Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Enjoying Revision

I have finished (sort of) the novelette/novella. I say "sort of" because as I got closer to the end, the "and then they resolved everything and lived happily ever after and now I'm DONE!" impulse kicked in. I already know I need to rewrite the big, climactic scene so that it will actually be big and climactic, like with action and stuff, maybe even some actual conflict. I just don't know if it's worth doing so at the moment. If something strikes me, I can go do it, but it's not like this is an urgent project. I think it's a good sign that the impatience began largely because I was starting to get eager to move on to the next book. Speaking of revision …

I had a reader question about revision, so I'll tackle that this week. I think the question was more specifically about making revision fun, but I don't have magical powers, so I'll talk more about making revision work. Revision is one of those things that works differently for different writers or even different projects, and you have to find the thing that works for you. There are writers who claim not to revise, but what they really do is revise as they go, fixing the previous day's work as a warm-up to the day's writing, so when they reach "the end," the book really is done. I don't know that this would work for me because my revision isn't just fixing words. It's about adjusting the entire plot, and I don't know what needs fixing until I get to the end. Then again, I have had a couple of books that kind of worked this way. I also wouldn't recommend trying to do this on your first book because there would be a temptation to keep working on each part until it's perfect, so that you'd never get past the first couple of chapters. There are people who write on the fly, so that the first draft is really more of an extended outline, and then they go back and do the main part of the writing in revision. And there are insane people like me, who outline and plan, then write the book and realize that the outline was wrong and the book was about something else entirely, and then have to do extensive rewrites. At any rate, I don't think you'll really make it as a writer if you aren't willing to rewrite. Even if you think your work is done after the first draft, if you sell it, an editor is probably going to make you do revisions.

I'll admit that I sometimes enjoy doing revisions because it feels really good to make something better than it was. I like analyzing and tinkering with a book. I get the same kind of thrill of discovery that comes from a first draft, but without having to write all the words from scratch. Here are some tips that might help you make the most of the process:
* If deadlines permit, let the work rest. You'll be less attached to it and might not remember so much about what you did or why you did it -- something your readers won't know. If I don't understand something when re-reading it because I've forgotten my thought process, I know I need to fix it. Some distance from the hours of toil make you feel less of a loss when you have to cut or change something.
* Try to think about the positives. A lot of revision is about fixing what's wrong, which can feel negative. When analyzing your story in the revision process, also look at the things that really worked or that you did well and try to find ways to expand upon them or do more with the good stuff. If there are parts of your first draft that just sing, figure out why. Does it have to do with that part of the plot, the characters, the setting? Maybe that's a sign that you should play up those elements in the rest of the book.
* Get yourself into the right emotional headspace. I generally make a soundtrack -- essentially an auditory collage -- for each book, or at least pick out a few theme songs. I don't usually listen to it while I write (I most often write in total silence), but I listen to it in the car or as I do housework during the time I'm working on a book. Pulling out that soundtrack is a good way to get me back into a book when it's time to rewrite. Sometimes it can even remind me of plot elements or themes I wanted to address in the book but didn't put into the first draft. I also know of writers who use scent or photos to evoke a book for them.
* Push your characters to the limit. I tend to pull punches in my first draft, so the revision is when I force myself to push my characters harder and put them in more difficult situations or demand that they do things they didn't think they were capable of. Sometimes all it takes to fix a book is to keep raising the stakes in each pivotal scene.
* Don't try to fix the words while you're fixing the story. Editing -- making sure everything's spelled right, that you used the best word for each situation and that all your sentences flow well -- involves a different mindset than creative writing, and when you're fixing the story, you want to be in that creative writing space. Do your wordsmithing on the next pass. You might get bogged down in minutiae if you're trying to fix the words while working on the big picture.
* This is when a beta reader can help to give you big-picture story feedback -- do they like it, what do they like, what didn't work, did they understand it, etc. Again, this isn't time for the red pencil. This is the kind of feedback that would come in a conversation or a note, not in marks in the margins.

And the lovely thing is, until the book is in print and in bookstores, you can still work on fixing it. There are a lot of chances to make the book better along the way.

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