Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Secret to Revisions? It’s….

  By Hank Phillippi Ryan


You type THE END. You stand and applaud yourself. And you should! You’ve crafted the crucial first line, and the all-important end of page three, and the big hook at the end of chapter one. Your book is still compelling after twenty pages, the middle is not bad, and the ending is kickass.

Yay, you!

But you are not finished. Now comes the good part. The difficult part! But the good part. 


The good news and the bad news: it takes longer, much longer than you might think, to make your book wonderful.

I love revisions. After those months of panic and agony as I try to unearth the plot from the recesses of my brain, it’s a joy to have that big manuscript, all those nice words, in front of me, ready for me to carve it into the book I really meant to write. 


How do you go through the whole darn thing and make it better? (If you’re me, how do you wrangle 120,000 words into 95,000?)

I have kind of a system. Works for me. 

First, I put the book away for a week. (It should be two weeks, but who has two weeks?)

Then I start reading it—but here’s the key. I read it as if I didn’t write it. I do that by pretending I’m someone else. You know how when you hit “send” to deliver a manuscript to your editor or reader? And as soon as you do, you think—darn. I need to change this. That’s because in that moment, you are reading it through someone else’s eyes.

Try it. Okay? Poof. You’re someone else. A tough reader, a smart reader, one who is seeing this thing for the very first time. Look at it as fun. As a challenge. Your goal is to help this poor writer be fabulous. 

Ah HA. Now you’ll see the plot holes. The repetition. The stilted dialogue. The scenes (you have scenes, right?) without any action. The pages without conflict. The parts you skip.  The weak verbs. “Was.” “Just.” “Suddenly.” The excessive description. The characters with no motivation. The coincidences. The wordiness. The repetition. (Oh, I said that.)

Choose a character and follow that person through your story. Are the motivations clear and understandable? The behavior consistent? Their language unique and identifiable?

Find your default words: how often did you write ‘of course’? Or ‘really’? Or ‘very’? We all have our favorites. And they all have to go. In one manuscript, I discovered I used “flickered” 23 times. Flickered! And twisted about as many times.

(And I start too many sentences with “and.”)

Are there scenes where nothing happens? Make sure every scene advances the story. A good thriller is all about action, right? So no BOGSAT. (Bunch of guys, sitting around talking.)

Are there scenes without cinematic setting?  If your book were a movie, would it be interesting? How can you amp up the mind pictures to make your book as visual as possible?

Fun, huh? No, really, it is. You’re not finding mistakes or proof you’re a terrible writer. The opposite! Every time you discover an error or tighten a sentence or pick a stronger verb—you win. It’s a treasure hunt with you as the winner. 

And revisions are when the magic happens. You’ll see---wow, I have a theme! How did that happen? You’ll see clues you dropped—without even knowing it. You’ll see your clever parallel construction, and foreshadowing and character development and humor—stuff you didn’t even know you were writing.  You’ll see how your brain has created a bigger story than you realized—and it’ll be a joy. 

Jump into those revisions. There’s a surprise around every corner. And when you finally finally type “The End” for real—it will be the beginning of something wonderful.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 EMMYs, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism.
A bestselling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: two Agathas,
the  Anthony, Macavity, and most recently, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a "master at crafting suspenseful mysteries" and "a superb and gifted storyteller."Her newest thriller, THE WRONG GIRL, is a Boston Globe bestseller and was dubbed "Another winner" in a Booklist starred review. She’s on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at, on Twitter @hank_phillippi and Facebook/HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.

THE WRONG GIRL—Hank’s newest chilling and heart-wrenching novel of suspense—is a thrilling tale of dark secrets and frightening betrayal that strikes at the heart of every family. After her debut in THE OTHER WOMAN (nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Daphne and Macavity; winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award), investigative reporter Jane Ryland now returns in THE WRONG GIRL--and this time she's on the trail of a frightening story that could rip families apart. Does a respected adoption agency have a frightening secret? Tipped off by a determined ex-colleague on a desperate quest to find her birth mother, Boston newspaper reporter Ryland begins to suspect that the agency is engaging in the ultimate betrayal--are they reuniting birth parents with the wrong children? 

For detective Jake Brogan and his partner, a young woman’s brutal murder seems a sadly predictable case of domestic violence, one that results in two toddlers being shuttled into the foster care system. Then Jake finds an empty cradle at the murder scene. Where is the baby who should have been sleeping there?

Jane and Jake are soon on a trail full of twists and turns that takes them deep into the heart of a foster care system in crisis and threatens to blow the lid off an adoption agency scandal. When the threatening phone calls start, Jane knows she is on the right track...but with both a killer at large and an infant missing, time is running out....

THE WRONG GIRL is a riveting novel of family connections—both known and unknown—vile greed, senseless murder, and the ultimate in deception. What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family?

(Watch for the new TRUTH BE TOLD in September 2014.)


DonnaGalanti said...

Hank, thanks for coming on and sharing your advice - and HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Love your acronym BOGSAT and that will stick in my mind as I revise. And especially this: Revisions are when the magic happens. True! Congrats on the release of THE WRONG GIRL!

carol said...

Wow! I want it. Thanks for the advice--after hearing you at MWW13, I can't get enough of your good advice. :-)

Amanya said...

Great advice, "Birthday Girl" (or is that "BD WOMAN?"

Quick question: I've noticed myself when I am in revision mode that I need to read a hardcopy as well as scroll through on a screen. I catch some things on hardcopy that I've missed in the electronic version. (And again, alas, when I read it aloud.) Do you find the same thing or do you revise only via the electronic page?

Thanks! (Party Hard) - AE

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thank you! Yes, Amanya, I so agree! A hard copy is very valuable--and I always print one and read from that. It makes it feel more like a book, maybe.. and as a result, I can get more lost in it, and as a result of THAT, see where I've gone wrong.

jenny milchman said...

What a treat and an honor to have Hank on The Thrill Begins! I remember hearing you speak about revisions--and how you find what you didn't realize you'd put it in. I love that.

Donna Coe-Velleman said...

Great tips Hank!! Thanks. I have trouble with tags and write a bunch of dialogue without much action. I always have to go back and get those people moving.

Hope you have a great birthday and many more!


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Jenny, yes, how wonderful of you! And yeah, that's the magic. As you well know!

DOnna, how terrific to hear from you! "Get those people moving"--that is a wonderful mantra! GOing back to check for that.. and dialogue tags--yes! That'll be tomorrow. Thank you!