I love hearing from other writers about their writing process. Whether it’s brainstorming, outlining, drafting, or revising - I always find it so interesting to see the different ways that different people approach the daunting task of writing a novel.
Sometimes I’m horrified - you do WHAT?!
Sometimes I’m fascinated. Seriously? That works for you?
Sometimes I’m inspired. Sometimes hearing another writer’s brilliant approach to some aspect of the writing journey gives me ideas for how to improve my own process.
Either way, though, it’s always interesting. It’s reassuring to know that there’s no “right” way to do anyone of this. Or, rather, there are countless right ways to do it.
In that spirit, and for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share today a glimpse into my usual practice for one of the most important parts of the writing process: revision. I didn’t happen upon this topic by chance; at the moment, I’m waist-deep in a vigorous revision of a middle grade novel. My rough draft, as usual, was a total mess. But that’s okay. It’s supposed to be. All that matters is that the story is out, the mess is on the paper rather than in my head, and now I can roll up my sleeves and try to make something beautiful out of it.
It’s something we all do. It’s something we probably all do differently. And, it’ something that a lot of us might be diving into right now, right after good ‘ol NaNoWriMo finished up. So here you go. This is how I do it.
Dan’s Quick-and-Dirty Step-by-Step Revision Process
- Drafting Yeah. I think the revision process really starts when you’re spewing out your rough draft. It starts by not starting. When I draft, I do my best to throw my inner critic out the window. I don’t agonize over getting sentences, paragraphs, or even whole scenes “right.” Nope. That’s what revision is for. Why slave over crafting a sentence just right, when you might just end up cutting the whole thing later anyway? Sometimes, as I’m drafting, I get ideas for how fix earlier scenes, or ways to change them, or things I should go back and build in, or suddenly see plot holes that have opened up. But...I don’t want to stop my flow to address all those things. You could get lost in that wilderness forever and never get to the finish line. So, while I draft, I make a series of notes at the end of the document. Just ideas, reminders, notes to myself. Don’t get me wrong...I try to complete the very best rough draft I can. But the keyword in that sentence is “complete.” You gotta get it done before you can get it perfect.
- Walk Away For me, it’s essential to approach a novel for revision with a clear head and new eyes. So, once I write “The End” on a rough draft, I save it and close it and forget about it. Seriously. For at least a month. I don’t even think about it. That way, when I come back to revise it, it feels fresh. New, even. I can read it in a way that’s more like how an actual reader will read it. And that’s hugely important.
- Read-Through My first real revision step is just to re-read the book. I don’t make a ton of changes. I’ll fix what I can, sure. Clean things up. Fix obvious holes, errors, train wrecks. But before I dive into cutting and slashing, I want to reacquaint myself with the story, and I want to get a feel for the big-picture, overall pacing, and structure. As I read, I make a summary of each chapter in a separate document. I record what happens, who we meet, how each chapter ends. I include the word count so I can take note of any egregiously long or short chapters. And I make notes on what works in each chapter, what falls flat, and how it can be improved.
- The Heavy Lifting Now comes the work. I’ve written and read and recorded the whole thing. It’s laid out before me like a cadaver. The sheet is off. Scalpel, please. I look at my drafting notes, I look at my read-through notes, and I dig in. Cut out the waste. Add in the gold. Clean up the transitions. Streamline the pace. Solidify the structure. Turn up the voice (or, sometimes, turn down the voice). Sometimes I make huge changes: cut this whole character! Wipe out the first three chapters! Completely change the ending! Whatever. I do whatever it takes to make the story true, and make the story work, and make the story sing.
- First Reader At some point, I’ve done all I can to a book for awhile. I’m numb. I can’t even really see it anymore because it’s all I’ve been looking at. I need another “walk away” (see Step 2 above), but this time it’s going to be a dual-purpose walk away. Because while I’m NOT reading or thinking about this #*+$ing book that I probably hate by now, someone else will be. For me, my first reader is always my wife. This is an absolutely necessary, don’t-even-think-of-skipping-it step. Before you ever send anything out to an agent or editor, you have to get feedback from someone else. The pictures in my head are probably vivid and compelling and clear, but I’ve got the advantage of having that picture in my head...the words I’ve written may fall far short of what I was aiming at, and I may not be able to see it. Another reader will find flaws and weaknesses and plot holes that I never could myself. They can point out descriptions that don’t work, characters that aren’t likable, scenes that aren’t believable. They can also, by the way, tell me what’s working. They can point out the gold I might have lost sight of in all the tedious work I’ve been doing. They might just remind me why I fell in love with the story in the first place, long before I hated it.
- Feedback Injection Simple stuff here. I go through the book again, addressing the weaknesses and flaws that my first reader or readers pointed out. I don’t have to agree with everything they say, but I should listen to and consider everything they say.
- Repeat Steps 2-6 As Needed Yup. Sometimes a story’s shine stubbornly refuses to come out. You know there’s some prime meat there, but it might take quite a few passes to get through all the gristle and sinew. But you love your story, right? And you want it to be as good as it can possibly be, right? So we do the work. This step, for me, keeps going right up until the book goes to the printer. I can always see ways to make sentences, scenes and stories better (even after a book gets published, which is agonizing).