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Revision Is a State of Mind

Well, we’re finally here: December Revision-o-Rama! I can already hear the shouts of joy (or are they groans of agony?). I know a lot of you reading think that revision sucks. Writing out the first draft, while time-consuming and frustrating at times, is also freeing. You’re spilling words on the page. You’re creating. You’re letting your imagination roam. Basically, you’ve got your “first draft goggles” on and everything is great.

Then you’re faced with looking at your manuscript in the cold, sobering light of morning for the first time. There are typos. The dialogue is flat. Characters make the same gestures over and over. We don’t know what the protagonist looks like but we’ve spent 5 pages on the love interest’s glittering blue eyes. You forgot to describe anything or you described everything way too much. And how did it escape your notice that absolutely nothing happens for five straight chapters in the middle other than a lot of driving around and witty banter? Plus, it needs an ending. It has either dropped off so quietly that you’re completely unresolved or it went out with such a bang that you’re sure you forgot to print the last 20 or 30 pages.

You hit the liquor cabinet. If there is a mild-tempered cat or squeezable puppy nearby, they know to scamper out of your path and hide under the nearest couch. You crawl into bed. Things look a lot worse than they did before.

Well, guess what. Writing and plotting and tension and dialogue and description and characterizations are all elements of craft. It might’ve been fun to get all of your ideas in one place and in a semi-coherent order, but now they actually have to make sense. Now comes the hard (and rewarding!) work of actually teasing a publishable book out of that novel-length wordcount.

This is actually the most wonderful part of writing, and the people who have revised enough manuscripts figure out soon enough that they actually love revision. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. Characters need motivation, logic and consequences for what they say and do. Every scene needs to teach us something new about a character or plot element. Every chapter needs to further the plot along. Each sentence needs to earn its keep in your writing and justify staying in the draft. Each plot and subplot needs to have an arc and resolve itself by the end. Characters, no matter how big or small, need to make some kind of change or progress. Emotions have to rise and fall like waves throughout.

If I can’t make you love revision like I do (usually ‘cuz I’m not the one doing it, LOL), at least I can help you respect it this month. Because if you don’t respect or recognize the importance of revision, you’ll have a very tough road ahead of you in professional writing. Most writers tell me that they spend between three and five times as long revising as they did writing their first draft. This is completely normal. In fact, most people spend all that time revising just so they can give their manuscript to their critique groups or beta readers… and revise some more! (Check out an old post of mine: How much revision is normal?)

So consider this your pep talk. On Friday, I am going to start talking about, I think, one of the most important elements of a book: character. Then I will go down the line to plot. After that, I’ll tackle dialogue. Then description. Then… dun dun dun… voice. After that, I’ll finish out the month talking about tweaks, tricks and smaller things that you can look for in revision. Sound good? Good. Wake up and smell the red ink, writers! We’ve got some literary babies to sacrifice!

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  1. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    I LOVE revisions. The first draft is fun, yes, because you can just let it all flow out as ugly as it is. . . but then, fleshing it out. . . I LOVE that.

    I’m looking forward to your revision posts! Bring it! :-)

    Have a great day.

  2. Siski Green’s avatar

    I think for me it’s the word ‘revising’ that puts me off. I call it ‘editing’ and then I feel much happier about it!

    I have a question: if you’ve written a novel and you need to edit/revise it, is there a method that works better than others or is it entirely up to the individual? I’m tempted to print it out, go through it with a red pen and then do changes on the computer. But I also want an overview of it, so I can see if I’ve got a good balance of dialogue/description/regular character appearances and so on. So for that I’d probably have to write out a kind of synopsis of each chapter. Is that ridiculous?

  3. Bane’s avatar

    Plot and Dialogue are my friends. It’s that nasty bitch Voice that always gives me fits.

  4. Anita’s avatar

    I too enjoy the revision process. I especially like how you describe revision as putting together pieces of a puzzle. The most gratifying moment is when you find THAT piece that’s been missing and it completes the puzzle.

  5. Jackee’s avatar

    Often I’m conflicted about revision. Sometimes I think, “This is crap and will forever be crap.” And then sometimes I think, “Wow. I wrote that.”

    I suppose those feelings and moments will never change.

    Thanks for tackling these topics!

  6. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    What about us poor souls who can’t hit the liquor cabinet? How are we supposed to get through revisions?

  7. Mary’s avatar

    Martha — Hit the Dr. Pepper!

