Six Tips for Achieving Power Over the Revision Process

I was recently asked how to handle the sense of frustration that comes when a writer feels stalled out during a revision process. My answers were all pretty general, so in the interest of sharing, and of turning my development work for Pelgrane into a web article they’ve already paid for, I share these with you here.

These bits of advice address the momentary feeling of being in the weeds on a project. Chronic writer’s block is a different matter, best addressed elsewhere.

1. Accept the Weeds as a Phase of the Creative Process. Writing is mentally taxing. Revising, doubly so, as it lacks the flow state you can reach during primary creation. Learn to see periods of mental fatigue while improving a manuscript not as signs that something has gone awry, but the result of the effort you’re applying to the task.

Is it hard? Good! Good writing is hard. Good revising is hard. That feeling is a sign that you’re taking the task seriously, sharpening your self-critical faculty, and improving your piece. It can be hard to see while you’re in it, but you’re tired because you’re doing the work.

You may feel lost and bogged down when by any objective measure you are making steady, incremental progress. Self-assessment weakens when you’re tired and/or stressed. You’re doing better than you think.

2. Give Yourself a Break. Let yourself rest, intellectually and emotionally, by taking time to not think about the work. Pursue a relaxing, meditative activity. If weather and health permits, go for a nice long walk. Whatever you do to give yourself downtime, recenter yourself by resting and relaxing, then come back to the work refreshed.

3. Clear the Decks. Other, unrelated minor tasks may be impinging on your concentration by making you feel (again, likely incorrectly) that you’re behind on all manner of obligations. Find a few items on your to-do list you can easily move onto your done list, and knock them off. (Implicit in this is the suggestion that you keep a to-do list to track personal and professional tasks. It helps you see that you don’t have as much stuff weighing on you as you think, and gives you the satisfaction of ticking them off and making them disappear. I use a web/phone app called Toodle-Do.)

4. Get Enough Sleep. Easier said than done, and something I absolutely struggle with myself. But writing and revising are not so much about waiting for inspiration as waiting for a state of mental acuity. Experts disagree on what works, and what works for me may not for you. But one thing is guaranteed to mess you up: not blocking out enough time in your life for full, restful sleep.

5. Refresh Yourself While Working. When mental fog descends during a writing shift, go lie down with your eyes closed and the lights out. I use a sleep mask. Even if you don’t fully nap, a ten to fifteen minute quasi-nap will help regain focus. Also, try the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for twenty minute stretches punctuated by five-minute breaks. I don’t find this useful for primary creation, as it breaks flow, but have had good results with it on revision/development days.

6. Depersonalize the Task. This one’s a tall order, but the most helpful if you can swing it. Seek detachment from the idea of success or failure at the task as a measure of self-worth. Revision is a technical exercise, one that you get better at with time. (But never really defeat—welcome to the writer’s life!) Picture the dullest, least emotionally resonant task you can ably perform: unclogging a sink, cleaning a grill, labeling photo files. That’s revision. Keep judgment out of your rear-view mirror, whether it’s the imagined judgment of your editor or the voice of doubt in your own head. Yes, eventually your work will be evaluated, by yourself and others. However, to avoid rabbit holes during the process you have to seal that thought in a box and put it away. When you’re clarifying ideas and tightening prose you’re just scrubbing the gunk off that grill.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

As the field of roleplaying expands its audience, and new platforms appear to provide an ever wider array of ways to get material into the hands of gamers, more folks than ever have jumped in to try their hand at writing. Whether you’re working, as an emerging RPG writer, on supplements, adventures, or games, you can increase the appeal of your work by adopting key techniques to sharpen your prose style.

Most writers, myself included, prefer to focus on style nitty-gritty when revising. Worry about it too much during the first draft and you’ll bog down, losing both your thread of meaning and your will to go on. After a while you’ll absorb techniques like the ones given here and instinctively adopt them into your initial writing phase. When you do revise, you’ll then be working from a stronger starting point.

Many of the tips below elevate any piece of writing, but let’s look at them from an RPG perspective.

Before the tips, a caveat: with rules text in particular, you want clear and stylish prose. When those two values conflict, technical precision outweighs style concerns. You may for example need to repeat the same word multiple times in close succession, which you wouldn’t do even in other, more story-oriented sections of the same game book.

