Take it away, Patricia...
MY PROCESS: REVISION
By PATRICIA WOOD AUTHOR OF LOTTERY
A funny, poignant, and wise novel about a very rich underdog who shows everyone just how little his IQ says about his smarts.
When I first started reading books, I thought very little about the writer who created them. They just existed. It was only when I started writing stories, and taking literature classes myself, I realized there was an author behind the words. I had preconceptions that stories arrived fully formed, that an accomplished author just sat down and created a draft that was essentially finished except for spelling and commas.
While large-scale revisions still make me shed copious tears and provoke me to run away (with lots of chocolate) and hide, I know they are an important step in making each novel the best that it can be.
LOTTERY was my first novel published, but it was the fourth I had written. Now, three years later I have eight (plus) completed novels and have developed a process that works for me.
I won’t delve too much into how I do this or what makes one of my ideas work and others not (I have files with masses of ideas for novels), but I’ve discovered (for me) my characters are of primary importance. I have wonderful plots just waiting for the right character. It can’t be forced (the characters have to be in my brain fully formed). If I don’t have that character, my writing feels forced and artificial.
My next priority is structure and pacing. When I finish my (horrible) first draft (I belong firmly in the Anne-Lamott-club-of-shitty-first-drafts: uncensored tumultuous writing), my first revision process focuses on structure and pacing. Do I have chapters, books, or parts? What should happen in each? Do I have an arc? Does my story make sense? Is it satisfying? Does it feel too slow in the beginning mushy in the middle and rushed at the end? Am I telling the story from the right point of view? Or from the viewpoint of the most interesting character for the story?
This first revision often takes twice as long as writing my first draft did. There are times I have to do five, six, or seven complete guts and rearranging before I am satisfied with how the story is told. Sort of like emptying out the box of the story and putting it back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Or ripping up a dress and re-sewing it. At this point, I’ve learned it’s best I have no other input. No readers. No sharing of sections. If I’m stumped where to go, and how, then I let my novel sit for a while and work on something else. Each successive revision is focused on something specific. I call them revisions rather than edits as editing to me is less drastic and more detail oriented. I’m not ready for editing or copyediting when I am revising. This is the time I start eliminating and combining characters. I pay attention to whether a character evolves and whether their transformation makes sense within the constructs of the story not whether they like chocolate or wear sweaters that itch.
When I feel my novel is ready for a reader, I am very particular whom I let read it. I must have feedback of a specific nature. “I liked it.” or “I didn’t like it.” Is not good enough. I want to know if my main character is sympathetic, did the reader root for him or against him, is he a character the reader cares about? I want to know if the plot made sense and if it kept the reader’s attention. I want to know if a reader was bogged down or confused by the narrative. I want to know if a reader was compelled to keep turning the pages.
At this point, I could care less about spelling or commas, but I am interested in the fact that a 1957 Chevy had fins rather than round taillights or that a Catalina 38 would be a sloop not a ketch. While spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not a focus, if it detracts from comprehension, it needs to be addressed.
While many readers might say they struggled to get through the middle of, or the start of your novel, they often can’t say where their troubles began. At this point, I do something that I think I might have invented (but possibly have not): An excel program that lists every chapter, the number of pages, and what it contains that moves the plot forward. This allows me to analyze the structure of my novel and find out where I am doing too much in a chapter or not enough in another. For example if I have a chapter that’s excessively long and covers more than three events that move the plot forward, it may mean that particular chapter needs to be split up.
This helps me identify exactly where my book bogs down. While I don’t care how short a chapter is, I care if it’s comparatively longer. If I’m provoked to mention a chapter length that I shoot for, I’ll say 10 pages. I’ll be satisfied with 7 and worry if I have several in a row with 3 or 4 pages. I like to vary the length. This is what I call more of a “micro” analysis. Additionally, I do a “macro” analysis where I examine average chapter length of the first half of the book compared to average chapter length of the last half of the book and whether the two “halves” are comparable. If the book contains 40 chapters and 400 pages total, ideally I want chapters 1-20 to contain 200 pages and chapters 21-40 to also contain 200 pages. Most first novels rush to the end i.e. the first 20 chapters might have 300 pages and the last 20 might have 100.
After this? Well then I’m ready for editing and that’s a whole other story!
I emphasize again that I am not discussing what a writer should do I am revealing what my own particular process is and I hope you find something here that will help you develop your own process.
I welcome questions at patricia at patriciawoodauthor.com.