“Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” – Michael Crichton
(Nailed it, Michael.)
When I started writing my first novel (three books ago) my goal was to just get the first draft finished. Would I try to publish it? people asked. I used to shrug and say I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Writing the first draft of that first book was hard. It took a long time. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand tension, pacing, character development, not to start my first chapter with my protagonist waking up (yes, I made that faux pas), how to show versus tell … I had a lot to learn. Fast forward a bunch of years and a bunch of drafts, and I get it. The first draft? Simple. You just keep laying down the words. Get the story out. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it. The words add up — and before you know it, you have a completed draft. Of course, simple doesn’t mean easy, but had I known just how many revisions a book takes to make it sparkle, well…it’s probably good I was so naive.
I’m doing revisions now for my editor — which thrills me to no end. You won’t hear me complain about going through my ENTIRE book for the 15th (20th?) time. It’s a process, and I’m giddy with excitement to have this opportunity.
This book, THE MEMORY OF US, will be published July 2015. Though I’ve revised the manuscript before (for my critique partners / for my agent / for submission), I’m now doing it on deadline … and I’ve been paid … and I have another book as part of my contract to write after this one is done. The game has changed, and so has my revision process. I have no idea if this is how I’ll approach revisions on my next book, but for now, this works:
- TAKE A DEEP BREATH (or a few)
Despite my excitement to dive in, editorial letter and marked up manuscript at the ready, the above does a great job at showcasing how I was feeling about this round of revisions (MUST.NOT.EFF.THEM.UP.). So the first thing I did was read my editor’s letter again, go through her notes in the manuscript, and go for a run. That cleared my head and got me ready to jump in.
- GATHER YOUR SHIT & GET EXCITED
This is the time to pull out the red pen, your post it notes / index cards / spreadsheets / notebooks, a hard copy of your book (I edit on both hard copy and digital files), and any sustenance you need (COFFEE), and get to work. Give yourself a pep talk (YOU CAN DO THIS, or die trying…), and get psyched. It’s likely going to be weeks (or months) before you hand your revisions in to your editor, so you need to find ways to keep your energy AND excitement levels up.
- RUSH SERVICE IS FOR POSTAL DELIVERIES (step also known as, Calm the F**K down)
It’s oh-so tempting to race through the book. Not just on your first revision, but on all subsequent ones. Whether it’s because you’re dying to get it into your crit partners’ hands, or out for a contest, or to your agent, or to waiting editors, rushing is never a good strategy.
There’s a reason you set deadlines, or your editor sets them for you: everyone wants the best version of what you’ve got, and that takes time. When I revise, especially if I’m working on a new scene, I write it all down without stopping first. I do not edit as I go, or wordsmith, or get all up in my online thesaurus. I just write. Then I go back, a day later, and read it as critically as I can — again, without revising. I take notes with my trusty red pen on my post its or in my notebook, and only then do I go back and make changes. It’s amazing how differently I see a scene with a little distance between us.
- STICK TO A SCHEDULE
For me, this falls into the ‘do what you say you’re going to do’ category. As a freelance writer, one of the most important ways to ensure I’ll be hired again is to NEVER MISS A DEADLINE. And I see my book deadlines the same — at a minimum, I will get the manuscript in two days early. Ideally, it will be even earlier than that. I treat revisions (and first draft writing, for the record) like a job, and even if I’m not feeling the creative vibe I force myself to sit down and write … because the discipline is as important as anything else, in my opinion. I set my alarm for 5 or 5:30 am, depending on the day and what I need to get done, pour my coffee, and dive in. Yes, there are mornings where I’d like to do this to my alarm:
But generally speaking, as long as I have coffee and my Twitter #5amwritersclub crew, I’ve trained myself to be able to write well in the morning. It’s a habit, like any other.
I should add that there have been plenty of moments through this process — which is not yet over, of course, so I expect I’ll have a few more — where I’m certain I can’t write, I’ve screwed up a scene or character, I’ll never figure out how to add in the plot twist I need to, or I’ve revised myself into a tight little corner I’m not sure how to get out of. But then I take a deep breath, go for a run, get out my notes, have another cup of coffee, and SLOW IT ALL DOWN, and generally, I’m back on my game.
What’s your revision process, or trick? I’d love to hear about it!