Kay: Revision—Harder Than It Seems

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I’ve been in the throes of revision for some time (and will be for some time to come). Recently, I was stuck on something my development editor told me to do: shorten the first three chapters by combining them in two. When I looked at the material, I saw she was right that the chapters were too long, and I deleted without qualms about 3,000 words—one-third of the material the editor thought needed to go. But how to combine the chapters? What else had to be cut? I didn’t see a way.

Enter Jilly. She read the pages and offered some great suggestions. When I looked at her comments, all I could think was, why didn’t I see that?

Revision is hard, maybe harder than writing the first draft. And lately everyone seems to be doing it. Jenny Crusie is in the midst of a big revision, and her methods are engrossing. She assigns a word count to every act of her book, and sometimes every scene, to increase the tension. But revision isn’t easy for her, either. You can read about her latest edit pass here.

Then when I was bopping around the internet, I ran into this post by Harrison Demchick, which appeared here on The Creative Penn. He has four ideas that might make the revision process easier. Who knows, I thought, they might help me. So I read on, and here they are for you, just in case you’re also stuck in a revision quagmire. (The text has been shortened, rearranged, and sometimes paraphrased [hey! I revised it!] from the original post.)

Think big

If you revise with a mind toward changing as little as possible, the quality of your manuscript won’t change much, either.

Of course, small edits can have a big impact. If you need a compelling payoff late in the story, an additional line or two early on can make a big difference in establishing the setup.

But if your book has logic issues or it needs major changes to character arc, then surface-level revisions won’t cut it. The driving force of narrative is cause and effect. Nearly everything that happens in a novel, every plot beat, is the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows. So when you change something, that change has ramifications. The next scene might not play out the same way, or it might not happen at all. And that, in turn, has its own repercussions.

You might not need to dip below the surface as you revise. But you must be willing to do so.

Revise like a renegade

One challenge of revising is shaking the idea that it should require less work than writing the first draft, because writing a first draft feels a lot like finishing a book.

Sometimes you really are finished. Often you’re not.

If the best route to the changes you need to make is to blow up the whole thing—or at least major portions of it—then that’s what you need to do.

Revise with care

But don’t blow up things just for fun. Before you tear up your previous draft, make a plan.

Take a step back. Consider what you want to do and why. It might be a good idea to write a new outline or examine each character for motivation and character arc. Figure out the big stuff before you start on the details.

You’re not starting over

Even if you literally rewrite the entire manuscript, the rewritten draft couldn’t exist without the one before. Revision always moves forward, even when the twists and turns feel like you’re going back.

Revision is every bit as important as writing the first draft. If you give the revision process what it deserves, you’ll be rewarded with a completed draft that reflects your best work.

That’s the end of the Harrison Demchick post. As a practical matter, his ideas wouldn’t have helped me turn three chapters into two—I needed Jilly for that—but I’m happy to report that I’m not afraid to blow things up. In fact, I relish it.

So, how are your revisions coming along?


10 thoughts on “Kay: Revision—Harder Than It Seems

  1. Revision is a big problem for me for precisely these reasons: I find it very hard to accept that I need to change basic underlying things because that means I have to “rewrite” the whole damn thing. And the thing is, you don’t get the thrill of finding out what happens (if you are doing it right), because you are just changing the words (wholesale! painful!).

    But if you do it like I do it, then the characters take over the re-write, and you do get surprises . . . which means some solutions, but often also means new problems. Sigh. Nothing is perfect in this wicked, wicked world.

    No, you are absolutely right. Revision makes things better, and it’s certainly not easy. (Complaining, on the other hand, is super-easy! LOL. So that’s mostly what I do.)

    • Revisions can improve a manuscript, but there are writers who don’t do much, if any. Or so I’ve heard! Suzanne Brockmann leaps to mind, for example. I read somewhere that she does very long outlines and works everything out, and then she writes the draft and basically she’s done. You might be the same!

      Anyway, best of luck with your revisions! I hope they go well for you—or at least, not so bad.

      • Porky Pie is going to need some major revisions if I want to send it off to some short story haven, but since I “published” it here first, it’d need major re-writing anyway.

        I read that John Scalzi is also someone who doesn’t revise much; he came from a journalism background, and I think that makes a difference. And of course, he’s got a strong sense of the story he’s telling.

  2. While I see the wisdom of the think big / big impact changes, that definitely strikes fear into my heart. My drafts tend to be of the “too few, I need to add more” versus the “too many, I need to cut some out” persuasion.

    Good luck to you on your revising. Looking forward to reading the results.

    • I never want to make big changes, either. I would prefer it if I had written the book in a way that made me—or the development editor—happy the first time. And I’m also happy to know how to fix it, although doing the actual work is usually harder than it seems like it should be. Aren’t we a pair!

  3. Glad to be able to help with your opening chapters. Always so much easier to take a helicopter view on someone else’s story 😉 And thank goodness for beta readers and editors!

    On my own books, I’m done with the developmental edits on Christal, but Alexis needs a big, bold rewrite and I’m still not sure how I’m going to tackle it. I’ve taken some long walks, scribbled up half a notebook, marinaded myself in coffee and wine, and I’m still waiting for inspiration to strike. Argh.

  4. I started my revision this week, and I admit it seems overwhelming right now. There are many scenes I need to create, but the bigger issue is character arc. I know I have to “blow up” a character I like to improve him. ‘Kill your darlings” is hard!

    • Killing your darlings can be a terrible thing. Revising today, I took out the scene on which the entire book is based, the reason I wrote the story. It almost killed me. Good luck with your character arc!

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