So last week I finished up a three-part series on How to Write a First Draft. The moral of that story was that you have to keep writing, no matter what. You have to be disciplined and get the words down on the page, even if the words are terrible and in the wrong place. You will most likely end up with a novel that falls far short of the greatness you thought you were bound for when you came up with the idea.
Good news! It’s time to move on to revisions! This is where you take that ugly duckling and make it into a swan. Yes, it is possible, even though you might not believe it at first. In fact, I usually become convinced at several points throughout the process of writing and revising that I’ve spewed out something hopeless and that my cats could write a better novel than I wrote. Fortunately, this is a normal, healthy part of the process. It’s still annoying though.
The important part of those moments of doubt is the healthy skepticism they will give you as you plow through the revision process. No, seriously! Believing for a moment that your novel sucks is a great way to push yourself into looking at what you actually have written honestly. Anyone who thinks that they’ve penned Shakespeare on their first try is going to be in for a rude awakening down the line. You need honest eyes to be able to have an effective revision period.
So what’s the first step?
Fortunately, the first step in revising a manuscript is the easiest. Leave it alone. I believe Stephen King recommends putting every manuscript away in a drawer and forgetting about it for at least 6 weeks in his epic book On Writing. That’s very possibly the best advice I’ve ever heard. Putting your novel away for weeks or months is the best way to separate yourself from the agony and the ecstasy. Forgetting about your baby for a while is the only way to gain the emotional distance you need to approach what you’ve written honestly. Because remember, when it comes to revisions, honestly is everything.
So you’ve set your manuscript aside, forgotten about it, and become detached from it. Six weeks (or however long you can afford to let it sit) later you pull it out. What now?
Okay, maybe this sounds oversimplified, but the next step is to read your novel.
Of course, there’s more to this read-through than light entertainment. Revising a novel is like painting with oils. It’s all about layers. For those not savvy about painting, all of the great masterworks of painting were done in layers. The first layer, your first draft, is the underpainting. Before you can start adding colors and shadows, fixing shapes and redesigning problem spots, you need to reacquaint yourself with the underpainting, really get to know it.
I read through my novel with my Kindle in one hand and a pen poised over a pad of paper in the other. No, I don’t print the novel out and mark it up with a red pen as I go. That would distract me from getting a sense of the flow of the story. As I read through this first time I’m not looking for misspellings or bad grammar or awkward sentences, I’m looking at my pacing. Does one chapter flow logically into the next? Does each scene have a point or are there stretches that aren’t there for any good reason? Are there things at the beginning that I know are totally different by the end? Write everything down. Write down any ideas that come to you along the way too, even if they mean a drastic change to the plot.
The reason you want to do a read-through before you dive into chopping and rewording things chapter-by-chapter, paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line is so that you can keep the big picture in mind. Can you feel the urgency in each scene? Do you have a sense of your character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts? No? Why not? What’s missing? Yes? Awesome, make a note of what you like and why you like it. Is there enough dialog? Description? Where does the action slow down and where does it speed up? Write everything down.
Write it down, but don’t worry about changing it yet. You’ll go back and make those changes later.
Here’s an example from my latest work in progress, Fool for Love, to show you what I mean. The hero and heroine, Eric and Amelia, have just arrived back home in Cold Springs. There’s some conversation. They’re a little miffed at each other. (Wait, Merry, why are they miffed? Did you really give Amelia enough justification to be upset with Eric or is she angry just because you wanted her to be angry at this point in the story? How can you make sure that this hissy-fit seems natural and justified?) They leave the hotel to go for a walk. Eric shows her around town. (Zzzzzzzz. This section is too slow. Something else needs to happen. Oh! This is a great opportunity to show more of the lawlessness problem in town that will be important in the next book in the series and to play up the juxtaposition between mother and whore that forms the central theme of this book! What are those saloon girls up to as Eric and Amelia pass through town anyhow?) They reach the meadow where the school is being built….. etc.
Did I go back and rewrite that bit immediately? Nope. But I sure did make notes about it. Read your way through the whole book looking for continuity and pacing before you take anything out or put anything in. Get a firm grip on the big picture before you break out the fine brushes and touch up the details.
My high school creative writing teacher, Janna King, always used to say that in every one of us there lives a writer and an editor. Some people can’t write at all because their editor is so loud and so judgmental that the writer is constantly smothered. Other people, however, are so enamored of the writer that they never let their editor come out and do the work that needs to be done. In revisions you need to listen to the editor first. The writer will come out again when you begin detail work, but for this first read-through, read like you’re going to write a scathing book review.
And when you’re done with that, go back and fix what you’ve found.
Easier said than done, right? That’s why we’ll talk more about the next step next Wednesday.