A few days ago, Justine wrote about revising her first draft. While she discussed her propensity to procrastinate regarding this daunting task, she has a handle on what she needs to fix. She has even divided her ‘to be fixed’ list into categories by the length of time and effort she expects to spend on each aspect. That is the beginning of a very good plan. It’s also a step (or twenty) ahead of my revision efforts. You see, I haven’t even identified the problems in my first draft. But I have a plan to get there.
I have been through the revision process with other manuscripts, and much like them, revising each one is a little different. Sometimes we talk about our books like children, and like our children, each one has different strengths, weaknesses, and needs. To find out what this story needs, I’ll start with what has worked for me in the past and maybe throw in a new trick or two along the way.
Each time I’ve revised a book, I’ve divided the revision in multiple phases: identifying issues, prioritizing them, completing them (I like to do one issue or big category at a time), and reviewing the whole manuscript again to see how I’ve done. Here’s how I plan to approach the identification phase this time.
Put up my hands and back away from the manuscript slowly. This is the time between finishing the first draft and picking it back up to revise it, and I find it’s critical for me. I need time away, distance from the joy and the pain that went into creating this ‘masterpiece’ or ‘piece of shit’, depending on how I’m feeling about my story on any particular day.
A day or even a week isn’t enough for me. Usually it takes a minimum of two weeks until I’ve gotten enough of a mental break from my characters and their hopes and needs and problems to get perspective on their stories. I need enough time to stop obsessing over the details and waking up in the middle of the night with new ideas or angst over plot issues.
Look at things a whole new way. Like most writers, I write my stories in a word processing program. My font of choice is TNR 12. I double space, use a number sign to divide scenes, and start new chapters halfway down a new page. It’s my comfort zone. If you plan to sneak into my house and change my formatting, you’d better wear your sneakers and run faster than I do, because it’s not going to go well for you. Most writers are creatures of habit, whatever those particular habits are.
So when it’s time to see my story in a new light, I need to look in a new format. Some writers I know change the format and color of their text. One friend sends her manuscript to her Kindle and reads her own story like an e-book. I go old school and print out the whole thing in hard copy. Whatever it takes to fool my brain into thinking ‘hey, this isn’t that same old story we’ve agonized over for the past x months (or years)’.
Say it out loud. You’ve probably heard the advice to read your work out loud. I’ve used that for particular scenes are passages of dialogue, especially when I know there’s a problem with it. But I’ve never applied this to the entire manuscript, beginning to end, from the words ‘Chapter 1’ to ‘The End’. This time, I’m going to give it a try.
Part of the reason to do this is the same as looking at the file in a different format. It changes the way your brain thinks about the words. The three parts of language (by this I mean speaking, reading, and writing) engage different parts of the brain. I’ve studied and taught business writing to non-writer professionals, and one of the tricks I’ve learned and that I share with my students for overcoming a mental block to writing is to talk about it. Find a colleague, an office mate, or writing project manager (that’s usually me) and talk it out. I witnessed the power of this approach many times. While a blocked writer is telling me about the problem, s/he often keeps going, and very soon is coming up with his or her own solution. By pulling the words out of the writing part of the brain and putting them into the speaking one, your brain gets a new perspective.
Is reading the story out loud any better than reading it silently, the way readers will someday read it? I think it might be. I know I’ve been reading my story in snippets and chapters and acts over and over again. Those whom I hope are future readers will see it as a fresh new story, but it’s old hat to me. And for purposes of revision, that’s bad. That hides the flaws and fools me into thinking all is wonderful or all is lost or both at the same time. This time I’m giving the long soliloquy approach a try. I’ll let you know how it works.
Resist the (almost insurmountable) urge to pick up a pen or touch the keyboard. For me, this is definitely the most difficult task in the identification phase. Some issues just jump off the page and scream ‘I’m a mess! Fix me NOW!’ But you know what happens when you fall into that little trap? You fix that little thing, then the next little thing, then realize what you just changed in chapter three is going to affect what is in chapter seven and chapter thirteen as well, so what the hell, let’s fix all that too! And the next thing you know, you can no longer see the forest for the trees.
By this point in my process, I’ve been staring at and working on and mini-editing these words for a long time. I’ve stitched scenes and acts together like Frankenstein’s monster, or those somehow-adorable-and-horrifying-at-the-same-time dolls in Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. I need to step back far enough so the threads blur and I get a true picture not only of how my story reads, but also of what it actually is.
That’s not to say I ignore the problems. After all, I’m reading this wart-covered monstrosity to identify its problems. But I mark the page with the issue (I like color-coded Post-It Notes), and then I keep going.
By this time next week, I hope to have printed, read, and marked my entire manuscript. I’ll have a sore throat and will need a trip to the office supply store to replenish my supply of Post-Its, but I hope to also have a good handle on where the major and most of the minor issues lie, and then I can start prioritizing.
How do you approach identifying problems in your completed first draft? Have you found any tips or steps that make it easier for you?