Today we’re hanging with one of my favorite people in the world, who just so happens to be my go-to person when I need writing advice.
Lisa Papademetriou is an insanely talented New York Times bestselling author, but you should also listen to what she has to say because she’s a wicked good teacher. As a regular presenter at SCBWI conferences, a faculty member at Sierra Nevada College, and former children’s book editor, Lisa knows how to untangle the kind of tricksy craft knots that come with revision. She’s also no slouch when it comes to revising her own work. With approximately five thousand books under her belt (just a slight exaggeration), Lisa’s had to kill a lot of darlings. Total homicidal maniac.
Below are Lisa’s answers to the questions I’ve been asking all the writers in this series. If you haven’t checked out the others, you can start with the first one, where I chat with NYT Bestselling author Amy Ewing.
Pssst: Scroll down to get your free Revision Checklist from my Inspiration Portal!
I love revision. That’s because I despise blank pages. For me, the long slog through the first draft is the worst of the process. In fact, when I sat down to write my first novel, I was overwhelmed by panic. I had no idea how to begin, even though I had been an editor for years. I started my career in series publishing, where books were published on a tight deadline, usually one a month. No single writer could handle that much work, which meant that the editor (me) was in charge of overseeing the whole process. I would come up with plots for several novels in a row, then hire writers, then edit the book, and–if the book was in sorry shape–rewrite scenes or whole chapters myself, often in a matter of days. So, one day, as I sat facing the blank page of my first book, I had a revelation: I knew how to rework terrible manuscripts. Therefore, all I had to do was WRITE A TERRIBLE MANUSCRIPT. Then I could edit it! That took the expectations way down, and I got to work.
My feelings about revision haven’t really changed much over time. Thanks to my editorial background, I know that an editor is my closest ally. A good editor is a treasure, as is a good critique partner or group.
I don’t consider a first draft to be done until it goes to my editor to read. Therefore, every draft has several drafts, in that I don’t just type “the end” and then pass a manuscript along. I’m a plot girl, so I usually spend my first-first draft making sure that things are happening, that things are speeding along. I am also a dialog person–I can “hear” conversations in my mind, so I’ll capture those quickly on the page and later go back in to ground in the scene in a sense of place and flesh out what the characters are doing or thinking. My second-first draft is usually all about working with my characters to make them distinct and believable. My third-first draft is about details. And then I send the book to the editor and, after a few weeks in which I obsessively check my Email every five minutes, she’ll write back with the usual “truth sandwich,” which is when an editor starts out with a compliment, then tells you everything that’s wrong with your book, and then ends with a compliment and reassurance that she believes in you and is sure you’ll do a great job. Then I get back to work on the first-second draft.
I only revise if something important occurs to me and I want to stick it in place before I move on. I never revise until I get to the end, because I want to remain as “objective” as possible about what’s needed in the draft. I have twisted a manuscript into knots in an effort to keep a single lovely sentence or (to me) hilarious joke, and I know that if I spend too much time perfecting my scenes, I’ll lie to myself when those scenes need to be cut.
This is basically a zen koan; I can’t really answer this. With a piece of writing as long and complex as a novel, one could probably go on revising indefinitely.
However, I *do* know that there usually comes a point at which further revision starts to make everything *worse*. And there also comes a point at which your publisher is like, “We have to publish this now,” and that’s when you stop.
I think most writers fear revision for two reasons: overwhelm and mindset. When revising, writers often try to pay attention to everything all at once: character development, plot, syntax, symbol, description, dialog–it’s too much. It’s important to approach each draft with a single main idea/ intention with the knowledge that there will be more than one of these revision drafts. It is also important to tackle things from the inside out–that is, do not worry about writing elegant sentences and perfectly snappy dialog first, because you may end up with a perfect scene that, unfortunately, needs to be cut. Spend your first revision making sure the plot flows logically, that actions are motivated, that scenes are active, and that plotlines don’t get lost. Spend your second revision making sure that your main characters have clear arcs and that their scenes carry emotional resonance. And spend the third revision making things beautiful and as impactful as possible on a paragraph, sentence, and word level. (Of course, you’re welcome to write lovely sentences and rich symbols as you plot in the very first draft, just have one MAIN focus each time through.)
The second reason writers fear revision is that they view the work as an extension of themselves. They fear that subpar work means that they are subpar writers. It is vital that writers learn to separate the work from their own identity as an artist. I am privileged to have very talented friends, and have therefore read really crappy drafts by award-winning authors. Nothing starts out brilliant. Remember that every single book teaches us how to write it, and every book reveals to us what it wants to tell us. That means that we will be different writers at the end of the novel than we were before we began. We are on our own journey along with the characters, and the mindset that the book will teach us (rather than that the book will reveal our genius) is liberating. A messy draft is a huge learning opportunity!
Lisa dropped some massive truth bombs I will be thinking about for a long time to come. Which I’m guessing you will be, too. You’re totally psyched to dive into revision now, right? Yes!
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