The Nuts and Bolts of Revision

Shakespeare in Love 02

Sometimes it takes a while to get it just right.

Some people (who shall remain nameless) have been asking about our revision process, so for this week, I thought we might give some specific suggestions, based on what we do when we revise. Not all of these apply in every case, but here are some things to try:

1. Put it away and forget about it for a while.
Yes, I know this is probably the least helpful-sounding advice ever. It’s like when you were little and your parents told you that you just had to be patient on a long car trip. “Are we ready to revise yet?” “No. Just a little farther. Why don’t you look out the window and play the license plate game again?” But if you’ve got the time, I really can’t emphasize how much this helps.

By the time you finish writing a story, everything in it just feels perfect and right, and you can’t imagine how the text could be otherwise. And if your readers see any problems in the story, like a plot hole or a character whose motivation seems lacking, you just throw up your hands and say, “I can’t see how this could be different.” If you put the story aside for a few weeks or months, though, you can see it more clearly and objectively when you return. Suddenly you can see the flaws that readers can see. This is what we’ve done when revising the Quartet. At this point, six or seven years have passed since we wrote certain parts of the original story, so it’s quite easy for us to rewrite it from scratch without remembering what we wrote the first time.

Of course, it’s not always possible to step away from a writing project for six or seven years. As S is learning as both a reader and writer of fanfic, readers are eager for new material. In that case, you can get a similar effect by having two or more projects going at once, and switching back and forth between them. This is something she might talk more about in an upcoming blog, so I don’t want to steal her thunder. But anyway, assuming you don’t have forever, here are some more things you can do to revise your work.

2. Check it against the outline.
I’m assuming you use an outline. If you don’t, then you’re bad, and you should feel bad. No, I’m just kidding—if you “pants” your writing, that’s fine. But if you used an outline, check your story against it as you read through for the first time. Inevitably, no matter how detailed an outline I make for my stories, I end up deviating from it here and there. Often this is a good thing. But sometimes it’s potentially disastrous, because I’ve forgotten to include some important part of the story.

There it is, right on my outline: “Susan tells Bob the combination to the vault.” But Susan and Bob are so much fun, and I got carried away with Susan and Bob’s fun banter in the scene, and I forgot to have her actually tell him the combination. Now I have to find a place to put that in, or the reader is going to cry foul later on when Bob just magically knows how to open the vault.

3. Read out of order.
Currently my strategy, after I’ve done one quick pass through the story, is to go back and read through the story by POV character. But I don’t just go straight through from beginning to end.

Let’s say I’ve got a 25-chapter novel with two POV characters: Susan and Bob. And just to make this simple, let’s say all the odd chapters are Susan, and all the even chapters are Bob. The last chapter, 25, is Susan’s. So I start there. Then I go all the way back to the beginning and read chapter 1. Then I read chapter 23, then chapter 3, then chapter 21, the chapter 5, and so on, moving inexorably back and forth through all her chapters toward the midpoint of the story. And when I get there, go back and I do the same thing with Bob’s chapters: chapter 24, then 2, then 22, then 4, and so on.

I find this incredibly helpful, because it allows me to see how the character has stayed the same, and how she has developed over the course of the story. When you do this, you notice interesting changes. When you finish reading a character’s last chapter, and then go read her first chapter, you’ll suddenly notice if she seems slightly different. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “When I first started writing Susan, she asked a lot of questions and was really deferential. By the last chapter, she’s much more self-confident.”

Now I have to figure out exactly where that change happened. I have to pinpoint where she stopped being a doormat and started to assert herself. “Ah, that fight she has in chapter 13,” I decide. “Before that, she’s Old Susan. After that, she becomes New Susan.” And that means I’ll probably have to change some things as I continue reading her chapters. “She’s being too assertive here in chapter 5—she’s not quite that bold yet.” Or, “She’s too timid here in chapter 19—she would stand up for herself by this point in the story.”

4. Add missing details.
There are a lot of ways of doing this. One way is to think of the various senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing—and ask yourself in each scene if there’s a way you could use it. You have to be careful with that, though, because if you do that in literally every scene, it starts to become obvious to the reader that the author had a sensory checklist.

Another way is to ask yourself what details your POV character would notice. For example, I’m a teacher, so when I go into a new classroom for the first time, I look to see where the remote for the projector is, and I check to see if there are markers and erasers at the dry-erase board. My students, in contrast, are probably looking to see if there are seats still open in the back, and checking to see which desks have good light, and trying to find where the electrical outlets are so they can plug in their laptops or charge their phones during class.

For a fantasy writer, this can sometimes get frustrating, because you’ve done a great deal of period research. But then you have to ask yourself if your POV character is actually the sort of person who would notice those things or not. It goes without saying that a trained knight would notice different kinds of armor and weapons. But if your POV character is a shepherd from the sticks, you’re going to have to explain why he had a copy of Jane’s All the World’s Crossbows under his bed.

Anyway, those are just a few suggestions. No doubt S will have some more sooner or later.

J

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One comment on “The Nuts and Bolts of Revision

  1. […] talked before about my revision process, but this seems like as good a time as any to mention what I’m doing […]

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