Monday, January 14, 2013

The Beauty, and Agony, of Revision, by Matthew MacNish

This is just a stock photo of the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word. I don't actually use it much myself early on in revision, even if it plays a big role later.

Revisions, just in case there are any out there still wondering, can take many roles in the complicated process that is the drafting of a manuscript for publication. The second draft, or first pass, is very different from the first, and the seventh draft (or however many it takes to get you ready to share with your CPs) can be very different from the sixth.

Being the only un-agented, unpublished author here at Project Mayhem, I'm perhaps the least qualified to post on this subject, but then again, so what? The whole point of blogging about publishing, and connecting with other writers is for all of us to learn from each other, right?

So even if I don't have anything to say that helps, maybe we can all learn something from each other, even if the comments are more illuminating than the post itself.

Now, there are several things we, as writers, must focus on during revision. There are little picture things, like grammar, spelling, sentence structure, repeated words, formatting, punctuation and so on, which if you have a contract and a paid copy-editor, maybe don't seem that important, but surely we all care enough about our work as professionals to get these things as close as we can to perfect, before we hand our writing off to ... whoever may be the next person involved in our process.

Then there are big picture things, like pacing, character arc, theme, voice, plot arc, and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of aspects that can make or break a story. A well executed story, however perfect its details, does not necessarily make a great tale. Of course, sometimes it's a very fine line. If you do have a professional editor you work with, they will often make suggestions about these big picture items, but even if you don't you can sometimes utilize critique partners and beta-readers to help you find holes in these building blocks.

Personally, as the title of this post suggests, I find revision to be both the best and the worst part of writing. It's nothing like the natural high of drafting an exciting new project, which can often carry me through months of feel good, productive days, but it does have its moments.

The hardest part of revision is plowing through things that you knew didn't work in the first draft. Missing scenes. Extraneous scenes. Mis-placed scenes (it's not all about scenes, they're just coming to mind right now). Finding a way to force these things into a working format can be so hard, it often takes tens or hundreds of times as long to fix them as it did to draft them.

However, the best part of revision, the moments when you take a good turn of phrase, and make it phenomenal, or when you take a strong, tense scene, and turn it into an edge-of-the-seat-nails-chewed-to-nubs type of scene, and you have that moment where you sit back, look at the page, and sigh, so satisfied that you finally figured out what you were put on this earth to do? That's the moment when you remember what it's all about. When you remember why you started writing in the first place.

At least, that's how it works for me. What's your revision process like?

59 comments:

  1. I just keep going through it until it doesn't suck.
    Editing is my favorite part. The first draft is torture, as the perfectionist in me tries to get it right the first time and it's frustrating when I can't 'see' the story. (Once it's on paper, I'm good to go.)
    Critique partners are essential. And reading dialogue out loud.

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    1. Drafting has always been fun for me, but then I'm a pretty big outliner too, so I wonder how much it helps to know where I'm heading?

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    2. I always dread the first draft, but have a lot more fun with the second draft. At least by the second draft I know what direction I'm going. I've always just kept new copies of the file for each draft, but I like the idea of the track changes.

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    3. I've always dread the first draft, but find I enjoy second draft revisions. The first draft give me insight and the second draft has me heading in the right direction. I usually save copies of each draft, but really like the idea of track changes.

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  2. I actually love revising more than writing. Maybe because I'm the one who is not published who has had to revise the most. I love the ones when I figure out what's wrong with the plot and make it so much better.

    I can see from your picture that I have a lot to learn about Word because I don't use those features.

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    1. Oh Natalie! You've got to learn about track changes and sidebar comments in MS Word. I mean, it's not that useful for self-editing, but it's absolutely essential for critiques.

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  3. I tend to break my revisions into sections: character, plot, & world, and then layer with details, deepen with emotions and reactions. Can you say charts? Yup. At this point, I have a ton of charts.

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    1. I don't do charts, but I have done spreadsheets.

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  4. Ha, ha, ha! Ditto what Alex said!!!

    I usually do a side by side outline between the first and second drafts. I create a document with two columns. I outline the first draft, chapter by chapter, in the left hand column. Then in the right hand column, I start to rearrange events to improve pacing, tension -- as well as indicate things that need deletion, insertion, or changing.

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    1. I have done entire an re-write before, but it's not always necessary. I guess it depends on how close that first draft is. Mine tend to vary greatly in quality.

