The Art of Revisions

Since I’m currently working on revisions to my upcoming fourth book, I thought I would make my return to blogging by talking about revisions and sharing some (hopefully!) helpful tips. I’ve been known to say that revising is my favorite part of the process – though I also love drafting something new, there’s something especially exciting about getting in there and polishing the words you’ve already written to make them shine, about adding new scenes that you couldn’t have dreamed up the first time around, about tightening and fleshing out plot threads, about beefing up your character arcs and characterization and really making the characters real, flesh-and-blood people. And since I know I can get in there and revise until the cows come home, it lets me loosen up a bit while drafting and helps me shut off my inner editor. Once you get it down, you can always fix it later, but you can’t fix a blank page!

I used to be way more intense about revisions than I am now. My agent loves this story: when I was revising The Violinist of Venice, I typed out each draft manually. The entire thing. As in, I printed out the first draft, put it in a binder, and had it next to me on the desk, and retyped every single word for the second draft. Then I did the same thing again for the third. Retyping it all each time forced me to really consider each and every word and whether it was necessary, and whether it was the best word choice.

Needless to say, this method took forever (especially since the earlier drafts of Violinist were WAY longer than the final draft), and as such, I don’t revise that way anymore. What with now having deadlines to meet, I don’t have that much time to take on a round of revisions. I’m glad I did it, since as an exercise it most definitely made me a better writer and honed my skills, but it’s just not practical at this point in my writing career, nor perhaps as necessary given the experience I’ve gained since then. That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever retype portions of a manuscript again if I was feeling very stuck, so I DO recommend this method on the whole (if you have the time, that is).

My current process, then, looks like this: I start a new Word document for the new draft, then I’ll copy and paste a chapter or two at a time from the original draft into the new document; I read through it, and make whatever changes/deletions are necessary. New chapters/scenes/what have you are just written directly into the new document. The research never ends, of course; I’m always looking up or confirming things as I go. That’s happening a ton with book 4, as most of the plot is centered around actual historical events. I mapped those out (in terms of dates, who was involved, etc.) for the most part when I made the outline for the book, but with changes being made and new information added, I’m doing a lot of double checking, or looking up things I didn’t initially realize I needed to know.

When I’m drafting, there are things I know I’ll have to flesh out more or perhaps tighten in revisions, but part of tuning out my inner editor is pushing all that to the side and just getting the draft done. So as I draft I often make notes of those points for myself, so that when it comes time for revisions I remember any problem areas. The notes also help when I send the draft to my agent and critique partners – I usually provide them with a list of specific things I’d like feedback on, such as whether a plot point is working, whether a characters actions are believable and make sense, if a certain plot thread needs to be fleshed out more, whether I accomplished a specific thing, etc. The list goes on. It helps me push certain concerns aside when I’m drafting to know that I can run it past some fresh eyes later on. Sometimes the things I think are concerns actually are working way better on the page than I thought; sometimes I’m spot on about what’s working and what’s not. And sometimes my critique partners find issues I wasn’t even aware of! That’s why they’re great to have. You can never see your own work completely objectively, so those fresh, outside eyes are key.

With that said, though, I do have to let my drafts site for at least a month before I can start to revise. The distance gives me some measure of objectivity that I can’t have when I’m up to my elbows in it all the time. If I can let it sit longer, that’s even better (and usually I do, to give my agent/critique partners time to read). I always make sure to build that time into the process when working out deadlines with my publisher. Indeed, when drafting OR revising, part of the reason I never work every day is that I find it really helpful to just take a couple days off here and there as I go, to get my mindset at least a bit more fresh when I come back to it.

With book 4, I spent most of my energy in the outline and first draft getting all of the historical events worked out and in place. One of my narrators is a real historical figure, and one is not, so I had to make sure I knew where the former was and what he was doing at any given time (and if I wanted to deviate from the historical record, to figure out what he was doing instead and why/if the change was really necessary) and then fit the latter narrator into those actual events. It was a lot to juggle, so one of my big focuses for this revision is to flesh out the characterization of the fictional narrator, as she fell a bit by the wayside at times in the first draft. So far this is going really well, and she is coming much more to life then she did in the first draft. She’s becoming more complicated and nuanced, and I love her even more now!

