Revisions (Cue the spooky music)
REVISIONS — HOW TO HANDLE THEM AND STILL RETAIN YOUR SANITY
Some writers love doing revisions. Now that they have taken care of the basics they can have fun filling in the details. Others regard the process as sheer drudgery after a purely creative phase where their ideas flowed freely. Most are intimidated by the amount of work ahead. It doesn’t have to be that way.
One way to avoid being intimidated is to remind yourself that you don’t have to fix everything at once; you can do this over successive drafts. See this as an opportunity to deepen your connection with your world and characters. Also remember that whenever you look back on your most recent draft and think to yourself, “This will never do” it means that you have learned something that you didn’t know before you began: possibly something you can apply to the next draft, possibly something you can apply to the next book. People without the capacity to learn always believe that everything they write is perfect, without any editing, without any revision. If you can see your mistakes, you can learn to fix them.
On the first pass you should concentrate most of your attention on the most serious problems. Look for places where you went completely off-track in terms of the plot, or in terms of one or more characters. Do your characters act in a manner consistent with their own needs and desires, or do you think that readers will see your hand manipulating them? Does the dialogue sound natural? Do all of the characters, regardless of their age or condition in life, sound exactly alike? Are there flaws in your worldbuilding? Have you created a society that is simply untenable, located vast woodlands in the rainshadow of the mountains, and established your landlocked nation as a great power at sea? This is also the time when you may have to rewrite the beginning to incorporate all of the new things you learned — in terms of your craft, in terms of your story — by the time you were writing the final chapters. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts, because you can actually see your progress. Look for plot holes, but also look for missed opportunities.
You should make the most drastic revisions first, because they might require more substantial cuts, more sweeping changes, than you originally anticipate. There is no use polishing a scene or chapter to perfection if it going to be cut or largely rewritten, and not least because it will make it that much harder to force yourself to cut them out.
But before you make those drastic revisions, consider this:
When a major problem first comes to your attention, the task ahead may seem overwhelming, as you imagine that the only way to fix it will involve ripping out large sections and rewriting them from scratch. It could mean that, yes, and it often does, but sometimes small changes can achieve much. A sentence here, a paragraph there, sometimes a rewritten scene or chapter, may throw an entirely new light on what you already have. As all parts of a novel should work together to tell the story, so subtle changes in one area may impact others in surprisingly effective ways. It is like the ripple effect when you throw a stone into a pool of water.
If an agent or an editor asks you to make some specific changes, take a few days to think about them before convincing yourself that they go against absolutely everything you mean the book to be. Speaking from my own experience, I’ve often found that the idea I utterly reject one day may look much better the next, because all of the time my conscious mind was saying, “No, no, no,” my subconscious was busily at work transforming that idea and fitting it into my original scheme. Almost invariably this meant that the changes involved were fewer and smaller than I originally thought. In these cases, what it usually amounts to is altering the reader’s perceptions rather than altering the plot or the characters.
How does this work? In the first chapters of a book readers are forming impressions, of people, of places, of your invented societies, that may prove indelible — like hating a character you want them to like. In the absence of other information, they may take the only details you have given them so far to be representative of the whole. So suppose that your protagonist makes two or three cutting, sarcastic remarks in the first chapter. All through the rest of the book, he is kind, understanding, sympathetic, but readers have already made up their minds that he has a sharp tongue and a malicous sense of humor. They are looking for sarcasm in everything he says, and because they are expecting it, they find it. Anything can sound sarcastic if you imagine the right tone of voice. You love the dialogue in the first chapter: it’s clever, snappy, your writing group applauds it. But it gives a false impression of your main character. Change those three lines and you alter readers’ perceptions. With no false impression at the beginning, they can see that character for who he is; instead of sarcasm, they read sincerity into everything he says. Yes, sometimes it can be just that easy.
So the first thing you must do when faced with a problem is determine whether you can fix it with such small, subtle changes, or if major surgery is required. The catch, of course, is that even when you know in your heart that surgery is indicated, the sheer amount of work involved may send you scuttling for a box of bandaids instead. You need to be honest with yourself, never choose a course only because it is the easiest way, and don’t keep scenes, subplots, or characters that no longer work simply because you have developed a sentimental attachment. Learn to be ruthless. You may even be pleasantly surprised by the result. I once had to throw out and rewrite an entire third of a book. I have never regretted doing so, because in completely rethinking that part of the book I came up with something I liked much, much better. (In addition, it gave me an incredible sense of virtue because I was willing to sacrifice so many chapters for the greater good. That made it seem worthwhile, too. Enjoy your triumphs. You can fix the things that still aren’t quite right in the next draft.)
