"And then, when you are done with your story or book, you get to TAKE IT APART and MAKE IT COOLER. Because now that you've made it once, you can get a good look at the thing and see where improvements and changes are necessary. Then you enter into another time-honored writerly period: namely the endless revision..."-Maureen Johnson - "ASK MJ - WRITING IS COOTIE"
I first heard the word revision in high school, when my English teacher handed back a short story with a B scrawled in red ink across the top and the words "Needs revision." What? He wanted me to go back and write it all over again? No way. I had no idea, back then, that writers revised.
Scroll forward and you'll find me gleefully chopping away at sentences, paragraphs and chapters, manically tearing apart first drafts: I love the revision process!
Some authors revise as they go: Kurt Vonnegut polished each page until he got it exactly right. Justine Larbelestier revised page by page when she wrote LIAR. Stephen King advises putting away your first draft for six weeks. When you finally open the drawer, your manuscript should resemble “an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale.” Now you’re ready to revise, he says, because it will be like reading a stranger’s work, and “it’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
When I asked fellow Inkies their opinions on revision, most agreed with King’s advice on letting the first draft simmer. Yet I quickly realized that each writer has devised her own unique, sometimes quirky, revision methods. This is one of the exciting things about writing: everybody does it a different way!
Here’s what they had to say:
Lisa Gail Green speaks on behalf of “the completely unorganized, non-outlining people like myself who manage to muddle through revision.” She keeps a word file with notes: “These include anything from plot points to character descriptions. When I re-read the manuscript I highlight points in red where it needs work or I want to add/change something; when I go back through, the color difference catches my eye and prompts my memory…If something seems like a huge change, I skip it and come back. I know it's messy, but somehow it works for me and I say be true to yourself and your own.”
Cindy Pon doesn’t outline, but she needs to know Inside Her Head the general direction in which she’s heading. She disagrees with King’s advice and “leaps right back as soon as possible. I don't want that distance because I like the immersion, when I'm eyeball deep in the world…I don't revise with any type of plan. I go through the manuscript front to end and fix it over and over again.” She reads it out loud at least once, finding it “essential to catching things you wouldn't otherwise, especially stilted dialogue.”
Malinda Lo uses Scrivener and swapped her vertical file and folders for a writing journal. “That journal is the center of where I figure out how to revise. It's like I have little discussions with myself on the page. At various points in the revision process I go back through the journal, reading the relevant entries and highlight them to remind myself what I'm doing, and push onward.”
Keely Parrack writes a lousy first draft, revises it instantly, then shares it with her critique group. “I'm very visual so drawing a sketch map of scenes works well. I've also drawn charts: big long paper ones and little yellow star post it-notes…I never go back and look at them once I've finished creating them. I think having a synopsis and a cracking title help in terms of making you realize what needs to be in there and what’s dragging the story down. Sarah Davis of Greenhouse Literacy Agency says don't even start writing until you have a pitch.”
Anne Nesbet consolidates critique letters and editor' s comments into one file as a to-do list. Using both the checklist and a marked-up manuscript, she works through the book, checking off items she fixes them.
“One thing that does help me – and it's ALMOST a ‘trick’ – is to stay alert for that inner feeling of discontent. It's tempting to push through and finish, but there are always those scenes or passages or even lines that some part of you has never been perfectly happy with…I make myself stay fixedly on-task until even the inner discontented perfectionist in me has had to shut up.”
Kiki Hamilton finds having other readers critique the first draft helpful since she’s usually too close to the story to tell what works and what doesn't.
While writing she builds an Excel file containing her notes, thoughts, characters, etc, which is “an ever-evolving tool as I learn more about the craft of writing.” One tab is a Step Outline in spreadsheet form, sorted by chapter; in each chapter she lists the scene location and time of day. She highlights scenes so at a glance she can see the emotions throughout the book. She color-codes by POV and color-codes each character. “Though that may sound organized, a lot of my revising is done at a gut level – how does the story feel to me – what would I want to see as a reader? I go back and read for that, looking to add concrete, specific details.”
Ellen Booraem advocates spending time away from a first draft before revising. She does chapter synopses before revising and charts major plot lines. “Writing a general synopsis of the book helps a lot – especially if you write it as a submission to an editor, so you're trying to sell the story. I find this is a great way to identify places that drag or don't work – if it doesn't pop in the synopsis, probably something's wrong with the story itself.”
While revising her current book, she tried Darcy Pattison's ‘shrunken manuscript’ technique: “Doing whatever it takes, you reduce the manuscript to 30 pages or so. You go through the text with colored highlighters, marking places that fit your concerns: pink for action, purple for suspense, blue for dialogue, etc. Then you spread the book out on the floor and see what colors dominate more than they should.” You can read about this process on Ellen’s blog.
Deva Fagan does rolling revisions as she drafts, revising the previous day's writing before adding anything new. If she senses the book is going off in the wrong direction, she’ll delete big chunks or entire characters. After getting feedback on the finished draft from critique partners, she’s ready for a read-through.
“I assemble a list of any non-sentence-level changes, then delete any large sections that need to be rewritten or removed. I add in notes (using colored font) at the start of each chapter to remind myself of any big-scale changes and synopses of new scenes or replacement chapters...I revise from beginning to end, paying attention to characterization, pacing, word choice. I find I have to hold the story in my head as a complete entity to really revise it.”
Megan Crewe says the most important thing is figuring out what works for you as a writer. “During revisions, I find making a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline immensely helpful. It allows me to get a sense of the entire story in a small space, and to make notes about chapters/scenes where I might want to insert or cut material. If I'm doing a major revision (changing plot events, adjusting character personalities and/or voice), I retype the entire manuscript.” This helps her stay in the flow of the story.
Leah Cypess thinks it’s a good idea to put aside revision letters and/or critiques for a day or two before reacting to them. “That way the suggestions kind of sink in, and you can evaluate them without the automatic ‘don't kill my darlings’ reaction.”
Kate Coombs tends to rush when drafting, “concentrating on dialogue and action at the expense of description. I go back to the draft on the second sweep and add description, making sure I have a setting for each scene and that I've interspersed sensory details with action and dialogue. Otherwise the story floats in space…I also work on transforming any summaries into scenes.” After revising her last book, she read the manuscript out loud. “There are sentences that look fine on paper, but which sound weird when read aloud.”
While working on one WIP she completely rewrote a character who threatened to take over the story from the main character. Usually, however, “I try to let my characters have their heads as far as plot evolution and revision. They come up with better ideas than I would and make the book feel more real as a result.”
Thanks Inkies for all your terrific suggestions! I’m certain our readers will find them extremely helpful too. Inkie Readers – what is your revision process?