Revision: A Guest Post
by J. Grace Pennington
Everyone has their own method of revising their writing. For me, as a first-time novel-reviser, the daunting task of somehow whipping Firmament: Radialloy into shape was extremely daunting. Not only was it my first try at such a thing, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about it.
I tried many different ways. The first time, I just read straight through, correcting any errors that I happened to come across. That didn’t work, because it only fixed various little issues rather than looking at the novel as a whole that needed a solid arc, plotline, and good setups and payoffs. I got some minor problems dealt with, and lots of typos fixed, but no really significant revision happened on that first pass.
So that wasn’t the way to go about it. I tried something else. This time, I talked with one of my test readers and we discussed things that were weak, and brainstormed for possible solutions. Theme was foggy? We discussed what theme would best spring from the action. Villain was unrealistic? We created motivation for him. Conflict was weak? We figured out how to add some more antagonistic forces.
So then I carefully figured out which things needed to be changed, and went through the draft and changed them. I wasn’t sure about this draft, but by this time it was so mixed up and I was so confused about it that I couldn’t really tell whether it was working or not. So I gave it to another friend who printed it out, marked it up with notes, and mailed the manuscript back to me. Thus I learned that it was full of plot holes and blatant illogic, as well as character inconsistencies and other horrors.
Clearly this whole going-through-the-book-and-fixing-things-here-and-there thing wasn’t going to work. I had to do something more drastic.
I had to stop trying to make it work the easy, lazy way.
This time I finally got serious. I printed out the entire book and put it in its own special binder. Then, armed with a red pencil and some post-it-notes, I mercilessly butchered it. Rearranging scenes, deleting scenes altogether, completely reordering plot points, adding new characters. When I was done, there wasn’t a page that wasn’t stuck with notes or scribbled with red.
And then, I didn’t just go through and make the prescribed changes. Nor did I paste over the good and almost-good parts and fill in the gaps. Instead, I took the binder, set it up on my desk, opened a brand new word document, and started all the way over from the beginning.
Yes. I did just that. Started over almost from scratch. I didn’t copy and paste anything that was to stay the same, I looked at the binder and retyped it. Why? Going straight through like that helped me to have a better sense of the story as a whole. It gave me a smoother and more accurate idea of how everything fit together from beginning to end. So I’d type out a scene that stayed the same, then create the new material I needed to fit it to the next remaining scene. When I came to a scene that could stay mostly the same with some altering, I’d fix it as I typed it out.
It wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be, though it was still definitely a long and arduous process. At times it would go smoothly, and at other times my brain was screaming, “I already imagined out this whole thing, and now you’re making me do it all over again?”
But every second was unquestionably worth it when I took a look at the finished project and sent it out for feedback. The story was tighter, more fulfilling, made more sense, had a better point, was more interesting, etc., etc., etc. I absolutely could not believe how much better it was.
My test readers got back to me, raving about how much better the book was, and with some much more minor critiques. I realized that then I could go through the manuscript and fix things as I went. That there was a place for that sort of revision, it just wasn’t at the beginning, when the story still needed so much remolding.
So I fixed those things, gave it to a few more readers, fixed a few more things, and then began the final passes. I did one read through the book just looking for “ly” adverbs, to see how many were unnecessary or weak. I searched “was” to check for instances of passive voice that I hadn’t realized I was using. I did a punctuation check of the whole book, reviewing my commas, semi-colons, dashes, and all the rest. I did another to make sure that each sentence was as clear and communicative as it could be. I did about ten or twelve of these before I was finally satisfied that the book was finished.
Yes, I could have gone on tweaking forever. Oh yes, there are still things about the book that could be much better, and more polished. But I knew that it was the best I could get it with the knowledge and skill that I had at the time.
And then, I went to publish it.
Revision can be a scary journey, especially when you’re new to it, but really any time. Having to operate on your child, the story you’ve labored over so long and hard. But if you think carefully, fit you revision style to the number and size of changes your book needs, it won’t be nearly as frightening, and you’ll end up with a better book.
A story that is worth all the love and work you put into it, and that will be very much worth reading.
* * *