Friday, February 20, 2015

Revisionist Attitude: Mentally Preparing for Revisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I was talking with a writer bud once about something very nice my editor had said about me in an interview. This let to general talk about revisions and why I found it easy to revise, even when those revisions were a pain in the butt. I kept thinking about it, because I know from talking to other writers that revisions are rough on a lot of people.

But they don't have to be. Revisions are just the next step in the writing process.

Here are a few things to remember the next time you're faced with revisions:

1. Don't be afraid of the delete key

Words are not set in stone. We can change them however we want, and that's okay because we're still writing. I'll delete chapters without a thought if they need to go. Favorite lines have been trashed because the scene changed and they no longer worked.

Sure, I wanted to keep them, but I learned long ago that trying to work in that great line or scene makes that line or scene feel forced and it ends up not working anyway. And often, they can be used somewhere else. I keep one file for scenes and writing I delete that I might want to use again, and another for great lines. I also save each manuscript version before I start revising so I can always go back and pull text from it if needed. But in my working draft, if something is not working, it goes.

2. Remember it's the story that matters

This makes it easier to accept any big changes we might need to do. Plots change all the time, but the heart of the story usually stays the same. Don't be afraid to re-plot or make drastic changes if it will make the story better. Plot is just the events, and there are tons of options to get to the same place. If your protagonist needs to save the girl by chapter nine, let her do that, but how can be any number of ways, and thus any number of plots.

One thing to think about here though: If you find yourself changing the story as well as the plot, you might have a bigger issue than just revising the plot. You could have a core conflict issue or story premise problem. But that's okay, too, because you can tweak the story and then work out from there. It only becomes problematic if you're changing the plot and story so much, every revision is like a whole new book. You're basically trying to write and revise the draft at the same time, which is bound to cause frustration. Nail down the story you want to tell first, then go back and create that story.

3. First drafts are just for ideas

First drafts don't have to be perfect, or even the exact book we expected. Stories can evolve, plots can change. I might try several different plots in a first draft if I think it'll make the overall story better. Feel free to move around when and where major events happen just to see how they play out. In my novel, Darkfall, my big revision breakthrough came when I realized one event had to happen in the first act of the book, not the last act. Once I moved that, everything else clicked into place. Problems that needed a lot of work to fix before now only needed a little.

4. Making the story better is always a good idea, no matter the work involved

"But that'll be so much work" is a common reason not to make a change, but it's a bad one. You've already put a ton of work into the book, why not make it the best it can be and give it the best chance to sell? That change I mentioned in #3 caused major rewrites in my novel, but a lot of what I had already written still worked. I just needed to tweak a few things and add a few new chapters to better weave the plot lines together. Embrace the work, because it's all still writing. It's not like the only "writing" is done during the first draft. Some of my best writing came after several drafts when I could see how all the pieces worked together.

5. Think macro until you're happy with the story and plot as a whole

It's the big stuff that determines whether or not a story will work. The core conflicts, the character goals, the stakes, the premise. If these aren't working, no matter how much you polish the scenes or the writing, the story will feel bleh. My father-in-law has this very colorful saying: "You can't polish a turd." Major inherent story flaws need to be fixed before the book as a whole can work.

6. Trust your gut

If you think something needs fixing, odds are it does. And I'm talking about the larger issues, not the line by line edits. Minor word tweaks we can fiddle with forever and still not be happy (that's just being a writer)--but the plot stuff? The story? If it nags at you that a certain character does a certain thing, go fix it. If that big reveal doesn't have the impact you think it should, change it. If anything bugs you, trust your writer's compass. 

We'll delete and rewrite a sentence or even a paragraph numerous times until we're happy with it. So why not take that same approach with the whole novel?

How do you prepare for revisions?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. These points are excellent! Number 2 and Number 5 hit home for me because I'm neck deep in revisions of my first novel and I had serious issues with the major story that I didn't realize until about revision #2 that had to be fixed. Once I had that nailed down, it made making other revisions a lot less painful!

    And your father-in-law's line about the turd was hilarious! I like that!

