Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

The titles of two of my previous posts here sum up where I am with novel revisions this week.

As I’ve mentioned in posts before, I come off the end of the teaching year like a kid going full bore on a skateboard flying off a pier. My writing has been cramped into short spurts all through the teaching season, and I crave these full, guiltless days of summer for novel writing.

But novel revisions are the chaingang work of writing, much moreso than those gluttonous days when all I had to do was invent ideas for the story. Days I rode such a rush of thoughts that new scenes (or more textured detail or characterization of existing scenes) ended up scribbled in the margins across pages in whatever book I was reading. Didn’t worry about transitions or sentence formatting or, you know, spelling as I drafted scenes out of order, in documents separate from that pristine, complete WIP I hadn’t opened since November.

Those prior post titles that come to mind like poetry to summarize my work these past two weeks? Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy and Novel Revisions: Danger – Book May Bite.

I came off the end of that metaphorical dock flying weightless through the chaos of tracking down all the books I’d read last winter to find the scenes I’d drafted in the margins, to add them to the neater notebooks and Word “add-on” documents where I’d properly stowed new work. I landed into the grunt work of transcribing all that handwritten material. Apparently I’d broken my hand or taken a prescription-writing course over the winter or been drinking heavily and writing in a cave… because much of my effort has been spent holding a page at arm’s length, turning it right and left until scrawl becomes legible.

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

It took more than a week to get through all the books with notations. Tedious. I posted that on Facebook and writing friends commiserated: yes, tedious!

I couldn’t help worrying this was the easy part. Drone work, just transcribing.

I posted on Facebook: I’m actually a little scared about opening that Scrivener file of last fall’s WIP. What condition would it be in? It’s been a full, holds-together draft since last summer; it’s been through two revisions since but… you know, what if it stinks? What if I can’t remember what I’d revised and where I’d left off? As I typed into one add-on doc in Word, I couldn’t help knowing there were 2 other docs of additions/revisions and beginning to anticipate how much work it would be, integrating all that new material with the draft.

The better the new material, the harder it would be. Nudge of anxiety: with this much new material, was it essentially a full rewrite? Was I jumping on board a lean motorcycle or getting ready to wrestle a train?

People say novel writing is hard. Not true, exactly. Simply writing out a novel? I’ve typed out 6 stories before that were novel length and held together with complete characters, setting and a full story arc. Simply getting-it-down took about 2 weeks each time. If you have an idea, writing the novel isn’t the hard part. Revision is.

Or, to quote Randy Ingermanson, featured for his snowflake approach to novel writing in last week’s Friday Links for Writers: “Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard.”

The novel — my WIP Wake — was written last summer. But the good novel I needed it to be still had issues with its ending, and my understanding of the characters kept shifting. Kept getting better — that part was great — but for pete’s sake folks, every time I understand you better, I’m stuck with another marginalia-scene to transcribe. Another key detail to weave organically through existing scenes. And then there’s that brilliant (<sarcasm) flash of all new backstory for one main character… revising all her “motivation” and the resolution between her and the love interest. Yeah, okay — it fixes other problems, but do you know how much work that will be? (Read about how much work it will be in tomorrow’s post: Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character.) And it’s not just new material, it’s the tasks I keep giving myself to test out the structure of the novel, evaluate where the conflict rises, where secrets are revealed…

Advice-to-self 1: when the work is hard, just get started. When I finished classes 2 weeks ago, I knew my task list but, if you don’t, then try to break the work into steps, pick one and get started. My first step was transcribing the handwritten work, second step was pulling all the files onto one laptop (I’d been between computers), and then all the add-ins into one document so I could work with one Word doc and the WIP on Scrivener.

Advice-to-self 2: This is better than 1: reread what you have. Mark where it’s good. Move everything else aside. For me, this will help resolve that insecurity about the Scrivener WIP vs. all those other pieces. I won’t cling to the old WIP if the new pieces are that much better. Old scenes will drop readily from the WIP if the newer material is stronger. And I won’t be bogged down with any of the new material that’s not useful.  I’m already starting to see this.

Because… I’m not quite to the part where it stops being messy, but relief is replacing fear when I read what I wrote.

