The Revisions Process (in three parts)
Part One: On my Theory of Revision
I’ve been asked several times to talk about the process of revision, and it has taken me a long time to get down even these incomplete and partial reflections because the process is so difficult to describe, so hard to quantify, and so individual both for each writer and for different projects by the same writer.
When I think about what I have learned and how I have improved in skill and experience as a writer, most of that improvement revolves not around coming up with ideas or characters or even necessarily interactions between characters. While I hope I have the experience of age in being able to see more nuance and layers in human behavior, I do not think I am “better at” coming up with “ideas” (depending on how you define what an “idea” is in the context of fiction).
What I know, however, is that I have a better grasp of the revisions process.
I know how to look at a scene, or a conversation, or some element or detail within a book, and identify that it needs work or, at the least, that something about it makes me twitchy and uncomfortable, which means it needs work. Then, I can often pick it apart to the point where I can sort how it isn’t working and, through trial and error or in a single flash of authorial brilliance, figure out how to fix it.
I used to prefer writing the first draft, that blast of inspiration that flowed from point A, the beginning, to point B, the end (although I hasten to add that not all writers write their first drafts in a linear fashion). These days, I find the early drafting process far more laborious, perhaps in part because I do a lot more mini revision during the course of the “first” draft than I ever used to do (I call this “the hemidemisemi-draft”).
The writing I now savor is revising.
Revising, once a grinding chore, seems like a joyful and even exhilarating process because during the revisions process I see the story come clean. It’s as if during the drafting process I have to slam it all down no matter how muddy it gets, but when I revise, I make the picture vivid and resonant. With rare exceptions--because there are a few scenes in every book that write so clean on the first pass that I have to do very little work on them later-- the drama, beauty, and emotion of my stories, in so far as I manage that feat at all, I manage through revision.
But how do I revise? How does anyone revise?
I consider this to be an unanswerable question, because the process is too personal and particularized to be universal. I cannot tell you how to revise. I can tell you what has worked for me in the past, what may work for me in the present and future (although one never knows because every book writes and rewrites within a process unique to that individual book), and what I have learned and thought about and acted on and discarded.
You can take from that what you will, but ultimately one of your tasks as a writer is to figure out how your process works, because your process is going to be different from every other writer’s process. At best, you will be relieved to discover similarities and be boggled at differences. It’s all good. In fact, I get the hugest kick out of both the differences and the similarities in writers’ processes. I wouldn’t want us all to work alike according to rules imposed from an outside source. For me, the interest lies in the diversity.
So where do I begin in thinking about revision?
I think the first step in learning to revise is to figure out how you draft.
If you know how you draft, you’ll have a better idea of what you are likely to need to focus on as you revise.
You may have a general way of drafting that you use for all books. You may draft each book or story differently. Either way, it is important to recognize the parts within that process that may tend to leave you open to weaknesses, elisions, gaps, or fuzziness, because those are the first places you can look to see where you need to revise.
Me, I write long. My first drafts sprawl all over the place; conversations meander across hill and dale; I put in too much description and answer the same questions over and over and often in a contradictory manner and I repeat myself. And I repeat myself. More than once.
I often write placeholder scenes or even chapters, which I define as a scene or chapter that doesn’t really work and doesn’t have the right stuff in it but which needs to be there because something important will happen in that scene space once I figure out what it is, and I often can’t figure out what it is until I have the entire first draft written and sometimes not until the second or third draft (for instance, I had a short placeholder chapter in the first draft of Cold Fire that turned into three chapters when I expanded it properly).
Because I know these things are true of my early drafting process, I know that beyond whatever else the story needs--and each story needs a different revision--I will absolutely need to cut, trim, tighten, and sharpen throughout the book. I will have to go back through the whole and bring the heart of the story into focus by identifying scenes or conversations that ramble off the focus on the heart of the story, because I do tend to digress or get interested in that plot whisper over there which suddenly appears so mysterious and inviting. I must also flag places where I repeat information and then consolidate it in the most effective and dramatic fashion.
But your process likely works differently, so you will need to approach revision with a different set of relatively predictable goals.
