Revision is hard. I get it. It’s really hard.
It’s one of the top reasons I think writers quit writing and give up on ever getting published. It’s also one of those top reasons that writers end up insecure. After all, if you shared your first draft with someone, most likely all you heard was criticism or useless praise.
And because this is the first Wednesday of the month, it’s time for Insecure Writers’ Support Group–the first of 2016! So welcome to all those IWSG members here to commiserate with other insecure writers. If you’re here on your own and happen to be feeling a little insecure today, jump over to IWSG, where you can meet other real writers just like you, who might also have an insecurity or two.
But let’s get back to the real subject today. And let me start by telling you a little secret: Every writer has to revise. No writer writes perfect first drafts.
Even after multiple revisions, your story may not be ready to be published. But that doesn’t make it a bad story. That just means it needs a little more polish.
That’s why I’m going to be talking about revision this month. Because it’s usually not fun, and it certainly doesn’t give you the “high” that writing does. But it’s absolutely necessary if you want to publish a book.
A lot of people participated in National Novel Writing Month last November. I was one of approximately half a million people that attempted to write a 50K word novel in 30 days, and I was one of about 40K that won. Does that mean that my story is publishable? Heck no. Absolutely positively, no. And you know what? I actually used NaNo 2015 for a second draft–and that second draft still isn’t publishable. In fact, I anticipate at least two more rounds of revisions. One after my beta readers are done with it, and one after I get it back from an editor.
We revise because it’s next to impossible to write a publishable first draft. (Now I say that assuming you haven’t written a 300-page outline prior to writing your 301-page book.) But writing is the fun part, the part where we engage our creativity and put down whatever enters our head on page 15 without a whole lot of thought for page 150. So when you do get all the way to page 301, and type “the end,” you may have a meandering pile of…well, you know.
So what’s a writer to do? Revise. Because if you ever want anyone to read it and enjoy it, you’d best have a plot that doesn’t meander all the way around the block when you’re just walking next door.
So we’ve established that revising is absolutely necessary. But how on earth do you start?
I’ve learned the art of revision the hard way. I’ve learned it by rewriting my drafts until I was sick of them and finally gave up on some. I learned it by writing a frantically fast first draft (NaNo anyone?) and then realized that by pushing myself through that draft, I didn’t do myself a lot of favors.
So over the years, I’ve created a revision checklist that I do every time I finish a first draft.
1. Let it rest.
If you start editing as soon as you type “the end,” you won’t have enough distance from the story to make your story better. The only way to get fresh eyes for your manuscript is to walk away from it for awhile. If you let it rest (weeks is good, months is better if you have the time), when you come back, you’ll be astonished at what you see. Perhaps it’s good astonishment, perhaps it’s bad. But you’ll see it with clarity you never would have seen had you started editing right after finishing your first draft.
2. Reread the entire book with minimal comments or highlights.
This is the point where, after letting your book rest, you come back to the story and look at it with fresh eyes. Is there a gaping plot hole? Does your character have blue eyes on page 4 and hazel eyes on page 100? This is where you should be noting mostly the main things though, mainly concerned with plot and pacing.
Does the first half of your book really drag? Or is it too fast and does the second part drag? Why? Is it because of that career subplot you have going on that doesn’t advance the plot and is forgotten halfway through the book?
3. Make the developmental big changes that need to happen.
At this point it’s important to resist the urge to correct every sentence. There will be a time for that later. Right now, however, you want to get the plot and all the big stuff figured out. It’s possible that entire chapters will be cut, and you don’t want to waste a week making that chapter shine only to cut it later. Do pay attention to timeline issues, character development/arcs, character motivations, scene motivations, pacing, etc.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you are satisfied with the overall story and it feels strong.
Yes. Repeat. Every step. Until you’re happy with the overall story. Only then should you move on to step 5.
5. Read each scene and go through with an eye for details this time.
Here you don’t have to start at the beginning, nor do you need to let the story rest. Seek out clichés, over-usage of words, spelling errors, grammatical errors, etc., and make changes as necessary. Every writer has their “crutch” words, and they will probably be different for each story you write. But keep a list handy of the ones you tend to overuse (things like was, had, just, very, suddenly, among others), and cut them or reword them whenever possible.
6. Send to beta readers.
Finally. This is what you write for, right? To share it with others? Well this is the point to get feedback. Share it with a small part of the world–a part that you trust so that you can make your story even better.
7. Work on something else.
It’s best, while you’re waiting on responses, to work on something other than this story. Let it go for a little while so that you can face it fresh again after you get feedback (and so that the feedback doesn’t hurt quite as much).
8. Make changes from beta readers.
Undoubtedly, if you chose your beta readers well, they will notice some small (or big) things that need to be changed. Make those changes–if you agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, and there are plenty of reasons not to agree with every reader, then don’t make those changes.
9. Send to editor.
Even after all these steps? I hear you asking. Yes. Even after all these steps, all these edits. You still need a new set of eyes–one that is trained to notice weaknesses and strengths in a story.
10. Make changes.
Your editor, if you found a good one, should have plenty for you to change. Again, if you don’t agree with the edits, then don’t make the changes, or at the very least, question them. But you should weigh these edits with more weight than a beta reader’s.
11. Repeat steps 5-10 until your work shines.
Yep. Repeat. You’re starting to hate me, aren’t you?
12. Seek agent/publisher.
Here it is, the point you’ve been waiting for. Find those agents. Send it out. Wait for your responses.
It’s so simple, isn’t it?
Obviously if you’re self-publishing, there are a lot of steps within this publishing point that you’ll have to tackle, but this isn’t the place to discuss that. Instead, at this point, you’ve done most of what you can (besides the changes your agent and editor want). Now it’s time to sit back and…wait.
This month, I’ll be tackling revisions in a couple of my works, as well as discussing the subject on my blog.
Revising is part of writing, and although I used to hate it, now I love to see how my work changes for the better after every revision. It’s encouraging to look at your novel along the way and see how far it’s come. No longer is it a diamond that only an expert would recognize, but it’s a polished, glistening gem that you’re proud to wear on your finger, around your neck, or in your ears. And, because you’ve spent so much time polishing it, it’s going to catch others’ eyes as well.