Sunday, August 26, 2007

WORKSHOP: Editing/Revision

…“It Simply Sounds So Stupid….”
what to do when you have to critique yourself

One of the great truths about writing is that it’s much easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than it is to pick them out in our own. That’s why critique groups are so helpful, particularly to the beginning writer.

But sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

How can a writer take a long honest look at her own writing? It’s difficult—because when we go back to read the words we’ve put on the page, we not only read the actual words, but we relive the emotions we felt as we were writing. We see the characters in our minds. We hear them speak. Unfortunately, our reader doesn’t have access to our emotions, our vision, and our inner ear—so she can only read the words on the page. That’s the advantage of a critique group. (At least until the group reaches the point where each member knows the other’s stories so well that it’s just like working on her own.)

So how do we judge whether we’ve truly conveyed the scene to the reader? How can we tell whether the story works?


If you can, put your story away for a few days—even a few weeks – before you start to revise. When you read it again after a break, you’ll be better able to judge what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll be more likely to see whether the words on the page actually evoke the meaning you intended to share with your reader.

When it’s time to take a look at what you’ve written, to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and to create a plan of attack for revising, here’s a sort of checklist to use as you reread your work.

This in-depth checklist covers all the main sections of the romance novel, and it will help you spot areas where you’ve lost the thread of your story, told too much too soon, or left out crucial information or steps in the development of the plot or relationship.

You can use this list at any stage in the writing process to help keep you on track, or as a guideline when you’ve finished the manuscript.

The more you can distance yourself from your story and pretend that someone else wrote it, the better this checklist will work for you. Try pretending that you’re a book reviewer and you will have to give not only your reaction to the story but the reasons for your opinions.

1. How does the story start? What do we know about the main character by the end of Chapter One? What do we not know and want to? What do we know that we don’t need or want to?

2. How many pages into the book does the plot action begin? When do we meet the second main character?

3. What forces the hero and/or heroine to stay in the situation? If being around each other makes them unhappy, why doesn’t one of them just go away?

4. What keeps the hero and heroine apart? Could their disagreement be solved if they sat down for a real conversation?

5. Is the conflict personal? Concrete? Sympathetic? Important to both characters and to the reader? Can the reader picture herself or someone she loves caught up in a similar difficulty?

6. Is the disagreement between them strong enough to keep them apart despite their attraction?

7. How much does the reader know about what both hero and heroine are thinking? At what point in the story does the reader know that the heroine is seriously interested in the hero? At what point in the story does the reader know that the hero is seriously interested in the heroine? After this point, is the excitement level in the story maintained, or does it drop off?

8. Does the reader get to savor the excitement? Listen to the arguments? Watch the action? Or is the dramatic potential of the story summarized?

9. By the halfway point of the book, have we met all the major characters? If they haven’t actually come on stage, have we been told about them?

10. How many secondary characters are there? Can some of them be eliminated or combined? Can some of them be reduced to labels—the waitress, the receptionist—instead of names and descriptions? How much do we know about secondary characters, and is this information important to the story?

11. Are the main characters’ actions and words consistent with their personalities, their professions, their upbringing, and their previous experiences?

12. Is the point of view consistent throughout the story? If a second or third point of view is used, does it appear early and with some regularity throughout the story? Does the point of view of secondary characters creep in where it shouldn’t?

13. Does each scene and each chapter begin by setting up the location and time frame, identifying the viewpoint character, and creating an interesting hook? Does each scene and each chapter end at a point of interest where the reader will find it difficult to stop reading?

14. Of the total number of pages in the manuscript, how many show the hero and heroine interacting together? How many show them in the same room but not interacting?
What is the longest time (in page count) that the hero and heroine are separated?

15. Does the reader see a relationship developing between hero and heroine? How much time—how many pages—do they spend kissing/flirting/making love? fighting? just talking? Do the hero and heroine get cozy too quickly?

16. Are the love scenes appropriate to the type of romance? To the personalities of the characters? To their circumstances (for instance, the amount of privacy the couple has)?

