The Two Types of Revisions (and my experiences with them)

This is perhaps a much-too-long post about revisions, so here are some quick links to jump to the interesting sections:

my experiences with revisions in the past – my experiences now – Content vs. Execution – my recommendations

 So I recently said this thing:

“…revision is the hardest thing to practice because it’s at the end of the writing road, which is a very long road on its own.” (x)

Is that true? Is it really hard to practice revisions?

Practicing writing is pretty straightforward: write. Write some more. Write a lot. Write all the time. Write when you don’t want to write. Write when you’re inspired. Write until your fingers fall off in an extended metaphor gone terribly wrong.

Then, since you’re your own first editor, revise that last catastrophe of a metaphor so that you still have all of your fingers.

THIS IS THE POWER OF REVISION. You get to give people their digits back! (There’s even a joke somewhere in here about giving someone the finger, but let’s not and say we didn’t.)

The question is: How do you practice revisions? If you want to practice overhauling an entire plot thread and merging characters and doing massive line edits, you have to have written something first. That’s fair. It’s not as easy as writing new material and trying new writing formats.

OR IS IT.

A lot of us do basic revisions with everything we write. We read over something and frown at a bad image or a funky word choice. Then we fix it and move on. We do this to make our stories better, but it also makes our writing better. By that I mean our first draft writing process, not just the final product. But both, really.

Revisions are a natural part of writing in their smaller form. We do them in our efforts to make the story better. Sometimes, however, they can feel completely unnatural.

 

Revisions In General, back in ye olden days

School and Teaching and Learning

If you’re like me, you might have hated revision (you know, back in the day when your teacher/professor tells you to revise something, but you got an A on the first draft, so what’s left to change, really?). And even when there were issues, it wasn’t clear how to fix them.

I never had a good sense of what was wrong with the draft. I wasn’t taught how to fix something, just showed what (if anything) was blatantly wrong.

I had a teacher who used to say “As a part of this writing project, you must do a major revision, like get rid of a character or change the ending or alter the POV.”

The goal of the revision was to substantially change something in the story and to still make the story good. But she was having us make changes that fixed problems, and she hand’t pointed out any specific problems in my work. I didn’t how to determine if a change would help my story. Basically, it’s when you get an A on the draft and don’t understand how to get an A+.

  • The flaw, of course, was that the A was just saying: “Great first draft!” It wasn’t saying “Perfect first draft.”
  • And the revision instruction was saying: “Change something big.” It wasn’t saying: “Here are the macro-aspects of the story that need to be strengthened.”

There were flaws on both sides. Namely, my ego.

My teacher said, “This part of the project is difficult for students whose work is farther along and more complete. But it’s still important. It’s an important skill to develop.”

Even though she didn’t have any suggestions or guidance for what to do (and I didn’t score very well on the revisions part of the project), I still learned an important lesson about revision.

It is important to develop the ability to make big changes, to read your work critically even when no one else does.

 

How to Make it Fun (and what I suggest to you)

If my teacher really just wanted us to have a chance at practicing revisions, she perhaps could have explained the assignment differently. Consider this advice that would have worked for me:

Choose one key aspect of your story. Change it. Just for fun! Just to see how it changes the story! Just to see how you can improve the story!

This is how you practice revisions even when you don’t know how to fix a problem or when you don’t even know how to identify the problem.

Then it changes the stakes of the game. Instead of trying to identify and fix some unspecified issue, you’re toying with something in a fun way. Half the fun of creative writing is experimenting with something new. If you look at revision as “try something new” as opposed to “fix what you don’t know is wrong,” then it can make revisions easier to try.

Then, of course, it’s the question of did this change fix the issue. Beta readers and critique partners come in handy for that! A change won’t always fix a problem, and that’s almost always because we’ve either misidentified a change or miscommunicated the change. We either tried to change something and we didn’t change it in the right way, or we’re trying to fix the wrong thing.

The best part of this “try changing things for fun” is that it’s not homework, it’s a creative exercise. It makes revision seem less dull and more interactive! So practice! Practice revisions and see what types of changes you are capable of!

But there’s a larger issue we have to look at. Now that we can practice revisions and get a sense of how to propagate large changes through a story, how do we figure out what the issue is?

