alluded to: I wrote down all the inventions I might possibly want to use in my story (electric fans, wristwatches, glasses, lightbulbs, and paperbacks were some of mine) and just looked them up on wikipedia. I kept a running list of when they all were invented, so I knew that if I wanted to base my story roughly around 1930s kind of technology, these were the things I could include, and those were a little more iffy. I feel like doing that made a much stronger sense that there definitely was a past-aspect to it–so if you want your story to feel mostly medieval or mostly Victorian (which are two quite different things, by the way), most of the details you bring into your world should be from that period. In this case, research is your best friend. It doesn't even have to be really extensive research–I think I just searched 1930s on my library website and came up with a bunch of really thin, really general books. And fashion sketches. I think the clothes were the most fun. 🙂

      Research research research, but don't forget: as long as you're the one creating the world, you're the only one who can say it's wrong.

  3. This has nothing to do with Mrs. Levine's post, which was awesome, by the way. I am in some trouble. I agreed to write a story for a friend. The story is turning out pretty well, it's no more than a few chapters (Fifteen at most.) but the story revolves around poems and songs. They need to be powerful I'm not sure how to do that. I have to write poems and songs that convey POWER. The kind that you can read and really FEEL. I wasn't sure whereto go, so I decided to ask on this website. There are a lot of writers here, and they all give good advice, so I was wondering, what kind of words give the feeling of power. Words, phrases, types of poetry to read, any help is very much appreciated. Thanks.

    • Interesting! I suggest you pick songs and poems that other people have written that feel powerful and follow their rhythms with your own words. That's not copying if the words are entirely your own. Also, if you look up the meter and rhyme schemes of blues, chants, ballads, and hymns, you may find ways you can use.

    • I've also noticed that, a lot of times, using strong, accurate, concise words often make poems feel more powerful. Using a thesaurus really helps me. Voyage, expedition, and journey sound much more powerful than trip, to me.

  4. I need some help. I've finally reached the climax of my book – which means the end is near (happy dance)! The trouble is, this climax is extremely dark and depressing. In a nutshell, my MC's have been dreading being captured and experimented on for the entire book, and at the climax, that is exactly what happens. It's like the worst case scenario and at that point all my MC's lose hope. I spend about the equivalent of a page on the description of the MC’s feelings during this catastrophe, and it really is quite gloomy, because they have lost all hope and they think that their friend has been killed. They will be experimented on and a few of them nearly killed but then they will eventually escape. The problem is how despairing and depressing this section is. It is so dark that when you read it you think, “Wow, this makes me feel awful! I’m so depressed now that I think I’ll go get some cymbalta.” Is it okay to have such a depressing section? It’s looking like the bleak, we’re-all-doomed section will be about ten pages long, maybe a bit longer, but then it will lighten up considerably. How can I make it seem more bearable?

    Oh dear, I really need to learn to make my comments more concise. Sorry about the length! I hope you can understand what I’m trying to ask!

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