Six impossible things

Development in Revision

When most people think about revising a manuscript, they think about one of two things:  polishing up the style, grammar, syntax, and so on, or making fixes where something was unclear, unexplained, or just missing. Revising does all of that, of course, but in addition, there’s almost always one or two places where things need more development. These come in at least two varieties: the minor and the major.

Minor idea development in revision is when something is sitting in the manuscript like a little lump of coal, and you (or your editor or crit group) realize that with a little development, you could have a shiny diamond instead. What’s needed is a line here and a phrase there, maybe a sentence or a half a paragraph somewhere else, picking up and just slightly expanding or pointing up whatever aspect you’ve decided needs more developing.

Most of the time, you can’t do this sort of development by sticking a new infodump in the first couple of chapters or writing a single new scene somewhere in the middle, because you’re not adding major new information. You’re taking information that’s there and making it a little shinier and more obvious. So the first thing you have to do is find all the bits and pieces and hits about the thing you want to develop that are already in the ms. Then you expand some of them a little, scattering the changes over the whole story. If you want a build-up, you make the changes a little more extensive as you get closer to the end of the manuscript; if you don’t, you try to make sure everything balances all the way along.

This is the kind of development my editor asked for on Mairelon the Magician when she said that the manuscript needed more of Kim’s background on the street and that it needed to be darker. I went through that manuscript a page at a time, finding and flagging every place where Kim talked or thought about her past, or where she could have done but hadn’t.

Then I looked at each spot to see if I could expand a little on what she’d said/thought – for instance, when she sleeps on top of the chest the first night, instead of simply thinking “It wasn’t cold.” I added “…and there weren’t any rats looking to share it with her.” I added half a sentence in another spot describing Old Mother Tibb’s scoldings and blows, and later, a few words about her hanging. Still later, a sentence about the scene she made when the constables arrested her. I made explicit some of the nasty and frightening aspects of living on the streets that I’d only implied in the original manuscript, like saying in so many words that Kim was afraid of being transported or of ending up in a brothel.

I didn’t have to dwell on any of these things, and I didn’t have to invent anything new. Everything was already implicit in what I’d written; it just hadn’t been developed quite enough on the page in the first draft. By the time I finished, Kim’s backstory was a lot clearer and darker, just as the editor had asked, and it added a lot more urgency to her desire to get out of London and off the streets for good.

Major idea development in revision is where you rearrange scenes and chapters, significantly expand an incident or plotline, or insert a whole new subplot. Sometimes, it’s the result of a brainstorm in mid-book; other times, you (or your crit group or your editor) realize once the book is finished that you really do need to put a particular scene onstage instead of summarizing it, or that a character needs his/her own subplot. Or you just get curious enough about what really did happen to George on the way back from the theater to add it in, and then you realize that it fills a hole you hadn’t noticed until after it was gone.

I did that kind of revision on Across the Great Barrier. In the original manuscript, I’d had four sentences describing the men of a settlement going out to hunt saber cats and returning next day with their pelts. My editor felt that was too important an event to leave offstage. Since the book is first-person, I had to come up with a reason why my protagonist would go along and then write the hunt and the return from her perspective.

It ended up being 10,000 entirely new words, a full chapter and a half. In some ways, it was easier to do than the “minor” idea development. I had a summary of the event – a bunch of people went off to hunt saber cats and returned successful – and I knew there weren’t any consequences that would change the whole rest of the story. I had to invent a lot of specific details, but otherwise it was just a matter of spelling out exactly what happened. It took longer because of the sheer volume of words that had to be written, that’s all.

This is a bit atypical for me. Most of the time, I figure out these major developments in the planning stage, but maybe 40% of the time I don’t realize that a piece of the story needs additional development until I’m in the middle of the first draft or even in revisions. The current WIP got up to Chapter 8, then had to be ripped back to the end of Chapter One and completely rearranged and redeveloped. The last part of Chapter 2 is now the opening of Chapter 6, with three chapters of entirely new material in between. It is a pain when this happens, but when it does, it’s always a much better book after I’ve made the changes.

5 Comments
  1. I’m currently doing one of those major revisions for my editor. I have a contemporary YA book that had magic in it, and we’re removing the magic entirely. It’ll be a LOT of work to have everything make sense in a strictly contemporary setting, but in the end, I think it’ll work out much better. If I can pull it off…

  2. My most recent release required the kind of minor idea development you describe for Mairelon the Magician (which is one of my favorites by you). The idea was present, but too subdued (or even hidden) in its presentation. In my case, because the novel is threaded with a mystery, it was critical that the hidden aspect be brought forward more, because the reader needed to have more awareness of it in order to feel that the reveal near the end was supported.

    So I read through, exactly as you describe, finding spots where I could/should add a phrase or a sentence to illuminate the element that needed it.

    It felt great to do that kind of revision, because I see in real time, as I revised, that I was making the book exactly what I wanted it to be. Although I was still relieved when my second reader gave me the thumb’s up, saying that I had indeed achieved what I wanted.

    I’ve found major idea revision to be more anxiety provoking. In one case, I realized I needed to reshuffle the the order of the scenes in the entire first third of a novel.

    I marked the beginning and end of each scene. I made a list of the scenes, and then chopped that list up (the physical piece of paper) and started rearranging them until I got it right.

    Then I went into the computer file and started cutting and pasting. That made me super anxious, even though I’d backed up the unchanged manuscript file. I felt like I was unraveling the front end of my story and that I might not ever get it re-knitted and whole again.

    I did, of course.

    After I’d re-arranged the scenes in their proper order, I visited each transition and wrote new bridges between the scenes. I was almost sure I’d gotten it right, but still found a third reader to assess the results, someone who had not yet read the manuscript (or heard about the story as I wrote/revised it). My relief was profound when I got the thumb’s up.

    The major revision was absolutely needed, but…phew! The anxiety was super unpleasant when I was in the middle of it!

    Fantastic post. I’m bookmarking it for when I’m next facing major revision and need encouragement. 😉

  3. Any rewriting provokes high anxiety in my internal editor. I feel that I have to keep every minute element of plotting, nuance of character, molecule of atmosphere–indeed, every syllable of every word–suspended in the air while I juggle them all and desperately hope they magically assemble into the right order when I let them all fall.

  4. I did a lot of the major type of development during the revision of my last novel. The first draft skimmed over a lot of things (mostly because I didn’t know it was going to be a novel when I started), so a sizeable chunk had to get added in the middle, along with some extra scenes elsewhere. I’m working on the sequel now, and I’m hoping that deliberately setting out to write a novel this time will mean less major development later on.

  5. Constant revision is how I write. I’ve said elsewhere (mostly on rasf-c) that my first drafts look like rather long outlines; I keep going back over what I’ve already done and putting in new bits, from a sentence’s worth of description to a several-thousand-word subroutine. (E.g., the whole sequence in _A Point of Honor_) about rescuing Theodoric went in around the third major pass. If by now you’re thinking “pantser,” you’re right.

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