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02 May 2010 @ 10:17 pm
The Art of Revising a Novel  
 "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?
allreballreb on May 3rd, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
Ooooh, very useful stuff. Thanks for the round-up!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on May 3rd, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
Wow Chris!! What an awesome summary of revision techniques!! Which is great - because it seems like I am in a perpetual state of revision on something!
chris_brodien on May 3rd, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks allreb and Kiki!

Fascinating suggestions from everyone! I plan to use lots of them!

I seem to always be revising too... is there ever an end to it? I think Maureen Johnson's phrase "the endless revision" is so true - I never feel as if a manuscript is totally finished. (I only stop to meet my deadlines!)

Jackiefabulousfrock on May 3rd, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
I tend to hit some point in the middle of a first draft where I know the characters a lot better than when I started, and I have to go back and fix the first half according to this new knowledge.

Besides that, I write a first draft straight through in order (with a bit of tweaking along the way maybe) and then I usually work on another project for a couple weeks and come back to it. Like Megan, I make a scene-by-scene outline to get the big picture.
chris_brodien on May 3rd, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
I agree about getting to know the characters better and going back to flesh them in! I do the same. As much as I try to avoid outlines, at least at the beginning, I think a loose outline helps keep your book on track.

I'm tempted to try some of these other techniques too! I love the shrunken manuscript concept. And reading it out loud! I'm curious about Scrivener: does it help with the revision process? Anyone out there in addition to Malinda who uses it?
annastanannastan on May 3rd, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
It's so interesting to see how other people go about revising. My approach is very similar to Deva's - I revise as I go and then, after getting some feedback, work on the whole manuscript. I'm tempted to try out some of these other techniques, though.
A Deserving Porcupinerockinlibrarian on May 3rd, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
I think I like revising more than I like writing from scratch! Like you I was kind of horrified by the idea of revision when I was younger, at least when it came to school assignments, but by high school I had already taken a book I'd written when I was 11 and decided to Completely Rewrite it using all the brilliant new things I'd learned about writing since then... and then I rewrote that same book in college... and a few years ago... and it's still hanging out, just in case I ever find a way to make the ending Not Suck.... Anyway, through most of my adult life I'd been rewriting and revising and polishing up old ideas. Now I have a Brand New Idea, but it's been so long since I've started from scratch that I've been stuck on my blank pages, wishing I had something down so I could REVISE it instead of trying to write it for the first time!

Sometimes I wonder if I should have been an editor.
katecoombs on May 7th, 2010 05:18 am (UTC)
RockinL--Heehee. I'm sure you'd be a fabulous editor, but I'm still pulling for your BNI!
chris_brodien on May 3rd, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
Cindy you're absolutely right, revision is a highly individual process and our approach is bound to change over time and may be different with different novels. Makes sense.

Revision is way easier, I agree, than starting out a book from scratch. That blank page is very scary.
Caroline Hootonhooton on May 7th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
I'm in the home strait (finally!) of revisions for my agent at the moment, which is why I didn't provide a pre-comment.

My approach in a combination of Deva's and Stephen King's (but the latter is a result of circumstance rather than design). It took about 6 weeks for my agent to get comments through to me on my manuscript after she read the whole thing because I managed to deliver it before Frankfurt and during a negotiation for another client.

That time was invaluable because it meant I could distance myself from the text and think about things that I wasn't completely happy about with the story (e.g. I knew that the ending had to change). When the agent comments came in, I thought about them for about a week to see what I agreed with and what I disagreed with (very little of the latter as we're on the same wavelength) and then started the revisions keeping all those comments in mind.

Most of the initial work was to get the word count down and having put that distance between me and the manuscript, it is amazing how much you realize you can strike out on the revision (not just words, whole paragraphs and in one case, an entire section got cut because it was slowing the pace). It also makes you rethink the characters and their relationship with each other, allowing you to hone in on inconsistencies - I know others here have mentioned physical mistakes but it's also how characters interact with each other, how they speak, how they think.

With the rewrites, I'm doing rolling revisions so I start each session by reviewing the stuff I wrote the session before. I find it helps to print it out 2 pages to a side of paper so it looks like I'm reading a book (because a girl can dream) as it makes spotting obvious reptitions in words etc easier (e.g. I have a case of "but-itis" where I use it as a qualifier to a statement when the narration is stronger without it). I revise in pencil and then type it up and tend to add another 1000 to 1500 words, which get reviewed in turn over the next session.
chris_brodien on May 7th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks Caroline! I think getting that distance from the manuscript can make all the difference. I'm experiencing a similar situation with a manuscript that my editor has had for some months. Probably a good thing since, like you, I wasn't totally happy with it and I know the ending has to change.
I'm a fan of the rolling revisions too. Distancing and rolling sound like a good balance!
vonnacarter on May 9th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
I LOVE reading everyone's different approaches to her process. It's fun that all of you have put this into one post so we can hear each of you as if we were sitting around having coffee. What an intriguing conversation!