Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Art of Revision

I've been doing more reading on revision this week, not just for myself but also for use in class. In trying to distill what you need to revise successfully, I came up with some pointers:

1. You have to read critically - that means read other published work. Books and stories in your genre or form, books outside your genre, any book that might give you a great or bad example of writing. Any book that does a good job of something you struggle with (at the moment, I'm working on deepening character - how to do this with a character who has a very hard outer shell). Read to see how accomplished writers work with words, with character, with plot, with theme. Stop reading just to put yourself to sleep at night and start reading as a writer. Learn from it. If you can't see what makes a great novel great, you'd better study it some more.

2. Find out how you can put distance between you and your writing. That might mean putting your story or novel away for a week, a month, a year, until you can look at it with a critical eye, and not fall in love with your own words again. It might mean reading it out loud to yourself, or onto a tape. It might mean psyching yourself into another mental realm and pretending that the novel wasn't written by you. Whatever works for you, whatever leads to you being able to cut ruthlessly or see where there are gaps and shallowness.

3. Learn to separate the stages of revision. Understand that there is structural revision (the big picture stuff) and revision on a paragraph by paragraph basis. And then there is line editing, on a word by word basis. That's where most people trim and tighten. Understand the difference between re-visioning and revision. Re-visioning means re-imagining your novel, seeing it in a new light, seeing other possibilities for it. That's where distance helps. It's also where mental space helps - it's almost a re-dreaming of your story, and that's not going to happen in half an hour, crammed into the end of the day.

4. Acknowledge to yourself, no matter how hard it might be, that fiddling around the edges and changing a few things here and there is not rewriting. True rewriting is retyping the whole thing from scratch, writing it as a new piece of work. You may refer to the original - some people don't even do that.

5. Only give it to a trusted reader or critique partner/group when you are sure you have done everything you possibly can, or are capable of at this point, to make it the best you can. Don't ask people to critique something that you know you can still work on, or something that is OK for plot but you haven't done the line editing. Why should they spend their time on your punctuation and grammar? Think about what you want or need from the critique. If you want to know if the voice works, say so. Ditto for plot, character, pacing. Make the best use of your critique person's time and energy.

6. Take your critiques seriously. Don't say, "Oh, they weren't good readers, they just didn't get what I was trying to do." If that's the case, that's your fault, not theirs. Take heed of all comments, consider them seriously. Some may be of no use to you. Most should at least raise the question of "Did I do that well enough? Why has that comment been made?" Don't take any critique personally. It's not about you, it's about the story.

7. If you have revised and revised and revised, learn to see when enough is enough. Do you want to revise again because you're too scared to send it out? Or do you really think another revision will help? If you are up to Draft 15, ask yourself what you are doing. Have you really done 15 drafts, or 15 "picking at the edges"? If the story isn't working after 15 drafts, you need to work out why not. You may have to abandon the story. It has still taught you an immense amount along the way. If you have to, let it go. Don't hang everything on one manuscript. Write more. That's what writers do.

8. If you revised a bit, sent it out and have 20 rejections, you have to make a decision. It's probably not publishable in its present state, but maybe only 100 rejections will convince you - how honest are you being about it? Is it fabulous? Is it a manuscript that sings? Or is it competent? Does it need another big revision? Suck it up. Do it. Or start something new.

Note: If it's a story that just won't leave you alone, you should keep working on it until it's fabulous. Otherwise it'll give you nightmares, interrupt your daydreams and intrude on your other writing.


Kristi Holl said...

Sherryl, this is terrific! You really need to submit this as an article somewhere. I know I'm going to print it out myself!

Sherryl said...

I hadn't thought about that - thanks for the suggestion!

Lisa66 said...

Thanks for this timely advice, Sherryl. I have just found out that my ms has made it to the second round of a competition. I sent off a partial to the first round and now must send off the full. I didn't expect to final and haven't fully edited the book yet (oops!). I don't have the luxury of time but will certainly keep your pointsn mind as I do my (very speedy) revision.

D. Robert Pease said...

In #4 you say "True rewriting is retyping the whole thing from scratch, writing it as a new piece of work." Are you suggesting that we should do this when we edit, rewrite the whole thing? I've heard this one other time recently, and it really boggles my mind a bit. Do you think most successful authors do this? Or is it a particular style for that works for some, but not necessarily all?

Sherryl said...

I think it depends on the state of the manuscript and how you write it. I do know a few writers who rewrite as they go, constantly revising, cutting, retyping, chapter by chapter. When they get to the end, unless the whole thing is a failure, they won't retype.
But most writers who genuinely revise do the retyping thing. I do it myself when the novel as a whole has problems that fiddling won't fix. In this I include shallowness, sidetracking, excess or lack of subplots - these are examples of common problems that line editing or fiddling won't fix.
Retyping forces you to fully re-enter the world of the novel again rather than standing at the edges and waving!

Tracey said...

Great points, Sherryl. While I love my wordprocessor and couldn't live without it, I do worry that it means that a lot of writers no longer do the complete rewrite, and I think that's the only way to re-vision a manuscript. Otherwise, you're too locked in to what's on the page -- otherwise, you may address plot issues and patch them rather than really fixing them because to do so might send the book in a whole other direction.

Pre-wordprecessors, writers didn't have much choice. Going from the written word to the typewriter offered the perfect opportunity to redraft. Undoubtedly, some who wrote straight onto typewriter may have left their mss at first draft stage, but most would rewrite. There are of course some now who still consider the end of the first draft the end of the process -- I have a friend, a slow writer who puts enormous amounts of time into each sentence, who has just finished a first draft and is now looking at sending the ms out. I wish he'd consider rewriting or at least editing, but he thinks he's done. (It's his first novel but his short stories are published and win prestigious awards, so his method works for him, at least with smaller projects.)

For me, retyping gets me back into the characters' heads, and I use it as a chance to revisit my characters and their relationships, perhaps more than I do to revise the plot. I like to add new dimensions in their characters in a redraft to give them more depth, but of course this often affects their subsequent behaviour, something I'm equipped to deal with because I'm retyping and not just meandering down already-made paths. This also keeps the writing fresh and interesting for me as a writer.

D. Robert Pease said...

Thanks. I do think I fall in the category of those who rewrite as they go. There isn't a chapter in the book that I haven't rewritten and there are whole sections that I've moved around (and added, and deleted). Perhaps I'll reach the point in the future where I'll rewrite it all at once, but for now this seems to be working.

Thank you for your explanation. I just found your blog, and you've got some really good stuff on here. Keep it up.

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Robert. Glad to have you here!
I'm a first draft runner - I have to keep going without stopping until I reach the end - I don't even have chapter breaks. Consequently there are times when the whole thing has to be started again.
A reasonable first draft for me usually happens when I plan it properly first.
Tracey - your friend might have wonderful sentences and paragraphs, but does the character and plot arc work? Does the story itself work with tension and pacing?

Tracey said...

Don't know because I haven't read it. I'm sure he'd like me to volunteer, but I'm trying to put my own writing first!