 

Revisions Now (ahhhhhhhhhhh)

If I hadn’t shouted it loud enough from my kitchen floor: I’m getting published! Two books! Book 1, THE NAMELESS QUEEN, out in Spring 2018! Yowza! That means I have an editor. And I just sent in my first round of revisions recently. Scary? Yes. Exciting? Absolutely. So how do I approach revisions now?

 

What Kind of Revision is it?

Step One: A person (beta, CP, editor, etc.) complains/critiques/notices about something in your story. An inconsistency or a confusion. A minor issue or a explosion-level event.

If a reader is unclear about something in the story, your gut response will be to get defensive and explain it. But don’t.

Step Two: DON’T explain the right answer. DON’T invent an answer on the spot. You want your story to speak for itself, and you want the reader to pick up on the fixes as opposed to you explaining what they should see. I know—I know—how hard it is to NOT explain the plot when someone is confused. But trust me. Don’t. Instead, revise the story and have them reread it.

Step Three: Figure out what type of revision it is. Is it a content issue or an execution issue? See if you can let the story give them their answers. Because in the end, the author can’t hover over the readers’ shoulders while they read, correcting misunderstandings.*

 

*When I say “authors can’t hover over readers shoulders while they read,” I’m talking in general about most authors. I can and 100% will be hovering like a semi-transparent phantom just. behind. you. while you read my books. So when you feel the shudder on your arms or your heart races, there’s no need to freak out and hide the book on your ceiling fan; you’re just reacting to my ectoplasmic presence. I am with you. It will be all right. Enjoy the book. You’re welcome.

Content vs. Execution

What’s the difference?

  • Content Issue: A story-level issue (like plot holes and structural inconsistencies).
  • Execution Issue: A writing-level issue (your idea didn’t come across clearly to the reader).

Content Revisions

Content problems are story-level issues. Plot holes, inconsistencies, thematic and structural integrity problems, etc. These are the big problems.

Content revisions require lots of effort: re-rooting the plot, re-threading the threads, moving big things around and really taking a look at macro-scale issues. Maybe your sidekick is unlikable. Maybe your editor/CP/beta suggests getting rid of them. Maybe your heart goes into double-heart-attack mode at the thought of slashing the character you love so much. This is a big content change.

Maybe the issue is on a story-level. Maybe the character is affecting pace and they are dragging the story into the mud. The solution could be to ax them. Take them from your story, remove any mention of them, figure out how to get your character into that duet singing competition all alone… and wait a second. How will your main character realize the villain’s plot if that second character isn’t present?

Content changes have a way of propagating through the story. Removing a big scene or an element of the plot might fix a lot, but it could break other things as well. So you have to  make sure you look at the change from the perspective of the entire book. Evaluate how that change might cause other problems, and then figure out how to fix those problems too.

Execution Revisions

For execution issues, the idea for the story is already in your head, but never quite made it clearly onto the page.

That character your CP wants you to ax? Maybe the story doesn’t need that character, true, or  maybe the issue is that one scene where your sidekick says something rude, and the reader just can’t forgive them. Strike that scene or tweak the tone, and it’s all rainbows and butterflies again. If someone comes you with a problem and your gut reaction is to tell them the solution, then the chances are that you have an execution issue. You had the right intention, but the message didn’t make it across to the reader.

So you have to find where in the text it wasn’t clear, and fix it. Tweak the phrasing, maybe restate something that was mentioned once 50 pages ago so that the reader can remember it, and take an extra step to make sure it makes sense.

Then go back to that person and see if they understand it now. (Can you tell that I’m nervous about sending my first round of edits to my editor? NERVOUS.)

So as long as you’re dealing with writing-level issues and not plot hole, story-level issues, you can probably fix these issues pretty easily. The risk, of course, is that the issue needs to be addressed on the macro scale.

 

Fear of Change

It reminds me of when I would tell my sister this idea I have for a story. She’ll look at me, eyebrow cocked, and say, “I don’t think that makes sense,” or “It doesn’t sound reasonable.”

My response to my sister is always: let me see if I can make it work.

It’s easy to shoot down someone’s idea, because it lives mostly in their head, and it’s difficult to try to explain it. Communication is key.

So you just have to try. You just have to see if you can fix the issue, make the story better, and, essentially, make it work.