1. Replace Inactive Verbs

Almost every emerging writer over-relies on a few frequently used, dead verbs: is, are, be, have. When you can, reconfigure your sentences to favor more specific, dynamic alternatives. Altering sentences to weed out inactive verbs forces you to tune up a sentences in other ways, finding greater specificity or concision.

Mercutio is a hot-blooded young man, driven by a churning intellect and a presentiment of his own doom.

Might become:

Mercutio’s hot blood, churning intellect and a presentiment of doom drive him to flights of poetic fancy.

The first describes him in a static state. The second puts him in action. Nipping out the “is” led us to show the GM more directly what Mercutio might do in a scenario.

The renderers are figures of terror throughout the neighborhood.

Becomes:

The renderers spread terror throughout the neighborhood.

Again, this moves us from situation to action.

The agents must be careful to keep up the pretense, or be attacked by the mutons.

Becomes:

The agents must keep up the pretense, or face a muton attack.

This distills the action into a simpler, shorter, punchier sentence.

Don’t expect to altogether avoid inactive verbs. You’ll find yourself testing and rejecting alternates because they confuse your sequence of thoughts, or require many more words than the original, inactive version.

2. Strike Instances of “Will”

RPG writing frequently puts us in the unusual position of describing a hypothetical future action:

The octopus will pick up the phone.

The monster will run at the PCs.

Amy will withhold that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

Dropping the “will” excises an unnecessary word, tightens the sentence, and allows the reader to envision the described action:

The octopus picks up the phone.

The monster runs at the PCs.

Amy withholds that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

I’ve been writing RPG books for a long time now, and still during my revision pass spot instances of the dreaded “will” begging to be cut.

3. Shorten Your Sentences

In RPG writing we can get caught up in a tumble of creative thought. As we get those thoughts up on the screen, we tumble from one idea to the next. That leads to overlong sentences that try to express too much. Almost any submission draft from a starting writer arrives full of sentences whose commas beg to be turned into periods. Get chopping!

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry, haunted by memories of their past lives, seldom heeding the worries of Old Chan, who gazes at them with a worried expression and silently rolls and lights another cigarette, because that’s what he’s been reduced to now.

Becomes:

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry. Memories of their past lives haunt them. Seldom do they heed the worries of Old Chan. He gazes at them and silently rolls and lights another cigarette. Fate has reduced him to this, he thinks.

Periods give the reader time to stop and take in each idea before moving on to the next. Resist the impulse to slap rope together with a kit-bag of conjunctions. The appearance of “and” near the end of a lengthy sentence often marks a trouble spot in your sentence. Look carefully at the final clauses of your sentences. Many times you can cut them entirely. In other cases you’ll see that they bear little relation to the rest of your thought and should break free to become their own sentences.

4. Remove Passive Construction

This standard piece of style advice still bears repeating. Except when used for (usually ironic) effect, cut out sentences that bury their subjects by shunting them to the end of the sentence, or omitting them entirely.

Dogs all around the neighborhood were terrified by ravager activity.

Becomes:

The ravagers terrified neighborhood dogs.

5. Strip Out Introductory Flab

When revising text, take an extra hard squint at passages introducing new subjects. You may see that you eased your way into the topic with a series of broad introductory statements. If you did, you were probably getting your mental gears going as you found your way to what you really wanted to say. See how many initial sentences you can pare away without cutting into the true meat of your piece.

Ever since the dawn of time humankind has feared the dark. Throughout the ages people have whispered of strange doings in the woods. Combining the dark and the woods together creates unique and special fears. The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

Becomes:

The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

By Robin D. Laws

Although I’m not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I’ve been able to see certain issues crop up in the work of multiple authors. This process has improved not only those books, but my own work. It’s easier to see problematic material in someone else’s draft than in your own. Manuscript review has also crystallized my thoughts on how GUMSHOE, and particularly its scenarios, might be refined and better presented. While revising our internal writer’s guidelines to reflect these developing insights, we thought we’d open them up to a general audience by presenting key selections in this and next month’s installment of See P. XX.

Let’s reverse the universe’s usual polarity by moving from the general to the specific—from tips to punch up any piece of writing, to those applicable to roleplaying scenario writing, and finally to the finer points of GUMSHOE.

Punching Up Any Piece of Writing

These rules will stand you in good stead in most fiction or non-fiction writing. Exceptions pertain in particular fields: scientific papers demand the passive voice, for example.

You may groan at the familiarity of certain examples, but they show up repeatedly in the work of skilled professional writers, and so bear repeated hammering.