I’m also making a big addition of a new plot point, based on a series of actual historical events that occurred that I left out of the first draft. These particular events were actually a pretty big deal historically speaking, but my problem when working on the first draft was that they occurred around the same time as something else that happened, and which I made the emotional climax of the novel. So from a craft/narrative perspective, I couldn’t have both of those things happen at the same time. After the first draft was done, I knew I really needed to figure out how to add the one in, and eventually I figured it out – I’m going to shift the new event to occur sooner than it actually did, before that big emotional climax. This is one of the ways that historical fiction authors can take creative license – these things did occur, but I’m just having them happen at a slightly different point in time. Then I’ll note that change in my author’s note – that best friend of historical novelists – and explain what I changed and why. After all, I’m writing fiction, not a nonfiction, factual account.

I’m also excited for this new plot point because I’ve found what I think will be a great way to insert my fictional heroine into the events, thus fleshing out her story even more. This means, of course, I’ve got more research to do (I’m pretty well-versed in the historical events and context of what I’m adding, but to write about it well I’ll need to do a quick deep dive) but luckily there is lots of information and lots has been written about these particular events and the people involved.

A question I’ve gotten quite a bit – whether when speaking to book clubs or from aspiring/beginning authors – is how do you know when a book is done? When your revisions are done? When it’s ready to submit? How I answer this question for myself is a bit different now than it was when I was working on Violinist and had to decide when to query. Now, when I’ve done a good, solid revision, I’ll send it to my editor, and she and I will continue to revise and make changes together. I don’t ever send my editor a first draft – only my agent and critique partners see those – but something that’s been revised once but is still in need of more polishing. That’s her job, after all – to be yet another set of fresh eyes and find all the things that both I and my critique partners missed, and bring her own unique perspective to it (and believe me, she is GOOD AT IT). I’m leaving lots of notes for her in the manuscript, for questions I have and things I know I want to talk with her about. Book 4 is my most ambitious undertaking yet, and I love challenging myself, but that means this one may need more help than my previous books.

With all that said, though, the question I always ask myself towards the end of the process – and what I asked myself before I decided I was ready to query Violinist is this: Am I actually improving the book, or am I just changing things to change them?

Look, you can revise and make changes forever. It could literally be an endless process if you let it. You’ll never stop coming up with ideas for things to add or change, and every time you read through your work you’ll find something to tweak. Case in point – a few months ago I thought up a really nice description for one of Adriana’s dresses in Violinist, then remembered, oh yeah, that book has been published for over two years now. Your brain always keeps working on those ideas and characters – especially if they’ve been a part of your life for a long time, as that book is for me. Had I thought of that description when I was still working on that book, sure, I would have added it in. Would it have made the book any better as a whole? No. It was just some imagery that I liked. It wouldn’t have changed how readers responded to the book or how well it sells. There’s a really great saying – I can’t remember with whom it originated – that books are never done, they’re only due. I think that sums up revising quite well.

So you see where I’m going with this? You can hang on to a manuscript forever and keep making little tweaks, but at a certain point I think that you stop actually improving the book and are just making it different. And when you hit that point – when you’re just making changes but not necessarily making the book better – that, I think, is when it’s time to stop, lest you get caught in a never ending cycle of revisions. That’s when it’s time to query, or to send it to your agent, or submit it to your editor. That’s when you’re done.

It can be scary to pronounce a book “done” and let it go like that, but remember – until you send those first pass pages back to your publisher, you can still make changes. If you sign with an agent, they’ll have feedback; if the book sells, your editor will have feedback. The book can still be made better, but I think you reach a certain point where you can’t make it any better by yourself. At least, that’s been my experience.

So I am plugging away at the revisions for book 4, and you know what? The first draft wasn’t as bad as I thought it was (it usually isn’t) and, even though this revision was a little rough for a bit, I feel like I’ve hit my stride and I am really, truly improving the book. I’m getting excited thinking about how this one, too, will go out into the world, and about introducing readers to these characters. I’m excited to send it to my editor. This book has been a long journey, and there’s still a lot to do, but I’ve reached that point where, finally, it all seems doable. Where I can see how I can make this book everything I dreamed it would be. And that’s a really great feeling.

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