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Revisions

You type the final words, then push yourself back from the keyboard and heave a deep sigh. You’ve finished. You’ve written a novel. It’s all there, all down in neat little paragraphs of ten point Courier. You’ve invested all of your free time for weeks, months, pouring the words on to the page. And you’ve actually done it. You’ve written a whole novel.

Congratulations! The Easy Part Is Done

Because what you have in front of you is almost certainly not a novel. I say “almost certainly” because it may be that you’re special. You may be a one-in-a-million talent, a supremely talented wordsmith with a muse on your shoulder who never sleeps or takes a day off. Brilliance rolls off your fingers every time you address the keyboard; the perfect word to convey your meaning comes effortlessly to mind; every plot-twist falls seamlessly into place. All you need to do is send off the manuscript and wait for your book to climb the New York Times best-seller list. If that’s you, you have my respect and admiration. Stop reading now; there’s nothing I can say to benefit you. Go grab yourself a beer or pour yourself a glass of wine and wait for the accolades to roll in.

Anyone still reading should be, like me, merely human. You’ve wrestled, sweated and groaned as you tried to force that image, so clear and vivid in your mind, to take up residence in the written word. You’ve questioned your talent and despaired of success at least twice a week, every week, since you started the book. But you didn’t quit. You kept writing, and you finished that first draft. Go ahead and take a moment. Take pride and satisfaction in what you’ve done. It’s something most aspiring writers never accomplish. If you want to grab that beer or that glass of wine and just enjoy the sense of accomplishment, go right ahead. You deserve to congratulate yourself. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re celebrating victory. You haven’t won. Not yet.

What you have done is reach the first milestone in a much longer journey. It’s an important milestone. It’s a vital milestone. You have to reach that first one if you want to have any hope of completing the journey. But it is only a milestone. Now the real work begins.

It’s Time To Revise

Revision is an essential element of writing. It is not an admission of failure. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong or that you’re not as talented as the writers who inspired you to sit down at your keyboard to try your own hand at crafting a story. Everyone revises. Everyone rewrites. Your favorite novel – you know the one, the one where the prose flows as rich and luscious as gourmet hot chocolate, where the characters step out of the page and whisper in your ear as you read, where the narrative whips you through the twists and turns of the plot with the precision of an F1 race car – yeah, you know that novel. That novel was nothing like that when the first draft was finished. It became that way in the revision process.

Revision is necessary in part because writing a novel is a process of discovery. Whether you’re an outliner or a discovery writer, you at least have some ideas in mind when you sit down to write a novel. Unfortunately (or sometimes, quite fortunately!) things tend to go a bit awry in the execution. Characters develop a mind of their own and insist on doing things you hadn’t intended, stubbornly resisting your most impassioned pleas to get back on track. Then you realize that these new people, the ones these characters turned out to be, wouldn’t react the same way you had them react in chapter two. Or eleven chapters into the book, an amazing plot twist occurs to you that is simply too good to ignore or, conversely, the neat plot twist you had planned simply turns out to be unworkable when you try to flesh out the details. But because you changed this event here, now you need to adjust something that occurred in chapter four. For all those reasons and more, what you end up with isn’t quite what you had in mind when you started. You need to revise.

Revision is also necessary because, well, you aren’t that literary genius who quit reading back up there in paragraph three. The perfect word doesn’t always occur to you when you need it, and sometimes even a thesaurus doesn’t help. You want to use a metaphor but the only one which comes to mind is hackneyed and clichéd. The approach to a scene was promising when you began but by the time you finish the chapter, it just doesn’t capture what you were trying to accomplish. When these things happen, you can either get something imperfect down on paper and keep going, or you can bring yourself to a screeching halt while you try to perfect the section you’re writing. I suspect Margaret Mitchell used that latter approach. She ended up with a masterpiece called Gone with the Wind. It took her ten years to do it. Since you aspire to write more than one novel every ten years, you resisted the urge to tinker and revise as you go. You kept the thought firmly in mind: I’ll fix it in the rewrite! Well, now it’s time to fix it.

Revision isn’t simply a matter of polishing your prose until it shines, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t just a matter of adding an additional scene here, cutting that scene there, or of tweaking this passage so it works with the story, although that’s part of it too. Revision is where you look at every facet of the story to make sure it’s consistent, logical and effective all the way through the length of the work. All of the aspects and techniques of writing you learned and brought to bear when you wrote the first draft need to be reexamined. You need to look at plot, theme, motivation, characterization, setting, dialogue, structure, voice, point of view and more. You need to look at the individual pieces, how they interplay with one another, and the overall effect generated when they’re combined. Laid out like that, it can be a bit daunting.

Relax, At Least A Little

Revision is work, just as the original writing is work, but it’s doable. And it’s seldom that you’ll have to make whole-sale changes to all of those aspects. Sometimes, you won’t have to make major changes to any of them. But you do need to at least consider them, to make sure that what you’re eventually sending out is both a well-written novel and the novel you wanted to write.
In upcoming articles, we’ll look at the different techniques and aspects of writing and how to approach those issues in the revision process. These will be general guidelines and suggestions, not hard and fast rules. I can’t tell you exactly how to do your rewrites because there is no one right way to do it. Like writing a novel, learning to be a writer is also a process of discovery. Every author is different, and you’ll figure out what works best for you. I’ll see you next month. Until then, keep writing.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Janie Bill says:

    No matter how many times I shelf one particular manuscript, and regardless my latest revisions were lost in cyber computer crash land, I can’t stop revising that piece of work. I don’t understand it. After multiple attempts, I am realizing what it means to say a published writer requires persistence over all else.

    Let’s all keep revising even if we have no idea which draft is top drawer!

    Janie

  2. Avatar sandra says:

    Fantastic article. If I was an agent I’d be linking this from my website and telling anyone about to sub that it’s required reading! I’m approaching this stage on my first novel and admit that from here it seems daunting but I’ll keep at it.

    Love the idea of BICHOK, might adopt that approach daily too!

  3. It’s quite sad that this needs to be said at all, but it’s absolutely true. I’m often dismayed to see writers who think they aren’t going to revise. I don’t necessarily think they believe they’ve spewed forth sheer unadulterated brilliance on the first try, but I wonder sometimes if they just don’t think they can figure out how to change it. I’m a writing teacher and I see that from my students so frequently. They write something, shrug and figure that’s it, they might as well turn it in for a grade. It doesn’t occur to them that revision is necessary or helpful because in every other part of their lives, they pretty much get one shot. If they get a bad grade on a test, they might be able to “make up” points with extra credit, but it’s still not going back to look at the activity/test again to revise. I think fiction writers often have a similar mindset.

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    I take what Hemingway (supposedly) said to heart: “The first draft of anything is shit.” If a writer can make me WANT to read about an old man who wants to go fishing, then that writer is a bloody good craftsman. Keep that nose on the grindstone!

  5. […] my last article, we took a broad look at the subject of revision. I began by delivering the bad news: finishing the […]

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