Editing and Revision: The Importance of Story Questions

I’ve been using a new technique in my novel writing to keep the material from losing focus – something that tended to happen a lot in my earlier drafts.  Up to recently, I’d been reading through the manuscript with a pen and working with groups of fifty pages, jotting down ideas  and story questions as I read.

I’m experimenting with a new technique where I work backwards by writing down the story questions from the previous chapter or two until I have a small list of story questions.  I do this from memory before  attempting any  new chapters.  (In this particular novel, a psychological thriller, each chapter is told from a distinct viewpoint, so the recording of story questions helps keep me up to date with what each character is doing.)  The method also helps with pacing.  Pacing itself is a huge nightmare in writing – too little tension and the story gets boring, too much tension too much of the time and the tension is spent. 

I’ve also noticed that revising a story line by line doesn’t really work and can actually make the story worse.   In adding and improving sentences, the original immediacy can easily get lost.  Even inserting dialogue to bring something out in a character can upset the flow of the narrative.

The best editing, I believe, centres around relevant story questions and knowing your characters well, particularly their deepest conflicts and their most powerful desires.   These drive the story.   Two of the best questions to ask about a leading character are – 1) what do they fear most? and 2) what do they want most?  

During the revision process, I tend to cut a lot of material.  Yet, I always end up with more.   This is because getting rid of material that plays little or no function in a story frees you up to develop new ideas. 

Some ideas to try:

  1. Read through a synopsis, sample chapter or blurb like summary and circle in red any words that capture your attention.
  2. Ask your main characters some questions – e.g. what are they doing on Saturday evening? 
  3. Describe an incident through the eyes of three people.
  4. Problems narrating a section?   Write it in second person, then rewrite the new version in the original viewpoint. 

Further tips can be found in Creative Writing Headaches and Writers Bock


Creativity: The Things that Inspire Me

Most of the time, I enjoy creative writing and playing the piano, but certain things inspire the creative processes:

Rural landscape.   Village inns and benches on the green.  Wooden bus stops on country lanes.   The scent of damp grass.   Rain.  I particularly like getting lost in the local woods near where I live, several miles north of central London.   This really helps me to see country surroundings from the perspective of the characters in my novel writing, in particular scene setting.   Plus, the fresh air and exercise are good too, brisk hill walking being a hobby of mine.   (At one point, I even bought myself a pedometer!)

Places with character.   Especially country pubs or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, pubs in rundown urban areas with distinct characters of their own.   I like the low beamed ceilings and poor lighting of some country inns, the atmosphere that builds up.   Disused factories.   Cotton mills.  Again, these help me picture social interactions in regards to the characters in the psychological thriller I’m working on.

Music.  Classical, jazz, pop or rock.   Of the four elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre), I like harmony the most, especially when a key changes (modulation). 

Weather.   My favourite seasons are spring and autumn.  Not suprisingly, these feature in both novels, with huge sections around the shore. 

The Creative Process

As I posted earlier, I’m currently revising the draft of a psychological thriller, this time by writing each chapter from a distinct viewpoint and concentrating on atmosphere.   I think the editing is going okay, but there are still problems with one particular viewpoint.   I’ve also found that adding new dialogue simply to bring out more on the character doesn’t always work and can give the whole thing a slight “screenwriting” feel.   In short, less is probably best. 

Part of the rewriting involves merging sections of the novel to avoid repetition, particularly where two scenes occur at the same location.   For instance, two adult friends go to the pub on two occasions and there was two more  scenes where one of the friends sleeps on the couch because he’s drunk too much beer and can’t drive.  I’ve ended up merging the scenes so that the first pub visit is padded out with more atmosphere, which will mean having to completely write out one of the other scenes to avoid yet more repetition.   

Back story plays an important role too and there are dated sections in the some of the chapters.   Slightly confusing, perhaps, but that’s the best way of telling the story, I feel.

Elswhere, I’m still practising the repertoire I was working on at the start of the year: Grieg’s piano sonata in E minor, Chopin preludes and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (5 and 12).   The Czerny exercises really help with technique.  (Plus, they’re tuneful and pleasant.) Also, the last four Chopin studies (second set) are excellent all round. I  grew up with classical and rock music in the background, but I particularly enjoy playing piano works written in the Romantic Era.

Cadenzas & Octaves

Octave practice.. that’s where the pianist brings their hands down on notes an octave (eight notes) apart. The overall results may, or may not, sound impressive depending on the technique. For years, I found octaves daunting. My hands and wrists would lock and sometimes ache. Now, I find octave practice relatively easy. A case of relaxing the thumb in between swipes at the keys. You almost have to imagine that the little finger is in charge.

There’s some excellent studies and exercises for improving all aspects of piano technique, including octaves. These include Czerny’s 160 8-bar exercises op821 and Chopin’s preludes and studies. The final Chopin studies of the second set include a stormy octave opening with a lyrical middle( still using octaves) and a second arpeggio study (no 24) based around a simple but expressive idea in C minor.

For those wanting to take octaves to the limit, try the Liszt studies and Hungarian Rhapsodies, or anything involving lots of octaves. I happen to love ragtime and Scott Joplin.

Backing up Writing

Someone mentioned backing up work in one of the comments, so I thought I would describe my own methods.

First, I save the material to the A drive every ten to fifteen minutes. Many computers no longer have A drives, but users can copy (“burn”) files to CDs in much the same way as with floppy disks. I also save everything to a USB memory stick and send the latest drafts of my work to each of my email accounts once or twice a week.

Since email accounts have plenty of storage, some even have unlimited, there is no need to delete back dated copies of work. I regret getting rid of vivid scene setting based around the coast two and a half years ago.

Additionally, I always keep more than one copy of the file in progress on the computer in case anything goes disasterously wrong.

However, even with the most carefully thought out schedule, things can go wrong. Files can become corrupted for any number of reasons, so I always test the file to check that it is working properly. I’m not sure how one does this on an Apple, but on the PC at home, I check by searching for text in the Find option and by pressing ctrl/End. If the file has become corrupted, usually a message will come up with something maddening like “This program has performed an illegal operation.”

Then there’s viruses and worms that can wipe out everything … I keep the computer I use for writing free from online communication. Safer that way.

Finally, ask one or two people if you can email them with copies of your work for back up purposes. They might say no (due to worries about computer viruses) but it’s worth asking.


Yesterday morning, it snowed. I was sitting at the grand piano, looking out the window as I played, staring at the snow and letting it stir my imagination. I was playing pieces from the Romantic Era. A steady march through the Russian snow came to mind. Thudding boots. A sharp wind.

Different Camera Lenses: Viewpoint

I’m about a week in the rewrite of a psychological thriller (see post on Characters and Quest) and am writing each chapter from a particular viewpoint. In the previous edition, some of the chapters had more than one viewpoint (one even had three), but I’ve decided to limit the shifts in VP. I think the reworking is going okay – at least, there seems to be a greater build up of atmosphere now and the story feels less rushed – but many of the chapters are a lot shorter than before.

This is a problem with ruthless editing – you solve one problem but lose something of the nature of the story in the process. Still, the ruthless editing is worth it, so long as you keep backups of previous manuscripts.

(Note on backing up – I send the latest update of my work to each of my email accounts every few days.)