Friday, August 24, 2012

Revising to Raise the Stakes

By Aimee L. Salter, @AimeeLSalter

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Aimee L. Salter to the blog today to share some recent revisions she made and what gave her the inspiration to do that major reworking on her novel. Aimee is one of those social networking success stories for me. I followed a link to her blog, tweeted one of her posts, we started chatting on Twitter and before I knew it, I had another writer pal to gab with online. (and have here on the blog) So, yeah, that Twitter thing does actually work (grin).

Aimee is the author behind Seeking the Write Life, a blog for writers helping writers make their books better. Visit for practical tips to improve your manuscript, or follow Aimee on twitter at

Take it away Aimee...

On the sixth of March this year my book changed.

At the time I was steeped in revisions for a manuscript I’d been working on for a full year. I knew the premise was good, but I’d been slamming my head against the proverbial wall for three months trying to dig out the nugget that would help the book live up to the concept.

Then I read a blogpost by Janice titled: "What's at Stake? How Do You Make Readers Care About Your Story?"

Among other things, she made this statement:
As you create your stakes for your characters, don't just look at the plot side of things. Think about how those stakes affect your protagonist. Do you care about this character and what happens to them, or are you just running them through a gauntlet of problems to illustrate a plot idea? If it doesn't affect you to put them in danger and cause them trouble (either hurt you or make you giggle in glee), then why should a reader feel any more emotion?
And asked this question:
What sacrifice does your protagonist have to make for everything to turn out okay?
And that’s where I found my nugget.

You see, in my book, that question is what the protagonist battles from page one. If she would just give up on her love for her best friend, then she could probably live a relatively peaceful, successful life. But that’s a sacrifice she isn’t willing to make.

As the author, I know her determination is going to bring her to physical and emotional ruin. But at the time I read this blogpost, that physical and emotional ruin wasn’t apparent until the end of the story.

If I didn’t hook readers in the first few pages, they’d never learn what really happened to Stacy.

So… I read and re-read the blog post, pulling notes out on the points that resonated with the problems I was having. I emailed myself the link (it’s still in my inbox for quick access). And I asked the most basic question:

What could I do with the opening chapter of my book to show the reader what was really at stake for my main character, Stacy?

Answer: Bring the opening pages into the present day. Show the reader what Stacy’s dealing with after all the crud has happened. Show her talking to the psychologist who’s trying to keep her locked up in a secure psyche ward. Show her dealing with the physical injuries she sustained.

Then let the book tell the reader how she got there.

I had to rewrite about a third of the book. Old, transitional and info-dump scenes were replaced by analytical sessions with the doctor. The last fifty pages of the book were re-written in their entirety. The original climax became the crisis leading up to the ultimate climax…the list goes on.

But what I ended up with was a superior book. A book that garnered a 30% hit rate in querying agents.

Only time will tell if the book is superior enough, but I learned some things through that process that are beneficial to anyone currently revising:

1. Trust your gut.

If there are scenes in your book that you skim when re-reading, the reader will skim them too. If there are plot points, or passages that you have a hunch aren’t working, they aren’t. Do what it takes to fix them.

2. It can take time to find a solution.

We artistic types can be impatient. Our burgeoning creations feel like children: We want them to grow. We want them to succeed. But just like real-life parenting, creation of a great product takes work. Don’t stop looking, asking questions, investigating, trying potential solutions. Keep going.

3. Don’t let your pride get in the way of a good book.

I think the hardest thing about writing is that your success is, inevitably, wrapped up in other people’s opinions. Whether you’re looking for an agent to pick it up, or readers to buy it in their online stores, in the end, your product will be measured by eyes other than your own. Acceptance of this fact (and the willingness to listen to others who’ve already traversed that bridge), will make the road easier… and likely, more successful.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep coming back here for the excellent advice offered here. Maybe your nugget is buried in these pages too.


  1. I seem to find these amazing nuggets all through Janice's posts! Somehow every time I see a new post in my reader, it contains something I'm struggling with. Today is no exception! Your post just helped me figure out why I'm stuck at a certain point and can't get past it.

    Thank you! :)

  2. Holy crap I would read that book RIGHT NOW!

    I love your breakthrough. I often find the big awesome event I want the book to lead up to should actually be beginning of the book. >_<

    Awesome post!

  3. I remember that post too! And I love your tips. Raise the Stakes--is my new motto.

  4. @Wen - Yay for break-throughs!

    @Elizabeth - Thanks :)

    @Angela - Me too!

  5. Awe-some! For you...I mean. How cool that a few words could take you in a whole new (and wonderful) direction. Even if it meant a lot of work.

    And Thank you for sharing. That is so cool. I have had great "Aha!" moments through Janice's blog, but not nearly as dramatic.

    Best of Luck!

  6. Such good advice from both of you. Janice your original post also had a big impact on me - and has helped me focus my writing. Now I actively consider the stakes every time I write a scene.

    Aimee thanks for reminding me to trust those instincts. If we can accept the truth about where our writing is lacking, and put in the hard yards to do it well - it always pays off. Best of luck bringing your book to print.

  7. Thanks Amelia and Raewyn. It's nice to know I'm not alone in needing those sparks from other (better) writers than myself.

  8. 'Remember it can take time' that's a bit of advice I should put on a sticky note somewhere. :)

  9. I remember that same post and asked myself those questions too. In my heart, I knew I had parts of my book that needed something. It was increased stakes.

    I've rewritten about 50,000 words in the rewrite. I kept some of the original but increased the STAKES. I cut out all the back story and approached it differently.

    I am on the last four chapters now. I hope I've written a much stronger book that readers will love and not be able to put down.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Well, now you've introduced me to another blog where I can glean some great advice.

    Excellent post, Aimee, showing us how you had to come to terms with the delemma of how to get your book back on the right track!

  11. Thanks Aimee and Janice. So many of us have these aha! moments when reading this blog :)

  12. Aw, I love Aimee Salter, she's great. People, if you need some help with plot and content critique of your book, Aimee is the person. And thanks to you as always Janice for inspiring so many of us!

  13. Aimee, your 'aha' moment sounds excellent and while I was intrigued by your book's premise before, now I'm desperate to read it!

    Janice, I'll be hovering here on your blog for a while, soaking up all of the brilliance that Aimee's speaking about! :-)

  14. Well, there goes my plan to be lazy in my writing. Thanks a lot Aimee! I can't dislike you for writing such an excellent post, though I'm tempted. Seriously, the stakes issue is one I struggled with (and am still struggling with) in my WIP. Sigh. I need to go back and see if I need to rewrite more than a third.

  15. Cally, hover away, the more the merrier :)