Some authors love to draft stories but find revision agonizing; others drag their way through getting words on paper but spread their creative wings as they cut and prune and flesh out the story. What is revision, anyway? How is it different from writing a draft or polishing the final product? How do writers do it? I asked several of Book View’s Café’s seasoned pros to share some of their secrets.
Deborah: How do you approach revising a book?
Judith: I prefer to revise than to write first draft. Revision is my reward for slogging through the draft. Since I do most of my “prewriting” either in notes or in my head, and generally have my plot either outlined or again, clear in my head, my drafts tend to be very spare but pretty much complete. My editor will usually tell me to expand; I’ve never had to cut, I’ve always had to add. Sometimes a lot.
Of cuss the editorial letter can make me say bad words, because in my dreams I submit a perfect draft that needs no more than a light waft of proofreading before it bursts out upon the world. In reality, if I’m lucky, I don’t have to add or change much. If I’m not…well, there was that time I had to rewrite the whole thing with a different but much more appropriate protagonist. Or the time I had to add 50,000 words. Or…
What makes revision different from polishing or rewriting, or is there a difference?
Revision for me is what I do after I’ve received outside input. Usually that’s the editorial letter. I don’t use beta readers in general; have pulled in a reader once in a while for expert advice or clear-eyed input, but mostly it’s just me and my ms. until it meets its editor.
Do you work things out in your head, work only from the manuscript (and if so, on the computer or a printed hard copy), some combination of both?
I work on the computer with my editorial letter in hand, with however many passes the ms. needs. Picky stuff first (wording, clarifications, continuity notes, etc.). While I’m going through to get the small stuff cleared up, the back of my mind is mulling over the big stuff: expansion of character roles, plot elements, worldbuilding notes, and so on. Those get done in waves as I can handle them.
I try to find the spot where a change or expansion has the maximum effect. A change in a word or a line at the exact right place can resonate through the whole ms. That’s the dream change.
Or, doing the minimum required to make the book work according to my vision and the editor’s input. It’s the lazy writer’s technique, and if I do it right, it makes a huge difference to the quality of the work.
Do you write out takes, read sections aloud?
Nope. I try to make every word count. No exploratory drafts. Sometimes I’ll have an outtake in draft, when I go off in the wrong direction, but by the time the editor sees it, I’ll be adding rather than subtracting.
Reading existing text aloud doesn’t work for me, though I’ll often speak the words as I type draft or revision.
What advice, if any, would you give a beginning writer?
No one’s work is perfect. No one’s. Expect to revise. Embrace it. Stay true to your idea, don’t let it be gutted by wrongheaded input, but also be open to what your editor has to say. She’s probably right–or if she’s not, what she has to say might show you how to make your work better anyway.
In connection with this: Let your draft be as messy as it needs to be; just get it on the page in the way that best serves the project and your individual process. Revision is where you worry about cleaning it up and making it shine.
What’s been the most useful thing another writer has taught you?
Every process is different. Every writer has her own individual way of getting a project written and revised. There’s no wrong way to do it–just a whole lot of different ways to make it happen.
Judith Tarr has been a World Fantasy Award nominee for her Alexander the Great novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and won the Crawford Award for her Hound and the Falcon trilogy. She also writes as Caitlin Brennan (The Mountain’s Call and sequels) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose and sequels). Caitlin published House of the Star, a magical-horse novel. When she is not working on her latest novel or story, she is breeding, raising, and training Lipizzan horses on her farm near Tucson, Arizona.
Patricia Rice: Since I edit and revise the whole time I draft, I need serious distance after I’m done. I prefer having trusted critique partners read over the material and tell me places they think I ran astray. By the time they’re done, the book fog has lifted and I have new direction.
I think of “editing” as a process of correcting errors — some maybe large. “Revising” is a more global level of “this character isn’t developed” or “this plot ain’t workin’.” Revising almost always has to be done on a computer because the revision works its way through the whole draft. Revising may be realizing I pulled back on the conflict and require that entire scenes be thrown out, replaced, or reworked. I usually end up with four or five drafts before I can do the real editing. Some of the revision process is the middle-of-the-night brainstorm. Much of it is asking myself questions or following the guidance of my critiquers in hunting down problems.
