Revising Your Book

I get asked about revising a lot.

A lot.

I have been asked about the process so much that I crafted a workshop out of it. I can’t give the same workshop every month, but it’s a fairly vital topic.

Writing and revising are not easy. First, there’s the writing part, which is as arduous as it needs to be. You pump out your zero draft, molten and messy, then you have the raw material needed to revise.

Some people do not “do” zero drafts. Some people revise as they write. Hats off to you if you’ve figured it out. I myself have yet to finalize anything below four drafts.

Revising is necessary for a creature like myself. Here are my notes on how to stay sane throughout the process, fellow tender morsels.

HOW TO REVISE YOUR BOOK

So you finally got to “THE END.” You persevered through all doubts, reservations, and fears, all to arrive at those two golden words.

But are you finished?

Oh, my friend, you have only just begun.

What do you mean, I HAVE TO REVISE MY BOOK?

Remember how teachers asked for rough drafts? Y’know, you’d be assigned some enormous research paper, and teachers would set due dates for the entire process: thesis statement, introduction, outline, rough draft, and final draft. In all likelihood, this was to ensure they didn’t receive messy, incoherent, hastily-written papers.

Oh, my lovely. Listen: that 400+ page beast you’ve just finished is a rough draft. It is not ready for querying. It is nowhere near close to a final edit. Under no circumstances should you pay someone to “edit” it. Immediately hiss and swat at any evildoer who suggests otherwise.

This is not to undermine the glory of your achievement. You have accomplished an amazing thing. You’ve written a book.

But it is not ready.

And the only thing you should do when you understand this is SAVE and CLOSE the file.

Let it rest for at least a few days. Your eyes must be fresh and unclouded by hate when you come back to your pages.

First pass

The initial pass serves two essential functions:

Clean up the document for readers. Be your own spell check. Eliminate basic typos and wonky formatting.

Note what you need to work on. Jot down what pops out at you—clunky dialog, plot holes, verbal crutches, weak characterization, inconsistent point of view—and compile a list. I separate problems by whether they’re global (manuscript-wide changes) or local (scenes).

Once you have a list of potential issues, turn your focus outward. You’re going to need more eyes. Remember: verify before you vivisect. What you consider a flaw might be your novel’s finest aspect.

Peer review

Start searching for critique partners and beta readers. You’ll want to work with someone familiar with your genre and its demands. Not sure where your book would be shelved? Start with who you imagine reading it. Where would they go to find your book?

Write a summary. Readers and critique partners will want an idea of what they’re getting into. A good rule of thumb for what to include (per the wondrous Nathan Bransford) are CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and QUEST. Pretty much every pitch I’ve ever read follows this basic structure:

“When conflict happens to the main character, they must overcome the conflict to complete their quest.”

This applies to fiction and nonfiction of all kinds. Tossing a ring into the fires of Mordor does not a quest make. A Campbellian hero’s journey does not have to be epic in scale to be compelling.

If you’d like to go on your own hero’s journey, the next step you could take in this process would be to write a query letter. It’s certainly one way to knock out several birds with one stone, and if you’re interested in traditional publication, it’s a dragon you’ll be forced to to face. However, that particular journey is best covered in a separate workshop. Let’s refocus.

Critique partners! Where does one find them?

#CPmatch hashtag

#CPConnect hashtag

Scribophile

Writer’s Block Party

Absolute Write

Critique Partner Google Matchup

Feedback received. Now what?

Identify what resonates and what doesn’t.

Not all critique is good critique. It’s up to you to decide what will help your book. Cast a wide net and see what issues your readers consistently point out. If readers repeatedly tell you the voice is weak and your favorite character adds nothing to the story, you might want to reexamine voice and characterization.

Collect feedback. Bounce ideas off readers and writers you trust. You’re forming a strategy for the next draft. One could call it a…

Revision checklist

Remember how I mentioned “global” and “local” issues? That’s the idea. Start big and work your way down.

PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS

Examine your structure. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is the overarching conflict ever resolved? If you’ve woven in subplots, ask yourself whether they make the story compelling or confusing. Each thread should serve the tapestry. If it doesn’t…

Snip snip.

STAKES/TENSION

Does your reader care what happens? No? Probably a good place to blow something up or burn something down.