The last revised WIP was good. It wasn’t as raw as I remembered. And I’m really excited to discover that the rewritten parts from winter work. (Sure there’s some garbage, but I can ignore that.) They add the texture I needed in certain scenes, get more closely inside characters’ motivation. That new backstory does create more work, but it adds energy that was missing. And a few adjustments to the order of events may resolve that problem with the ending without needing “more.”

Revisions are hard. My fear is genuine — I know the last 10% of completing a novel is like facing a wall between me and the end of the race. I’ve failed to scale that wall once before — left a good novel draft unrevised. The work is messy and the book does bite — but getting to work is the only solution.

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What About You?

So many of my writing friends (including readers here and those in online forums like my Wordsmith Studio friends) are in this same boat: working to get a novel ready for submission.

Are you somewhere in this process?  What strategies — whether process or motivation — help keep you going?

How do you know when it’s enough — when the work is good enough to send out? I’m not good at that one…

Good luck with your writing, wherever you are in the process!

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More on revising Wake:

Sloans summer c Elissa Field

Sloans summer c Elissa Field

More on this site:

Where else you’ll find me:


Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Revision

10 responses to “Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite

  1. Pingback: Teachers Write – An Online Summer Writing Forum for Teachers | Mrs. T's Middle Grades

  2. I’m in the same boat, Elissa. I really like getting the story down on paper. It’s the revising process that’s tough for me.


    • elissa field

      Uhh – such a relief to hear someone else say that. I know I’m not alone, but it helps to hear someone else say it’s tough. Thanks for commenting Jennifer, and good luck with your work.


  3. I here ya, sister, but the old saw “writing is rewriting” kind of holds true for me too. I find that every time I revise, I’m doing as much writing as anything else. I don’t know what that says about my WIP, but this round is the last before submitting. I know there will be more to come, but I have to draw the line somewhere …


    • elissa field

      Amen at “I have to draw the line somewhere.” I think I overdo it on try to get everything perfect before even querying and I’m losing patience with myself for not just getting it out! Thanks for reading and commenting. Good luck with your revisions!


  4. Haven’t ever gotten the “revision” process down for fiction. Actually enjoy the ‘tidying up” in nonfiction (which I’ve actually had published ) …yet in editing/revising/fleshing out – rewriting whatever I do to the original – flattens the lines, dulls the scene and makes a puppet Pinnochio liar out of a perhaps imperfect, yet “real” boy. …. and so, I have three novels that are completely imperfect, unrevised, and languishing. Two have been read and passed on by a panel of editors at a major NYC. house with encouraging specific comments, comparisons and direct constructive suggestions – last years NaNo resulted in another version of novel #2. Keep waiting for the “flash” that will blow away all the flotsam and leave the “good novel” – but all remains status quo… Help!


    • elissa field

      Being good in one kind of writing can make it a challenge to shift gears to another, don’t you think? I couldn’t write fiction well when I was immersed in writing analytical essays – every story detail came out robotic. Oddly, the methodical writing of orders for judges, when I worked for the courts, wasn’t as bad. I don’t know if it would help but when I draft fiction I only write down the intense idea itself — without worrying about set-up and transitions and format. It might be a stretch of dialogue, or maybe the character’s voice comes to me vividly — but I just write down that part. When I mentioned “add on” docs, I have all those little pieces in rough order and I don’t try to smooth them together into a finished piece until there are enough of those power moments holding it together. It keeps out that “editor” voice until there’s something strong enough to work with. Thanks for posting, and good luck with your fiction and nonfiction.


    • Thanks Elissa for the feedback – think you’ve given me some food for thought especially the suggestion “only write down the intense idea itself”. I wind up with so much ‘drapery” can no longer see through the windows! :)


  5. I feel like the odd (wo)man out here- I LOVE revising! I feel like all I ever do is revise, because for me, getting the story out is crap. I think it has to do with my perfectionist tendencies- I know it’s something that I need to work on! I just need the courage…


    • elissa field

      I’m with you in part, Kristin: I *loved* some of the fun revisions I got to do over the last months. I’m just in a hard part right now. Best wishes for the courage for getting your ideas down. Send your perfectionist out for coffee! :) Thanks for posting.


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