 

Moving Forward

Don’t just change it. Make it better. This is your mantra.

The most important thing to do when making revisions is to keep this in mind:

You’re not just making a change, you’re making the story stronger. Focus on that.

When you’re getting rid of a character or changing the setting—whether it’s a content or execution revision—make sure you’re focusing on strengthening the story and not just making a lateral move. Every revision should enhance the story.

 

Before you start making changes, identify the underlying issue.

Oftentimes, when someone suggests a change, they are trying to give you a solution instead of identifying the issue.

  • “I don’t like Character X.”
  • “You should make these characters fall in love.”
  • “I don’t understand why this happens. Make this event happen.”

What are they really saying?

  • Character X needs stronger characterization, or the voice isn’t jiving, or the tone doesn’t match the actions…
  • The relationship between these characters feels unfulfilled, or they spend a lot of time together but their dynamic doesn’t evolve (or maybe they just don’t like stories that don’t have romantic sub-plots)
  • The cause-effect relationship between Plot Point A and Point B doesn’t flow, or the character decisions don’t seem to have a strong enough motive, or the pacing and tension are lagging here.

There’s no tried-true solution, but that’s where your job as a writer comes in. Interpret their suggestions and find a solution that works for you.

One way writers get trapped in revisions is that they keep changing something without fixing the underlying issues. So make sure that everything you’re changing is coupled with an aspect of the story that is being enhanced.

And always, always, always remember to make the story stronger.

If someone says the setting doesn’t feel right for the story, maybe you consider moving the setting from rural plains to a humid swamp? Maybe the impetus for this change is that your main character’s dad lives down there and she needs to visit. But make sure you’re weaving the setting through the plot (instead of tall cattails, you get the buzz of flies). Don’t just do a global find/replace on “plains” to “swamp.”

Ask yourself: How does this change benefit your character and the themes of your story?

And if the benefit isn’t apparent, then maybe the change isn’t fixing the problem.

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I’m Getting Published!

I don’t have enough energy to squeal with the amount of delight currently contained within my VERY SOUL.

But guess what?

I’M GETTING PUBLISHED.

Can we take a moment to faint? Okay.

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This is me. I’m the Doctor. (I wish)

When you’ve regained consciousness, come back to me.

Come back to me and hear the story of the FOREVER SECRET PUBLISHING JOURNEY.

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I wrote a post about this months ago, but it didn’t contain nearly enough gifs or squealing. So I’m rewriting it on the fly.

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When I fly, it’s often via Ear Plane as well.

*attempts to reign in the gifs*

This story is filled with SECRETS AND SECRETIVITY started back in December. That’s when I got the lovely bombshell from my agent that about a day or so after going on submission, we had our first offer. Then we had plural offers. Then I was at auction.

!!!!!!!!!!

Those exclamation points are my emotions. As soon as we got that offer and then plural-offers, THE NAMELESS QUEEN was going to be published. It was just a question of where. Like a bomb you know is going to go off, if that analogy helps.

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Pete Knapp, my illustrious agent, did some negotiations, which I picture as a high stakes poker game in a New York warehouse where the dealer is an enthusiastic, well-contained auctioneer throwing down pages of my manuscript like playing cards. Pete exchanges poker chips with terms written on them in black sharpie, non-nicotine (probably cotton-candy scented) smoke clouds the air, and there’s a lot of small nods and winks.

[There does not exist a gif for this, but there should.]

In reality, it was a lot of back and forth emails and other business-up-front type of things. The party in the back was me screaming with excitement far away in Michigan.

We settled on the basic terms. I chatted with some editors on the phone. I made a decision.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And then….

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Well, then there was a lot of waiting. And secrecy.

Sometimes things move fast (like getting an agent, going on submission, and going to auction in a number of days), and some things move slowly. In my case, it was a question of contracts.

If you’ve never heard the term “boilerplate,” just know that when it’s being revised, it takes an infinitely looping eon for it to get finished. But that’s okay! Because book writing is both a fast and a slow industry. So while the contract was being worked on (I like to think the contract got a trip to the spa and got a Swedish massage or something, sipping a delightful drink), I started the SEQUEL.

Because YES! The deal is for TWO BOOKS!