If I’m at editing stage, then reading aloud or printing the pages will help me “see” details that I can’t see when I’m in the midst of the revision thicket.
I’m willing to procrastinate at any level!
With several million books in print and New York Times and USA Today’s bestseller lists under her belt, former CPA Patricia Rice writes romance, mystery, and urban fantasy. Her books have won numerous awards, including the RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice and Career Achievement Awards. She has also been honored as a Romance Writers of America RITA® finalist in the historical, regency and contemporary categories.
Marie Brennan:There are two core statements that sum up my view of revision:
1) It’s a spectrum, and
2) It’s an iterative process.
By the first, I mean that revising a story can mean anything from fiddling with commas all the way up to throwing out the text and starting over — though I tend to refer to the latter as “rewriting” rather than “revision.” There are no clear boundaries between these levels, either, and I rarely do just one at a time: even if I’m going through trying to cut down a scene for better pacing, I’ll add bits here and there to make the text flow better, or delete a paragraph and replace it with something else to fix an issue of characterization. (The main exception is when I’m going through page proofs for a book before publication. Then I have to limit myself to only the smallest of prose changes, for purely logistical reasons.)
By “iterative,” I mean that revision often proceeds in multiple stages, and is almost never completely done. There are always more changes I could make, little places (or big ones) where I could improve the story later on. I’ve only written one story in my career where I feel there is nothing else I can do to polish it — but the story in question is only 376 words long. At lengths beyond that, perfection is impossible to attain.
It’s hard for me to say what my revision process looks like, because lately it’s been changing. For years I would write my way through the book from beginning to end; then I would print it out (in a format I call the miniscript) and go through two rounds of edits. The first was the “chainsaw edit,” done with a red pen, and aimed at macro-level issues like pacing, continuity, characterization, and so forth. The second was the “line edit,” done with a green pen, and aimed at polishing the prose. Straightforward, relatively efficient, and it served me well.
But of course it wasn’t really that simple. I would often start off a session by reading through the previous night’s work (or multiple nights’ worth), and of course I would tweak things as I did so. Sometimes I’d realize that what I’d written really didn’t work, and then I had to delete it and replace it. One of my novels didn’t even get a miniscript edit right away, though I printed it out for posterity; I knew the first draft was sufficiently bad that the only way to approach the process was to open a new file and start the book over again. With later books, I found myself having to pull out entire strands of plot and replace them before I could move forward in the story, or running close enough to my deadline that I had to start revision while still writing the end of the book. The fourth Memoir of Lady Trent is the first novel in my career I didn’t print a miniscript for, because I wound up doing 90% of the revision onscreen before I was done with the draft.
It will probably get a miniscript soon, though, because I’ll be revising the book again, this time with editorial feedback. And fundamentally, I read differently — better — when the text is on the page than when it’s on the screen. I am not enough of a scientist to tell you why this is, but I pay closer attention to the page, see things that would slip past if they were just pixels. This is why I still have a copy-edited manuscript mailed to me, rather than handling everything through Track Changes. (Well, that and the fact that I don’t use Microsoft Word, and would rather open my veins with a rusty spoon than start.)
I don’t claim my approach to revision is the best, in terms of either results or efficiency. Other people have methods for single-pass revision, or always polish as they go, or habitually throw out their first draft and redo the entire book. If there’s one habit I would recommend to every writer, though, it’s reading your text out loud. I do this with all short stories, and I even try to do it during copy-edits for novels, because there is nothing else in the world that will make you as aware of your words. You’ll find the places where your sentence structure is awkward, where you overuse a particular word or create a distracting rhyme. You’ll spot errors that would glide right under your radar in silent reading. And while you’re at it, you’ll probably improve your ability to perform readings for an audience — a useful skill for a writer to have.
Fundamentally, though, there’s only one rule: make it as good as you can in the time you have.
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She has most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Memoirs of Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk, and two more to come). She is also the author of the Onyx Court historical fantasy series (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire), the doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy, and more than forty short stories.
When she’s not obsessing over historical details too minute for anybody but her to care about, she practices shorin-ryu karate and pretends to be other people in role-playing games (which sometimes find their way into her writing).