Maybe you scant description in the first draft and know you generally need to plump up your bare bones draft. Maybe you write scenes out of order and have to thread them together. Maybe your early drafting is more about sounding the depths of the story, and later drafts will likely be completely rewritten versions of some element of the original. Maybe you plot out the book in such detail that writing the first draft is more like setting down an already written story in its full complexity, and what you’re looking for in the redraft is typos, contradictions, and a smooth flow.
Understanding how you draft also tells you how much of the story and character and landscape is known before you begin, in which case your job in the first draft is to get it on the page in the right proportions, and how much is what you are discovering as you write, in which case revising will involve changing earlier chapters to fit later revelations and plot and character shifts. Some writers are hardcore outliners who know it all before they start; some know nothing and learn it all as they go. Many, I expect, fall somewhere between.
What matters, I believe, is to make a realistic assessment from as objective a mindset as possible of your own patterns, strengths, and weaknesses as a writer, so that beyond anything else that might need fixing, you can keep your eyes open for the things that generally trip you up.
But how, I often wonder, can I stay realistic and to some degree objective when I’m often so invested or immersed in my writing?
When it comes to revising, learning how to let go of my precious work has been crucial. To revise properly and effectively I have to be able to step back from the text.
Drafts are provisional.
The statement reveals the essence of revision. If I think of a scene as carved in stone instead of written in sand, then it will be difficult for me to find a way back into looking at it for its weaknesses instead of its strengths.
I see this in two ways.
First case, I often have a vision in my head of a character, a scene, a landscape, an interaction, or what have you, that I have fully invested with emotion or vivid color. Consistently I must step back and ask myself: is what is in my head coming across to the reader, or am I imposing or filling out the drama or complexity of the scene from my own understanding of it which may not be on the page but only in my head.
Second case, because of the way I write, I often write scenes in early drafts, especially involving interactions between characters, whose content or emotional flow must be changed later because
1) I have altered some element of the plot or
2) my understanding or view of the characters themselves has adapted or become more nuanced or
3) I decide I want or need to emphasize a different element or angle of the relationship between/among the characters.
In the second case, I have to be free to change my mind about what I had originally planned for the characters.
In the first case, I need to assess how well I’ve succeeded in getting what’s in my head onto the page instead of projecting my own knowledge onto the scene.
So how do you let go?
Partly it is accepting the fact of imperfection.
There are writers who write incredibly clean first drafts because somehow the way they work results in incredibly clean first drafts. Maybe that’s how their brain processes words--that is, that much of the writing process goes on within the brain and the writing part is simply putting it down. Maybe they have planned and considered the book for months before actually writing it and it has already gone through multiple iterations in their head. Maybe they just do, and there’s no real way to explain why or how. Some things just are.
I’m not that writer.
I’m a visual learner but more than that I’m a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve come to the conclusion I’m also a kinesthetic writer, so the actual physical act of writing, the interaction of writing, alters the words and the story even as I’m writing as well as before and after.
The understanding that my early drafts are imperfect, and that it’s okay that they are, allows me the freedom to feel free to look for what isn’t working yet as well as what is working.
Because here’s the thing. When I first began writing, writing a first draft was easier than revising. In those days, having to revise seemed like failure. Now, knowing how to revise seems like success.
To approach the need for revision as an opportunity for success makes it more of a welcome process than a dreadful one. That helps make it easier to let go.
The Revisions Process: Part Two: What My Own Eyes Look For
Just a reminder as we proceed: Writers work differently. All I am willing to state is that every writer I know has a process that seems to work for her/him. Sometimes that process is the same across all their writing projects and sometimes specific to the course of one project. My comments about revising will focus, naturally, on my own process. Pick and choose what is useful to you.
Do I use beta readers (friends and colleagues who are reading an early draft and giving the author comments on it) and am I given often extensive editorial requests by my editor(s)? Yes.
But my first eyes and my last eyes must always be my own, because ultimately I’m responsible for what is on the page and I’m the one who knows the story, characters, and world best.
How do I know what works and what doesn’t work?
To my mind, it’s always worth considering what works, because what doesn’t work will be the stuff that doesn’t have the intangible or recognizable qualities of the stuff that IS working.
Some of this is instinct, as in “wow, that’s really effective,” and hard to describe. Sometimes I just know. Sometimes the scene just wrote itself because I so fully understood the needs, details, and emotions that all I needed to was put the words down. Yet often I’m wrong. A scene or encounter that works for ME may be a scene that stops a beta reader in her tracks, usually because she’s not in my head and what was in my head didn’t get down on the page.
