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by Mike Klaassen
Has the following ever happened to you? After writing a passage of fiction, you know something is missing, but you can't quite put your finger on it. I suspect every writer has that experience from time to time. Apparently, even Ernest Hemingway struggled with this problem, as evidenced by his statement that "The first draft of anything is shit."
Whether or not you appreciate Hemingway's choice of words, the challenge remains of fixing an inadequate passage of writing—or even a whole manuscript. What can you do about a passage of fiction that doesn't work? You have a number of choices:
· Read and reread the passage, searching for the problem
· Hope for inspiration
· Put the writing away for a while and take a fresh look later
· Get someone else to critique the passage
· Apply a troubleshooting technique
Each of these alternatives has its advantages and disadvantages, but applying a troubleshooting technique has more benefits than the others. A troubleshooting technique relies on more than hope, may be performed immediately, and doesn't depend on other people to solve the problem.
A great time to use a troubleshooting technique is right after you’ve completed the first draft of a story and are ready to review your manuscript prior to revision.
In my book Third-Person Possessed: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction for 21stCentury Readers, I selected a short piece of writing, the public-domain version of Jack and the Beanstalk,[i] as a proxy for a first draft. Fairy tales tend to be great stories that have stood the test of time, but let’s face it, the craft of writing fiction has come a long way in the two hundred years since many of the European folktales were first printed.
I started by reminding myself that any piece of writing, even a classic tale, can be improved, so I shouldn’t hesitate to identify potential issues. Prior to beginning the process of revision, it’s a good idea to establish your goal for the project. In this example, my objective in revising Jack and the Beanstalk was to stay true to the traditional story while more fully developing it, if not to a full-length novel, at least to the length of a novella.
The revision process I used in Third-Person Possessed was a series of troubleshooting steps designed to put the story in perspective and to reveal any weaknesses to be addressed. The techniques consider the overall story and then get progressively more detailed as I apply these specific steps:
· One-paragraph summary
· Chapter-by-chapter outline
· Scene-and-sequel analysis
· Fiction-writing-mode analysis
· Revision to-do list
While drafting Fiction-Writing Modes: Eleven Essential Tools for Bringing Your Story to Life and Scenes and Sequel: How to Write Page-Turing Fiction, I found fairy tales to be a convenient source of examples for illustrating the concepts I described. During that process, I began to imagine how those tales could be improved by using today’s storytelling conventions. That led me to create Klaassen’s Classic Folktales, in which I more fully develop each tale as a novella. The collection includes Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, and Cinderella. For reader convenience in comparing my version to the version first printed in the early 1800s, I include the public-domain version of the story at the back of the book.
For me, troubleshooting techniques work for several reasons.
· They force me to take a fresh look at my work, often through a self-editing filter I had not been using during my first-draft process.
· Especially if I restrain myself from beginning the rewrite until I have completed the analysis, they promote self-discipline by requiring me to evaluate the whole work or passage before moving on.
· They provide me we actionable ideas I can use immediately to improve my project.
There are probably as many different troubleshooting techniques as there are writers. No doubt you already employ one or more, either consciously or subconsciously. The more I troubleshoot, the more I appreciate having a portfolio of techniques from which I can choose, one at a time or in combination, to generate ideas for improving my work. An explanation of each of my favorite techniques is beyond the scope of this article, but they are fully described and illustrated with examples in Third-Person Possessed, which is available for order at traditional and online bookstores.
After Third-Person Possessed was published, I continued to apply the troubleshooting techniques to the fairy tale until I was satisfied with the results. Jack and the Beanstalk: The Old English Tale Retold as a Novella is now part of Klaassen’s Classic Folktales.
Third-Person Possessed and Jack and the Beanstalk are both available for order in paperback and eBook editions at traditional and online bookstores.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of Third-Person Possessed: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction for 21stCentury Readers by Mike Klaassen.
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[i] https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/eft/eft14.htm, English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, 12/9/2016