Over the summer, I ran a revision series in which I interviewed some of my favorite authors about their revision process. I love getting deep into other writers’ heads and finding out how they do this thing (all the things, really) so it was partially a selfish endeavor. But the larger reason is that I know many writers are terrified of revision and have no idea how to go about approaching this part of the process.
It was also great prep for leading a retreat on revision, which I just recently got back from, and getting my wheels turning about the online revision course I’m about to begin teaching this November. (Please join us! There are still spaces left, and I’d love to have you in our coven…er, cohort). I decided to wait a bit to add my two cents to the revision series, mostly because I wanted to soak up all the goodness of what everyone was saying, and because I was also in the midst of a huge revision of my own and wanted to see what boons I could bring back from the other side of that experience.
Below is my interview with myself, answering the same questions I posed to all the other writers before me. (And look at my pretty new book, which comes out on Dec. 18thth!). Make sure to scroll down to get the download of my massive Revision Checklist to help guide you on your own revisions.
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 love revision. I always have. It’s my absolute favorite part of the process. Drafting can go jump off a cliff, for all I care. Drafting terrifies me.
Up until very recently, my editors hardly revised me at all and so revision was always just fun—making the book better, that’s what is was. Getting to make the language richer, going deeper, finessing. They would give good notes that were very manageable and then we were off the presses. Then came a book that nearly broke me. I’d revised so many times in my life, but I had never had to truly re-vision a book in this way. I re-wrote the whole thing many times, had several magic systems, vastly different approaches to the story and protagonist…It was bananas. Now, I’m so very happy with it. I love it to bits. I’m nervous about the notes that will come, and it’s certainly left me fragile. I now know that revision is like walking into the fire. I certainly won’t be so cavalier about it in future.
In fact, I’ve come to liken revision to a dark goddess who gives back, but that you have to be wary of. Revision’s the Kali of writing. Kali, often called “the Dark Mother,” is the Hindu goddess who removes the ego and liberates the soul from samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). And I feel like that’s what this revision did: it stripped away my ego. It made it about the work, only the work. And, in the end, that liberated my artist’s soul. A bit esoteric that, but that’s what it feels like, when you have to really get your hands dirty with a revision. I gave up on that book, but it didn’t give up on me. And we figured it out.
Do you have any kind of revision process and, if so, what is it?
I always say that every book is a different beast. So I really hesitate to put down that I have set-in-stone process because it can be totally upended by my next book. This happened with my last book, which, in terms of the revision and drafting, was a three-year saga worthy of Homer. I think you have to see what the particular book you’re writing needs, both in the writing and revising. That being said, there are things I do that help set the stage for a more satisfying revision period.
Regardless of how I ultimately go about actually revising the book, I will say this: it’s always, always all about character. That’s what I’ve come to know, and to teach. No matter what the actual process looks like, I know that the heart of how I approach my revision has to be about checking in constantly with my protagonist. I plot organically from the character’s desires, misbeliefs, fears, and sense of mission. I don’t impose a plot on my characters. Everything comes from the character’s internal and external reality. So the first thing I do is get very clear on what she wants (desire), what her misbelief is (what’s running her that’s not true, because that will absolutely create delicious tension with her desire), and what her mission is (this last is for my fantasy and other genre books, where there’s big world stuff happening). I am very painstaking about this. I go back, again and again. If I’m halfway through a revision and I realize the desire is off, I start over. It’s always worth it. Always. But it’s a hell of a lot of work. But you didn’t get into writing books because it was easy, did you? (Oh, dear god, please tell me you didn’t).
Lots of credit for the above, by the way, goes to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, which articulated so much of my thought process and narrowed it down for me so I could make it workable, and to Amanda Jenkins, my advisor at VCFA, who taught me that character is Queen.
And before I really get into it, let me just say that creating a playlist for your book and a Pinterest board is so incredibly inspiring and helpful, especially for fantasy books. This saved me on my last revision.
So, now that’s out of the way, here are some specifics:
In a perfect world, I let there be some nice breathing room between the drafting and the revising. Let things percolate. I keep a running list of all the things I know I need to look at, big and small.
When I dive in, I usually read the whole thing and take lots of notes. Then I really dig deep with all that character work, which I often have to keep finessing as I revise. Then I start from the very beginning, and I remind myself to be ruthless. And a servant to the story. And a vessel. (Yeah, I’m one of those kinds of writers).
So, first: character. Also, if I’m writing a fantasy, it is bloody hard to move forward if my magic system is not in place. It’s just…bananas. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants with that. Worldbuilding is very, very easy for me and I love it, so if that’s a struggle for you, just know that has to be in place, too. Details will come as you draft, but you need to be fairly grounded in place and culture and all that. It informs EVERYTHING. You don’t need to have your whole Elvish dictionary sorted, but you need to have the geography, culture, customs, etc. in place. Otherwise, you run the risk of a really boring book.
As I work, I go in order, scene by scene. I usually have a list of all the chapters and the function of each chapter. It’s a bit of a map, so I know where I’m going, so I do some plotting ahead of time, but I’m always willing to throw it all out if need be.
I go macro to micro, but am always micro the whole way through a revision when it comes to character. (I’m macro in terms of plot / world. Micro would be language, details, nitty-gritty stuff). By this, I mean that in the second draft, I’m focusing on macro stuff—getting the architecture of the book in place, and getting my characters down. Third draft, I go micro if the second draft is super solid: language, finessing, etc. Sometimes a third draft is a total re-write of the second, which was a bust. So these numbers are general guidelines here. (Remember, every book is a different beast). Fourth draft, this is usually a revision with my editor. Then Fifth is often copyedits. I read my copyedited manuscript out loud when I finish it—all 100K+ words of it (Ricollas are necessary, and tea)—before I hand that in. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the micro stuff you fix. It’s amazing. Don’t be a lazy git: read your book out loud.