17. Is sexual tension maintained throughout the story? When do we see attraction between the characters? Is the sexual tension diminished or increased by the love scenes?

18. Do the main characters themselves bring about the ending without the interference or manipulation of other characters? How do they do so?

19. Is the ending satisfying? Are the good guys rewarded and the bad guys punished? Are all the loose ends tied up and all the puzzles solved?

20. Will the reader care what happens to these characters?


Every time I’ve had a project bog down (and after eighty books I’ve had plenty of experience in the swamp), it has been for one of five simple reasons. Furthermore, in every unsuccessful, unpublished romance novel I’ve read in contests or classes, at least one of the Big Five has poked up its head.

So if you’re having doubts, or your story doesn’t seem to be working, take a look at these five possible causes.


There isn’t really a conflict, or the conflict between the main characters is a misunderstanding rather than real disagreement about substantial issues.

The romance is not the plot—and so a story which features two people who are fighting an overwhelming attraction to each other, but doing nothing else, is unlikely to hold up for the necessary number of chapters.

Real conflict involves important issues. What’s at stake? What do both hero and heroine want, but only one can have? What do they both want so badly they have to work together to get it?
When you have real conflict, your characters have lots to talk about. When you don’t, they may argue till doomsday but their conversation doesn’t lead anywhere.

Symptoms of this malady include:

Circular argument. A real discussion will develop, and the characters’ convictions will waver and change as the antagonists explain their positions. (If it’s only a misunderstanding, explaining their positions would solve the problem in chapter one.)

Characters who argue but don’t simply talk to each other.

Coincidental interruptions. Just as hero and heroine are about to get to the truth, the phone rings or someone comes to the door or another character happens to say something that perpetuates the wrong impression—so the misunderstanding lives on for another day. While it’s a common plot device, if you’re using it regularly, the underlying conflict is probably too weak to support the story.

Not enough at stake. The characters’ goals aren’t important enough to make the reader believe that they deserve a story. I know women who get bent out of shape about their husbands’ shirts and ties not matching, but I don’t want to read about them.

Unrelated disasters. Throwing in earthquakes, car accidents, and broken bones fills space but seldom develops conflict or advances the plot. Does every incident move the story forward?


The hero and heroine aren’t realistic and sympathetic characters, or they aren’t behaving in realistic ways.

If the heroine’s past experience with the other woman has shown that the other woman is a liar, but the heroine believes her anyway, we have a main character who is not only illogical but downright aggravating. If a character is a cop who, when he’s off-duty, doesn’t observer his surroundings, he’s acting unrealistically. If hero and heroine act on their very first meeting as if they’ve known and hated each other for years, they’re not believable characters. If they behave badly toward each other throughout the story, especially without adequate reason, they’re not sympathetic. If they show nothing but distaste for each other until they fall into each other’s arms on the last page, they’re neither sympathetic nor believable.

Symptoms of this malady include:

A heroine you wouldn’t want to befriend. If she isn’t someone you’d want to know, odds are your reader won’t either.

A hero you wouldn’t want to be married to. (Notice that I didn’t say a hero you wouldn’t fall in love with. Being attracted to someone is one thing, but he has to be more than handsome and sexy to have lasting appeal.)

Characters who are out of balance. If the hero is aggressive and the heroine weak, or the heroine is pushy and the hero passive, the story is apt to trail off. In a good pairing of characters, the hero and heroine will be roughly equal in strength and assertiveness.

Telling the reader about the characters instead of showing them in action. If they’re not realistic, sympathetic, and believable, it will be difficult to bring them to life—and thus easier to write about them rather than show them interacting.

Unmotivated opposition. The hero shouldn’t try to prevent the heroine from getting what she wants (or vice-versa) simply to be nasty. Both characters are more sympathetic if there’s a good reason for their opposition to one another.

Wandering or unclear viewpoint. It’s hard to identify with more than one character at a time, especially if it isn’t clear whose head we’re supposed to be in, and the result is often a lack of sympathy for all the characters.

Too much internalization. We hear all about the character’s thoughts—more than we want to know—but we don’t have any reason to care.

