Some Thoughts on Revision

As NaNoWriMo draws to a close, you’re no doubt thinking about revision. Let me address a question about it from DHE:

Lastly, I’m wondering a bit about aspects about the revisions after getting an agent process, namely how much time is okay to spend on revisions. If someone has little free time and knows it’s going to take them awhile to get revisions done, is that troublesome or is that okay?

My answer is going to apply just as much to people who have an agent as it will to people who are still looking. Whenever I visit a conference, I always get asked questions about revision. In essence, how long is it okay to revise. Should you rush just because you want to get out on submission or because an agent/editor requested the work. Etc.

In terms of the latter question, I’ve addressed it here. In essence, I prefer a slow-cooked, gourmet meal to fast food. No writer should ever sprint on my account, and I want to reiterate that here. Just because someone asks to see more work doesn’t mean you should dash off and hurry to show them subpar, rushed work. That just doesn’t make sense. If more time will let you turn around a stellar revision, by all means, take the time.

There’s also the issue of the nature of your revision. I’m sad to say that I’ve parted ways with more clients on the issue of revision than I have on any other grounds. When an agent takes on a writer, they see the work in front of them but that’s it. They can hear the writer’s ideas for future projects, they can guesstimate the writer’s writing and revision skills based on the manuscript at hand, but those are all just guesses. In my experience, a writer’s ability to revise is usually the biggest — and most important — mystery as a writer and agent embark together in their relationship.

Some writers I’ve taken on have turned out great revisions and sharpened their editorial skills. Others have floundered, turned out hasty revisions, failed to go deeply enough into the work, etc. Sometimes, it is possible, as Ian in the comments said, to revise a manuscript to death. It happens when you stare at it too hard — or not hard enough — and cut out all the voice, the freshness, the spontaneity of the thing. This usually happens when you’re in too much of a hurry to just turn it around and get published now now now now now now now.

Here are more thoughts on the issue of quality in revision to round out these thoughts. First, an answer to the question of “How much revision is normal?” Next, a reminder about the Million Bad Words. In essence, you have to revise more than you think. Then put it away. Then come back to it in three months and revise again. I find writers often have the problem of too little revision, not too much. It is possible to become completely sick of your manuscript or hack out your frustrations on it. If that’s the case, I’d try cheating on it with a new project. That spark and excitement of working on something new could easily answer the question of whether you should go back to your old manuscript at some point for another or put the old ball and chain in the drawer for good.

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  1. Julie Daines’s avatar

    I love revising. For me, it’s usually during revisions that my whole story comes together with themes and motifs, and it gives me a second chance to bring out the voice. Sometimes those elements elude us until we’ve finished telling the whole story.

    Instead of looking at a big lump of clay and wondering what the heck can I make out of this, I see the outline of an image. I can take that image and give it a little softening here, and bring out definition in this part there, and it turns into something wonderful.

  2. Robyn’s avatar

    Needed this reminder today. Looks like my 6 weeks has turned into 3-4 months and then some.

  3. Ilima’s avatar

    I wish someone told me this a couple of years ago. When an agent I loved told me he wanted to see more of my work, I felt so pressured to show him something “now now now now now.” I thought if I waited too long I’d lose the opportunity. Instead, I almost blew it by sending him something half baked. I’m lucky he was still interested when I finally had something good more than a year later. You have to trust that the agent will still be there when you’re ready. And you have to trust yourself — that you really CAN wright something amazing if you give yourself time.

  4. Jade’s avatar

    I’m really feeling this post today. I’ve literally just finished two months of Intense Revision Hell and I’m currently on a break while an author friend pokes holes in my manuscript. It’s been a hard slog, but undoubtedly worth it.

    Thanks!

  5. Andrea’s avatar

    This post is just what I needed today. I’m revising one of my novels and feeling frustrated because it’s taking much longer than I want. But when I think about all the things I’m doing to improve the story – deepening characterization, reworking the plot, layering in more detail – I know I need the time.

  6. Gail Shepherd’s avatar

    I agree with Julie: I prefer revision to writing the first draft, because I have so much more to work with. That’s when the real fun starts. But yeah, there’ve been times I’ve looked at something so long and hard my vision blurs and patience starts to fray. Happily anticipating revisions on my NaNo novel!

  7. DHE’s avatar

    That’s so good to know! After a long time of editing on my own and with betas, I feel ready to query in the next few months, but I was worried about if the best happened that I might disappoint or aggravate an agent by taking a long time on edits. I assume then if you get editing notes from a publisher down the line, it’s the same thing? Or do deadlines start becoming more important?

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