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the writer's arsenal: revision--because seeing it once isn't enough


There are a lot of blogs covering the topic of revisions at the moment. It makes sense given that December is usually when writers who completed a novel in November are either adding on (since 50k is a little shy of a proper novel, MG and some YA aside) or fixing up the ramble-fest they  created during the feverdream that is NaNoWriMo.

I'm not going to retread too much on what's already been said. In fact, there's an excellent rundown of revision tips over at the YA Highway with advice from several reputable agents. Oh, and they've got another great post here. And here.

But I do have a few thoughts on revisions that I'd like to share. These are from personal experience, both revising my own work and going through the editing process on the work of others. Take what you will from them.

It's time to get our revise-on!

Revision

The word itself is thrown around easily, like so many other writing terms. Plotting. Character Motivation. Conflict. But we rarely think of it in its basic sense. Re-vision. You had a vision (your story idea) and you ran with it. Now you're going to go back and take a second look, with a fresh set of eyes. At some point in your revision process, the fresh set of eyes will be an older and wiser version of yourself. At another point, they should be an actual fresh set of eyes (as in, not you; as in, somebody who can read your work critically and give you valuable feedback, which you'll take to heart---and we'll cover in a future post). Regardless of whose eyes are on the page, the experience needs to be an actual re-vision of your original idea. What's here that shouldn't be? What's missing? Well-crafted stories don't just arrive that way, straight out the gate. They need to be revisited, they need to be rethought. Sometimes you can't see the problems in what you've written until after it's all there, teetering unsteadily on a plot that needs to be tightened. To revise is to take a look at your story as a whole and figure out which parts should look differently than they do.

Never Marry an Idea on the First Date

Stories are living things. At least, stories that are still being written are. They grow, they change, and this is a good thing. Sometimes we become attached to our initial plot developments/characters/scene ideas and we cling to them desperately, even when we realize something's not working. There's a little voice in our head suddenly telling us things would make more sense if we headed in a different direction, one that wasn't part of our initial outline. That little voice is your inner-reader. That little voice shouldn't be ignored. It knows from experience what good stories should be. Sometimes it's heartbreaking to give up on a plot thread you deemed brilliant back when you first thought of it, but if that plot thread no longer fits now that your story has taken shape, it needs to go. You shouldn't hang onto something just because it was part of your initial plan. As people grow, their needs change. This is true of stories too. The first 10k of a story has very different needs than a finished first draft. The finished first draft needs you to let go of those early ideas that no longer have a place. Don't leave them in just because they're familiar. They're novel writing baggage. They need to be dumped.

The Voice, The Habits and The Ugly

I've written before about how characters will take on a voice--a life--of their own if you let them. The more you write, the more fully formed they become. They start telling you how they'd react to a given situation. Their voices become authentic, unique, and their dialogue flows because you know just what they'd say. It's a wonderful thing when this happens, both as a writer and a reader. It makes your characters real. When you're revising, it's important to remember that the character you eventually found a voice for, didn't necessarily have such a strong personality from the start. Think of the beginning of your book like it's the pilot episode of a TV series (you know, that initial episode you go back and re-watch and it feels awkward because none of the characters you've come to know and love are really acting like the characters you've come to know and love). The beginning of a story doesn't know what the end of the story knows. You have to go back and inform it. It's very important to revisit the start and work heavily on those first several chapters. That's where your writing will be its weakest. Back before you hit your stride. Put a lot of focus on them and help the voice to be consistent all the way through. Working extra hard on tightening up the first third of your book is all the practice you'll need to tidy up the rest :)

The downside of honing your voice as you write is that you can also fall into bad habits. This is where you start to see word repetition. All writers have favourite words and expressions that they use a lot. It's part of your voice and your style, but it's also a problem if it gets out of hand. Keep an eye out for frequently repeating words or overused phrases. Change them up, switch them out or just plain cut them. The writing will flow once these stumbling blocks are gone. Voice is good. Style is good. But variety needs to exist within these things.

