My Revision Process

Organizing Revision

I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.

After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.

It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.

I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.

The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”

After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)

I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.

After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.

If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.

Messy Manuscript Revision

Am in the middle of revising and things are chaotic. Actually had to buy a monitor because of all the cut and paste and rearranging going on. The little laptop screen was just not getting the job done.

This is normal for a novel drafted in a month with daily word counts. I shall not panic. I will, as Jennifer Cruise says, protect the work. Jenny is my go-to guide for revision, both the process and how to fit it into life when things feel a bit frayed. I’m at the point just now where I feel like one tug and the fabric might become a mess of threads that don’t make whole cloth.

Tortured metaphors aside, I have a few things I do in times like this (besides the unwise decision to buy new electronics during Mercury retrograde, but that’s another story). I cut back my schedule to bare bones. Make a commitment to show up at my desk every day. I don’t give up, take days off, or skip away to social media. Or if I do…I come right back.

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I protect the work. I make it primary. I also outline, create a calendar, and micro-manage my plot. This time the plot was lopsided. My original goal was not big enough to sustain my interest for the entire novel (and if it can’t sustain my interest it will not click with the critique group or those distant readers in the future) so late in the story I added a layer to the plot. This new layer greatly improved things but it made the structure wobble.

Paper clips and turning points (Jenny on turning points) are my friends as I read the entire manuscript, outline the way the scenes need to be realigned, consult my story calendar to keep sequence of events straight. I spread the entire book (in paper-clipped scene-sized chunks) all over the floor. Then I stack them up front to back. Every day I take the next paper-clipped scene and move it to its new position within the document. I’m not so much concerned with the loose threads that need to be edited to smooth things out at the end–I can catch those in the next read through, after the book is re-ordered in some semblance of how it appears in my head.

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The bonus for working daily and consistently on a story this way is that you’ll get little hints and helps. Last night I came up with a solution to a motivation problem. Why should my protagonist care about goal A when goal B is now compelling her action? The answer was elegant and simple and will be easy to incorporate at this point in revision.

When I show up for my work this way, the universe conspires in happy and surprising ways. If you’ve got a mess of a manuscript on your hands, it may help you, too.