Cutting sarcasm, or arguments which are filled with anger to the exclusion of opinions and logic. When name-calling takes place, it’s hard to like any of the people who are involved.


There isn’t anything forcing the main characters to stay in the situation.

If he dislikes her (even though he thinks she has a great body), and she detests him (even though he’s quite a hunk), why doesn’t one or the other of them just walk away? In real life, when we encounter people we don’t like, we tend to avoid them unless we’re forced by such things as business or family ties to deal with them. The same is true of heroes and heroines.
What makes it necessary for the hero and heroine to stay in contact long enough to discover their attraction? If you can’t state in one sentence why your hero and heroine need each other, perhaps the force needs redefining.

Symptoms of this malady include:

Hero and heroine who have little to say to each other. If they’re talking about nothing, maybe they need more of a reason to be together.

Characters who are motivated to oppose each other by petty irritation rather than by real issues. Are they just sniping at each other rather than discussing a substantial problem?
Characters who are too cozy and comfortable together. If they get along so well, what’s keeping them from solving the main problem?

Hero and heroine are often separated. If they’re not in the same physical space, they’re not forced to interact. If the hero and heroine are apart, thinking about each other rather than being actively involved, how can their feelings for each other develop?


The romance is not kept at the heart of the book.

The other parts of the novel—the mystery of the missing money, the child in need, the past history of hero or heroine, the sub-plot involving secondary characters—are sometimes more fun and are often easier to write than the real-time interaction between the main characters. But the reader wants to see a developing relationship—fondness, trust, liking—between the characters. The rest of the story, crucial as it is, serves as the background for the romance.

Symptoms of this malady include:

Main characters who don’t seem to have anything to talk about, or who argue rather than ever just talking.

Hero and heroine are often separated by the circumstances of the plot.

The plot is over-complex. Too many events or too much space spent explaining the details of the missing money or the child in need means less time for developing the relationship.

There are too many people in scenes. Even in a packed auditorium, you can isolate your two main characters by moving them off to a corner or letting them carry on a whispered private exchange. If they aren’t alone together, it’s more difficult for feelings to develop.

Getting off the track. Side issues become more important than the main story, and everybody—author, characters, and reader—forgets what the goal of the scene was. Or we get the family history and in-depth views of secondary characters, distracting us from the main story.

Interference by other characters. Whether this is intended to create trouble between the hero and heroine or to bring them together, it takes the focus off the main relationship. The hero and heroine should solve their own problems.


The story isn’t well-told.

The author hasn’t been able to put words on the page in a spellbinding way. The actual words on the paper do not convey to the reader the images which the author saw as she wrote.

She may be summarizing her story, telling it instead of showing it. Or the sentences may simply not be clear, so the reader has to deduce what the author meant. Or she’s left out details necessary for the reader’s understanding. Or the action may be shown in the wrong order, leading to reader confusion.

Symptoms of this malady include:

Slow starts. The first chapter might consist of the heroine reflecting on her past and what has brought her to this stage in her life. Often this is valuable information, but it’s in the wrong place. By starting with action instead, you give the reader a reason to care about the character, and then she’ll sit still to hear about the roots of the problem.

Peaceful endings. Chapters or scenes which end with the heroine drifting off to sleep without a care are a wonderful place for the reader to do the same thing.

Rushed dramatic action. Watch out for clues like “later”, “after a few minutes”, “when she’d had a chance to think it over” and other indications that the reader is being told rather than shown what happened.

Wandering viewpoint. The POV shifts back and forth for no good reason, or it’s difficult even to figure out who the viewpoint characters is.

Random dialogue. Instead of giving important information, the dialogue focuses on everyday detail (lots of “Hello” and “Goodbye” and “How do you like your coffee?”)

Below-standard grammar and mechanics. Anything which takes the reader’s attention off the story and forces her to figure out what the author really meant makes it easier for her to put the book down.


When it’s time to actually do the work of revising, here are some techniques to try.
Give yourself a break. Don’t try to write and edit in the same session. The two jobs are very different, and trying to switch back and forth can drive you crazy and make you think that there’s something wrong with a section that in fact is perfectly fine.