A Few Good Tips

Every writer's revision habits are different. You need to find what works best for you. But here are a few extra pointers to get you started:

  • Keep an open mind. This is a process. As long as you keep a clear head and have a passion for your story, nothing you do to it will make it worse. Embrace change as you recognize the need for it. It's work, but it's worth it.
  • Computer screens can make you crazy. If you revise on screen, be sure to take plenty of breaks and rest your eyes. And use track changes. The last thing you want to do is delete chunks you later decide you need back. I make an effort to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but a lot of the time, I can't do a proper revision unless I do it on paper. I see things on a page that I don't see on a screen. This seems to work for a lot of writers. If you plan to revise on hard-copy, use recycled paper to print on and recycle it once more when you're finished (front and back).
  • Tackle it in waves. Your first read-through should be for big picture problems--plot holes, pacing issues, inconsistencies. Tidy up the soul of your book, then go for the body, the meat. The second read can be for typos, grammar, spelling and those sentences that suddenly don't sound so good when you read them out loud. Then do a third read to check your changes. At this point, it should seem much improved and it's probably time to have someone else take a look, to see what issues they can catch.
  • Question everything you've written. Are the characters consistent in their behavior? Do their motivations make sense? Does the timeline make sense? Does the plot flow well? Is there too much exposition? Are you telling instead of showing? Are there parts that drag? How soon into the story does the reader care about the protagonist/plot? (Hint: it should be the first page) Is there enough conflict to keep things interesting? If there's world building, have you kept to the specific rules of the world you've created? Are there any side characters who really don't need to be there? Does every scene drive the story forward? Does every side plot serve a purpose?
  • Save your drafts as different files. This will allow you to revisit that previously mentioned novel writing baggage should you miss it and it'll make it easier for you to move on, knowing it's still somewhere (sure, it's not part of the final draft, but who says you can't still keep it around, like that ex-boyfriend shoebox in your closet, full of letters and mementos). It will also save you a huge headache if you need to recall something you removed in a later draft. And hey, should your novel be published, you've potentially got deleted scenes to share!
  • Finally, take your time. This isn't a race. I know I'm always anxious to reach that finish line, but rushing through the revision process will only leave you with a manuscript that's weaker than it could be if you took the time to nail it down. Take some time away from your manuscript. Let it simmer. Let it breathe. Think about what you've written, your characters, and what they might do in situations outside your story (it will help you to get to know them better, and sometimes they might tell you if something is missing from your novel). 

As I've mentioned, I'm still not finished the first draft of my NaNo novel, in fact, I haven't even looked at it since the last week of November. I've had a very busy past week and the one coming up looks even busier. I know I'll get around to it, and I know I'll eventually be working on revisions. For now, it's kind of nice to be thinking about it without actively working on it. I'm letting everything that I wrote in November settle and I know when I return to it in a week or so, I'll be ready to see it in a different light. Hopefully, my vision for it will be stronger and I can take it places I never imagined back when I started.


What does your revision process look like? Do you have any specific revision habits that work for you?






3 comments:

Jan Morrison said...

A lovely description of the process. I love revision because my first draft is such a messy big ole way to tell myself the story. This first draft is like when my kids were adolescents and would come back from a movie and tell me the plot (while I bit my lip to keep from groaning - nooooo). I'm revising a novel I wrote in a blind heat in the summer (a two month nano)and I'm loving it. Thanks for your good sense!

Jan Morrison said...

I just wrote a bunch so hope that has gone to you - if not - I was thanking you for your clear and helpful description of the revision process. I like revising - which is a damn good thing!

Kate Pawson Studer said...

Thanks for comments, Jan! I'm glad you found the post useful :) I'm also a fan of revisions because I know all too well that a first draft is coming from a stream of consciousness that isn't always as well thought out as it could be--I like your analogy about your kids trying to recap the plot of a movie! First drafts can make for a wonderful foundation, but there's always room for improvement!