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  5. I'm struggling through revisions right now. Ugh.

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  6. The answer in short? HELL!!! LOL!

    Thank you for your thoughts on revisions! What resonates with me is how I have to multi-task when re-doing a paragraph forever asking myself a multitude of questions before moving on - a process that takes days and days! And I still don't get it right! LOL!

    p.s. I like the stripey background of Project Mayhem blog! If I had 3D glasses the stripes will be coming at me!! Yay! take care
    x

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    1. Thanks, Kitty! We love our design too.

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  7. My revision process changes with each book, but I do try to look at the big picture first and not get caught up with the line edits. It's not easy though. :P

    Fortunately I love revisions, for the reasons you mentioned.

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    1. Yeah, there's nothing quite like that feeling when you see everything really coming together.

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  8. Excellent Matthew.

    Not from an author's perspective, but for the job-related writing that I have done, I have found that it takes me getting in the right frame of mind. I make a once-over of the big and little modifications needed, and then focus on the small ones first. Once I have some confidence, and the larger issues have had some time to formulate in the back of my mind, they often are easier to deal with.

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    1. Oh definitely. Being in the right frame of mind can make a big difference.

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  9. I love that first draft as well, but I think second draft is becoming my favorite. Depends on how well I've outlined... but second draft is where the story usually starts to really come together and make me happy. Then there's the clean up and beautification process - for me that comes later, after I'm sure the structure is going to hold up.

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    1. The underlying structure is certainly more important. There's no point spending a lot of time line-editing a chapter that's going to end up being cut!

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  10. I love the first draft but there's also something satisfying about knowing it's done and now all I have to do is make it perfect - or as near to as possible. I rely heavily on my crit partners to help me with revisions plus I'll often make notes about things I need to add or subtract or change or move. It's definitely a process but I don't have a system - unless Alex's counts, lol.

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    1. LOL. I don't make notes in my own draft either. I've tried it, and for whatever reason, it doesn't work for me.

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  11. Great post, Matt!!
    My revision process is pretty variable depending upon what draft I'm on and the feedback I've received but one thing I know is that I usually really like the process. I love having a manuscript to revise. :-)

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    1. I suppose there is more of a feeling of accomplishment in revising than in drafting. The worst part of drafting is knowing that even when you write The End, it isn't nearly over.

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  12. I'm an edit as I go type of gal, but I'm trying to change that. I'm still not sure if I'll ever stick to one 'way' though. It always depends on my mood.

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    1. I edit as I go as well, to a certain extent. I mean, I know people who put placeholders in for certain things, but my brain just won't let me move forward until I have the right word there.

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  13. I love if edits would just finish by themselves. I really don't like having to do surgery, because it is just so much more agonizing work :( How AWESOME would it be if first drafts turned out perfect? *squees in delight*

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    1. Now there is a dream worth dreaming.

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  14. I do basic cleanup work (grammar/voice) as I write each scene, but usually there's some serious tear-downs and guttings afterward. It's NEVER easy, but it's also oddly therapeutic. ;)

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    1. Exactly. It's very bittersweet. Some of the best and worst parts of writing, at least for me.

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    2. Okay, Hilary--I've been putting off two major revisions. But if you can sell me them as therapy, I'm your man.

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  15. I tell you what, revising from first person past tense to first person present tense is really f'ing hard. I'm doing that in a story I'm publishing online. It takes me about two hours to do 2000 words.

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    1. I once changed 120,000 words of third person past to first person past, and that was hard enough. I bet switching tense would be even harder.

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  16. I love the excitement of writing something new, creating something that has never existed before.

    When I finished the first draft of my first story, I was infatuated with it. I thought it was amazing. I couldn't wait to share it with the world. And then I shared it with a small group of friends/family and realized I had a LOT of work to do. It made me hate the baby I once loved. I was so angry that I hadn't gotten it right, that people found problems with it. It was like pulling out molars to get the first complete rewrite done, and as soon as I was finished, I knew it needed another. It wasn't until the third overhaul of my story that I really fell in love with it. Now, after a fifth complete rewrite and countless revisions, I'm hoping I have it right, that the story is beautiful and shiny and as perfect as I can get it without a professional's help.

    I will say, the revision work got to be more fun as I went along because I knew the story better, knew the characters and how they would/should act, knew the setting to the point that I could feel and smell and see the same things as my characters. I loved getting lost in their world. It's almost sad to part with it now.