THE NAMELESS QUEEN will have an as-of-yet Unnamed Sequel! (pun completely intended)

So while I was waiting for my edit letter and for any news on the contract, I made a decent 1/3 – 1/2-ish dent in the first draft of the sequel. And let me tell you, things get COOL. Familiar faces, familiar world, and a dash of the unexpected!

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And now I’m doings edits on THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and polishing it to a shiny rock. It’s mega-levels of excitement. And the deal has finally been announced!!!! YAYYYYY!

I’m still early on this road of books and authoring and authorial booking of booky authory things. But it’s a long road, and I’m going to enjoy the journey! Somewhere ahead, we’ll get to do final revisions, the cover release, the proper publication date announcements, and all sorts of exciting fabulousness!

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Have questions for me on any of this? Ask me!

The Lie of the 1-Step Process

Looking at any process from the outside is simple. I come at this from two perspectives: having explored a hefty portion of the “Writing a Book” process and having made my first real “Process Tree” for my job as a Technical Writer.

The process I’m making at work is how our team handles documents that we are rewriting and remodeling. Outsiders think the process goes like this, a one-step process:

Our team makes stuff more awesome.

And even I was fooled by its outward simplicity. I thought it went like this:

Draft > Layout/Design > Final Proof > Publication

It turns our the process vaguely (and pixelated) looks like this:

pixlmap.png

As you can see, it’s way more complicated than it first seems. It goes more along the lines of:

First Draft > First Proof > Content Consult > Design/Layout > Final Proof > Interactive Test > Storage

So I figured, what other process in my life did I at one time think (oh-so-naively) was simple? Only to then discover, en medias res, that it was anything but?

Writing. A. Book.

I thought it was a one-step process. Like “update documents” was a one-step process, right? Write a book. Easy peasy. Well, easy until I was in the thick of things. Then, of course, it got more complicated. I figured, okay, it’s a FIVE step process:

Write book > Revise book > Get representation > Get published > Write more books

I thought it was straightforward. Let’s explore how wrong I was. Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s see what this process actually looks like.

Into the Weeds

This is what the process looked like after about an hour of process-mapping. And I only made it up to the “querying” stage before it all exploded.

bkprcs2

Here are the basic stages (probably): Drafting Zone (orange) > Revision Hell (blue) > Query Trenches (purple) > Agent Land > On Submission > Editor Land > Pre-Publication Stuff > Publication Destination > Post-Publication Road

And because I love a good terrible-rendition of my process, here’s a brief idea of what my person journey through these stages looked like for the first book I wrote/trunked. Note that this process took me a culminating of 4 years.trip1

 

And here’s the one that actually made it (purple), when I finally got my awesome literary agent. I spent a good deal of time in the Revisions, and you can see a bunch of other trunked or unfinished books along the way. You should always be spending more time in revisions than anywhere else, I think:trip7

I’m thinking maybe I’ll do a flowchart for each major stage (at least the first four, since those are the ones I have managed to get through) and post them separately. Thoughts?

Develop Your Voice

Voice. Finding your authorial voice is difficult and vital. It’s a big step on the “How to Be a Writer” journey.  Mostly, that journey looks like this:
1. Learn the rules.
2. Figure out which rules you want to break.
3. Make it work.

1. Learn the Rules

To write, you have to learn and master your language. The grammar, syntax, punctuation, formatting, etc. For the most part, we learn these rules organically as we grow up. If you want to write, treat language as your job.
Tip: Taking a foreign language class can allow you to re-learn those rules in a different context.

2. Break the Rules

Then you have to learn how to break those rules. Or at the very least know that those rules aren’t all of what makes up a good story. Some people will argue on this point. They’ll argue that perfect grammar/syntax is required for good writing. But good writing and good storytelling are not always the same thing. For example, professional language and legal language are the most “correct” ways to say something. They convey clarity and precision in terms. But they don’t make for easy reading, do they?
This means that even if you can put together a charming soliloquy with all the right formatting and vocabulary, you’re not going to find a big audience outside Shakespeare that will read it. Finding your own style is as much about developing your technical skills with a language as it is knowing how to find all the loopholes. For instance, if you’re writing dialogue, it has to feel real. It can’t be a pages-long soliloquy that comes off as stilted or jarring.
Of course, voice is something far beyond the technical aspect of writing. It’s only one piece of the puzzle, really. You also have to look at tension, pacing, character and plot arcs, balance of dialogue, scene vs. summary. These are things that you can learn in a classroom or on your own, depending on you and how you learn best. For me, it’s a combination of the two. The best advice is to read read read, and try to figure out how authors do it.
To develop your voice, you have to pay close attention to how you’re making the reader feel and how you’re communicating your story. It’s really only something you can learn by practice and observation. Best advice: do as many writing exercises as you can. Then, work with someone (such as a Critique Partner or a classmate) to learn what is and isn’t working.
Tip: For writing dialogue, go to a public place and listen to the conversations of those nearby. Each person speaks with their own voice, both literally and stylistically. Try to replicate those differences and stylistic flares in your own writing.