So, here’s a way I do it (not the only way it can be done).
#1 Divide your consideration of the draft into three (or more, if you wish) scales.
Small (details) scale.
1. Large scale.
Large scale might also be termed the wide angle lens. This is the big ticket vision, the thematic, overall plot and structural element.
If necessary (you don’t have to do this and I usually don’t but I sometimes do), you may want to make an outline of the already written story as a means to judge the structural flow of the story. The outline will deal with how the parts fit together, how they increase or decrease the speed of the pacing, how the opening unfolds, and how the narrative arc pulls together toward the end of the novel.
If you’re a structural or architectural writer, as I am (seeing things within an intellectual framework on this level), elements of the plot that don’t make sense or that belong elsewhere will show up pretty clearly in an outline.
Even if you don’t use an actual outline, considering the story on a large scale--does Jo need to find the magic sword before or after the flood?--helps shape revision.
Thematic considerations come in here, too. If the book seems to be about accepting your new super secret power, then a sideline plot about a demon-hunting assassin may seem out of place thematically unless it ties into what the super secret power is going to be used for in the next book or has some other actual function within the theme of acceptance (etc) or it might be revealed as a sideline that can either be cut entirely or refocused (repurposed?) to illuminate the main story.
2. Medium scale.
Medium scale is what I call a medium angle lens, in which you’re working on the chapter by chapter and scene by scene scale.
Does this chapter flow or drag?
Does the chapter have an internal structure (in the way scenes in a theatrical play have a structure and internal flow)?
Does a scene have its own timing and rhythm? I have some musical training, not a lot but enough that I tend to envision or even “hear” scenes in the same way, for instance, I might hear a piece of music. A scene has a natural length and its own specific rhythm or speed. Not all scenes have the same tempo or pitch or volume. I like to vary the rhythm and length of scenes, and I particularly like to vary the emotional pressure of scenes. I personally can’t take a steady diet of, say, accelerated action or heavy emotional angst; I need some breathing space as I move forward.
Does the scene, an extended conversation between characters, drag, repeat information, or repeat confrontations? Does it build to a natural and exciting pause point or dramatic flashpoint? Having finished the scene, will you want to turn the page to see what happens next, and not just because the albino dude with a gun has just shown up and pulled the trigger?
Do scenes flow together or do they kind of jerk along randomly?
Are scenes from different points of view linked in some way, if one comes after the next, even if that way is simply in a visual or emotional or contextual way that makes it easier for the reader to make the transition from one to the next? That is, how does the end of one scene lead into the next? Huge jarring leaps can often be smoothed out with a little attention to how the scenes relate.
Is there continuity in terms of how scenes are deployed? Are all the scenes the same length? Do you want them to be, or do you want variety in length? Are there always only two characters talking? Is that what you want? Or do you want something else? Does every scene start the same way, in the technical sense--say with a line of dialogue or with a paragraph of scene setting--and is that what you want, or do you want to change it up?
Does every scene feed into what you’re trying to achieve on the large scale?
Does every scene do more than one thing?
“Things” that scenes can do include but are not limited to:
Character revelation or deepening
Understanding or revealing important background or world/story information
A scene really should do more than one thing at a time.
If your slam bang action sequence has no other quality except slam bang action, the chances are that it will read a bit dull.
If it reveals something about a character in the process (Hank is really a coward although he talks big), if it illuminates, sets up, or creates a new character dynamic (in the excitement of the chase, just after they’ve gotten across the bridge before it crashes into the chasm and pause for a second to catch their breath and laugh with that kind of heightened sensitivity midway between fear and relief, Jo and Anna kiss for the first time), that heightens your action.
Humor reveals character and also can lighten cranked up tension or simply make things flow better.
Surprise plot points rachette up tension or make a good break-off for the end of a scene.
World building “reveals” or additions help deepen the sensory and emotional surround in a way that can make the action pop off the page.
These are all ways to look at and consider your scenes.
3. Small scale.
Small scale refers to both the intimate close up shot, as it were, and the actual details you use, how many, and with what purpose and where they come in on the timing and rhythm of a scene. It also includes the actual verbiage, what one might call the line editing, the style, the language, the sentence and paragraph level.