PACING

Does it drag? Does it move too fast? Your readers will let you know.

CHARACTERIZATION

Are your characters believable? Do they change over the course of the story? Who are they at the beginning, and who do they become by the end? Every character may not experience a clear arc, but your primary and secondary characters should be affected in some way. If they move the plot, the plot moves them.

Remember, we don’t have to like them. They just need to be interesting.

POINT OF VIEW/TENSE

What lens best serves your story? Is it an edge-of-your-seat thriller? First person present might be your friend. Third person past is a popular choice for fantasy, but feel free to do weird things with it. Turn it inside out. Make it work for you.

VOICE

There are multiple voices in your book. One set belongs to your narrators. One belongs to you. Depending on how many points of view you choose, balancing the two can be difficult.

Common elements of voice include vocabulary, syntax, and description. If everyone speaks and acts like a poet, the reader will have a hard time telling your characters apart.

Get familiar with these terms. Issues with characterization, pacing, and point of view will likely show up as culprits in multiple revisions.

Yes.

Multiple.

More than one.

Dear writer, revision is a hydra, but keep faith: your strategy will improve over time.

What about the finer things?!

Ah, those literary devices. Are there particular themes you want to work in? Maybe a character is associated with a symbol. Or you’d like to create a brooding, dreadful atmosphere. Perhaps one character acts as a foil to another. Clever motifs, foreshadowing, and shifts in narrative structure might be high priorities for you as a writer. Don’t discount these darlings when pages are on the chopping block. A minor stylistic change might save an otherwise broken plot.

Any other tricks or tips?

A few hacks I’ve found helpful in identifying problems:

  • Read it out loud. Nothing susses out wooden dialogue or run ons quite like reading your own pages out loud.
  • Print it out. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been stumped on a problem, only to immediately spot it on a printed page.
  • Get weird. You have no idea how many times changing the font of a serious POV to Comic Sans MS saved my sanity. Give it a try sometime. You’ll thank me later.

PERFECT VERSUS GOOD ENOUGH

Advice is great and all, but…

WHEN IS IT DONE, you scream into the void.

WHEN IS IT FINISHED, you howl, hurtling your MacBook down the street.

WHEN AM I DONE?!

There is no fail-safe for this. You have to develop your own rubric. Traverse your own underworld. Rescue your manuscript from its depths. When you’ve done all you possibly can, throw it farther. Enter it into contests. Query. If problems still exist, you’ll find them.

With persistence, you will accrue enough knowledge and experience to know when it’s time to shelve a project and move onto the next.

The only way out is through, dear writer.

RESOURCES

The “see with eyes unclouded by hate” quote is totally applicable to the revision process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EISWfdFNiUU

Nathan Bransford’s masterlist of writing advice: https://blog.nathanbransford.com/writing-advice-database

More about that godforsaken Hero’s Journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

Upstate Creative Writers Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatewriters/

Upstate NaNo Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatenano/

The Absolute Write Critique Partner Master Thread: https://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?30-Beta-Readers-Mentors-and-Writing-Buddies&s=207dbc0de5272ad710ac3f6527ec01cb

Writer’s Block Party Critique Partner Match Up: https://writersblockpartyblog.com/2018/01/11/wbps-critique-partner-match-up/

Critique Partner Google Match Up https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup

Scribophile: http://scribophile.com

#CPMatch Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpmatch?lang=en

#CPConnect Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/CPConnect?src=hash

Jes’s revision checklist that is, in fact, pretty ultimate: https://www.inklyo.com/ultimate-fiction-editing-checklist/

Another trustworthy list from Marissa Meyer: https://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/from-idea-to-finished-step-6-revisions/

NYC (a review)

Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.

So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.

That cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.

I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that I felt like a true bumpkin. Luckily I had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.

So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:

Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.

Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I’d seen it in movies, sure, but the screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.

I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took me to the Met, which was overwhelmingly amazing. So many exhibits. After that, she took me to Alice’s Tea Cup. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.

Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.

11196237_10152737032390740_3348405704266045595_nOur last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.

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(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)

All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.

And New York.

For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.

Almost.

So that was the trip! HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.

If they get done. Book first.

See you guys next month!