By Alex Segura
I have a love/hate relationship with revisions.
Part of me understands the need to revise, make something better and build upon the first draft. I know as well as anyone that most first passes aren’t very good – that through revision, you dust off the good pieces and start to put together a bigger, stronger work. You’re digging for gold, basically – through a lot of dirt and, well, other stuff.
The other part of me, the lazy little demon that sometimes appears on my shoulder, hates revisions. Hates rewrites. Hates notes. “But what you had was fiiiiine. Just print it out and you have a book. You’ll be done. You can work on something else.”
The little guy’s proposal is tempting, because like most writers, I have a ton of ideas or projects in the queue. Finishing Pete Fernandez book 3. That comic idea. The short stories I want to send around. But my #1-with-a-bullet-goal is finishing revisions on Down the Darkest Street so I can see that ship off. Then, and only then, can I sigh in relief and formally move on to something else. Just the facts.
And, let’s face it – if you don’t think revision is part of writing, you’re doing it wrong. Revision isn’t the cleanup after a party. It’s when the party really kicks into high gear.
I realize there’s an inevitable crash when you realize you have to revise – I mean, you just typed “THE END,” right? But the thing that keeps me going when revising is that I’m getting a chance to make my book better. That line that kind of irked me but I left because I wanted to finish the chapter? Now I can change it. That character that I really liked but sacrificed because I felt I needed to? Now I can revive them. That gaping plot hole I didn’t really notice? I can drop a truckload of sand in it.
Revision is essential and it makes you better.
But like any writing, Your Mileage May Vary in terms of how you revise. I’m a bit of a process junkie – when I meet a writer for the first time, I usually ask them how they write. Do they outline? Do they just dive in and hope for the best? It’s kind of the same with revisions. I imagine some people just open the document, page one and start reading and changing stuff as they go. On the other end of the spectrum, there are probably people that make a plan of attack.
With writing (both starting and revising), I’m a bit in the middle. I like to outline a bit – it creates a safety net that lets me continue to sleep at night, while still leaving wiggle room for my characters to go off the rails and do what they want. If you’ve read Silent City, there’s a character that makes an unexpected (I hope) turn to the dark side toward the end. I did not know they were going to do that. But my outline was loose enough that I could pivot and see where it would go. It’s the same with revisions. Depending on the source of the notes – myself, my agent, beta reader – I usually make a list of the “big” changes I need to make. Then I warm myself up by doing the tiny stuff – typos, POV tweaks, consistency in details like weather and time of day. Once that’s done and I feel the engine is warm, I dive in for the big-ticket changes. The scary thing about these changes, at least to me on first realizing it has to be done, is that each one kind of requires a full re-read of the novel. It’s enough to make you go mad and give up. We’ve all thought about it, I’m sure. But if there’s one thing I’ve realized in this process is that the only way you’re going to get through it – and end up with a stronger, more readable book - is by breaking down the revisions into tiny, workable pieces.
For example, you have to cut out a character from a book. The character is all over the book and affects everyone in the novel. Sounds painful, right? It is, but it’s less painful if you just tag the pages where they show up – make a note of how to change each instance – and then plow through it. If you spend too much time looking at the big, scary change (and Lord knows I have), you’ll be frozen and unable to enact the tiny changes that make up the revisions your book needs.
My point is: treat revisions with as much reverence and import as you give the initial, exciting stages of creation. Think big and work small. Next thing you know, a few weeks have passed and you have a new draft.
Curious to hear how other fellow writers revise. I’m a process guy, remember?
To me, revisions is the fun part; it's the first draft that's depressing. I outline, and, to me, the first draft creates the raw material from which the revisions will create a book.
I'm also a process freak.
1. Outline, though it's often oinly loosely adhered to. Not much detail in the outline. I just need to know what happens in the scene. How is left for the actual writing most of the time.
2. First draft. I read over and clean up yesterday's work before starting the new day.
3. A revision to smooth everything over and made it flow like a book I'd want to read.
4. A revision to dig into all the things I still don't like as well as I want to. This is the heavy lifting revision.
5. The finishing. On Day One I read a chapter. On Day 2 I edit Chapter 1 on the screen (reading it sotto voce), and read Chapter 2. On Day 3, I read aloud (acting out, if necessary) and edit Chapter 1 from a hard copy, edit Chapter 2 from the screen, and read Chapter 3. Repeat until I get to the end.
When ALL of that is done, I allow myself to type THE END. And I'm done with it.
Wow, Dana - we're a lot alike! I also outline very loosely, so I can let the characters breathe. But often, they do their own thing anyway! Thanks for commenting.
Time and distance between draft and revisions is extremely important for my process. I don't plot or outline, so when I'm writing the first draft, my concern is getting down the bones of the story. Anything that doesn't feel right gets marked "xxx." When the draft is done, I go back and fix the easy xxxs (color/make/model of a car, description of a living room, etc) and let the rest wait for the revision. Sometimes, during the revision, I come across this: XXXTHIS DOESN'T WORK! FIX LATER! which annoys the heck out of me, but with the benefit of distance, I can see how to fix the problem.
Thanks, Diane! Appreciate your insight on process - very cool to see!
I think I want to be Dana.
I love, love, love revisions.
I'm a lot like Diane. For instance, I'm letting the first draft of the YA mystery I just finished sit for a month before I tackle revisions. (Letting the boys in the basement do their job and giving me the ability to look at it with a fresh eye.)
I let Down the Darkest Street - the second Pete novel - sit for a bit, too, while I was working on 3. It did help me come back with a new POV and some distance, which is really helpful. Thanks for chiming in Kristi, and congrats on BLESSED ARE THE DEAD!
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