Give it a rest. Let your writing sit for a few days, if you can—without looking at it—before you try to decide what’s good and not-so-good about it. The more distance from the writing, the more able you’ll be to forget the wonderful things you were thinking while you wrote it and look at it from the reader’s perspective.

Use hard copy. A few rare people can edit efficiently on the computer screen, but for most of us the words have more reality when they’re printed on paper. It’s more final and more important—and difficulties (not only typos but story problems) stand out more clearly in a hard copy.

Read it fast. When in doubt about whether a story is working, lock up your pens and just read it straight through. You’re trying to absorb the whole story so that inconsistencies and plot holes can’t elude you. I often take the manuscript onto the treadmill—since I can’t make notes while I’m walking, I’m forced to just read, without fiddling and getting distracted by details.

Read it onto tape. The act of reading a section aloud will tell you whether your dialogue is natural (if it isn’t, you’ll find yourself changing the words, or else you’ll feel stiff). Listening to the tape will help you tell if the story pacing is good, if the characters are likeable, and if the point of view is straight. If you were listening to this tale as you drove across country, would it keep you on your toes or put you to sleep?

Get out your colored markers. The more the merrier. Highlight dialogue with one color, introspection with another, narrative with a third, attributions with a fourth, description with a fifth. You’ll quickly see whether you’ve overdone the story-telling, internalization, attribution, or description, and whether the proportions of the manuscript are right. If there’s a lot of dialogue in the first half but less in the last half, you may have shifted from showing your story to telling it.

State your conflict in one sentence. What exactly do your hero and heroine disagree about? If you can’t state their major reason for opposition succinctly, you may have a lack of conflict or a misunderstanding instead of a real conflict.

State your force in one sentence. What’s keeping them from walking out on each other? Why do they need each other?

Keep a time sheet. The longer I work on a section of the story, the more boring it seems. But sometimes it’s not the action that’s getting tired, it’s just me getting tired of the action because it’s been taking up so much of my time. By keeping track of the actual time I spend on each scene, I can keep myself from getting discouraged when the story doesn’t move along as fast as I’d like.

Leigh Michaels is the author of 80 contemporary romances published by Harlequin Books and is a six-time RITA finalist in Best Traditional. She is also the author of On Writing Romance (Writers Digest Books, 2007) from which this workshop is adapted. She teaches romance writing classes on the Internet through Gotham Writers’ Workshop,


Chicki said...

Leigh, I'm jumping up and down right now because these twenty questions are just what I need to inspect my manuscript before I upload to my online critique group. Thanks SO much!

Rae L. said...

This is an awesome workshop, Leigh! I'm currently editing one of my manuscripts and your twenty questions and checklist are very helpful in helping me think about the story's focus. I'm definitely going to refer back to it when editing my other manuscripts in the future. Many thanks from me as well!


Kathy said...

Awesome! Thanks these tips are very helpful and I will use them all. I've got more work to do on my WIP :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh
Your workshop is great, the twenty questions are a great help & a good way of stepping back from your MS & reading it as a reader not a writer.

Rose said...

Hi Leigh:
This is great information. One question though. Say if you wrote and published the book, sold 4,000 copies and now the book is two years old. You read it later and find some editing issues, maybe one or two things,or the beginning might be slow, should you revise at this late date?

La-Tessa said...

Leigh, thanks for this great info. I am in the outlining stages of my WIP and I will use these guidlines to help shape my thinking and writing.

Leigh Michaels said...

Hi, everybody! I'm just getting started this morning but with coffee in hand, I'm planning to be in and out here most of the day.

I'm so glad that you're enjoying the workshop and finding the Twenty Questions useful!

Rose, your question about what do to about a book that's already published depends a bit on how it was published. If you did it yourself and still have the rights, you can certainly revise at this time and republish it. If you sold the rights to a publisher, then any revision would have to be done through the publisher, and it's unlikely they'd do so.

The bigger question, though, is whether it's a good idea -- and I think it's probably better to use the knowledge you've gained to make the next book better, leaving this one alone.

