The Joy of Revision

Ah, rewriting.

Or as I like to call it “writing.” The before stuff can fondly be referred to as inconsequential word vomit.

Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead, Housekeeper, etc.) once said that she never rewrote a word. Didn’t edit a sentence. The writer in me goes “Nahh, man . . .” at this. But then I realized it takes her eight years to produce one normal sized novel and, well . . . maybe she’s telling the truth. Or part of the truth. Because maybe she doesn’t edit, but I bet each of those perfectly arrived sentences put up their share of a fight.

The first thing a newbie rewriter needs is a tough skin. If you’ve never had a piece of your work torn apart by a group of professionals (or not), then your first time may reduce you to tears. Don’t worry. This is normal. Your work–your baby–is bleeding.

Don’t argue or explain away another’s critique of your writing. For example, the first (the very first) chapter of Once Upon a Nightmare originally had Violet and Alexander playing chess in her mind, not Candyland. My writing professor read it and said, “Hmm.” And then he said, “It’s such an original idea, it’s a shame you had to mess it up with the whole chess thing. It’s a little typical, especially after Harry Potter.”

Well,” I replied, a bit miffed. “He’s a Nightmare and she’s in love with gothic literature. They aren’t going to play Candyland.”

And now they play Candyland. And my opening chapter is much, much better for it. (If you want to read that original scene, you can here. But just remember: first draft. No judgey.)

Rewriting comes in two forms: structural level and sentence level.

Everyone does things differently, but here’s what currently works for me:

First Draft (1.0): The very first thing I write. And this sucker is a mess. It’s tagged all over with things like ‘adding a new character to give so-and-so a foil’ or ‘this setting sucks, change to something with better weather’ or whatever. I’m laying the ground work and new ideas pop up all the time.

For me, though, it is essential that I finish. Starting over twenty times means, for me, never finishing.

First Draft (2.0): I still call this the first draft, but it’s the organized first draft, where I make sense of all those notes. This is a structural level editing, and it’s all self-inflicted. By this point most of what I write is too confusing to show the masses anyway.

Second Draft: Here is when I do a sentence-level polish of the 2.0 first draft. I’ve fixed my structure problems as best I can, now I’m getting rid of my adjectives, deleting redundant description and changing my passive action clauses.

Then come . . .

The Beta Readers

Having others look over your work is somewhat indispensable. There are just some things you will not see on your own. Of course, choose your betas the way you’d choose a suitor for your only daughter. With care and scrutiny. If anyone ever tells you your writing is unbearable and you should give up the idea of being a writer, discard that person immediately.

For this part of the process, I would suggest asking for general feedback. How the story is working, if something is confusing, if the ending feels off. Don’t ask for people to nit-pick at sentences because you might end up deleting that whole chapter anyway.

Third draft: This is the hardest draft, for me. I now have a list of “things to improve” from people I trust and I need to figure out how to fix them. Occasionally you will get a stellar critique-partner who will have a good idea how to fix it, but rarely. And if you do, that person is probably related to you and getting paid a lot of money as an editor.

This is structural again, usually. Sometimes changing an entire character or rewriting the beginning.

Fourth draft: As before, polishing up the third draft. If you have someone who is willing to a line-edit job on a 80k novel (or however long your book is), then that’s super, but you may have to be your own best judge in this case.

Finally . . .

The Alpha Readers

Your last line of defense. For the beta readers, I suggest writers. People who know the craft. You can have writers as your alpha readers too, but I’d also include a few mechanics, teachers and regular-job kind of people who maybe don’t write much, but who do like to read.

Final draft: Oh gosh, you’re finally here. At this stage, I make any last adjustments at the advice of my alpha readers, tweak any last things.

And that’s when I would (theoretically, at this point) send it to my editor or literary agent and the whole process would start all over again (which I know from receiving a bunch of “final drafts” which are then brutally examined all over again).

I leave you with these inspiring words from Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

May your last draft be less so.

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