3. Make it Work

The biggest step is to go back and make sure the rules you break are working. Revision is the biggest part that writers need to address. People who don’t have experience with writing always think “I’ll write a book and get it published.” They don’t think of the middle steps involving revision, more revision, and more revision.
Revision is where we learn. It’s where we find our mistakes, where we find the stilted dialogue and authorial narration and melt, twist, and bend it into shape. This applies to more than just voice. It applies to all aspects of writing.  But voice is one of the trickier things a writer has to develop, but only because you oftentimes have to get out of your own way to figure it out. A lot of authors have a natural “voice” to their writing style—whatever makes a story feel like that author’s story. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a ton of work to make that voice shine and stand out and interplay with the story in a way that makes it feel whole and vibrant.
So. Best advice: practice practice practice, and read read read. And then write. And then revise.

Ask Authors Questions

A New Writer’s Resource

Ever wanted to know that you’re not alone as a writer? Ever wondered if other writers have weird rituals before they write? Where do writers find their Critique Partners?

Today marks the launch of the Ask Authors Tumblr blog, where over 100 writers participate in answering a big question each week. And they answer smaller questions submitted by visitors all the time!

Ask Authors Blog

What it Does & What it Has

The blog taps the resources, knowledge, and wisdom of the 125 writers who were contestants in the 2015 Pitch Wars contest. It also has a Resources Page (in development) that will host a slew of links that can take you to various resources that we’ve found helpful for querying and publishing advice.

There’s also a Twitter you can follow, just in case you’re not on Tumblr and you want to receive notice of when new questions go up and when fun things are happening!

How it Works

Every Monday, a new Question Post goes up, where the Authors Crew asks and answers a big question. Everything from the difference between Beta Readers and Critique Partners to our favorite terrible writing advice.

Any time in between, they’ll post responses to Asks that come in.

How Do You Ask?

Head over to our Anonymous Ask page, where you can inquire your heart’s desire! Book recommendations, tips for a pesky grammatical mistake you keep making, or the philosophy of the writing universe?

Feel free to ask anything!

Camp NaNoWriMo 2016: How to Track Revisions, Short Stories, and Unreliable Word Counts

WHO. IS. READY.

I am TOTALLY ready.

Ready-ish.

Camp NaNoWriMo (what this is) is a way for me to jump into a month of solid productivity. Typically, I use that space to work on the novel I started in the previous November’s Nano. Since Camp is so flexible, it’s really something you can use at any stage of the writing process.

Here are their categories for writing projects this year:

  • Novel
  • Nonfiction
  • Poetry
  • Revision
  • Script
  • Short Stories
  • Other

So not only are they directly giving you the option of revising for the month, it also allows for different projects like Short Stories and Scripts. And like the fallen cherry, on the bottom we have “Other.” That means that this month of April is YOURS to personalize, individualize, and dance around!

*pauses in moonwalk*

But wait, how do we track “revisions”? What if we’re starting the month with a chunk of our novels already written?

Fear not, tireless crusader!!

Abnormal Tracking Methods

| Revision |

| Scattershot Revisions, Adding Scenes, Query Letter, etc. |

I used last year’s April to do revisions (yeah, that time I forgot until April 1 that it was happening), with the specific goals of adding four scenes, writing a query, receiving and acting on beta reader materials, and focusing on a polish for the first and last chapters.

So for me, I listed 10k as my goal for the month last year. I figured that would give me some wiggle room for writing/revising the query, adding scenes, and revising on feedback from beta readers.