A case in point: One of my very early books has a whole list of mechanical problems (point of view switches, etc.) but it's still a favorite book with lots of readers, and to "fix" the problems would really annoy the readers who love it as is, flaws and all... and there are classic romances by other authors that I love too, despite the warts and the things that I know -- intellectually, as an instructor -- are "wrong".

So I say leave it alone, and work on the next book.

I'll be checking in regularly, and I'm really looking forward to spending the day with you all.

Leigh Michaels

ON WRITING ROMANCE, Writers Digest Books, 2007

MzLynn said...

Hi Leigh,
Thank you for all of the great information! I'm currently in the process of editing a story and the checklist that you provide will be a big help to me.

Amanda C. said...

Thanks Leigh!

This is definitely going to help me when I revise my current WIP!

Vicki M. Taylor said...

Leigh, congratulations on an awesome career. 80 books is remarkable!!

I enjoyed your workshop and will keep your techniques in mind as I edit my next manuscript.


Patricia W. said...

Hi Leigh!

I took your romance writing class over at the now defunct Barnes & Noble University back in 2001. I didn't know anything but you made me feel as though I could do this one day, if I kept plugging.

Thanks for weighing in here with a motherlode of help on editing/revisions.

A couple of questions:
1) How do you know when a story has too much going on?

2) Do the hero and heroine in the romance each need to struggle with separate external conflicts?

Leigh Michaels said...

Oh, good questions, Patricia. There's too much going on in a story when the events don't all fit together -- when they aren't part of a coherent plan. If a character doesn't affect the main situation between the hero/heroine, then the character shouldn't be there. If the event doesn't change the outcome somehow, then the event shouldn't be there.

That's the short, glib answer, and of course it's never quite that easy. When I critique manuscripts, one of the questions I ask most often in the margin is, "Is this important?" -- does George affect the plot; is the dog bite a turning point; is the conversation about the hero's mother a hint or foreshadowing? If not, then maybe it's just taking up space on the page and it shouldn't be there.

As for both hero and heroine having external conflicts -- they should both have external conflicts (I also call them short-term problems, which helps some writers visualize the sort of difficulty we're talking about). Sometimes they have different external problems, sometimes it's the same problem and they share it.

When they each have a separate need (she needs tuition money, he needs a fake fiance), then they're often able to swap -- she plays the role of his fiance, he pays her tuition. But the problems are always related somehow.

Does that help?

I'm glad you enjoyed the BN classes -- I was really sorry to see that opportunity disappear, but I'm happy to still be teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop. In fact, we'll be offering a Master Class soon in romance writing, something that students have been asking for.

Happy writing,
ON WRITING ROMANCE, Writers Digest Books, 2007

V. Smith said...

Great Tips.
The self-critiquer's tool kit is something a writer must use to edit their own work.

V. Smith

Rudelle Thomas said...

This is good information! I don't write romance although I'm a hopeless romantic and I love to read a good love story, but many of these tips can be used in any genre. Also there's been some great questions asked that I probably wouldn't have thought of but am finding the answers very helpful to me. Thanks everyone!

Rudelle Thomas

Trisha said...

Hi, Leigh,

Thanks for a great lecture!

Do you have any thoughts about editing for length--when it's too short? Most length-editing advice is about cutting, but I seem to need stretching advice. (grin)

Thanks for being here.


Leigh Michaels said...

Oh, good point, Trisha. When something's too short, it's tempting to just pad -- to use six words to say something where three would do, or to say something again in another way.

But it's a lot better to look for ways to develop the characters further, and to add complexity to the problems.

Maybe you've got the problem being solved in one or two steps (heroine sees a problem, has an idea, tries it, it works). But how about adding a couple of failures? If she tries several things before one works, then not only is the story deeper and more appealing, but the suspense is stronger and the relief is bigger when she finally succeeds.

A good way to start here is to go back to the characters and ask yourself more questions about them -- especially why they're like they are. You may not want to use all the past history (that can really drag a story down) but asking "why" can often lead you to characters who don't act like stereotypes, and the more interesting they are, the farther the reader will follow them.

