Revisions: Hell or Heaven?

So for the last three or so weeks I’ve been neck deep in revisions of my latest novel, The Courageous Heart.  And through this process I’ve learned so very, very much about the fine art of revising.  Each novel that I write teaches me more about the craft.  It also makes me revise my former opinion of the process, no pun intended.  So here are a few tidbits of I’ve learned this time around.

First of all, The Courageous Heart is the third book in a trilogy.  The first one was “easy” to write.  The second one was relatively easy too.  And then I completely rewrote it.  But that was good.  The version of The Faithful Heart that I published was light years better than the first draft.  Because I worked on it.  But the third book?  Ah, that’s another story.  TCH and I did not get along very well during the creation process.  I was having an incredibly stressful couple of months and had to power through the first draft.  Which, of course, meant it was terrible.

Herein lies the lesson of this novel.  Because when you make it in this industry, when you’re serious about what you’re doing, you have to get the blasted thing written no matter how you feel about it and you have to make it good.  Once you start a series you can’t just toss it aside with a shrug and do something else instead.  Just like once you sign a contract with a publisher you can’t just change your mind and not write the book.  Well, I’m sure you could, but it wouldn’t reflect very well on you.

So there I was with a first draft that had a beginning, a middle, and an end but not much else going for it.  I found myself wincing and thinking “Welcome to Revision Hell”.  I reread the manuscript with a cringe and pulled out my favorite writing tool, a slick ballpoint pen and a legal pad.  It was time to take notes.  I was lucky because at least I knew who my hero and my heroine were, who the villain was, and what they all wanted.  And I knew which parts of the story worked and which ones made me want to hide under a rock.

The first step in a successful revision is remembering why you wrote the book in the first place.  Sounds simple, right?  And yet how many times do we get completely lost in the accessory details that we write in a moment of inspiration?  Since I write Romance, the first step in revising this novel was to remember what my hero and heroine’s goals, motivations, and conflicts were, what I wanted to get in their way, and how I wanted them to get together at the end.  As I read through I continually asked myself if the actions and reactions I had the hero and heroine go through are true to those goals, motivations, and conflicts and if they helped them to get to that happy ending. 

You’d be surprised how much fluff had snuck into the story!  It happens to the best of us.  We go along writing and come up with “brilliant ideas” that are sure to entertain.  Except that they don’t work.  Or we had those moments were the daily word count goal was looming and as a result a long description of the heroine baking a pie made it into the draft.  Yep, time to revise.  Which is not quite as easy as it sounds.

The second step in a successful revision is being honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t work.  I was so impressed with the essay I read recently about plot versus story line.  One of the things it drove home to me was the importance of having each event, the things that make up the core of every scene in the book, be connected to each other in a chain that both holds the tension of the story and carries it along to the next thing.  And then when I looked at my novel I realized that far too many of the scenes I’d written didn’t actually carry the load of the story.  There wasn’t a connection that moved it forward.  And my heroine was really whiney.  Out came the scissors.

I’ve never had a novel that fought me so hard in the first draft and I’ve never chopped a novel up as drastically in revisions as I did for The Courageous Heart.  There are some scenes that I really loved, that I thought were really good, that had to go the way of the dodo because they ground the action to a halt instead of pushing it forward.  The trouble is, I really, really didn’t want to cut them at all.  But I had to be honest with myself.  They didn’t work.  And when you’re revising there’s no room for ego.  If you go to work thinking you can’t improve on perfection then you’re going to end up embarrassing yourself when other people read your work.

The third step to a successful revision is to WORK.  HARD.  For me we’re talking waking up at 5:30 every morning and spending an hour hammering away, spending my hour-long lunch break tweaking, and slaving at the computer for two hours in the evening.  And that’s weekdays.  Weekends involved 4-6 hours sitting in my “weekend office” at Panera Bread coffeeing up and pouring through text.  The book needed that level of commitment.  Every book needs that level of commitment.