CampNano15

Ask you can see, it was a step-wise process.  (haha, get it? cause it looks like stairs). Each time I completed something—the query letter, the first chapter revisions, etc.—I added the final word count of that section. And later that year is when I joined Pitch Wars, which led to me getting my agent, so Camp Nano was a big part of that!

The case of the disappearing word count in day 1 and 2 was due to the fact that I wrote a query and then heartlessly crushed it with fire. That’s right. Crushed with fire. Totally a thing.

| Revising Entire Novel/Work |

This one’s pretty easy. I did it in 2014 with one of my longer-standing projects (The Amateur Witch) which is now tucked safely in a lovely trunk.

All you have to do is start revising at the beginning of the story and however many pages you get through, just highlight/word count the ms up to that point.

Quick Tip:

To get the word count of the story up to your current location, hit “Ctrl+A” (this selects ALL the text), then hit “Shift+ Right Click” on the page where you want the word count to stop at. That will leave you with all of the document selected up to your current location.

That’s how you get your current “revision” word count!

And don’t freak out when your word count shifts between sessions or by the end.

CampNano14

I got through the ms in about 1-1/2 weeks, then I spent the rest of the time trimming and cutting down.

Revision for some people involves adding meat to the bones, and for some it involves trimming away the fat. The end goal of revisions is really to get to a muscly golem creature who is more than skin and bones, but not too flabby. And that’s probably the weirdest analogy I’ve ever made for revisions, so I’ll leave it at that.

| Poetry & Short Stories |

This is where you want to know how much work you see for yourself. Are you writing a set of 35 poems for a collection? Are you writing a series of 5 stories or 20? Are you doing flash fiction or longer stories?

This is when you want to take a look at your previous works of poetry or stories. What’s your average word count for each? Do you work in longer works, where your stories are regularly 10k+ or where your poems are 100+?

Either way, all you have to do is a bit of math.

Multiply what you expect your number of stories/poems to be by the average word count. That gives you your goal for Camp!

 

Final Word Count Issues

So what happens if you get your 6 stories or 20 poems written, but your final word count is short of the estimated goal you set at the beginning of the month? Or if, through revisions, you cut a bunch of words, and now you haven’t met your “goal”?

Unlike November’s NaNoWriMo, the monthly goal is totally flexible. You can change it at any time!

The spirit of Camp is to get the work done and put in your time and effort. Given the nature of poetry, short stories, and revisions, it’s tough to nail down a prospected word count. Keep in mind that for Poetry & Short Stories, it was an estimated word count goal, but it was grounded in a more specific goal of how many pieces you’re producing.

The same goes for the revisions! Your word count “goal” was your current word count. That is of course going to change throughout the month. At the end, all you have to do is adjust that Word Count Goal to match your splendid accomplishments!!

 

Join Me!

I’m always more than willing to have writing buddies throughout the NaNo process! My username for Camp is ink.weaver, so shoot me a buddy request or an email if you want to hang out or chat throughout the lovely month of April 2016!

When Revision Sparks BIG Changes (Pitch Wars #5)

Revisions are an exciting and terrifying time. You break apart something you spent so much time molding into shape, then you pray you can patch it back together and polish it to a beautiful shine.

Basic steps when you realize your manuscript needs BIG changes:

Absorb it. Like a dry sponge on the edge of a spill, you’ve got to give yourself time to soak up the ideas of change. Too soon, and it’ll feel like the world is crumbling. Too long, and you’ll second guess yourself into oblivion.

Plan it. No one goes to war (and expects to win) without a battle strategy. Don’t freak out, though. Just ask some simple questions and write the answers. Are you going to tackle line edits last or first? Are you going to rewrite those scenes or modify the character motivation first? Which edits are you doing in tandem?

Attack it. Whether you’re on a deadline that’s self-imposed or external, having a schedule and diving in is critical.

Re-absorb it. Yes, like a perpetual sponge and/or cell, give yourself time to adjust to your own changes. A bit of distance, a bit of objectivity, and you can get a sense of whether or not the change works.

Polish it. Just like every set of revisions, you need to smooth over any changes you make. Keep all the threads lined up and untangled (or crafted into a beautiful web if that’s what you’re after). Once you smooth it over, you might find that your revisions feel as natural as the original, and work even better!