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Monday, August 1, 2011

Pre-Revision: Before You Break Out the Red Ink

Courtesy of bredmaker
One of the most important phases of writing a novel is the revision stage. I realize that writing and revising are very personal things and that everyone has their own method that works for them, but hopefully some of the following will be helpful.

For me, writing the story down the first time is taking a small ember surrounded by dark space and breathing life into it. I step into the story and write down everything I see.

The revision process is where I take that world teeming with life and shape it into something even more wonderful. It's the place where I step out of the story and am myself again. Stepping out of the story is an important first step, because if you want to shape the story into a beautiful topiary, you have to be outside. Otherwise, you'll be blinded by leaves and branches and won't be able to maneuver the shears quite as well.

Step #1: Step out of the story. Let it sit for a few weeks or months so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.

When you're ready to come back to the story to begin shaping the boughs, there are a few things you can do before you even open the manuscript up on the computer.

Step #2: Know where you are weak.

We all have weaknesses. And we all have strengths. We also have things that fall in between. For me, some of my weaknesses include overusing "that", not conveying exactly what I saw in my head, sparse setting, and too many metaphors. I was going to list some of my strengths, but feel really weird doing that, so we're going to move on to the stuff in between.

Step #3: Know where you are strong.

For me, the stuff in between are the things I need to tweak. They're not necessarily weaknesses, but they're things that can be made stronger. One of my in between things is the use of "was" or any other of the dreaded to be verbs. The first step is to be aware, and the second is to see. What I do is use the "Replace" function in Word to replace all the was's with was that is highlighted. I turn on the navigation screen, and have a visual map of how many times I use the word was per page.

Step#4: Recognize what you can make stronger.

Once I do that, I go through each one and decide whether to keep the was or toss it. Sometimes the was fits perfectly, other times, I figure out ways to structure the sentence differently to avoid the was altogether. This usually results in stronger sentences. Now, I'm describing what I do so I can give an example, but the purpose of this post is to do a pre-revision screen, so the manuscript isn't even open yet.

The important thing here is to be self-aware. Know what you do well, what needs work, and what you need to pay special attention to.

Step #5: Have a clear idea of the story.

This may or may not happen before you start revising, but it's something that's good to keep at the back of your mind. Who is the story really about? Why? What are the stakes? Are they the right stakes? Is this the right story? If not, why not? If so, why? If you want to prune your story into an elephant, before you ever come at the shrub that is your first draft, you need to have a clear idea of what it needs so that it can be the most beautiful elephant you are capable of creating. And who knows, sometimes you might discover that the story isn't an elephant. Not really. It's really a lion or a swan or a giraffe.

Step #6: Know what you want to accomplish.

The next thing is a little different from the previous step. The previous step was knowing what shape the story should be, this step is knowing exactly what you want to do with this story. Is it a practice story--and sometimes you may not know the answer to this question until later on, but that's okay--something you're going to give away for free as a marketing tool or THE ONE you're going to get published? Knowing what you're going to do with the story at the end will affect how you revise it, so it's good to at least have a plan going in.

Step #7: Separate yourself from your novel.

Yes, I know. You've put yourself in the story, and there are bits and pieces of you on every page. That's fine. I think we all do it to an extent. What I'm talking about is putting some emotional distance between yourself and your story. That process takes time, and there's no better time than the present to start doing so. Don't allow yourself to feel less than you are because the draft didn't come out perfectly on the first try. Remember that fire you felt as you wrote it when you start getting overwhelmed with what needs to be done to make the story shine. Give yourself credit for finishing the first draft, and allow yourself to make mistakes. Mistakes (in this case) aren't something bad, their evidence of you having tried something that you're maybe not adept at yet. And that's something to be proud of.

Step #8: Set Goals and Deadlines.

This may or not work for you, but the final part of my pre-revision process is to set concrete goals with real deadlines and to envision the finished product. Why set goals? They'll help steer you in the direction you want as well as break down the insurmountable task into bite-sized pieces. Why set deadlines? Because if you're going to be published, you're going to have deadlines. To me, it makes more sense to gauge how fast and well you can work--especially when you just aren't feeling like it--when the deadlines are only personal. This will get you in the habit so that when you do have real deadlines, you'll have a realistic view of how you'll be able to meet them and you'll know that you can--even when it gets hard.

What about you? What kind of pre-revision things do you do?

Danyelle writes MG and YA fantasy. In her spare time, she collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers. She can be found discussing the art of turning one's characters into various animals, painting with words, and the best ways to avoid getting eaten by dragons on her blog. Her serial novel THE FAIRY GODMOTHER DILEMMA can be found here. 


Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

Time away from the book is NECESSARY... but I also like the advice of knowing what one does well (and what one's weaknesses are). I've found I'm good at dialogue, but lousy at character development... so I work to develop each character individually, and THEN go back to my novel, watching for where the characters show themselves and their motivations.

Anita Saxena said...

Great advice. Thank you!

Stina said...

The problem with figuring out your weaknesses is that you end up with a bookshelf of (awesome) books focused on said weakness. ;)

Great advice, Danyelle!

Eric W. Trant said...

Ironically, two of your points are for me mutually exclusive.

o Set a deadline
o Take time away from your work

A small publisher agreed to publish my book based on the concept and a few test chapters, plus he really liked the short story on which it was based (he published both).

Now come the deadlines. Now come the wordcounts. Now come the promises to deliver!

So I haven't had time to take a break from my work. I get weekends off here and there, and I've had a couple of weeks downtime, but by and large, the ~deadline~ has out-weighed my ability to take off time from the piece.

On the other points, you are spot-on. Little goals are key! Don't look at the book and think, I need 80k words!

Instead, think to yourself, I need 1,500 words today, now what order do I put them in?

And by all things holy, you'd better know where you're going with the piece, and for what purpose. Otherwise you'll never get there.

Very good piece you wrote here.

- Eric

Barbara Watson said...

I am RIGHT here - revising land - right now. This is all just what I needed, you know what's coming, right now. So a huge thank you.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Fantastic post! Especially in an e-world, where we're used to "publishing" what we have to say instantaneously, it's easy to forget how important it is to step back and give yourself a little time away so you can see things with fresh eyes.