The art of revision

Front seat, digital photography,

When I finished the rough draft of Earth a few years ago, I felt like I’d just run a marathon. I made it past the finish line, leaned over my knees to catch my breath, held the stitch in my side and paced while sucking from a water bottle.

When I came to a stop, I looked up. What? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was at the starting line, again! Someone was holding up a pistol and the whole race was about to begin again. I was expected to run a marathon, AGAIN!

Welcome to the revision process.

After a year of revising, expect to end the race triumphant, but exhausted and drained. Expect again to look up with shock and dismay. You’ll find yourself at the starting line again, for another marathon, this one all about the intense process of finding an agent. I just keep thinking: this will certainly keep my mind keen as I grow older, because I’m using everything I’ve got here!

But back to revision. I believe doing anything difficult is about ‘managing our expectations’. If we expect revision to be easy and quick, and it’s not, then we feel shattered and exhausted. If we know it’ll be a long, involved, complicated process, then we won’t be so overwhelmed. If it’s your first novel, I’d allow a year for revision. Here are some other things to expect:

1. Allow yourself to restructure the whole novel if need be.
2. Be prepared to throw out your darlings. Don’t hold tight to a passage or even a character if they don’t progress the plot or improve the theme. Toss ’em out. Toss out whole chapters! Take a paragraph and make it into a chapter if that’s necessary for the plot.
3. Revision is a whole new language. Learn it. Study the revision sections in books on writing. Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction is a good place to start.
4. Revision is a deepening. When you revise, expect to get to know your characters better (you may even be surprised by the characters you thought you knew), enhance the setting (add weather, and name local flora and fauna), deepen the theme (even change the theme). Enrich and enliven the prose.
5. Expect the revision process on your first novel to be about three full rewrites. You get through it once, see where more is needed, go through it twice, understand finally how really to write a novel, and give it one final go. The process does seem faster on the second novel…the first is just one steep learning curve.
6. It’s harder than ever to get an agent and a publisher. Polish your work so that it glows.

There’s so much more to revision than is explained here, but that’s what writing coaches are for —


One thought on “The art of revision

  1. People I’ve know for a long time can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get my still unfinished book done. I can’t believe it either. But as my dad used to say, ‘It is what it is.’ He also told me, ‘Don’t count pages.’ He was referring to my need to ‘waste’ time counting the pages I had left to read in a book, instead of just readiing. I’m trying not to count ‘pages left to write’ on my third round of rewrites. I’m still kicking and screaming about how long the process takes, but I guess if it was easy, everyone would be doing it–(Hey–everyone IS writing a novel–or a screenplay–aren’t they?) Good luck with the next stage of your journey, Carrie. The finish line is just beyond the horizon. 😉


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