Monday, August 24, 2009

Discovering and the Revision Process

I’ve been revising a lot lately, so it’s been on my mind. Because of this, I think I’ve been noticing all the revising stuff that have been coming up in the virtual world lately. It’s funny how the brain takes notice when it sees something relevant, isn’t it? :)

Anyway, a lot of writers are asking about the best way to revise. They’re looking for specific ways of doing this, like cutting X number of words from the first draft, skipping over the first few chapters to where the story supposedly starts, or how to spot spelling and grammatical errors. And, really, it’s great that writers are looking for information. It shows a desire for growth. I just think they’re looking in the wrong place...

First of all, not everyone needs to automatically chop off the first three chapters. Some writers are very good at identifying the story’s true beginning. So if they cut out the first three chapters, they’d be cutting out essential pieces of the story. On that same note, some writers are sparse with words in their first drafts, focusing only on the bare bones of the story. Therefore, setting a goal of cutting words in the next draft is going to hurt rather than help. Instead, that writer needs to add flesh to the bones. Because of this, you need to identify what kind of writer you are before you start taking everyone’s advice.

Next, let’s look at what revision is, as well as what it’s not. Revision is looking at the content of your story to see if it’s telling itself in the best way possible. Once you’ve got that down, *then* you look at your choice of words, sentence structure, and spelling and grammatical stuff. In other words, once you’re finished revising, you polish your manuscript. It doesn’t make sense to polish before, or even during, revision.

So, how do you do this? Well, it’s not easy. And to make things even harder, there’s no formula, or exact way of doing it.

Just like your writing process, your revision process is unique to you – it depends greatly on what kind of writer you are. Do you just sit down and let your words take you on a ride? Do you plan meticulously, knowing every detail before you start writing your story? Somewhere in between?

I’m an in-between kind of writer, probably smack in the middle between ultimate exploration and ultimate planning. I need to know where I’m going, but I don’t want to know the details of how I’m going to get there – except for the beginning. Everything flows downhill, so I have to make sure I’m flowing from the right place, and that I have everything I need. I don’t like to be on a journey, constantly checking my pockets for stuff, and then getting mad when I don’t have it. So, I revise the first chapter heavily before I even move on to the second chapter. After that, I don’t revise much (only big stuff) until I’ve finished the entire draft. I guess you could say I’m sort of a revise-as-I-go kind of writer. With some exceptions.

But what if you’re not that kind of writer? That just means you have a different set of parameters when it comes to revision. Those parameters will be determined by how you wrote your first draft, so it’s impossible to create a comprehensive process that will work for everyone. Fortunately, there are parameters that everyone needs to incorporate in some way, shape, or form. Most are in the revision checklist I wrote last year, but here are two more.

All writers need distance from their work. Without it, we can’t obtain the necessary objectivity to see our work for what it is. Is it truly the masterpiece we thought when we wrote the first draft? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth fixing. Putting time and distance between you and your manuscript will let you see the areas that need work, as well as the areas that don’t need much work.

Big stuff before the small stuff.
Once you’ve finished a draft, take a good look at the overall story. Does it flow well? Is everything absolutely necessary? Is there enough tension? Does the story have the appropriate shape? Looking at these big pieces before you agonize over word choice will save you down the road. What if you spend weeks perfecting a scene, only to have to cut it in the end? After you’re happy with how the story fits together, then you can work on the smaller pieces.

There are other things you need, of course, and it depends greatly on what kind of writer you are. That said, no matter what kind of writer you are, your revising process is probably going to vary widely depending on your current project. I’ve written and revised four books so far – though it feels more like six, since I’ve rewritten and revised one of those books three times, basically starting from scratch each time. And, with each book, the writing and revision processes have been different. I imagine the same thing will happen with my next book, and the next, and the next, and so on. And, to me, that’s part of what keeps writing so interesting. :)


Keri Mikulski said...

I find revision processes fascinating too. Thanks for sharing. :)

christine M said...

I find I revise a lot more than I do anything else. I think time is essential. You have to step back from the story long enough to be able to view it with a slightly unbiased eye. There are plenty of scenes I've loved - and other people have loved - that have ended up getting cut because ultimately they really didn't fit the story.

Revising is hard - but rewarding.

This was a great post! Thanks!