  8. Gwenda’s avatar

    I LOVE revision. It is, by far, the most rewarding part of writing, for this one little writer anyway.

    Anyway, just chiming in to recommend Scrivener to Siski–I find it is invaluable for what you’re describing, makes it all so much more intuitive and, well, Scrivener is just the revising writer’s friend. (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html) It only works on Mac, but they have recommendations for similar programs for Windows users at that site too.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Gwenda — Lady Gwenda! Long time no see! I hear (from your very own Twitter) that you’ve finished a draft of something yummy. Hooray!

    I second the recommendation of Scrivener. Most of the professional writers I know use it. I use it. Gwenda uses it. So, obviously, all the cool kids…

  10. Rissa’s avatar

    *raises hand* yup, that’s me. I am hating the revision/editing process.

    I needed this pep talk, thank you! I am going to try to think of it like a puzzle to see if it makes editing easier.

  11. Elizabeth  Prats’s avatar

    Literary babies? Priceless..

    Also, why exactly is the Scrivener so helpful? And what exactly is it?

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Elizabeth — It’s a word processing program for Macs. It lets you divide your manuscript into chapters, scenes, whatever you want, and shows you all of them on a cork board so you can arrange, rearrange, etc. It also keeps track of chapter numbers for you so you don’t have to and otherwise lets you see the big picture of what you’re doing. That’s what I like about it, anyway.

  13. Jade’s avatar

    Awesome post! I’ve come to really love the revision proces. The first draft is fun but also intense, painful and exhausting. Sorry, I should say that I did love the revision process. I’m on my 4th draft and my ms and I are going through an awkward break-up. I used to think he was witty and exciting but turns out he’s dull and a tad trite.

    Anyway, thanks for the constantly sweet posts. This is fast becoming my fave industry blog. Your posts are really helpful. I look forward to the rest of revision o rama!

  14. Elizabeth  Prats’s avatar

    Oh! That actually sounds very helpful! Thanks, I may look into that program :]

  15. Julie Duck’s avatar

    Oh no! Not the dreaded Voice!!!!! Ahhhhhhhh! Just kidding. These posts will be very beneficial for all of your readers, and I look forward to enjoying them.

    - Julie

  16. Rhiannon Hart’s avatar

    Could you also do an extra-special post about endings if you can? They’re driving me nuts right now. Or if you have a previous post you can direct me too that would also be great!

  17. Mary’s avatar

    Rhiannon — What about them, specifically? Just… what makes a solid ending? I will add that to my pile. I’ve already written a pretty snazzy (if I don’t say so myself) post about beginnings. :)

  18. Laura’s avatar

    This was a really great post, and I enjoyed the link to your other post about How much revision is normal. Why is it that I feel I need permission to rewrite an entire book? It’s mine. I’m allowed. Right? =)

    I think the worst part about revising is going back through what (for me at least) is usually a really bad first draft. But that’s also the great part, because it frees me up to let that first draft just come out, however it comes out.

    I am really looking forward to your upcoming posts about character, plot, etc.

  19. Siski’s avatar

    Gwenda, thanks so much for the Scrivener tip. I was going to go prehistoric-style with a paper and pen, involving much hair-pulling… and in the end I would have looked like a crazy cavewoman!

    I’m a Mac lady anyhow, so it suits me perfectly. Thanks!

  20. bjanderson’s avatar

    This is exciting! Thanks for that awesome link to the Scrivener thing, Gwenda. I’d never heard of it before. And I love this post because it makes me feel like maybe I’m on the right track, or someday will be, lol.

    I really do love revisions because I feel like I have something to work with. I put way more time into revisions than actually writing the initial manuscript. Besides the Scrivener program and your posts to come, Mary, do you have any favorite books or resources on editing that you can recommend?

  21. Kristi’s avatar

    I enjoy the revision process and even blogged about it. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and want things to be great before sending them out so the feedback from beta readers and critique partners is invaluable to me. I can’t wait to hear more about the revision process.

  22. Susan James’s avatar

    Have any of you read Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell? I’m like Norrell; he can’t ever publish anything because he constantly feels its not ready. I can’t stop rewriting my opening chapters. I started very moody. Then, I cut out the first 5 chapters. I made it funnier. Now, edgier. I just can’t stop. New opening scenes come into my mind. I try really hard to ignore them. I write other stories. Go out of town. Volunteer for my kids’ fieldtrips. But the new ideas won’t go away. I wish I had an agent and editor, somebody wise who would just say- this is it: you’ve got it. Stop now.

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