Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

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