Six impossible things


The process of revising effectively tends to vary from writer to writer just as the first-draft writing process varies, and it’s not necessarily connected to the way one writes your first drafts. In fact, often (though not always) the revisions process seems to need to be the opposite of the writer’s writing process in some way: writers who are very methodical and who do outlines and character sketches and so on for their first drafts find themselves winging their revisions, while those who write things in order, front-to-back, find themselves skipping all over the book while revising.

Revising is a separate skill from writing it down in the first place — related, but still different. And like writing it down, revising is a skill that gets better with practice. By the time one gets to the end of the first draft, one has definitely had a novel’s worth of practice at getting the words down on paper, and a lot of writers expect this to translate into ease of revision. If you haven’t been revising-as-you-go, however, it is highly unlikely that your revisions skills will be up at the same level as your first-draft skills…and an awful lot of writers cannot revise as they go without killing the story.

One could, of course, try revision someone else’s terminally bad piece of prose for practice and hope that the techniques one figures out will be applicable to one’s own work. It’s not hard to find examples of bad prose on the net; the trouble is finding some that makes the same mistakes you do without also making you feel as if your stuff is too horrible to contemplate.

So most of us are left with getting to the end of the book, right about the point where we feel as if we know what we’re doing, and then starting over again trying to boot up an entirely new skill (revising). The first step is always, always, always figuring out what the problem is. Diagnosis is key; if you can’t see what’s wrong, and you try to fix it anyway, it’s like trying to fix a delicate piece of electronics blindfolded and wearing oven mitts. Don’t. Just don’t.

Figuring out the problem isn’t as easy as it sounds – after all, if you’d known it was a problem, you wouldn’t have written it that way in the first place. There are various ways of going about this. Some writers lean heavily on first readers and crit groups to point out problems; others swear by the “cold box” method (stick it in a drawer for a couple of weeks or months, until it’s “cooled off” and you don’t remember what you meant to say quite so clearly). Some find that just making the manuscript look different is enough to do the trick, which these days is a simple matter of changing the font and the margins. I have friends who swear that they get this effect from looking at hard copy (as opposed to seeing tings on screen), even though nothing else changes.

Or you sit down and analyze. This means approaching the work coldly and intellectually, looking for places that don’t work and (even more important) for why they don’t work. It means avoiding the trap of getting lost in the fun, brilliant bits that you just love, and equally avoiding the trap of deciding every word, every comma, is trash and utterly without merit. It means learning the difference between fixing a problem and second-guessing a decision.

A word about this bit: the common advice to “murder your darlings” does not mean that you are supposed to go through your manuscript and take out every single thing in it that you actually like. If you don’t like what you write, why should anyone else like it? What it means is that if the only reason a particular sentence is in there is to show how clever the author is…take it out. You can save it for some other book if you like, somewhere that it will add to the characterization or the plot or the setting or something story-related, rather than author-related.

When you’re analyzing your own work, you generally need to look at both the macro and the micro level. The macro level is stuff like structure and pace and flow and tension. First you look for where things seem to be not-working; then you look for why they’re not working. In the first draft of The Far West, for instance, I had three scene in a row of studying a critter in the lab, followed by three scenes in a row of reunions with old friends/family returning from elsewhere. I hadn’t noticed when I wrote them; once I saw the problem, it was obvious that I needed to move things around so that I had some critter-studying followed by a reunion followed by more critter-studying, instead of having my heroine do the same thing over and over with different people.

Sometimes it’s not the content of the scenes that’s the problem. Sometimes it’s a lack of transition between two bits, or the fact that something wasn’t set up properly two or three scenes or chapters earlier. Sometimes the macro fix is down at the micro level. The first editor who saw Talking to Dragons told me that the pace was too slow (a macro-level problem); I fixed it by cutting roughly 5,000 words…two or three words at a time. (Basically, I figured out that I needed to cut three lines per manuscript page, and then spent three weeks going through the ms. a page at a time, crossing out words and rephrasing sentences so they’d be shorter, until I got three lines out of each and every page. It was a horrible job, but I learned a lot.)