Now, Lisa Crone has a great scene card in Story Genius that I sometimes use when drafting, and these can also be helpful in revising. So when I sit down to begin revising chapters (second draft), I basically ask myself:
Where is my character at in the beginning of this scene in her arc, and where is she at in the end? There has to be movement in some way.
Then I ask myself, what is the point of this scene? If the scene isn’t pulling its weight, I have to think about cutting it, or combining it with another, etc.
Now, when I’m working on a fantasy, I’m also thinking about the world and the magic system and really big plot stuff and all that. This is all in the mix. But the above two things are paramount. The rest is secondary.
As I’m working, I’m naturally making the words pretty, but that is not my primary focus. I’m getting the architecture of the plot and story and character all in place. That’s second draft’s focus. If you get too bogged down in nitty-gritty details, you’ll never get out of second draft.
While I do jump around a bit, I generally write in chronological order. I never write the ending or what have you, though I know some authors really dig that. I move forward and back. I often have to go back to figure out how to move forward, and that’s okay, so long as I don’t fall into the tinkering trap: perfecting a scene that might have to one day end up on the chopping block.
Eventually, I end up with a second draft. Either I’m really happy with that and it’s in pretty good shape, or it’s a disaster and I have to start the whole process over in the third draft, really going back to the drawing board about the whole book itself. This is where a lot of Story Genius work and beta readers and all that is really helpful. You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, but having someone to talk your plot over with and someone to read the book and give feedback is so helpful. It opens things up.
Do you revise as you draft or do you wait until a draft is completed to go back in?
I revise a lot as I draft, which means that as I’m working through the draft and moving around in it, I’ll just automatically be doing anything from large-scale revising to tinkering while simultaneously moving forward. So, for example, when I sit down to write, I’ll often re-read the scene I’d written the day before first, or the scene prior to the one I’m about to work on. As I do that re-reading, I’m shifting things around—sometimes in big ways, sometimes just changing words and finessing things—before I move on. Sometimes I’m going back much further in the ms, changing things, adding and deleting and creating havoc. I often discourage newer writers from this because this sort of effort is often wasted: much of what I’ve revised, I’ll inevitably be throwing out. Tim Wynne-Jones once told us in a workshop that the first draft is the writer telling herself the story, and I’ve very much taken that to heart, as well as Anne Lamott’s concept of the Shitty First Draft. So I know the first draft is play. Exploration. That I can’t become too attached to any of it. I’ve been writing and revising a long, long time, so I’m no stranger to murdering my darlings (I’m quite the homicidal maniac), so I can let go. Of whole books, even. But newer writers tend to hold onto their words as though they’re flesh and blood and you can just try and pull them out of their cold, dead hands. So in order to help them avoid that anxiety—and so much wasted time trying to find a way to keep things they’ve slaved over—I tell them to forge ahead. Advance, advance!
How do you know your book is as good as you can get it?
Well, you write a book at a specific time in your life, as the person you are then. If you waited five or ten years, the book would inevitably be different because you would be different. So you just have to acknowledge that—the book, if you wanted, might never * really * be finished. But, look, you have to end it sometime. You have to move on, let go. So many writers have a hard time letting go. In the end: it’s just a book. It’s everything, yes. But it’s also, in the scheme of the universe, nothing. And there’s a lot of freedom in that. Let go so you can write more stories, make more mischief. I love this Billy Collins poem, which I sometimes send to friends on their book birthdays (the day their book publishes). It reminds me to simply delight in the process, to let the book go on to its next stage. To let it belong to the reader now. It deserves that—and so do I.
Go, little book,
out of this house and into the world,
carriage made of paper rolling toward town
bearing a single passenger
beyond the reach of this jitter pen,
far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.
It is time to decamp,
put on a jacket and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes,
bound to be held in foreign hands.
So, off you go, infants of the brain,
with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:
stay out a late as you like,
don’t bother to call or write
and talk to as many strangers as you can.
Many writers are totally freaked out about revision. What advice would you give to your fellow writers about re-visioning their work?
Chill the fuck out.
If I were the head of an MFA program and it was orientation day and I was about to talk to the new class, I think those would be my first words.
We take ourselves so seriously as writers and, to a certain extent, we must, of course. The work is important, and we need to give it our all for it to be worth a damn. But we also need delight and looseness and perspective. Cosmic perspective, in fact. It’s very helpful, to remember you’re just on a little blue dot. I mean, I nearly killed myself over a book about sea gangsters. Don’t get me wrong: I love the book and am proud of it and I hope everyone reads it and I think it’s good stuff. But, you know: let’s be real here. And even if I were writing a book that would change the world in some way, it wouldn’t help anything for me to be all worked up about it. Writing, like anything, only really works well if you can find flow and flow comes with being able to Chill. The Fuck. Out. (Which is why I meditate, and you should too).
What does the book want to be? Figure that out, and do your best by it. Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing, there are far better things you can be doing with your time. Fly-fishing or climbing glaciers. Knitting. Eating sun-ripened berries.
I think writers get so worked up about revision because then they get to put off revising itself. Just do the work, yeah? Figure out what’s not working and work with the book to make it better. Listen to your characters. Get off your high horse. Bring some levity to the process. Don’t be a lazy git.
And then? Mischief managed.
*** I’d love to keep the conversation going! Please comment below with any questions you have, and share any useful tips or tricks. And don’t forget to sign up for my revision course…if you dare! 🙂 ***
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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