I wanted to take this summer season to dig deep into my love of revision and to talk about it with my favorite writer friends to see how they revise and what wisdom they’d be willing to drop for all of you. If you missed my first interview with NYT Bestselling author Amy Ewing, check it out here. This week’s chat is with Ingrid Sundberg, my partner-in-crime for the upcoming retreat. I’ve taken to calling her the Queen of Craft because she RULES. Here’s a little taste of her brilliance for the Once More Again with Feeling Revision Series.
Pssst: Scroll down to get your free Revision Checklist from my Inspiration Portal!
2 Part Question: How do you feel about revision? How have your feelings about revision changed over time, especially as you’ve grown professionally?
I feel GREAT about revision. I love it. It’s so much more fun than writing the first draft. Revision means I get to play with all the amazing puzzle pieces I’ve already created. It’s like I’ve blocked out all the major shapes in an underpainting and now I get to do the glorious work of fleshing it out.
I think time has taught me to not try and create a “perfect piece of writing” with my first draft. I’m an English teacher, and I think my students feel like they’re supposed to miraculously create polished perfection with the first try. Growing up in a school system that puts so much pressure on getting an A – the first time – undoubtedly has cursed many of us with this misbelief.
When you stop trying to create perfection the first time you put your pen to the page, you start to discover the joy of revising. You learn that you don’t have to summon some in-human ability to write. You simply have to write; preferably in a way that makes you love writing. Write the end first. Write the “candy bar scenes.” Write backstories and build worlds. Write what gets your heart racing. And then – once you have words on the page – dig into the art of crafting.
Revision is about vision. It’s like a painting. It starts out blurry with only a few blocks of color, and slowly you add more form and value and shading. It doesn’t come into existence with the first sitting. It’s hard to unlearn our expectations to create perfection in an instant. It’s like we have to unwind ourselves from years of educational bribery that’s taught us to equate our self-worth with an A.
Do you have any kind of revision process and, if so, what is it?
Yes, I absolutely have a process. I love lists, so I make one gigantic list of all the things I need to revise in my novel. The list I made for ALL WE LEFT BEHIND was about ten pages long. Now, that sounds daunting, but it’s actually really really really rewarding, and it makes revision so much easier.
Here’s what I do:
- I make a list for each chapter.
- Each list starts with big picture revisions, like deleting whole scenes or finding the emotional center of a scene.
- Then, I follow big revisions with smaller revisions: add bit of backstory here, or beef up the antagonist’s dialog, etc.
- I go through the whole novel and make a list for each chapter. This way I have a game plan. You end up doing a lot of structural revision in this process: moving scenes, playing with timeline, etc. Creating the list is a revision in itself.
- I go back to Chapter 1, List 1 and start revising. I go one list-item at a time. What’s great about this is it allows me to revise in small bite-size chunks. I don’t have to worry about the big picture right now; I only have to revise the one thing on the list.
- When I finish that revision, I check it off the list – sooooooooo rewarding.
- Then I move to the next item on the list.
- When I write something that affects scenes later in the book, I go to the list for that chapter and add what needs to be changed, so I don’t forget it. Then I go right back to what I was originally revising.
- That’s it … one small item on the revision checklist at a time. The secret is to break it into small manageable pieces.
Do you revise as you draft or do you wait until a draft is completed to go back in?
Yes and no. I usually re-read the last few pages of my manuscript every time I sit down to write, to get me “back into the world.” I’ll do small line edits when I re-read, but nothing major.
However, I have learned to trust my writer’s intuition. I can feel when something is not working and the story is going in the wrong direction. When the writing gets hard something is wrong. I firmly believe that the true story I am meant to tell comes out when I am in a flow state, and if I’m not in that flow state, I’m going in the wrong direction.
When this happens, I go back and revise. Or more accurately, I go back to when “the writing was good” and I was excited about what was happening in the book, and I throw away everything after that point. I’m brutal about it. That path led me to a cliff with no bridge, so I must take a different path. I never look at this as wasted time or wasted work. I now know with certainty that the previous path is the wrong direction for the book.
Other than that, I don’t edit on the first draft. I try my best to stay in a flow state and see where my characters will take me.
How do you know your book is as good as you can get it?
Because you love it. Period.
Because you have conviction that every choice you’ve made in that book has purpose and meaning.
At the end of the day, YOU have to love your book. You have to be proud of it. When you feel that way, it’s as good as you can get it – right now, at your current stage of development. In ten years, you might go back and think: “Dang, that could have been better.” But you didn’t have those ten years of experience then. So stop beating yourself up over it. We are all constantly learning, improving, and discovering new things. If you love your book, it doesn’t matter if you can make it better ten years from now. Love doesn’t need to “get better.” It’s freaking love!
If you feel like you never love your work … then two things might be happening:
- You still have more to learn about the writing craft and you know it. You feel it in your bones. Awesome! Get to work.
- You’re waiting for someone else to validate your work, in which case, you’re fucked. I’m not kidding here. You’re fucked. If you don’t learn to love your work, no one else will. If you don’t think your stories have value, then why should anyone else? You are advocate #1 for your book. Stop waiting for someone to discover that you are a great writer. Know it in your bones. Know it because you’ve honed your craft and done the work, and this is the kind of story that lights you on fire.
Many writers are totally freaked out about revision. What advice would you give to your fellow writers about re-visioning their work?
Fear is an interesting thing, it torments us all differently.
My advice would be to have a serious sit-down with yourself and ask: “Why am I freaked out about revision? What am I really afraid of?” You can’t create a plan to address the issue, if you don’t know what’s really going on.
This is the crux of it. We love to avoid the issue completely, rather than look it in the eye, name it, and do something about it.
I journal daily, and part of that practice is about learning to say things out loud, and give my fears space to exist. I cry a lot when I journal. It’s intense, emotional stuff. But now that I’m learning how to name what I’m afraid of, I can start to do something about it; and I write in my journal to find a solution. I’m really big on the mantra “What would it take…”
What would it take to wake up and have a great writing day tomorrow?
What would it take to crack this scene I’m dancing with?
What would it take to feel invigorated by revision?
What would it take to fall in love with this book again?
Honestly, journaling has been one of the most helpful practices for both my writing life, and my personal life. We all need to find a way to get the stuff we don’t want to look at, out of us.
Ingrid Sundberg is the author of the Young Adult novel ALL WE LEFT BEHIND. She is a freelance story editor and writing coach, and has her own YouTube channel (Ingrid’s Notes) where she geeks out about writing craft. She holds an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University. She loves glitter, corgis, and dying her hair hot pink. You can find out more about her here.
I feel like I kept saying “WOOOOOOORD, GIRL!” that whole interview. What about you?
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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