You’ll note that I advise writers to take these steps during revision. Stopping your first draft to wrestle with sentence structure kills momentum and may plunge you into the chill waters of self-doubt and frustration. Tackle this stuff later, when spotting and fixing errors fosters a sense of accomplishment. Eventually you’ll internalize these tricks and instinctively perform them during the writing phase.

Passive Voice

Avoid the passive voice, in which you obscure the object of an action by turning it into the subject of the sentence.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed by mi-go.

By de-emphasizing the person, force, thing or shambling horror, performing the action, you weaken your sentence’s impact.

If you’re writing a business press release or apologizing for a politician, you may omit the real subject of the sentence entirely:

Mistakes were made.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed.

Here you’re fudging on purpose, removing culpability and attributing the action to some unnamed force. You mi-go apologist, you!

When revising your manuscript, and you see any variation of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle, reconfigure it.

Mi-go destroyed the Congressman’s sanity.

I made mistakes.

As with any general writing tip, you may find specific reason to violate this dictum. Dialogue justifies all manner of prose sins. Perhaps mi-go always speak in the passive. I wouldn’t put it past them. The overall point remains—only do this when you can justify it.

Weak Verbs

Here’s an issue I used to conflate with passive voice before I started reviewing other people’s manuscripts and got corrected on it. When reviewing your manuscript, look for instances of the verb “to be” and its variations—“is,” “are”, “was” and “am.” Most sentences pair these with an additional verb.

The sheepbots are grazing on the hill.

The vampire was sucking her blood.

Wherever you can do so without weirdly contorting your sentence’s rhythm or syntax, reconfigure to drop the “to be” and rely entirely on the more vivid paired verb.

The sheepbots grazed on the hill.

The vampire sucked her blood.

You may be using “to be” to indicate timing—it suggests an ongoing action, rather than one that has already completed itself. Do this only when absolutely necessary—often the exact sequence of events proves less important than the stronger punch of the single action verb.

Over-reliance on “to be” becomes a special temptation when writing in the abstract mode found in the essay, or in rules text.

The second edition is better organized than the first.

Use of weak verbs is a sign of a beginning writer.

This rule is the key to GUMSHOE.

By replacing instances of “to be” whenever possible, you’ll accumulate a repertoire of stronger, more precise substitute verbs.

We reorganized this edition for superior ease of reference.

Use of weak verbs reveals the hand of the beginning writer.

To understand GUMSHOE, absorb this key rule.

Paring “of the”

Sentences including the word pairing “of the” can often be tightened by replacing them with an apostrophe.

He hires the crew to repatriate the mantle of the king.

Becomes:

He hires the crew to repatriate the king’s mantle.

Consider this issue wherever it appears, but don’t treat it as an iron-clad rule. You may want to leave an “of the” as is:

  •  for rhythm
  •  to maintain formality
  •  when emulating an older style
  •  to preserve thought order by ensuring that a sentence ends on a particular clause.

Sometimes the apostrophe version strikes the reading ear as jarringly direct.

 

Roleplaying Syntax

The following issues prose issues apply specifically (or at least particularly) to the roleplaying form.

Deprecation of the “will”

Though often mentioned, this issue continues to bedevil scenarios, which are written in a strange conditional future tense. In a sentence describing an action which a PC or GMC may or may not take, you may find yourself reflexively inserting the word “will”:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny will burn the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants will scramble for the hidden exit.

You can do yourself, and your editors, no better favor than to train yourself out of this habit. In this construction, “will” is totally unnecessary, and thus deadens the sentence’s impact:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny burns the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants scramble for the hidden exit.

Plurals Are Pluralistic

In the future hypothetical voice of roleplaying writing you often find yourself constructing sentences around players and/or their characters whose genders are unknown to you. More inconveniently still,   grammar predates feminism, rendering all attempts at gender inclusivity awkward in one way or another.

GUMSHOE uses the conceit that the hypothetical unknown GM is female and the players male. As a side benefit, this sometimes clarifies sentences featuring multiple pronouns.

Even better, when you can, turn the subject plural to avoiding assuming gender for your hypothetical subject.

The character can leave his pistol at the door, or leave it on the ship.

Becomes:

Characters can leave their pistols at the door, or leave them on the ship.

Next month: We move beyond prose issues to navigate you past scenario design pitfalls, general and GUMSHOE.