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    1. Oh I definitely agree. Nothing was worse than the first time.

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  17. That's awesome! I feel the same. I've only done this once before, and didn't start with publishing in mind, but I loved the first draft process. I felt so proud. Then I realized how badly it sucked and how much help it needed. Now I love THAT process even more, the revising, when I make something decent into something wonderful. I love the endless rounds of feedback and how the perspective of so many CPs can improve my vision and make my story shine.

    Now, as a professional editor, I have to be careful how I critique. I don't want to quash the enthusiasm of the author, break their spirit, or undermine their confidence. It's a very delicate line, and, having seen editors who've done all the things I try so hard not to do, I make sure I give solid examples of how to improve, all while considering the author's style and voice. My job is to make their stories the best they can be, not show off how much I think I know.

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    1. Well said, Nancy. When I critique (and keep in mind - readers: feedback from a CP is a different animal than suggestions from an editor who is offering to buy your manuscript) I try very hard to keep in mind: the point is to help the author tell the best story, their way, that they can. Not to tell them how you would tell the story.

      It's hard sometimes, but I find it best to be as open as possible (even if I end up pretty long winded).

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  18. Yep, you nailed it right there at the end. That's the best (and most necessary part) of revisions right there for me. Getting those thin scenes or those scenes that can be better to the point where they're over the top.

    I always have to go back and do that. :D

    Great post, my friend~ <3

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    1. Thanks, Leigh. And yes, making sure every scene serves a purpose is key.

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  19. I've only fully revised short pieces. I look forward to working on my skills and making my WIP shiny this year.

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  20. I love looking back after a few months of revisions and just realizing how much you've changed the MS, even if you think you're not making much progress.

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    1. This is exactly why I keep a version of each old pass (or draft). Looking back can be equal parts fun and groan inducing.

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  21. This is very true. I agree with your point that it's perhaps the best and worst. The best of times, the worst of times...ah, that sounds profound. But disagree with the "Being the only un-agented, unpublished author here at Project Mayhem, I'm perhaps the least qualified to post on this subject" comment. Having an agent means bunk...as does having a book published. Sure, it's end goal, but is not what decides the worth of a writer. With all the critiquing you do, I'd say you're more "qualified" than those tho barely ever crit.

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    1. Fair enough, Mike. And thanks for always being so encouraging! I do probably go for the self-deprecating humor too often. But you're right, in the long run, we all have something to offer ... and we all have something to learn.

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    2. I was going to mildly scold you too, but Mike's done a good job of it so I'll just say "bunk."

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  22. Hell, the editing process for me is hell. Can you tell by my tone that I'm there right now. This is my fourth go at it and I'm about sick of my story, want to kill my characters, and leave smart-a$$ comments for myself in 'track changes'. Is this normal? I hope so. I am in the process of sending this to my CP as I revise. Time to let someone else at it. Oh, I hope it isn't carp!

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    1. LOL. I think we've all been there.

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  23. i'm with you! i just hate to admit i have to make revisions (many rounds & crits of them!)
    ah well, the payoff is totally worth it!

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    1. Yes. The first step is admission.

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  24. My method is the same as Alex-I just read it over and over. I don't outline beyond a few scribbled notes on a piece of paper, but I wish I could. I suspect it would make the whole process less painful.

    Once a story sort of works, then I start focusing on getting the storytelling rhythm of it just right. That's probably why I can never, ever listen to music while I'm writing on editing. The rhythm of the music competes with the rhythm of the words.

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    1. Absolutely. I completely agree. I spend a lot of time thinking about the rhythm and cadence of my sentences. Probably too much.

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  25. The real writing is in the revising!

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    1. Absolutely. Who was it that said: “I hate writing, I love having written?”

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  26. Next time, I outline. Then hopefully I won't have to completely rewrite again and again.

    Timely post, Matt. Now, where's my red pencil?

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    1. Check behind your ear. And yeah - outlines. I've always had at a very thin skeleton of one, but it varies from book to book. The last MS just needed ten sentences. Ten very basic scenes sketches. My Next Big Thing has 10,000 words of brainstorming, character sheets, and world-building, and I haven't drafted one word yet.

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  27. All I can say right now is I've felt more AGONY than beauty from revision.

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    1. I think many of us feel that way, Taurean, but I find the more of it I do, the more that ratio evens out.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!