The second thing to do is try to think of changes that will be organic to the story.
Before you attempt to invent your way out of a problem, look and see if the solution is already there. Frequently it is. Suppose that you are writing a mystery novel. You have devised a fiendishly clever way for the murderer to poison his victim, and he pulls it off. But when revising the novel you suddenly realize that he has made a serious mistake, one that will inevitably lead to another character putting the evidence together and accusing him of the crime — long before you want anyone to so much as suspect him. To avoid this happening, the murderer must claim another victim, but without the meticulous planning that went into his previous crime, and with the first weapon that comes to hand. There is absolutely no reason for you to invent an antique dagger of oriental design (and then explain why it’s there), if you have already put a loaded revolver on the mantlepiece in an earlier chapter.
Your job, when this kind of problem comes up, is to search through your book for that loaded revolver. If it isn’t there, then, yes, it may be necessary to introduce something new, but look for the revolver first.
You can’t fix plot holes by patching them; you do so by weaving any loose threads back in. A plot hole occurs when there is something you haven’t thought out sufficiently, usually something much earlier in the story. Patching on new characters or situations to fix it rarely works, as the hole in the fabric of the story is still there under the patch, and discerning readers will detect it despite your best efforts at disguise. It’s better to take a hard look at your story, pinpoint the exact place where things went wrong, fix the problem at its source rather than at the point where you first became aware of it, and rewrite everything that comes between. This may seem like a lot of work, but in the long run it usually involves less work because it fixes the problem for good. Otherwise, the loose threads may continue to unravel, requiring more and more patches. So, as above, whenever possible, look for a solution within the story. Very often it’s already there; you just haven’t seen it yet.
Tightening, you may be surprised to learn, doesn’t always mean making things shorter. It means taking out all the boring and irrelevant bits and replacing them with material that engages, that adds interest to what you already have. Often this substitution does indeed make the word count shorter, but sometimes it ends up being longer but seems to read much faster. A gripping novel of 120,000 words may whisk right by, while a shorter but less involving novel seems to inch along. Tightening means that everything in the story should serve a purpose, perhaps two or more purposes. For instance: advancing the plot, providing background, illuminating character.
Information that seems irrelevant in one chapter may become of vital interest to readers in another, when they understand its importance, or when you’ve brought them to the point where they are dying to know the answer. Under these circumstances, the solution is simply to move it rather than cut it. This can especially be true where there are expository lumps or infodumps. Information that seems too much when readers are expected to swallow it all in one gulp, may be just the right amount when fed to them slowly, a bite at a time. However, don’t take this as an excuse to be self-indulgent.
These consist of unexplored avenues, failing to make use of all the dramatic possibilities in a given scene (you’ve decided to focus on an ongoing argument between your characters instead of on their frantic efforts to bail out their sinking lifeboat), and places where you’ve unconsciously set up your story so that something much more interesting could have happened instead of what actually does.
As an example, we’ll take The Lord of the Rings, since almost everyone knows it. In an alternate reality, it has fallen to you to produce this masterpiece. Now you are writing The Fellowship of the Ring and you need to get your characters from Bree to Rivendell . Obviously the journey can’t be accomplished in a few pages, and just as obviously you need to make that journey as exciting as possible. You decide to send your characters through a dangerous bog. Sam falls into quicksand and has to be hauled out; Frodo catches marsh fever. The Black Riders have already appeared in the story, you have established that they are following the Hobbits, but instead of writing an amazing scene at Weathertop where the wraiths attack and Frodo is wounded … you’ve chosen the bog. This was a missed opportunity. We’ll have to hope that on mature reflection you’ll bring on the Black Riders.
It may take more than one draft to wrestle your plot and your characters into submission. In all likelihood it will. But once you’ve done it, then the time has come to go through and start polishing, looking for passages that don’t quite work, sentences that are a little awkward. Pruning a word here. Adding a little description there. Asking yourself: Could I have chosen a better word? Is this line of dialogue written as that particular character would naturally phrase it?
Enjoy this part of the process. It’s the part where you can bring your story closer to what you envisioned in the first place. Yes, it can include some small fiddly bits that you have to do over and over until you are satisfied, but the greater satisfaction you’ll feel every time you get some small part exactly right will be more than worth it.
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at email@example.com
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