Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Learning to Love Revisions

By Sherry Thomas, @sherrythomas

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I've always been a big fan of the revision process, but not every writer enjoys the tinkering after a first draft is done. To help make that process easier, please welcome award-winning author Sherry Thomas to the lecture hall today, to share some insights on how to make revisions easier to bear (and maybe even a little but fun).

Sherry loves nothing more than the mix of explosive action and combustible romance. In her career so far, she has written more romance than action, but she is making up for it with a YA fantasy trilogy and a wuxia-inspired duology. Her books regularly receive starred reviews and best-of-the-year honors from trade publications, including such outlets as the New York Times and National Public Radio. She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award.

And by the way, English is her second language.

You can find out more about Sherry’s books at SherryThomas.com

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Take it away Sherry...

Many years ago, when I was a newbie, a published writer in our local group exclaimed, “Oh, I hate writing new stuff but I love revisions.”

I didn’t get it at all. The excitement of writing comes in the new stuff, doesn’t it? The very act of creation, the ideas and scenarios that been only ephemera of your imagination now on the page, their existence concrete and undeniable.

As years went by, and I wrote more and more, one day it dawned on me that now I understood exactly what that writer was talking about. I don’t hate writing new stuff and I will never lurrrve revisions—they are just more work—but I cannot deny it, I do my best work in revisions. Often, by the time I’m done with a novel, it bears only a slight resemblance to its first draft, and sometimes not even that.

Not everyone revises so strenuously. There are extremely methodical writers who by the time they finish a detailed outline, know exactly what will happen in the book. There are other writers who tinker with the first few chapters repeatedly, then when the beginning is right, the rest of the story comes like a dam bursting, and they just have to type fast enough to keep up.

But for the lot of us somewhere in between, who use the first draft to explore the lay of the land and to get a preliminary mapping done, and who rely on revisions to really dig down into the story, here are what I have discovered about revisions that make them work for me.

1) Everything is on the chopping block. I have thrown out entire drafts without a backward glance. And those lucky drafts that don’t get tossed completely often find themselves with whole new settings, whole new timelines, and/or whole new lead characters.

Don’t feel bad; think “good riddance”. Remember, throwing out big chunks of a draft isn’t throwing out the fundamental story idea, it is just saying goodbye to an execution of that story idea that didn’t do it justice. Do by all means love your story idea—after all, it is the fire in your creative engine—but don’t clutch your words to your chest. Words are just tools that are free to use and as abundant as sunlight. If they serve your story well, they stay. If not, replace them with new words.

What is serving your story well? I write genre fiction, so my goal is a tremendous conflict that generates huge forward momentum, i.e., a book that sweeps the reader off her feet, rather than one that she has to slog through. For me then, anything that moves me closer to compulsive readability stays. And whatever doesn’t, goes.

Corollary: A problem that often dogs beginning writers is that they keep getting bogged down about 1/3 of the way through a book and can’t go any further. If that happens to you, check your conflict. It is quite likely that you haven’t set up a conflict with enough stakes for a novel-length work.

2) A good editor/critique partner/beta reader is essential for the revision process, but you have to become an able interpreter of what they say.

Sometimes an editor or a critique partner can tell you exactly what’s the matter with a story or a scene. But some other times you get suggestions instead. And sometimes you get suggestions that seem to be for a different book altogether. Something like I think you should blow up a house here, when there not only isn’t a bomb in the book, there isn’t even a gun—or a knife.

After working through tons of drafts and listening to tons of opinions, nowadays my rule is that I always pay attention when editors says something isn’t working, but I don’t necessarily pay attention to what they think should be done.

When an advice like I think you should blow up a house here pops up, it just means that the manuscript isn’t holding the editor’s attention. She is looking for more conflict, greater tension, faster pacing.

And if your editor tells you that your characters should be doing this instead of that, take a look at your character motivation. You can get readers to sympathize with just about everything a character does if they understand why s/he is doing it.

3) Good advice should not make you feel wrong.

Good advice can often feel unwelcome—knowing I have to chuck half the manuscript and do the work over again certainly doesn’t make me skip down the street, sprinkling flower petals at the neighborhood children. But good advice should confirm some inner suspicion—Darn, I knew that part needed work or I knew that plot direction was wonky.

Good advice should not make you go WTF or feel physically ill for considering it.

In the end, you are the person who has to work on the manuscript. And you are the one who has to decide whether certain opinions—even from otherwise unimpeachable sources—are just wrong for you and your book.

That’s toughest, to tell apart whether it’s your ego balking or your gut issuing a warning. But with time and experience, you will know.

About The Perilous Sea

After spending the summer away from each other, Titus and Iolanthe (still disguised as Archer Fairfax) are eager to return to Eton College to resume their training to fight the Bane. Although no longer bound to Titus by a blood oath, Iolanthe is more committed than ever to fulfilling her destiny—especially with the agents of Atlantis quickly closing in.

Soon after arriving at school, though, Titus makes a shocking discovery, one that makes him question everything he previously believed about their mission. Faced with this devastating realization, Iolanthe is forced to come to terms with her new role, while Titus must choose between following his mother's prophecies—and forging a divergent path to an unknowable future.

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  1. I liked the whole article, number three is especially important.

  2. Great advice. I love revising way more than writing the first draft too. And loved The Burning Sky and The Perilous Sea.

  3. Great advice, especially about the chucking part. Firsts drafts are the hardest part for me. I prefer revisions. Although right now I'm struggling through the revision process. This was really helpful.

  4. Great post and great advice. Re: #2, speaking as a freelance editor, I think it's the mark of a good editor that they can tell you what's not working but WON'T tell you how you are supposed to fix it.

    And speaking as a writer, I love #3...support, encouragement, motivation to keep seeking the best iteration of your creation...it's why they call it a craft.