C.R. Evers said...

revisions are a strange bird, aren't they. I never seen to do it exactly the same way twice.

Windy said...

Thanks for your insight on this. I've been revising a lot recently also and have noticed the seemingly sudden spike of revision related posts on the inter-webs.

The one thing I have to agree with you on is TIME. Taking the step back and letting the writing sit for a while, untouched so you really can go back with fresh eyes.

Tabitha said...

Keri - isn't it fascinating? So much fun to explore. :)

Chris - same here. My first draft is usually pretty quick, but I spend LOTS of time revising. I've heard it said from multiple sources that a writer isn't measured by the writing, but by the revising. Those words really resonate with me.

Christy - they sure are. :) I don't do it the same, either, but I also don't seem to write the same. So I guess it makes sense. :)

WindyA - time sure is essential. Without it, we'd always be too close to our work to see it for what it really is. And only when we see it that way can we fix the broken parts. :)

Nayuleska said...

All very true. Revising...varies. It really does. Some wips have had more revisions than others. Starting to get a littl emore accurate as to how not to start a story off :)

Windy said...

Tabitha, forgot to mention to you to stop by my blog when you've got a minute! There's an award for you - thanks so much for all your insights!

Tabitha said...

Yuna - you hit it exactly. As you grow as a writer, your process grows too. And I think the best part about writing is that you're *always* growing, so your process will always be changing to meet your needs. Cool, huh?

WindyA - wow, thanks! That was so sweet! :) And I'm glad you enjoy my blog. :)

Anonymous said...

This is wild; I just put up my own post about revision yesterday.

I agree that the method varies by the writer; there's no "right way" to revise.

Danyelle L. said...

Amen! That's the amazing thing--we all do it differently, and sometimes differently depending on the story. Some come out cleaner than others. I like how you pointed out that since we all write differently, our revisions are going to be different too. :D

Tabitha said...

Jenn - I saw that and chuckled to myself. I guess we were sharing a brain wave. :)

Danyelle - that's what I love most about writing. Our stories come from unique individuals, so no two are ever going to be the same. Likewise, it's unlikely that the process will be the same, either. The coolness of that brings out the writer-geek in me. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I've ended up revising a few various ways depending on which ms I'm working on. But like you said, the one thing that there is no substitute for is time to gain objectivity.

Rebecca Knight said...

Too true! One funny thing about taking time away, is that often while I'm revising I'll start to see everything as Crap, because I become too close to it, and burned out.

When I take the time I need mid-revision, I can go back and see it for what it really is, and not cut something I'd regret later.

It works both ways, for me at least :). Great post!

Tabitha said...

PJ - it's funny how it can vary from project to project, isn't it? When I first started writing, I thought I would do everything the same. I'm glad to know I was wrong. :)

Rebecca - yeah, in those early stages, I see my work as Crap, too. :) I wonder if that's a universal writer thing. :)

Nora MacFarlane said...

I love revising. I tend to go back and revise chapters out of sequence, especially when I get stuck in a WIP. When I'm finished with a WIP, I let it sit, then I do several more rounds of revision. Each round has a specific focus.

J.R. Johansson said...

For me, the revision process absolutely makes a book. I agree with you though, it varies based on the writer and the book. :) Great post!

Christina Farley said...

I am at the end of my revising process- yeah!

I've rewritten so much it isn't funny. But I just printed out the entire novel and will do a full read through and make some more changes. It's a long haul but it's fun.

Tabitha said...

Nora - I love revising, too! I feel that the revising process is when the manuscript really comes alive. That's a great idea to revise chapters out of sequence. I'll bet it gives you an amazing perspective...think I'll have to try it. :)

Jenn - so, so true. There is so much that goes into a book that I could never get it all right in the first try. For that reason, I love revision. It's what gives my manuscript life. :)

Christina - that's great!!! It sure is a long haul, but so worth it when it's done, isn't it? :)

Mary Witzl said...

Another excellent and useful post.

Up until very recently (as in one week ago) I hated revising. It depressed me to have to go back over things I felt were good enough and rethink them. But I've been tackling my latest MS (with a little help, including yours!) and you are right about getting distance: I can now see where transitions don't work, where my protagonist is acting out of character or reacting in a way that doesn't make sense. And I know that good enough isn't enough when it comes to concocting a really great story.