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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In Which a Pantser Makes and Writes from an Outline

As I mentioned a few posts back, my current work-in-progress is my most ambitious undertaking yet (and if you read my most recent post then you know that I’m actually almost done!). In order to get started with it, I was forced to make an outline, which is something I had never done before (I had never outlined an entire book, at least). For someone who usually falls into the “pantser” category of writers, this was a new challenge in and of itself.

I found the actual writing of the outline itself to be somewhat tedious – necessary though I knew it was, I just wanted to be writing the actual story and digging into the characters and relationships and dialogue. It didn’t help that the outline took much longer to finish than I’d anticipated (though given what the overall length of the book will end up as, that shouldn’t have surprised me). But then once it was done, I was ready to get writing, and embark on this strange new journey of writing from an outline.

I wondered whether writing from an outline would help me to draft faster. I’m told I write pretty quickly, but I would always like to be faster (well, as fast as is reasonable without writing a draft that is a complete and utter mess). This has most definitely been the case; I’m at about 104,000 words right now in something that I started back in March (though, full disclosure: I did have the prologue and a few chapters already written, since I originally started playing with this idea some years ago, so I probably had around 5000ish words to start). That is the fastest I have ever written a draft of this length to this point in my writing career, and I can only conclude that it is because of the outline.

Because, of course, making an outline has removed that element of pantsing wherein I sit down in front of my computer and say “Okay, what next?”. No need to try to figure it out as I sit down to write; I can just refer to the outline. It has prevented me from getting really stuck or hung up on plot elements, since I’d already mapped all that out in advance.

That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t had difficulties and roadblocks in writing this draft. Oh, have I ever. It’s just that those difficulties have been more along the lines of character arc and development and the subtleties of the characters’ relationships with one another – which run the gamut from loving to tricky to downright dysfunctional. Getting those sorts of things right, of course, is no easy task in writing any novel, whether you’ve got an outline or not. On the flip side, though, one of my two POV characters was being a bit more elusive, and what I found as I wrote the outline is that some of her motivations and the way she thinks became clearer to me. She’s been a bit of a tough nut to crack overall, and only recently do I feel like I finally have all the keys to her as a character. And that is something else that often comes with the drafting process.

And certainly not all of the spontaneity of my pantser’s soul has been eliminated. There were a few events that I originally included in the outline that I decided to cut, both to keep the length of the book manageable and also for the overall flow/arc of the story. Then there have also been events and scenes that I added in that were not in the outline, or scenes that ended up becoming bigger and more fleshed out than I had originally anticipated while outlining. Parts of the story and characters are still revealing themselves to me as I write, which is one of the things I love about pantsing. I like to be surprised (at least a little bit) when I’m writing, and that has still happened in this book.

Along those lines, another of my concerns was that, since I already knew everything that was going to happen and had already sketched it out, would I get bored with the actual writing of the book? The answer, thankfully, has been a resounding no. Quite the contrary, actually: since mapping everything out in brief I’ve been itching to get at many of the scenes and really dig into them. I was very glad to find that!

So, overall, much as it may pain me to admit it, writing from an outline has actually been a really good experience, and I think it has helped me draft this book more successfully in many ways. Do I see myself making an outline again in the future if I don’t absolutely have to (as I did with this book)? Hmmmm…maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that I could make myself sit down and write a whole outline again if the story did not absolutely require it, as in this case. I do still like discovering and unearthing the story as I go along. So while I wouldn’t say I’ve been converted from pantser to plotter altogether, writing from an outline has been a much better experience than I thought it would be.

 

The Howling

I have that buzz in my veins. That excited, almost anxious fizzing in my blood that comes when I am closing in on the end of a draft. The howling of words that are scratching and clawing and trying to get out and onto the page. It makes it hard to focus on other things (like work, conversations with actual people, etc.) because everything in me just wants to be writing and writing and writing until I’ve finished. I start to resent anything and everything that takes me away from writing.

It’s a good feeling. A frustrating, exciting, energizing feeling. A good one.

I’m forgetful. I leave things behind. I walk into rooms and can’t remember what I went into them for. I can’t always hear the daily thoughts I need to function over the howling of the words in my ear. It’s a miracle I show up anywhere on time, given that while my body might be here, now, in the present, my head is in Rome circa the late 1490s.

Once the draft is finished, once I get all the words out of me and onto the page, the howling will quiet. It will fade away for a time as I finish my research and start to make revision notes and get feedback from my agent and critique partners. Then it will start up again: the sound of the words, now they are on the page, clamoring to be polished, to be gilded, to be made to sing where before they only howled.

All of us writers must hear this, the calling of the words to be put down and placed in a certain order and made to shine. That must be why we write, in answer to this siren song. The urge to tell a story, even when it’s not perfect, because it’s bubbled up within us to the point where we can’t not tell it anymore. And then the clamor continues, urging us to, now that we’ve told the story, to tell it well. Because if we don’t, then haven’t we wasted our chance to tell this story? Because if we don’t, who will?

As I write this, I’m about 96,000 words into my current work-in-progress. If I had to make an estimate, I would say that this one will end up at around 120,000 at this point. (It will probably get longer in revision). That’s still a bit of a ways to go, but I’ve got that downhill momentum going. I’m in the last third, and I’ve started rolling.

It doesn’t feel like this book has gone as fast as it has. It’s been a difficult one for many reasons. And while the buzzing, the fizzing, the howling is always the same, it always happens for me at this point in every first draft of everything, this time I think it does feel a little different, because of the challenges I’ve faced. The ones I am still facing. Because of the desire to just be able to say that “It’s done”, so I can go about fixing it. So that I can begin to imagine what it may finally look like. So that I can begin to imagine what it would be like to achieve what I meant to with this book.

I can’t quite imagine it yet. But soon. Because beneath the howling is a whisper that maybe I can do what I set out to do after all. The first draft is only the first step, but perhaps the biggest one. And so the howls and whispers alike prod me on.