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 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.
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.
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.