It’s one thing to be honest with yourself about what doesn’t work with your book, but it’s something else entirely to put in the work necessary to find out what does work.  That’s where my pen and paper came in handy.  I wrote page after page after page of notes, thoughts, and ideas, clarifying what I had done and where I needed to go and throwing out possibilities of how to fix the problems I knew I had.  Writing by hand helps my brain do what needs to be done.  I’m actually convinced that my right hand has a brain of its own that can figure out writing problems when the brain in my head can’t. 

So once I had worked out issues on paper, it was time to put them into action in the manuscript.  Piece by painful piece.  One bit at a time.  Partial scene by partial scene.  For me that meant more or less rewriting the entire first half of the book.  The good news is that what I have now is better than what I had before.  The bad-ish news is that it’s still not right.  I still have a lot of honest trouble-shooting to do and clearer solutions to puzzle out.

The fourth step to a successful revision is time.  This is actually the first step, and the second, and all of the steps.  It happens at every point of the revision process.  You can’t revise effectively without time.  In the first place, you need to let a manuscript sit after the first draft.  Then you need to let the changes sit once you’ve made them.  You also need to be patient with beta readers and editors once they get their hands on the manuscript.  And then you have to step back and breathe some more and let things percolate.  You can’t rush the process if you’re going to do it right.  You have to reboot the computer known as your story brain now and then to let it sort out the jumble of creativity you’ve ground out onto the page.

Yeah, it sounds so easy to enumerate all these points of revisions, but actually doing them is the complicated part.  But it all has to be done.  The big thing that I’ve learned from this novel is that your writing is only as good as your revision process.  Inspiration can only get you so far, and sometimes it is slow to come when you need it.  Where inspiration ends, work begins.  But the work doesn’t have to be dismal.  In fact, the more I slave over this novel the more I like it.  I love the challenge of taking something mediocre and making it good, damn good.  It’s been harder to love these characters, but the love has grown stronger as the process rumbles along.

And that’s why I’m going to have to revise my statement about “Revision Hell”.  In fact, revisions are heavenly.  The gratification I’m finding in working to create the best story I can is exciting.  It’s fun.  I’m crazy for saying that, but it is.  I’ve set the bar high for myself and I intend to reach that goal.  I also think that it’s this kind of hard work and diligence that will enable me to make writing a career in a couple of years.  Because trust me, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done.

10 thoughts on “Revisions: Hell or Heaven?

  1. Great post, Merry! May just print it out to remind myself that “writing is rewriting” and there are no shortcuts. Readers only rave about what a great story we’ve written when they’re not stumbling over the little darlings we didn’t have the heart or stomach to kill. I still hate the revision process (b/c honestly after I’ve barfed out the book in a sudden wonderful panic of possessed writing, it’s anti climatic and boringly analytical to have to revisit it with a red pen), but your post reminds me that nothing good comes easily. And nothing feels as good as a book you are 100% proud of, 100% confident in. And there’s just not an easy road to that feeling.

    • Oh yeah! Anyone who thinks writing a book is easy has never done proper revisions. 😉 But you’re right, that moment when you know you’ve created something that is genuinely good and that you can be proud of is the best moment ever!

  2. I really enjoyed your post. I edited my first book, while writing my second. I repeated that process when I wrote the third book. Then came Nano and querying the first two books. I didn’t get back to the third book’s edits until a month later. I have to say that helped a lot. But I still didn’t know what I was doing. Finally I got an agent and started editing with her assistant. I can’t tell you how much I learned about revisions. But then, I had to revise the first three books. I’m finally writing my 6th, and will let it sit while I revise #4. The other thing I learned was not to try to do a 100,000 word first draft, but to keep it lean.

    • I’ve learned so much since I started working with a professional editor. I highly recommend them for … everything! But I have a hard time working on more than one thing at a time, at least in terms of switching back and forth between two things. I alternate between works over extended periods of time while one thing is marinating. Writing is such an amazing learning process anyhow though.

  3. With you on that revising, Merry. It’s an awesome feeling to take that average piece of writing and craft it to something close to the perfect idea you had at the start …

  4. Mathair is who keeps me going, when we’re doing revisions. I grit my teeth and start working, then when we’re finished I’m grateful we’ve gone through the hassle because the story is infinitely better. Great post, Merry. Thought I was the only one who has problems with this aspect of writing. Thanks.

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