I’ll break this down using three categories.
A. The Intimate Close Up
This can refer to things like character thoughts and moments where the narrative voice is so tightly pulled into the point of view that you’re inside the character really almost or to the exclusion of anything but their immediate thoughts, emotions, needs, and immediate sensory queues.
In this case, revising consists most often of asking yourself: Do I need this information? Does the reader need to know? Does it help elevate or intensify the emotional tension or the physical plot?
And the all important: Can I make this internal material more dramatic by externalizing it?
If Character A thinks “I really hate that guy,” can I have her state it aloud instead of think it? And if so, to whom?
The intimate close up is a useful tool, but it’s not the only vehicle to express thoughts and emotions.
B. Details details details.
The details you choose illuminate your world. They drive your plot. They reveal your character.
Details show what the character sees and considers important. They help create an emotional relationship between characters or between characters and their surroundings.
A reader’s view into your story is through details as well as the action and revealed character.
Now I’m about to say something, and please don’t laugh. Please understand that I tell you this out of bitter experience.
Don’t use five details when two will do better because they will focus the point you’re trying to make or cast a stronger light on the cultural or societal element you wish to reveal at that moment in the plot before you’re not diffusing the impact.
Don’t use two details when one will hit harder and stick in the mind.
And let me be clear: the longer I write, the more I understand that even in a huge long novel, you can use the right details at the right time, and every detail used should be specifically chosen for the place it rests in the story because it does its best work there; it needs to be there.
I know, I know. It’s an obvious statement, but harder to put in practice. Think about WHY that detail, and WHEN.
At the same time, sometimes two details are better than one. Less isn’t always more, although it often is.
One other thing about details:
If you are writing omniscient, then the details you choose will at all times be the ones best deployed at that moment in aid of character, plot, or world-building.
But if you are writing in first person or in tight third person, then the details you choose should always reflect how your character sees and observes the world, what matters to them, and what catches their attention. You can get other things in as well, but it has to be within that framework.
C. The Words.
Figure out what your personal writing faults are. I know some of you have none, but you lot aren’t coming to me for advice on actual writing style on the sentence and paragraph level anyway because I’m not that kind of writer.
I have worked massively hard in the last five years on the line editing level. Just as examples, these are things I work on constantly (you’ll find your own set):
Doubled actions that aren’t necessary: “He turned and walked to the door.” Except in rare circumstances, you don’t need “turned.” He really can just walk to the door.
As above, five details when the two best and most evocative make your point more clear.
On the scene level, mooshy conversations that can be tightened up by examining what the actual point of the conversation is and then sculpting it to that point.
The squoogy words that I take out incessantly but of which there are always more than I can possibly eradicate: like almost very a little but then and so, and so on.
And then, once I’ve done a thorough cut through all the clutter, by having cut through all that, I open up the thicket of words enough that I can find MORE to cut that wasn’t visible before.
I personally probably am not capable of working on all three scales--small, medium, and large--at the same time. I tend to have to settle my large scale issues over the course of Alpha and Beta Drafts before I can tackle the medium and small scales, although the truth is that to some degree I’m always working on the medium and small scales as I read back over things I’ve written and make constant changes as I go.
The Revisions Process: Part Three: I answer two questions re: debut novelists & working with an editor.
I was asked:
Will debut novelists need to implement more editorial changes than an experienced novelist?
I think that depends but on the whole I would say Probably with a side dose of Maybe.
In some cases, a debut novel is one that has been lovingly crafted and revised and re-visioned over many years, down to the smallest detail. Such novels may be polished gems hard to replicate under any other circumstances except those of a novelist who produces a novel (or short fiction) at long intervals. I’m not going to deal with that subset today.
Realistically, a new novelist (not quite the same as a debut novelist, who may have written 20 novels before getting one published) is likely to not have as much experience with the ways of narrative, plot, character, tension, emotional arcs, pacing, using details to enhance the plot, characters, and story, and all those other things that more experienced novelists theoretically have spent years learning how to craft.
The unfortunate truth is: I am a better writer now than I was 20 years ago.
The chances are that you will be, too, with time and words invested.
