“I don’t fart glitter and unicorns.”
-Maggie Steifvater from her blog.
I’ve recently finished a draft of my next book. Yay! (The title and subject shall remain secret for now. Ooh, aren’t you curious?) It’s a wonderful feeling to write the words “The End” after so many hours of struggling to find the threads of your story, the right words, the right beginnings and endings, and the right characters needed to tell the story. It’s a rush and I love it. But anyone who has every written a book, or at least attempted to, understand that first drafts almost always suck. Even if the individual sentences are brilliant, there is such broad scope in a novel; themes and character arcs we have to develop, plot threads that need more weaving, pacing and dialogue and structure that needs finessing. It’s a lot more work than just writing the words.
That work is called revision.
For me, revision is the real work of writing, but it is also the real joy of writing. It’s a mercy really, that the first thing I write doesn’t have to remain, that I don’t have to share it with the world until I (and many others) feel it’s ready. Because really, settling on a first draft would be like going on American Idol when you’re half-way dressed and you sing out of tune, and honestly who does that? Wait a second…
I don’t have a huge elaborate revision process I always stick to. I like to leave room for different things depending on what’s needed, but here are a few things that I usually always do:
Let it rest. One of the best things you can do for your writing is to get away from it. We need distance for good perspective. When you are writing you have your nose to your book, so to speak, and only taking time away from it can you step back and get any sense for the big picture. I almost always try to stay away from my manuscript for a good month, more if I can help it. I catch up on reading and all the chores I’ve been ignoring in the name of “work.” [Evil grin.]
Print and pen. I always print out a copy of my manuscript and revise with a pen, scratching notes in the margins, crossing out huge chunks or deciding that chapter 8 should really be chapter 2. I know it’s not environmentally friendly, but it seriously helps and I recycle, okay?
Beta-readers. This is probably the most painful, yet most valuable part of my revision process. It’s hard to hand off a piece of writing that I know is still very rough, choppy, maybe even incoherent. Imagine inviting friends over for dinner and, despite the magnificent feast you took great pains to create, dinner is undercooked and bland. Sending a manuscript to readers feels like that. But there comes a time when you will need to let other people into your process. Even with the distance you gain by letting your work rest, you are still too close to your own writing to see all the problems and holes. What is very apparent in your imagination is not always what comes out on the page. Timing of letting people read your work is also very important. Get beta readers too early or too late and it can do more harm than good. I usually seek beta-readers after one revision of the rough draft. It’s somewhat painful to get that initial feedback, but probably the most helpful in terms of moving forward and really improving my book.
Gather questions, seek answers. While you can get great ideas and helpful hints from your readers, the greatest value they can give you is to ask questions and share their reactions at any given point in your story. I love to hear when they were excited or intrigued, because that makes me feel I’m on the right track, but it’s also
painful helpful when they point out where they were confused or bored or disappointed. Right now I’m in the stage of gathering feedback from readers and making a list of questions. Sometimes I get great suggestions of how I should answer those questions or problems, but more often than not, I have to search and brainstorm for my own answers. It’s usually best if it comes from you anyway.
Triage. In the medical world, triage is used to sort victims and decide which injuries and problems need attention first, and which can wait. I use a similar concept in revision, though it’s not always easy for me to see which element needs attention first and which can wait. (So many things feel equally important to me.) I usually focus on the larger plot elements first, making sure the story itself makes sense, and then I zero in on things like characterization and setting and dialogue and transitions, giving each separate focus. I line edit throughout my entire process. I can’t help it.
Patience. Again, nothing will be great the first round, and maybe not even the second or third, but have patience. Allow things to simmer and develop and you’ll be amazed at the wonders of good revision. That’s when the glitter comes.
Is it obvious what’s on my mind right now? I just got feedback from my husband on my latest manuscript and I’m trying to process. Also I’m still trying to ignore household chores in the name of “work.” [Really evil grin.]