Writing Advice of the Week: Change is Hard (but Necessary)

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When you think about making a big change, how do you feel?

Changing anything — be it your lifestyle, your relationship, your career, your daily habits, or your story — is uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel good. In fact, it can be overwhelming, stressful, and downright frustrating if the change isn’t approached in a sustainable manner suited to you and your needs and goals.

When I started learning drum beats, I didn’t start by sitting down at a kit and whacking away at the skins. I started with the rudiments, the basics, and strengthened my muscles to support my learning over time.

When writing your story, you’re doing something similar. Even if you sit at your keyboard and smash away, you’re getting down the rudimentary information that comprises the bulk of your story: Characters, plot events, settings, and perspective. When you strengthen your writing muscles, you refine those smashed-out words to pull out and highlight the themes in your story, manage the pacing, massage the tone and mood, and share your message.

Knowing that sustainable change is important is one thing. Putting sustainability into practice, however, is something else entirely. But sustainable change begins with a single step, carefully selected, to get you on the right path.

Prompted by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly

Going forward, “fine” isn’t good enough

The status quo is a real beast, especially when it comes to a drafted story. There’s something about that shitty first draft (or even the second or third or fourth) that, though unrefined and unpolished, makes the heart sing.

Those early attempts at wrangling the story hit the blood-pumper hard because they teach you something about your writing and your process. They are gifts you give yourself when in pursuit of a story. And while those early drafts are just fine to set you up for solid revisions, “fine” isn’t good enough when the time comes to get your story into the world. Your story deserves better than fine, and your readers crave better.

Getting beyond “fine” to “good” or even “great” is a slow-and-steady process that calls for a forward-thinking mindset:

Change is not a one-and-done decision

Remember that editing is out; revision is in. Step back and consider specific aspects of your story in granular detail before you make any changes. This is important, and I like to think of it like courting your story, getting to know it first, seeing what makes it tick before you pop the question.

If you begin making changes without thinking through all the logical means and ends of those changes, it’s possible to write or revise yourself into a hole. And once you’re in the hole, it becomes extra challenging to write yourself out of it. Avoid digging the hole by disallowing yourself to touch that manuscript until you know exactly why and how you’re going to approach it.

Is the purpose of your story clear, the message relayed? Are the characters well-rounded and diverse? Can you follow their dialogue without tags? Does the plot make sense, and is it believable? Are you missing important settings, moments, or key scenes? And have you revisited comparable titles to gain a sense of how other writers may have tackled their stories?

In short, there’s much to be done before you make those all-important changes. So, plan first and revise second.

Know the path before you walk it

When I work with authors through revisions, I encourage revising for perspective first. Why? The perspective voice of the story typically runs throughout.

If your story is written in the third-person point of view with a single perspective voice, for example, switching to first person isn’t exactly a cake-walk. More than simply updating pronouns, changing the narrative perspective also includes knowing how deeply to get into that perspective character’s head to notice what they notice, hear what they hear, and observe what they observe drawing from their life experiences, values, principles, traumas, and more.

And perspective is but one of the four storytelling rudiments and is as important as your plot events, characters, and settings. Starting with the rudiments of your story will allow you to see the inner workings of the piece, so when you get to those second-level changes and refinements, you can make those changes comfortably, knowing the story’s foundation won’t crumble.

Make a list of the changes you want to make by category. Rudimentary changes come first, followed by second-level changes, then third-level changes.

Avoid too many changes at once

Change begets change, and it’s amazing how one tiny change in the first paragraph or chapter can lead to huge changes later in the story. Too many changes at once lead to overwhelm, fast. When you’re staring down a laundry-list of changes (carefully selected ones from your mindset work), it’s important to organize them and work through those changes in passes.

For a book-sized work, it makes sense to draft in at least five passes. Here’s an example of what that can look like:

  • Rudimentary changes:
    • Pass 1 – Perspective and characters
    • Pass 2 – Plot and settings
  • Second-level changes:
    • Pass 3 – Cliffhangers, hooks, and pacing
    • Pass 4 – Themes and message
  • Third-level changes:

Stay the course long term

Have you ever decided to re-arrange a room? I’m a chronic re-arranger; it brings me deep joy to refresh my home space periodically. But when I begin the process, the house always seems to get messier before it gets neater. Changing a story is similarly messy.

Just like you need to move the shelf before you put the books back on it, you’ll move the big stuff in your story before you add the small touches and details. But while all the small stuff is waiting for its turn on the change-train, it’ll get cluttered — in your mind and on the page.

Clutter is a perfectly natural and normal part of storytelling, and as you make those changes systematically, you’ll put the important stuff back in its place or in a new place, and you’ll probably add a few items to the trash bin too.

As it changes, your once-shiny manuscript won’t look so shiny anymore. Don’t let the mess scare you from making progress, though, because the reward for staying the course is a refreshed and refined story.

TL;DR: Change is manageable when approached sustainably

Define your changes before you revise to avoid overwhelming yourself and your manuscript.

So, how do you define sustainable change for your story? Let me know in the comments!

Happy writing.

<3 Fal

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Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

2 thoughts on “Writing Advice of the Week: Change is Hard (but Necessary)”

  1. “So, how do you define sustainable change for your story?”

    Thanks for a very fine article. I like the term “sustainable” for describing how to view revision. In my own work, I have found each draft brings a more focused creativity to my story, but there is definitely a point where I look at it and wonder what more needs to be done/said/seen. I intend to ask myself now “Is it sustainable?” meaning therefore does it really hold fully my creative intention in an authentic way?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Regina. It’s possible to try revising too much at once and muddle the whole piece, so when you reach that point where you’re asking yourself what more needs to be done, it may be the right time to call in a beta reader or request a manuscript assessment. I love the reframing you included at the end: Does it really hold fully my creative intention in an authentic way? Yes!

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