Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Revision (or: How I Got Published, Part 6)

As always, a quick rundown on what I’m doing, here: I’ve begun a little blog series that’s basically my story in a nutshell—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful about my journey to publication.

What I’ve talked about so far:

Today I’m going to jump into revision.

(For the record, I wrote a post about my revision process a few years ago—I’m giving an updated version of that now, but a lot of this info is lifted, with editorial marks, from that post.)

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’m sure I’ll mention it many times from now, but I’m a discovery writer.* Writing organically without the constraint of any real outline is fun, freeing, and allows my mind to explore a lot more, but it has some drawbacks. Namely, my first drafts are complete crap. “Shitty first drafts” is a common adage in the writing world, but mine are downright bad. They would make no sense to anybody except me, because I often cut (or add) characters halfway through, change locations, pursue tangential ideas for a bit until I find my way back to the main plot, etc. Basically, my first draft ends up being one long, glorified outline, written in prose.

Thus, for me, my first revision always happens with the door closed**.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to talk about my revision process with Duskfall specifically because, well, that’s the novel that got me published!

I started*** with the first draft (Duskfall 1.0), where I got the story onto paper (or my computer, as it were). Nothing fancy, just getting the story down. Even back then I’d decided to “write with the door closed”—I wanted to get my idea for the story completely out of my head and onto the page before I allowed anyone else to give me their input.

I then took some time off, did an MFA program, and did not get around to the first revision (DF 2.0) of the novel for a couple years. That time off was important for my process, I think (although I’m sure I did not need to take two years off, it just kind of happened that way—a month or two is more than enough time, in reality). Again, for this first revision, I wrote with the door closed. In Duskfall, characters that were there in the beginning suddenly disappeared halfway through the story, while other characters appeared out of nowhere because I suddenly decided they should. Settings changed in my head, but I didn't change them on paper. Plot twists developed out of nowhere and needed some retroactive foreshadowing. I knew that before I showed DF to outside eyes, there was a lot I needed to fix, and that’s why that first revision was all me. I knew there were things I needed to fix, so I was sure to fix as many of them as I could before I showed the project to anyone else; that way I didn't have people wasting their time (and mine) by telling me things I already knew I needed to change, or things that were going in an opposite direction for the plan I already had for the book.

After that first revision, I finally gave the story to some outside readers. For Duskfall, my wife and two close writer friends had the graciousness to give me that first round of feedback (and now that I’m writing in a more official capacity I imagine this “alpha reader” group might just be my agent and editor). They read the book, gave me basic feedback—not a lot about the grammar or writing on the sentence level, that stuff just wasn’t very useful to me yet, but rather on the more global issues regarding plot and character development, etc. This would be a good place for a note of caution: I was definitely tempted, at this stage, to make the prose as beautiful, concise, and grammatically correct as I could, but I resisted that urge. If you’re like me, you might want to do the same. There was just too much that was going to change in future drafts, and revising on the micro level that early, while surely tempting, seemed like it might be a waste of time. I’m definitely glad I didn’t open that can of worms; focusing on global issues was definitely what I needed to do at that point in time.

So, after receiving this feedback, I jumped into my second major revision (version 3.0). I took the suggestions and feedback that I’d received seriously, but I also took them all with a grain of salt. That, I’ve realized, is one of the most important mentalities I can have in revision: while some people are certainly better at giving feedback than others, I found that even from the best readers I ended up only taking action on maybe a third of their suggestions. And that’s ok, preferable even. It’s my story, after all, and I need to be judgy about which suggestions I take to heart and which I dismiss. I’ll talk more about this next week, but I realized early on, thankfully, that it was really okay if I basically ignored quite a bit of feedback offhand.

At this point I did a more micro-level revision (version 3.n, I cant remember exactly, it depends on how many times I’d read through DF during that second major revision) in which I finally focused on some of the writing itself--using active verbs, eliminating unnecessary words, etc. I knew that I wanted to start sending it out to agents at this point, so I figured I should start paying at least some attention to the language.

I did, indeed, find an agent around this point, and he (along with a number of other gracious folks at JABberwocky) began contributing input to DF, too. Basically, it was the same process as the previous two revisions, only a bit more formal and I ended up taking into consideration a lot more of their suggestions (they are professionals, after all). The third, fourth, and fifth major revisions (DF 4.0, 5.0, and 6.0) came through interactions with my agency and a few other choice readers to whom I sent my manuscript.

One significant revision to note was what I think ended up being DF 5.0. It was, essentially, a line edit in which I cut about 17% of the entire book. I believe that good writing is, in large part, saying the most with the fewest words possible, and because I tend to be a bit of a windbag to begin with, I usually have quite a few words that I end up cutting from my later drafts, so this aspect of revision has become a staple for all of my stories and novels: I like to have an entire revision in which my only goal is to cut at least 10% of the word count. It works for me. It’s also a nice interruption from the more mind-intensive story-revisions.

Incidentally, Duskfall will have one more round of revision before it goes through the gauntlet of publication. Just some minor language things, making the prose as pretty as possible, and a few other marks from my editor. I think I’ll be doing that in the next month or so (basically as soon as I finish Dark Immolation 1.0), and that will mark version 7.0 of Duskfall.

I imagine my revision process for Dark Immolation and for my other future novels will be very similar; the first two drafts of my work still need to be written with the proverbial door closed. I need to work out all the kinks I can on my own, make sure the story is doing what I want it to do, before I send it out to others. But, once I get those first two drafts done, it’s open season, and anyone with a brain has the potential to give me some great, story-altering feedback (although, at this point, most of that will come from my agent and editors).

Another side note: some writers may be opposed to getting feedback on their writing—maybe they think it’ll muddy their process or something. I’m pretty sure I used to have that outlook. Now, I don’t. I’ll talk more about why that is next week.

So: revision for me is a pattern of sending a work out, getting feedback, selectively and judiciously revising, and repeating that process until I (and my agent and editor) feel the work ready, in which case I do move on to the more micro level stuff. Let me offer a few tips in summary:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff, at least in the beginning—grammar, conciseness, and language-oriented edits can wait until later revisions. Focus on the big stuff, character development and plot coherence, first (and tell your readers to do the same).
  2. Seek outside feedback! Again, I’ll talk more about this next week, but it has become an indispensable part of my process.
  3. Be judicious and selective about said feedback. You may give your story to a bunch of smart people, but they don’t know your story like you do. Take what you like, and leave the rest.
  4. Your novel is your own—keep it that way.

That’s how revision worked (and continues to work) for me! Stay tuned for a discussion next week on alpha readers, beta readers, and writing groups.

* That means I prefer not to work from an outline. I start with an idea and/or some characters, put them all together, and see where they take me. This method is also known as “seat-of-your-pants” writing, so I’m aka a “pantser.” Aka “gardener.” You get the picture.

** You’ll hear me talk about “writing with the door closed” and “revising with the door open” a lot in this and the subsequent HIGP post—that’s an idea lifted from Stephen King, specifically from his fantastic memoir, On Writing.

*** It may or may not be helpful to compare these revisions to the timeline I posted last week—just saying.

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