Six impossible things

Fixing what’s broke

Fixing a broken manuscript comes under the general heading of “revisions,” and since I haven’t talked about revising for a while, and since I’m in the middle of doing some in the current WIP, this seems like a good time to go over them.

There are three important things to know about revisions: what type of revisions you’re doing, why you’re doing them, and how you’re doing them.

The fundamental kinds of revisions are removing existing material, rearranging it, rewriting or rephrasing it, and creating entirely new material that is then incorporated into the existing material. Major revisions usually involve things like deleting whole scenes or chapters, moving scenes and events around, taking an existing scene or chapter and redoing it from scratch (without looking at the first draft), or developing and inserting whole new scenes, chapters, subplots, or characters into an already-existing manuscript. Minor revisions generally involve things like deleting words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs; moving sentences and paragraphs around or changing sentence structure or syntax; rephrasing sentences or making different word choices, or rewriting paragraphs for better effect; or inserting a sentence or two, or a couple of short paragraphs, to clarify something that was too compressed.

In both cases, though, what’s being done is essentially the same: taking stuff out, moving stuff around, changing one bit of stuff into a slightly different bit of stuff, or putting in some entirely new stuff. It’s only the scale that’s different.

In addition to the fundamental level of what you’re doing, there’s also the question of subjective versus objective revising. Objective revisions are matters of rule: spelling, grammar, syntax, continuity, and/or whatever other rules a writer may have chosen to apply for a particular book. Authorial rules include, but are not limited to, structural rules like alternating story-present chapters with story-past chapters, telling the story in an invented slang or dialect, using no word containing the letter “e”, etc. Subjective revisions involve matters of judgement – Is the pace too fast or too slow? Is the character believable or not? Is the prose touching or overwrought? Is the plot simple and obvious or overly complex and incomprehensible?

Why the author revises is about the purpose of the changes. No author I know really enjoys revising; we only do it because we have a reason. Something is unclear; something is unbelievable; something isn’t as pretty or subtle or consistent or touching or connected as we think it should be. So what, exactly, is the reason for the revision? Is it to pick up the pace, or to remove unnecessary padding? Lay some solid groundwork for a plot development, or drop a subtle hint about a character’s background? Flesh out the world and backstory, or just give the characters (and reader) a bit of breathing space before the next crisis? Tie together a string of seemingly unconnected events, or smooth out the connections?

A writer who is attempting to achieve a particular effect or purpose may not manage to do it as effectively as he/she would like, but a writer who is just trying to “make the story better,” without any specific notion as to what will achieve that betterness, is very likely to make things worse. (Unless the particular writer in question is one of the highly intuitive ones, who can’t explain the “why” of the problem but knows exactly how it will feel once it is right.) If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.

Also, writers who know what they want to do and why are in a better position to pick out the type of revision that’s needed. “Pick up the pace of this story” is an overall revision that is likely to involve many, many small changes (and perhaps a few large ones) throughout the manuscript. “Establish early that George is afraid of bats” may be done with three or four lines in each of two or three existing scenes, or it might want a whole new scene somewhere in the first few chapters.

How one does revisions is a matter of process. The usual advice is to tear through the first draft and then do revisions; this works for many people, and it’s especially effective for folks who have a tendency to get caught in Endless Revision Syndrome, or those who have exceptionally virulent Internal Editors that will get in the way of completing the story if left to themselves. Some of us, however, can’t complete a first draft if we know there are problems in the early parts. We have to go back and fix them once we become aware of them (yes, I am a rolling reviser). There are also folks whose prose sets up into concrete within days or hours of being written; if they don’t polish up the scene or the chapter right away, it quickly becomes impossible for them to make changes.

In all cases, though, what the author is doing is the same: cutting stuff, moving stuff, changing stuff, adding stuff. What differs is the timing and the order, and the way different writers think about revisions. I’ll talk more about that next week, because this is getting long.

6 Comments
  1. Sometimes I’ll go back and stick a TODO: note in an earlier part of the WIP instead of doing a regular rolling revision. Or at least instead of doing one right away. I’ve also heard of writers who put in TODO: notes or the equivalent while writing the rough draft, although I’ve never done that myself.

    I’d say that “expanding” is a separate thing that fits in between “rewriting or rephrasing” and “making up new stuff.” But that’s a semantic quibble

    • In several places in my current WIP, I couldn’t come up with a sufficiently clever piece of dialogue, so I left the line blank with a note in the margin saying “some kind of characteristic remark here” or “a witty comment about political plotting”. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and fill them in appropriately later…

  2. As I’ve said in various places and times, my first drafts look like longish outlines, and I go back and add things and change things and add more things and change them. I like to think this doesn’t count as “padding” so much as “fleshing out.” When I can’t find anything else I can flesh out, I decide it’s done and send it out. (Whereupon it usually comes back, but that’s another story.)

    I comfort myself with the thought that when Tolkien had finished the first draft of LotR he went back and fiddled with the phases of the moon so that the reader can go back and think “wait, if *this* is happening in the Dead Marshes, then *that* has already happened in Isengard.”

  3. I’m a fairly terrible reviser – either I just don’t do it or I do it so much that the story never gets past chapter two (or I just write short stories, where there’s relatively little difference between rolling revising and waiting till the end to fiddle with things. And it’s less of a pain to do things like add/remove a character, change the setting from the beach to a mountain forest, etc.).

    I’ve really wanted to be able to write novel-length works, so I started doing NaNoWriMo several years ago. It’s been *really* helpful at forcing me to convince myself that I can put out 50,000+ intelligible words in a month, and I’d highly recommend it as a treatment for Endless Revision Syndrome. However, I’ve yet to really revise any of my NaNo works, as well as having not really come up with an actual ending for most of them. So, I solved one problem (not being able to just write. the. words./obsessively revising and rerererevising like an over-grooming parrot) only to find another: I don’t really know *how* to revise longer pieces. My micro-level bits are relatively fine (paragraphs, sentence structure, grammar, spelling, word choice, balance of scenes/exposition, dialogue, etc.), but I don’t know how to approach macro-level revisions. I suspect another issue is planning, i.e. I need to come up with a system that will give me the correct amount of planning in the correct format that will facilitate my then sitting down for a month or three and writing a first draft, which I would then have to figure out how to revise effectively. I’ve made some progress on figuring out how to plan, but revising effectively may be far in the future. Maybe when I figure it all out, I’ll go back to all my old novels-in-progress and finish like five in a year or something. 🙂

  4. Am I the only person who likes intermediate revisions? It’s exciting to find a new direction to take the story in, especially if I’ve been trying to force a plot that doesn’t work. Line edits are fun because I like making my sentences prettier and shinier.

    • At least one author I pay attention to HATES writing first drafts but enjoys editing and revising, and considers first drafts the awful price you have to pay to get to the fun part. (Of course, I can’t remember who it is at the moment.)

      I *sometimes* like revising. I like making things better, and finding good stuff I’d forgotten about, and it sometimes goes faster, so it can be more satisfying. And then there are the other times, when it’s just a pile of scenes that I didn’t want to deal with the first time around, and horrible glaring plot holes that are going to swallow the entire story so that it will never be seen again, and how did I not see that Mary didn’t want to get her life back on track, she wanted to move to Alaska and eat bonbons forever, and she had no intention of doing any of the things the rest of the first draft has her doing . . .

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