Another place to look is detail. When we write a scene, we see it clearly in our heads -- but have we told the reader what we see? what we hear? what we smell? Have we told the reader when a new character comes into the room, or when our heroine does something or moves to another room?

We don't want to use tons and tons of details, and drown the reader in them, but stop and think -- if you weren't the author, would you be able to see what's going on from the words on the page?

Story-showing takes more words than story-telling does. When we paint the picture so the reader can see it herself, rather than telling her about it, lack of length won't be one of our problems. :-)

Happy writing,

Leigh Michaels said...

Rudelle, you're so right -- the techniques of good writing are useful across the board, not just in romance. Every novel is about relationships -- it might not be love, exactly, or happy-ever-after, but how men and women relate to each other is pretty much the subject of every book ever written!

Trisha said...

Thanks, Leigh!


Karen said...

Hi, Leigh
Thanks for all of the great information. The twenty points will help me with my current project. I'm writing a short story. It opens with dialogue. Here are my questions:
1. Should I describe where I am (my surroundings) before or after the dialouge.
2. Is it okay to name real places in my story?

Anonymous said...


this lecture could not have come at a greater time. I am doing a first draft, and this lecture was a godsend. Question: let's say hero and heroine got into romance early on, but because of the war, heroine is taken prisoner, and hero sets out to rescue her (while heroine tries to save herself). Can you still garner interest?

Leigh Michaels said...

A lot of writers suggest diving right into dialogue because it plunges the reader into the action, but I've never been a fan of that approach -- I think starting with someone talking, when the reader doesn't know who it is or where they are or what's going on, is risky. I prefer stories to set the stage --but VERY briefly -- giving just enough context so the reader has a clue where she's starting. So instead of the first line being,

"What the dickens is going on here?"

I personally prefer,

Janey planted both hands on her hips. "What the dickens is going on here?"

With the second example, we know just enough that we can begin to form a picture.

Too much description can be deadly, but adding some along with action and dialogue will help the reader see what's going on. What's your heroine doing while she's talking? Pacing? Cleaning up the kitchen? Doing her toenails? That tells us about the character as well as giving us help in forming a mental picture.

Real places -- it's often better to fictionalize, because real places change. Think Twin Towers -- would you like to have had your heroine admiring the skyline view from the top in a book written before 9/11 but released afterward?

Also if you want to say anything unkind (the restaurant was dirty, the waitstaff was rude) it's smart to make up a place rather than name a real one. But if it's a big city, and you're using it in general terms, then yes, use the real place.

Barbara, your story will be a bit of a challenge because the hero and heroine are separated by the circumstances of the plot -- she's captive, he's trying to rescue her. So you might look for ways to increase the reader's sense that there's contact between them. That could even be having them think about shared episodes in the past. But it will be a tougher sell, because we can't see a romance developing if the two main characters aren't together.

Happy writing,
ON WRITING ROMANCE, from Writers Digest Books, 2007

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Leigh.

LaShaunda said...


Excellent workshops. Thanks so much for presenting it.

Question: Any tips on improving conflicts.

ladystorm said...

This is great information especially for a beginner like myself. Thanks for sharing.

Leigh Michaels said...

Improving conflict is probably the toughest part of revising, Lashaunda. We all tend to go easy on our characters, because we don't like conflict and tension in real life... but raising the stakes is really important. Making the price higher for the character means that the reader is more involved too, and it keeps her turning pages.

The key question here is, "How can this situation get worse?" We don't want to add other stuff, just random troubles -- but how can the situation we've already got become more intense, more scary, more important, more tense?

I've enjoyed the workshop -- of course I'll stop in again before it's over but wanted to tell you all how much fun it's been!

Happy writing,
Leigh Michaels
ON WRITING ROMANCE Writers Digest Books, 2007

Shelia E. Lipsey said...

Leigh, this is sooooooo informative! It will help me with the completion of my manuscripts. It's always good to learn new things that can perfect our writing craft. This will definitely make things easier for me when I write and it will also serve as an important tool when I edit other writers' works.

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