I say “unfortunate” in this case not because it is a problem--in fact, it is a feature not a bug--but because the disconnect between writing the best work you can at the time you are writing and the idea that it may well still be flawed can be a deep chasm to bridge. I’m still in the process of bridging that chasm, and I expect I always will be. That’s okay. The idea of topping out and reaching my limit scares me far more than revising does. I’m more likely to become obsolete than to become perfect.
So a debut novelist may expect more editorial requests, although s/he may not necessarily get them depending on other circumstances.
In a similar vein, an experienced novelist who is moving sideways, as it were, into a new genre may function in that new genre in a similar fashion to a debut novelist. If I were to write a genuine YA, or a mystery, or a Delta Force thriller, I might expect to see more and a different type of editorial comments than I have grown accustomed to writing in my comfort zone of sff.
I still expect to get significant editorial requests. Partly this has to do with the fact that I have not yet written a perfect novel (see cage match between perfection and obsolescence, above). It likely also has something to do with how I work in the general sense. Maybe I’m a fairly sloppy early draft writer; maybe there are readers out there who, reading any one of my books, shake their heads and mutter to themselves, “man, this could have used at least one more revision and probably four,” not to mention the readers who wonder why such crap got published to begin with, but they’re not on my side, so let us allow them to retire to greener pastures and get on with their lives elsewhere unsullied by my flaws.
I revise a lot. On the whole, most writers I know also revise a lot. This is not a flaw. I think of it as a strength.
What if the author is really able to justify why they’ve written something a certain way?
Well, sure. I’ve done this myself, but I have learned to be cautious about this and to take a long hard look at a critical comment in such contexts before I try to justify my version as the better one.
There are several reasons for this.
One is pragmatic and can be summed up as:
Choose your fights.
Not every disagreement is worth challenging. You are showing respect for your editor’s skills and experience by listening to her/him. That doesn’t mean you have to roll over and do everything you’re told. It just means it is better to be someone who is good to work with rather than difficult to work with. And believe me, if you challenge every suggestion your editor makes, you’re being difficult to work with. Unless your editor is simply incompetent, in which case you need to be asking yourself why you are working with a publisher who would employ an incompetent editor, or you should ask if you simply are so much the wrong fit for this person that you and your book would be better off elsewhere.
Furthermore, make sure that if you stand your ground and refuse to change something that it is really truly worth refusing to change. If you’ve built up good will by being pleasant and hardworking beforehand, you’ll have a better chance of making a convincing case for when you do say, “I think the way I’ve written that is the best way.”
I’ll give one example. I revise a lot, and I listen to my editors, although that doesn’t mean I always and necessarily do exactly what they suggest in specific terms. So when we were working on revisions for Crown of Stars, Book 4 (Child of Flame) and my editor at DAW Books said to me, “I think having Sanglant sleep with another woman [while he is separated for about three years from his wife] makes him unsympathetic,” I had built up enough good will via previous work with her to say, “that may be, but the fact is, he has sex with other women for several different reasons.” What I did then was work on making his frustrations with the situation clear, but I did refuse to make him celibate under the circumstances because it went against everything I knew about him as a character. I could refuse to make what was to me a major character change because I hadn’t been fighting over every change, large or small, through all the previous volumes.
Another reason to listen to your editor, however, goes like this:
Experience has taught me that I may be wrong.
Shocking, I know. My children and spouse in particular will be hornswoggled to hear me admit this.
Editors are trained. They see a lot of books. Most editors who stay in the field do so because they know what they’re doing. They have seen it all before.
While it is within the realm of possibility that sometimes the editor is wrong and you are right (see example above, because I was absolutely right about Sanglant), consider carefully as you reflect on the changes you are being asked to make. Stand back as far as you can from your own feelings.
They may actually be right, and you may be wrong.
Bear in mind that being right may mean they have correctly described the problem, or it may mean that they simply have realized there is a problem but can’t quite pin down what it is. So sometimes an editor may make a comment that seems wrong to you but which may be right: right in the sense that it identifies an underlying problem. Figure out what the problem is, and fix that.
In such cases, don’t get stuck on the literal words of the comment. Don’t even get stuck on things that may be wrong in the editor’s comment. Try to see if there is something going on in the background -- maybe something the editor isn’t specifically aware of or isn’t highlighting -- that is an issue worth dealing with, rewriting, or making more clear. Sometimes changing a not so obvious thing clarifies the obvious thing.