The micro-level revision is down at the scene-to-sentence level – getting rid of ambiguous phrasing and tongue-twisting dialog, spotting the places where you over-use a particular sentence structure or a particular word. (I recall one ms. in which the student had learned to use partial parallel repetition to emphasize a point. Had learned it too well. Had become vastly fond of it. Had used it over and over. Had driven me crazy with the particular tic…which took forever to make her even see, let alone fix.)

The micro-level is where one sometimes has to dismantle and reassemble a paragraph or a scene, or rewrite it wholesale. Sometimes several times. Occasionally, a sort of reverse-layering technique is useful here, especially if there’s a scene where one can’t figure out what the problem is. You take the scene and hide everything except the dialog, so it’s just talking heads, and then you look at the flow of the dialog and whether it makes sense as a conversation without all the emotion and internal dialog and stage business that it has in the scene. Then you do the same thing with the physical action, and then the descriptive bits. It’s a bit tedious and too labor-intensive to use on every scene, but it can be really useful when one hasn’t a clue where the problem is.

Some writers find that their prose hardens into concrete at some point, and chipping out the rough spots leaves visible seams. There are two approaches to this problem: one, get to the revisions soon, before the prose sets up (for some writers, this means the same day it gets written); two, figure out how to either delay the hardening-up or soften up the prose once it’s gone hard. One writer I know with this problem prints out her ms. formatted the way her page proofs look; since she’s used to fixing things in page proof, she can see and fix them on the printout when she can’t on the screen. Another writer is fine as long as she doesn’t print out the final draft of a chapter – as long as it’s all pixels, it stays workable for her. Still another has to set aside the written scene and re-imagine the whole thing from scratch, then write a whole new version. It depends, as usual, on how your particular mind works.

  1. I am willing to bet this is just me, but I turn the manuscript into a Kindle file and read it on my Kindle. Once it’s a book, it’s so much easier to spot the bits that need fixing. Repetitions, in particular, jump off the page when I’m looking at the page as a reader instead of a writer.

  2. Urrrgh…
    There are so many stages of revising. And I feel like I’m never at the right one.
    A couple of days ago I dug out an old MS that was supposed to have been revised to the utmost, but I kept seeing spots I could fix and tighten until I cut over 1000 words from just the first 5 chapters. I now know that if I do that to the whole thing, I could get it down and make it really tight, but the plot is still impossible.
    And then I opened up my most recent work, and I was like “what is this shit?” The writing was rough and poor and confusing. The scenes weren’t arcing. But, of course, this was something I had just eviscerated and started stitching back together. When I read the rough draft it didn’t make sense as plot, so I reorganized it into a frankenstein monster that at least had a head and two arms, then read it again. This time I realized that I hadn’t even finished stitching him up, went in and stitched him up, but the next step is skin grafts, and I was working on cosmetic surgery on the other MS, so I don’t want to do skin grafts. 🙁

    For things that really need rewriting, I work best on hard copy, but for cosmetics, I need the freedom to manipulate sentences that the computer gives me.

    Time to get back to the skin grafts.

  3. Revising is hard for me, but I love what you say about killing your darlings – since most people don’t really explain what they mean when they say that.

  4. I realised this week that I’ve shifted into draft #2 revisions without having quite finished draft #1 — the problem was that before I could get to the ending, I needed to revise the beginning (as there are some parallel locations/ events that get set up there that aren’t returned to till the end). I just had a realisation that I could change the whole middle of the story — softening up the concrete, indeed! This post together with the one about layering, and a book I’m reading by Donald Maass (“The Breakout Novelist”) is providing a lot of helpful revision ideas. I generally prefer revising in hard copy.

  5. I find it easier to spot proofing errors in a hard copy–I’m too used to reading poorly edited submissions on websites, and just skim over the errors while they’re pixels.
    But for storyline work, I mostly use the let-it-cool method. It took me ages to realize that the reason the climax in my first MS was flat was because I hadn’t set up for it correctly–I’d let the romantic subplot take over the story instead of the MC worrying about finding a new job in time.

  6. Wow! This is amazing! I’ve never seen such a thorough exploration of revision methods. Thank you so much. I know I’ll be trying out some of these. Really liked the reverse layering for diagnosing problems.

