Six impossible things

Nuts and Bolts: How I Fix Things

One of the reasons I spent the last two posts on the process part of revision is that I believe that understanding your process saves enormous amounts of time in the long run. Specifically, having some idea how your first-draft process works and what exactly you’re trying to accomplish makes a lot more likely that you can pick the technique for revising that will work for you, for this story, for the particular thing you need to fix.

Note that how you do your first draft may not correlate with how you do your revisions, and not all revisions are best handled with the same approach. If, for instance, I have ten pages of editorial revisions requests, I usually start at the beginning of the manuscript and work my way forward…on the easy, obvious fixes (which I cross off on the editor’s request list as I do them). I skip the tough fixes on the first pass, which gives me a sense of confidence and quick progress as well as giving my backbrain time to mull over what to do about them and which ones to dig in my heels over. When I start on the tough ones, I generally skip around. The exceptions are 1) when one of the revisions involves inserting or totally rewriting an entire scene, in which case once I get started on that scene, I usually don’t work on anything else until I have finished it, and 2) when one of the revisions involves changing aspects of an entire plotline or character development arc, in which case I usually start at the beginning of the manuscript and go through just those scenes and conversations that apply to the particular arc, making changes as I go.

If, on the other hand, I am still in the first-draft stage, I do rolling revisions. How I do them depends on how much forward momentum I currently have. If I’m completely stuck, I go back and fiddle with earlier scenes and chapters that were mildly unsatisfactory; if I just need a bit of a warm-up to get into the day’s work, I drop back a page or so and review it, making micro-revisions to phrasing and fixing typos and such, and occasionally adding a few lines or a paragraph or fixing things that I marked as “fix this!” during yesterday’s work session. And if I’m in the downhill stretch near the end of the story (or coming up on a scene that I’ve been eagerly awaiting for a chapter or two), I don’t do any revising at all – I just charge ahead until I run out of steam, and then go back and look things over.

If I am moving forward on my first draft at a leisurely pace, I make a lot of micro-level revisions as I draft, changing word choices and moving sentences around, rephrasing things, deleting a couple of paragraphs that aren’t going in the right direction, etc. If I am moving at a good clip (or if I decide all the fiddling is slowing me down more than I find acceptable), I use a character or character string, like $$ or [, to mark words or sections where I know that what’s there is more-or-less what happens, but I also know that I don’t have the phrasing quite right, or where I’ve used the same word or phrase too many times in a row but I don’t want to spend half an hour coming up with an alternative.

Sometimes I make a note to myself, like [check eye color, ch. 2??] or [consistent w/throne scene] or [wolf behavior?] to remind myself to go back and make sure I got a description or a character’s memory right, or as a note that I need to look something up in my research. Later, when I am stuck or need a warm-up or have more time, I do a search on the character string and fix some of the things I marked in the last day or so. Surprisingly often, I look at the note or the marked phrase and can’t figure out why I wanted to change it, so I leave it alone and just delete the marking character.

Occasionally, I run into a change that requires desperate measures: ripping up the whole story and starting over from wherever the point is that things went wrong. This takes some nerving up to do; once I admit that I am going to need to do it, I copy the chapters up to the change-point over to a new file, and leave the old one as-is. Normally, I can mine the first draft for significant chunks of pre-written stuff, though it always needs different transitions and tweaks to accommodate the new storyline.

Anything that hasn’t been tidied up by the time I finish the “first draft” gets dealt with along with my final beta-reader comments during my official “final revisions” pass, which may involve skipping around to tidy up a plotline, or a close reading of the whole ms. in order to take one full line out of each and every page, depending on what seems to need doing at that point.

About the only thing that is consistent is that my very last pass before the ms. goes off to the editor is the grammar-spelling-typo-punctuation fixes. If I happen to see them earlier, when I’m doing something else to the ms., I’ll fix them, but I don’t go looking for them until the bitter end. Experience has shown that if I do an early typo pass and get everything absolutely perfect, I will have to do a major rewrite or revision that adds scores of new typos that necessitates a second pass. In other words, it’s a waste of time to fiddle with typos and punctuation until the very last minute.

Revising is a learn-by-doing thing. As usual, if what you are doing isn’t working, try a different method. And don’t be afraid to mix it up. Once it’s finished, nobody will be able to tell whether you worked your way methodically through the story from front to back or whether you skipped around like a kangaroo.

  1. Now I’m trying to envisage a skipping kangaroo, and it just isn’t working. 🙂

  2. >>I use a character or character string, like $$ or [, to mark words or sections where I know that what’s there is more-or-less what happens, but I also know that I don’t have the phrasing quite right, or where I’ve used the same word or phrase too many times in a row but I don’t want to spend half an hour coming up with an alternative.<<

    I do this sort of thing too – usually an asterisk or question mark above the word/phrase that isn't quite right.

  3. My “reviser” hat is not the same as my “compose the initial draft” hat, and I badly need my initial draft to be a completed, albeit badly written, version rather than something with planning scaffolding in it. I can tolerate going back and inserting a “fix this” note in chapter 2 when I’m trying to push forward at chapter 10, but putting in “fix this” notes at the forward edge of the initial draft is right out. And I’m wondering if putting a “fix this” note in an older chapter is actually not the best course for me either.

    I need to do rolling revisions earlier and more often. Or at least I tell myself that. The reason I haven’t been is that revisions turn into slogs, which is depressing when I have unfinished initial draft waiting for me to work on.

    At a tangent, I’d like to hear a word or three about revising outlines. I understand that Our Gracious Hostess creates an outline and then departs from it as she writes. So how is the outline revised as the first draft gets written? Or is it a case of coming to the end of the first draft with an outline that no longer bears much resemblance to the first draft’s actual plot?

    • Every writer I know who works from an outline tells me they depart from it, so my approach is to not bother. I depart quite enough from where I think a sentence is going when I start it by the time I reach the end without having an external scaffolding to ignore as well. 🙂

  4. For those of us of a mildly technical bent, I recommend a version control system like git, which in effect allows you to take a snapshot of the text every time you save. It’s not that you necessarily want all, or any, of those snapshots; but knowing you have them available gives you a feeling of freedom to change things, like a more formal version of Pat’s desperate measures approach.

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