Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Revision Tips: Revealing Key Information

As I write this, I'm knee-deep in a first revision of my current middle-grade novel—and it's wiping the floor with me like a dirty Swiffer sheet. So when I thought about what writing advice I could possibly have to offer this week, the topic of revision is where I ended up.

My biggest hurdle in this particular novel, and has been in past novels, is when and how to reveal information in a mystery or key character backstory. Timing each nugget of information just right can be tricky business, and is a far less natural process than drafting, because it requires precision and a good memory.

Because "good memory" is most definitely not a feature I would list on my OKCupid profile, I've had to build a couple tools for myself to make it possible. (Now, you can follow this process with or without the software I use for writing a novel. I will, however, use software in my examples because it's already done and frankly, using Scrivener for these functions instead of independently tracking them in, say, Excel, makes my life a lot easier.)

1. What is the full character backstory or mystery? It's helpful to start this process by laying out in full what you plan to reveal over the course of the novel. Feel free to include parts and pieces that may not appear in the novel, but are informative to you, or provide important backstory. Often these things can be implied (and assumed/deducted by the reader), without outright saying them.

Remember: you're curating your reader's experience, and trying to drive the reader into certain emotional states or ways of thinking about the story. (It's easiest to pose this in terms of a murder mystery: who does the reader currently think "did it"?) Each piece of information you give is like a twist in the cardboard labyrinth, and your reader is the rat.

Once you've got the whole thing scribbled out like a very drab and uninteresting thriller novel, it's time to start breaking it up.

2. Answer these questions about each revelation.

- What do I want the reader to be feeling at this stage?

- What do I want the reader to be thinking at this stage? (More relevant in the case of a whodunnit, but this consideration is important for any novel that utilizes red herrings, or an unreliable narrator, and the reader's perception of the narrator is important.)

- How much is said or unsaid? What can be implied vs. spoken directly to the reader? Consider the power of suggestions and implications in shaping the reader's experience of "the maze"—it feels more natural and gradual.

3. Summarize each revelation in a few words. Especially if you've already written a first draft, you've probably taken at least one stab at dropping hints and scuttling out little pieces of the puzzle at the prescient moments.

After writing out the full backstory, jot down little keyword summaries of each hint or nugget of information, to represent larger parts of the full backstory.

4. Code the draft you already have. After you've written and considered your little keyword summaries, you'll probably want to create a column (in Scrivener, or in Excel) for what you've already done, and then another column of how you want to see it changed in future drafts. Then go through your novel and code the "existing" column with the short summaries.

In Scrivener, these columns are called Custom Meta-Data, which you can create, label and customize ad infinitum. Here's what mine looks like:

I'm at the point of coding what I've already written, so I only have one column for each mystery/backstory—one for Hanna, and one for her friend (and secondary character) Izzy. Instead of using a "to-do" column, I instead label my drafts First Draft and Revised Draft, and assume that anything labeled "Revised Draft" has already been done according to expectations.

Why is this process necessary on top of an outline, you might ask? I look at an outline as a story guide, or as a general lay of the land. But mysteries, and other long-term information reveals, require a little more precision in the later stages of revision if they're going to be effective. We need our trip through the maze to be carefully planned and organized to maximize its impact on the reader.

5. Implement and tweak in future drafts. Labeling and tracking this information from the get-go makes moving it around later that much easier. If the flow isn't working for one of your readers, it'll be easier to pinpoint which reveal is too heavy-handed (or not enough) and make the appropriate tweaks.

If you have questions about creating Custom Meta-Data fields, here's a brief tutorial:

- Go to Project > Meta-Data Settings
- Add a line item for each column you'd like to track. (I recommend wrapping the text, but using colors or not is up to you.)

- Go through your manuscript and, in the Custom Meta-Data tab of the Inspector, type in the short summaries you've already created.

- View your manuscript as an Outline and right-click on the column headers. Check off each column you'd like to display in the Outliner.

Good luck!

Read more of Kiersi's writing advice on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.


  1. Ooh, this is helpful! I use Scrivener, but didn't know about the Custom Meta-Data settings. It reminds me of that chapter plan J.K. Rowling released (the one you can see at ).


  2. Thanks! I'm using Scrivener for the first time and revising backstory so this is very helpful.