    Currently I lean heavily on my first reader. She is brilliant and has homed in with incredible precision on holes and other issues in my stories. I’d be lost without her, because I didn’t even begin to see the things she did. No clue they were there. But once she opened my eyes, it was crystal clear, and I was eager and inspired to make the needed fixes.

  7. Another remarkably timely post, as I’m eyebrow-deep in what I’m fondly referring to as the Revisions From Hell. (Not least because I really, sincerely, with all due consideration, thought the thing was Done previously.)

    I hadn’t thought about revising being a separate skill, but you make a good point. It does make me feel a bit better about how hard the process is being. I did revise as I went, but these new and surprising revisions are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. This is the first time I’ve had to do this much to something this big — no wonder it’s hard!

    Some writers find that their prose hardens into concrete at some point

    This is so much me, I feel like I should be wearing a t-shirt that says “Exhibit A”. For me, that point is almost immediately after I type the words; as you say, if I knew a better way to say it, I’d have said it that way in the first place. I do find changing form/format helpful; first draft electronic, revisions on paper, surprise revisions in a different font. But sometimes it still takes blasting powder to shift the text, and I do worry about the cracks and bits of rubble left behind.

  8. Ugh, revision! What you said about reaching the end of your book and then discovering you need a whole other skill set really explains a lot.

    One revision method I like to use when I get really frustrated is to print out the problem scene with all my attempts at re-writes, cut out the bits I like with a scissors, then rearrange everything, tape it down on line paper when I have an order I like, and add transitions in ballpoint pen. It’s messy (I have paper snips everywhere by the time I’m done) but for me, this method really works.

  9. If you haven’t been revising-as-you-go, however, it is highly unlikely that your revisions skills will be up at the same level as your first-draft skills…and an awful lot of writers cannot revise as they go without killing the story.

    I have the opposite problem. I once wrote the first five thousand words of a story at least thirty times. I was never quite sure whether what I was writing was *wrong* or if I was hitting a mental block when I tried to write the rest of it.
    Eventually I gave up on that one and started writing about “fictional” people rather than real ones.

  10. Perfect timing. I just finished the first draft of my first novel (hooray) and am now tackling revisions.

    Apparently my micro-level problem is that I use too many adverbs and non-said tags and that I need to show and not tell.

    Any suggestions on how to do that?

  11. Chicory – I’ve done the scissors-and-tape method, too! It is messy, and it looks kind of absurd, but sometimes the only way to push particularly obstreperous bits of text around is to *literally* push them around. 😉

  12. I’ve been a long time fan of your books, but didn’t discover your blog till recently. It’s amazing! I’ve been checking out the previous blog posts to catch up. Thank you so much for the thorough explanation of your writing/revising process. I enjoy writing, and want to be a writer . . . and you are really helping me see that it *will* be a lot of work. Which is a good thing- I’m much more likely to stick through with something if I know what I’m getting into.

    Again, thank you for your blog and for your wonderful books.

  13. nct2 — I am not the more experienced author and blog-mistress, and this may be my own (bad?) habit, but for speaking tags, I generally see if I can ditch them entirely and indicate necessary tone/emotion in the stage business. (My other pet peeve is that “said” is invisible much of the time — but if overused, it becomes the opposite for me, and grates. Don’t discount the use of the occasional “asked,” “whispered,” or “shouted.”)

    For adverbs, I’m probably in your corner, as I’ve met few adverbs I haven’t liked. I gather the trick is to try to find a verb that matches what you want to say so you don’t have to say “walked X-ly” but can say “paced” or “strode” or “sauntered” or “slunk” or “darted” or “tromped”… etc.

    Show-vs.-tell, I find (again, I’m the less-experienced author… just chatty), is harder to have general suggestions for. If it’s a case of the author saying things like, “She was sad. He was angry. They were confused.” — well, those can get flat, yeah. Trying to get into the physical state (the grief that starts in the nose, so you can taste salt before tears), or the emotional/metaphoric one (anger that’s boiling, screaming, clawing at the back of the head)… That can help.

    But sometimes you need to just tell how a thing happens: “the trip was horrible, each day worse than the last, with bad food, worse beds — and the carriage horse went lame on the last stretch, so it was hours past dark by the time they arrived.”

    Good luck on the revisions!

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