Friday, January 11, 2019

Revision Checklist: When You're Ready to Revise, What to Focus on First

If you have any love for the refining and shaping process of making a book, revision can be much anticipated.  I'm not talking about the early tweaking of individual chapters, which can result in rewriting your opening chapter 1 so many times, you get sick of the book and never write chapter 2.  (I've seen this so many times, and it's a sad thing.) Real revision, in my mind, is not that level of line editing but a whole-book reshaping, a re-visioning of the book's purpose, and an attempt to get out of the writer's chair and into the reader's.

It happens most often when you have completed a first draft, however terrible.  My first draft of a new book is usually leagues away from my original vision of it.  I tell myself to be proud of writing those 60-80,000 words, more or less.  I tell myself only about 60 percent of writers reach this glory.  To count my blessings and get on with revising.  

I've learned from writing over a dozen books that revision is where a book really emerges, becomes itself, and fulfills the writer's vision.  But it takes work and detachment to get it there.  

It requires setting aside your sense of urgency to finish.  That urgency, in my experience, can cause much trouble, pushing you to be satisfied with OK rather than good or great.  If you want to publish today, whether agent-fueled or indie-driven, you need at least good.  Readers have so many choices in books.  Make sure they'll want to read yours.

Revision is where you shape the book to speak to a reader.  But how do you get to this lofty viewpoint without sacrificing your creativity?  

Here's a checklist of sorts, compiled from years of both writing and editing.  Maybe one or more of the ideas will help you, if you're ready to revise.

1.  Plan for time to revise.  Ken Atchity in A Writer's Time talks about revision as comprising 60 percent of the book-writing process.  I agree--and it can be longer, depending on how the writer crafted the draft.  If the first draft was bulleted out, say, via Nanowrimo-type deadline, it may be exceedingly rough.  Chapters might be nothing more than placeholders for ideas.  If the writer has storyboarded or charted their book in some way, spent time on the characters or plot or flow of ideas, the draft might be more solid.  I used to dash off my drafts, hoping for generous help from others in revision.  Now I take a long time to plan and develop the book, using my storyboard, charts, outlines, character questionnaires, and other tools I teach in my retreats and workshops.  I estimate that if my draft takes nine months from idea to 80,000 words, my revision will take about a year, maybe longer.  If the draft takes two years, revision will add on another three.  That's my pace, and it might not be yours, but it's great to know these estimates and not hope for revision in a month!

Shortcuts look tempting.  Skip a few steps, get it out the door into other hands.  You're bored with it, so contact that agent, editor, publisher--now!  Capture their attention--before your courage flies away or the publishing window closes.  But no.  Put the brakes on--calm your over-eager self, and remember what's at stake.  What do you stand to lose, if you rush through these final steps?

Well, for one, most agents and editors only give a new writer one look.  Revision is your chance to catch glaring problems that brand you as an amateur.  Editors and first readers are trained to spot these and have an easy excuse to reject a manuscript.  So, when you feel this urgency to just finish the thing, now, remember that this is the most important time to not rush.  

Another thing not to do:  send your very rough draft to readers.  Even those who ask/beg to see it.  I've watched new writers do this, get the correct feedback that a first draft often gets (a lot of problems, confusion, and corrections to make), then out of shame or discouragement or overwhelm, abandon their books.  The urgency to deliver it into someone else's hands, to give them the power, to make them tell you what you need to do next, is compelling.  You're also, understandably, proud of what you've done and want to show it off!  But please.  Consider the steps below first.  It might make the difference between actually finishing your book and not.

2.  Let it rest.  All my favorite writers, teachers, and mentors have advised this.  I get it now:  you need time away to be able to see the draft clearly.  When you're first finished, there's often a passionate love for the story.  And you know, love is blind.  You may not see what's needed.  Or you might be really tired.  That jades your view too--you see stuff to fix that doesn't need fixing.

How long to let it rest?  Most say between two to four weeks.  If you can really get away from it--read other people's books, do another creative task, binge watch Netflix--you'll do better with step 3.

3.  Make a revision list.  When you've rested, you're ready to begin your brainstorming list of stuff you know you need to take care of.  Don't bother organizing this list by severity of task or amount of time it's going to take, even if you know it.  Just open a document in your computer or a page in your writer's notebook and begin jotting ideas as they come.  

Accumulate this list over a period of two to three weeks.  Write EVERYTHING that you can think of, small or large.  Ideas may come slowly at first.  Here are some items on my last revision list, just to give you an idea:

1.  Check make and color of Molly's car for consistency throughout.
2.  Why does Kate not confront her husband about the texts?  Solve this.
3.  Midbook is way too slow--cut about 10,000 words someplace.
4.  Check if the ending loops back to the beginning.
5.  Search for overused words ("deeper" is one of mine).
6.  Search for "ing" verbs and replace with active verbs.
7.  Draw better map of cabin and layout of farmhouse--check location details in each scene.
8.  Check opening of each chapter--revamp for more variation.
9.  Check transitions--last sentence of each chapter, first of next.

4.  Organize your list.  Once you have a couple of pages (seriously!) of items on your list, organize them.  Estimate the amount of time each might take, if there's research (add time for it) or conversations you need to have.  Some writers like to draw a column alongside the list with this information, then sort the list from smallest to largest task.

Robert Boswell, author of The Half-Known World, (check out his amazing article on transitional drafts here), recommends starting with the smallest task first.  I've tried it both ways and I agree.  Smaller tasks often give me confidence in revision.  I see the changes happening, making the manuscript start to shine, and I get courage for the bigger ones.

Of course, this goes out the window if your smaller tasks depend on any large ones first.  It's useless to correct sentence transitions if you still need to revamp the midbook.  

5.  Pause to explore, to even generate new writing, while you revise. This might strike some as odd, but I like to give myself a freewriting prompt to generate a page or two of new writing during every revision session.  Say I'm sitting down for two hours to work on a couple of revision tasks.  I set a timer for an hour then break for a twenty-minute freewrite on a prompt geared to solve one of my revision questions.  Such as:  Why does Kate not confront her husband about the texts?  (taken from the list example above)  I might freewrite a rough scene where she does, see what juice it brings in.  

Doing this regularly often gives me ideas and plot threads and character enhancements that solve other revision tasks.  It's also a wonderful relief for the linear brain, that can get tired during revision and become too nit-picky too early.

6.  Read it aloud.  There is usually a point I come to when I feel I've revised small stuff enough.  I need to regain a sense of the whole.  Easiest way to get this is to read aloud.  I print the revision and sit down with a highlighter or pen or send it to my iPad and open it in an e-reader, such as Pages.  

My goal is to read it in one sitting, two at most, if I can.  And to not stop to rework it.  Reason:  I want to keep the reader's view.  I want to imagine being a reader, picking this book up in the store or online, and diving in.  

The pen or highlighter is just to mark where I stumble, not to stop, get critical, and fix.  Again, this switches me from reader to writer/editor.  Don't need that yet.

Often, I'm delighted by the changes so far--and I see others that need fixing.  That's good, welcome even.  I go back to step 3 and revise my revision list, adding the new ideas and tasks.  Then I dive in once more.

How long does it take?  The formula I gave above counts for multiple times down this particular garden path.  Revising until you can't see the forest for the leaves on the trees, stepping back for a bigger view by reading aloud, recreating your revision task list, then starting up again.  I'm not aghast at fourteen rounds of revisions in this manner; I'm grateful for fewer, but I know some books need more.  


For your weekly writing exercise, if you're ready for revision or in the middle of it, try one of these steps.  See how it works for you.  Adapt it to your particular book and writing needs.