  2. Another helpful post, as always. I'm about to start revising so I'm keeping this (and all of your tips) on hand.

  3. This came at exactly the right time, as I'm diving into revisions tomorrow. Thanks for this!

  4. Interesting stuff about the mindset! I've spent ages thinking I'm terrible at revisions... I'm not, really, it's just that until recent projects I was attempting some ill-fated turd polishing. No wonder it never turned out well. The issue for me is that now when I recognize how much there is to do, it's really intimidating. (I've been revising my WIP for about nine months -- but it's been almost a ground-up rewrite, since there were some good ideas in the rough draft, but it needed to be entirely restructured and rebuilt.)

    Numbers 1 and 6 go hand in hand for me. 90% of the time, when I feel like something just isn't working, the best solution is the delete key.

  5. Great advice. I don't want to revise again but I know I need to. So I will. Thanks for the advice on doing it.

  6. Hard work and trusting your gut is something I've learned on this road. The first draft is fun, and then the real work begins. LOL.

    As always, awesome info!

  7. All this is GREAT stuff. Like you, I keep a document I tenderly call "Deleted Stuff" and when I axe something, it goes in there. It makes me feel better, even when I find I never need it again. Just makes the slashing easier. ;o)

  8. This is great advice! I definitely need to be more courageous in my revising. Thanks so much for the post.

  9. I have no problem cutting things. Maybe it's because I'm still so new to writing that practically every new scene I write is so much better than the last one it is so obvious that most of it has to go.

    On another subject. Find your plot Friday is coming up so I have a question about plotting.
    Janice when you outline for the first draft do you outline in terms of Scene and Sequel or do think about that after the first draft is written?

  10. Good advice Janice. I found it hard to cut favourite sentences and phrases when I first started writing, but now if I need to I throw them in a separate folder and don't look back. I know my writing's the better for it.

  11. M. Mcgruff: Thanks! That's great that you found and fixed those issues :) Took me a lot more than two drafts to realize that in my first novel.

    Tracey: Good luck!

    Sammy: And good luck to you, too.

    Becky: I try to focus on the smaller steps to keep from being overwhelmed. Looking at the entire book as one piece makes me want to run and hide. But if I do one chapter, or revise one subplot, it's easier to manage and it goes much quicker.

    Natalie: Thanks! Revision never goes away, but just think of it as "writing!" Or even polishing. :) Maybe that'll make it easier.

    E. Arroyo: Oh yeah. I actually have a ton on fun on the later drafts. I get so excited when I spot that cool plot twist.

    Carol: It sure does.

    Julie: Most welcome!

    Sam: Great question and I'll do that tomorrow. I LOVE talking about structure. Finally understanding that made a huge difference in the quality of my writing.

    jtwebster: I've done some truly horrible things to my books trying to keep a favorite line. I think being able to let them go is one of the big steps in writing :) Once you can do that, you've reached another level in the journey.

  12. "Plots change all the time, but the heart of the story stays the same. There are tons of different ways to get to the same place." - I love this. It rings true for me and is a great reminder of how to approach the revision process. For me, it's how mentally flexible we can be when we approach our revisions. After all, it's about making the story the best it can be. Right? :)

  13. Hilary, right! Sometimes you have to throw out an entire book if the plot isn't serving the story, and that's okay. Painful, but if that's what's best for the story, it's worth it in the end.

  14. I'm definitely in the "slash and burn mode." Definitely killing my darlings and I'm not even sad about seeing them go :)

  15. Where were you five years ago when I completed my first draft and thought I had my story?? This is all excellent advice, Janice. One to save and share!

  16. I have such trouble with #3. I am terrible at plotting and keeping things interesting, it seems...So each new draft is a re-write, and it's very frustrating. I'll read each one, realize it's still dull or draggy, plot it again, and go back. Sads. I'm getting a little better at this, at least, and revision has always been more fun for me than the daunting task of writing enough to have a first draft down.

  17. Thank you for another awesome post! I'm fairly new to your blog and have benefited greatly from your wisdom. Number 4 resonated with me the most because I just finished the first edit of my novel. I was hoping it would be the last or at least would only need minor changes. Not the case. So it's onward!