Friday, February 12, 2021

A Different Way to Work with Revision for Your Book--Segments and Reverses

Revision is the final stage of the book journey, after the gathering of material and the forming of a rough draft, after the structuring that happens next. Revision is hard, but essential if you want to publish. And there are so many ways to go about it.

I think I've tried them all.

Some approaches to revision are so daunting, so discouraging. The worst one I've experienced is this: start with chapter 1 and go through the book, line by line. That is great for the final fine-tuning. But if you're trying to revise larger problems, such as structure, it'll bog you down in no time. Lots of writers come to me at this stage, saying how stuck they feel, how they hate their book, and how they want to give up. No wonder. I would too.

The techniques that ended up successful for me, for revising a manuscript, may not work for every writer. If you've got your method and it's keeping you rolling, stick with it. But if you're in need of a saner approach, here are two techniques that I've used successfully through many books.

The first I call "segments." It's really a no-brainer but it's rare that I find a writer using it.

To work in segments is just a way to be kind to yourself and make steady progress. It's not the jackrabbit speed but it allows you to gain confidence by using smaller steps in a certain sequence. Small steps are a good thing: A ladder usually is easier to climb if it has small steps than if the rungs are spread apart.

The first step of the segments techniques is to list everything you think you need work on during your revision. Don't order the list. take a few weeks to compile it, letting small and large tasks come to mind. Some things on my lists usually include:

too many locations? cut any?
thread the theme
check that the car make is consistent throughout
character appearance planted and returned to (same color hair and eyes?)
how do the characters move--check in scenes where they appear
opening of each chapter needs to be varied
transitions (ending of chapter to beginning of next)
develop character's storyline--she drops out of sight in chapter XX
spelling, grammar, Grammarly check

You can see there's a lot of variance in difficulty or time needed for these tasks. Some, like the character's hair color, can be an easy search. Others, like the theme threading, are many hours of work.

But include them all. Go through any notes from feedback, add those in whether you agree or not. Everything goes on the list.

Once I have a decent-sized list, at least two single-spaced pages, I use a technique from teacher Robert Boswell: reorder the tasks from smallest/easiest to largest. Boswell recommends starting with the smallest and gaining momentum and confidence that way.

Then I take it another step: segments.

I create work groups from my list: three tasks for each writing session. Two tasks should be small ones, one can be larger. If a task is huge, like the theme threading, I'll brainstorm smaller steps, add those as separate tasks.

You gain confidence and momentum with your revision, as Boswell says, by tackling the two smaller ones first, getting success on them. It's very true. If I start with the large one, and it's too much, I stall.

And after several tries, if the large task proves too onerous even when broken into steps, I decide I don't know enough yet to succeed. It goes back on the list for another time.

Sometimes a segment goes fast, and I am finished early. I can choose another three items, create another segment. But I watch myself carefully so I don't burn out.

The last part of working in segments is this: always end a writing session with an unanswered question. When I am wrapping up for the day, I'll jot down a question. Over the hours until the next session, my creative self works on it and often I'll get answers.

The second technique that I use is to work in reverse. I work through my manuscript from the last chapter to the first.

I read the last chapter, then the one right before it, then the one before that. It sounds wacky but it really breaks the stall-out writers usually experience when starting with chapter 1. You can also test whether the end is earned, or justified, by what comes before it.

I catch a lot more stumbles this way, and these go on my list. And since beginnings are usually much harder to revise that the ending, I retain my confidence in the story. My writing is better, I like how the story goes, and I feel happy as I work backwards through it.

I learned these techniques the hard way: by doing it traditionally and getting mired in mental mud. Success in revision is all about recognizing the long haul and structuring a way to stay the course. It's also about adjusting the goal so you can succeed and keep your belief in the book. Each time you succeed in a revision task, your self-esteem as a creative person goes way up.

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