Category Archives: Revision

Novel Revision: 5 Issues Addressed in Edits

working on ms

If you’ve been following this series, you may know I’m now 6 days in to intense revisions on the novel manuscript I printed off Friday.

Am I still that organized and cheery? Ugh! 6 days-in (full, long days of reading, marking and changing), I’m tired. No matter how organized, revisions are hard work.

I have made it about halfway through the manuscript — having accomplished close-reads in some places and more general mark-ups in others. Like shoveling heavy snow, the deeper I go, the heavier the lifting seems to get — but there have been some remarkably simple fixes, too.

In continuing to share the process, here are the kinds of issues I’ve found in this stage of the draft, and some solutions.

  • Easy: in at least half a dozen places, I found a scene that had been pasted more than one place in the draft. It’s an easy fix: I decide which location is best and delete the duplicate (ms. is shorter, yay!). If you use Scrivener, this should be easy to notice/avoid as you can recognize the same first line repeating on more than 1 notecard or binder label.
  • Scary: there’s nothing worse than knowing you wrote a scene, but it’s not there when you go to read your draft. When you write and revise in short bursts over months, especially if you use whatever media is at hand (shout out to the writer who scribbled a scene on her arm while sitting in traffic), it is scarily easy for this to happen. Of the 3 scenes I am missing, I’m looking in an old draft for one, because I know it was there before. I found another in my email folder because it was a scene I’d written using Dragon Dictation, which transcribed and emailed it to me. For whatever else is missing, I’ll be scouring notebooks to see if it was handwritten somewhere, or will wait until the next draft and rewrite from memory.
  • Whiny: it was hard not to lose confidence re-reading certain early-draft sections which I find whiny — so full of psychological explanation. I mentioned the strategy of highlighting my favorite wording — this made it easier to ignore the whiny and instead focus on the better, newer writing, which convey those emotions more authentically in scene. Still cringe at the whining, though. Ugh.
  • Wrong: using the task list I mentioned Tuesday, I’ve been tracking facts to resolve. For example, since the story takes place before and after 9/11, I can’t ignore the impact that event would have had, despite the story not being about 9/11. A couple quick choices and some research let me edit all of those details at once. The other way story details are “wrong” is where I’ve changed details as the story has grown. As with “whiny,” I mark any wording worth keeping, then scrap the older versions. Using a “search” function can help locate the old facts to edit out (see the comment about “horse” below — a search that fixed a change in backstory).
  • Careless: I’ve gotten good at “turning off that internal editor” when drafting which leaves me with lots of conventions flaws to fix, like having no quotation marks on dialogue. In many places, I literally allowed ideas to come out in comma-strung lists, to avoid having to edit out wordiness later. Good news: Spell-check quickly fixed all the issues with uncapitalized names and unpunctuated sentences. Moving forward, I only have to tidy the harder edits on scenes that will be kept. With dialogue, I draft whole conversations, but delete out all lines except the ones with power. Knowing I have at least 1 more revision after this, I don’t have to polish everything.

Revision checklist-One piece of advice I’m trying to keep in mind is to not be too rash with changes. I’m marking certain text to “keep for now,” already anticipating leaving some decisions until the next batch of revision.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Readers in prior posts have shared their own revision process and challenges. Are you revising as well?

My biggest challenge is trying to get it done — I know what I need to do, but can’t get over how much time it takes to get through it. Can you relate to that — or what is your biggest challenge or fear?

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures

novel revis 7-9

sols_blueIf you read Monday’s post (Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through), you know I am using a printed draft for this stage of novel revisions.

Today’s post is a photo diary of what morning work looked like — as waffles with the boys shared space with ruthless edits on this draft.

“Failure is not an option”?

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Go “where’s Waldo” to find the NASA slogan on my coffee mug: Failure is not an option.

Even as writing and revising drafts is all about failing over and over again? Yeah, I still love that mug’s inspiration. I bought it on a trip to Cape Canaveral with my rising-7th grader when he was in 4th grade. Ever wondered about the explosive launch sequence pictured on my blog’s masthead? That was taken on the same trip — a re-enactment of the control room for a successful Gemini launch. We’re in that control room when writing, and the mug reminds me to never stop.

Novel writing is launching into the risk of failure, the surging insistence that it will go well. The rocket will launch. Risk embraced.

Or, go with Samuel Beckett as inspiration: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Drafting and revising is all about getting something down. Being willing to fail as well as we can, then trying again, even failing again — but failing better. In that sense, the mug would say, Giving up is not an option.

So, here’s where that has gotten me in the past couple days…

These are probably my favorite revision pages:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

This is what less happy pages look like:

Messy revision

Ohhh… that looks painful. Chickie is staying out of it. BUT, check-marks show the changes have been made in the new computer draft. Work goes on. c. Elissa Field, repro w writ-permiss

If you read the captions, you see the range of changes going on.

The top picture shows pages from the opening scenes of my WIP, which are ready to go — marked “done.”  I also signal “done” in the computer document by changing that text to blue. Yup, plain text: that leaves you vulnerable to being cut.

The second pictures shows a scene that has been outlined with highlighter to say it will be kept (although not “done”), with corrections marked. Where I still have questions to answer, I wrote them on the blank page above to make sure they won’t get lost.

Apparently I was not mean enough to take a picture of pages with entire scenes X-ed out, but they are there. I do paste deleted text into a “Cuts” document… just in case.

The colored highlighter is an example of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post about using color codes to mark key scenes or characters.

Here’s the color key:

color key

This is the key on the first page — so far I’ve been marking the text that will be kept with a highlighter for the main character it relates to. Being able to visualize this helps, as this edit is all about getting the final structure in place, then seeing what’s missing.

Creating a Style Sheet – or, um, Lengthy To-Do List:

Revision checklist-

Every hour or so of reading, I go back to the computer draft to implement the changes. I’ve been checking corrections off to keep track of what’s been done, and also gathering this chapter-by-chapter task list of questions that need to be resolved. So far, it includes facts to resolve, like names, family names, locations, dates — as well as plot details that have changed between drafts and need to be made consistent.

If you want to read more about creating a “style sheet” to manage your novel, check out this post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner: Create a Style Sheet for Your Manuscript .

A Party so Wild it Needs a Bouncer – Enter the Outline:

Outline as Bouncer
Really, most of this mark-up on the draft took place yesterday. I came back to it this morning knowing I was still swamped in some choices. I had a clear list of scenes in my head, and knew the order I need to shift them into. As clear as it was in my head, with the story changes that took place between drafts, I need to keep track of the order of important reveals and progression of internal and external conflicts.

Enter the Bouncer, tough guy outline watching over the WIP’s shoulder above. Yes, it looks a bit techie — I am used to throwing Word tables together to manage info, so that works for me.

The Bouncer outline works like this: like velvet ropes deciding who will be allowed into an elite club, if a scene is not on this list, it won’t stay in the draft.

As much as writers chat about whether to “pants” or “plan” I believe fully in a hybrid of the two. In order to finish this outline, I had to analyze my understanding of the story. It reminded me of a couple scenes not written yet, and helped me better analyze how to get the right tension and resolution at the end. Mean as he looks, the list makes my job so much easier.

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How About You?

It’s been great to read comments from readers about their own process for revising — share yours as well?

Rather than revising, are you focused on writing new material? It was also great to connect on Twitter today, as Wordsmith Studio writers hosted wordsprints. Check out the hashtag #wschat to find writing activities each week.

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Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through

2nd printed draft 2

Cheers! I’m celebrating a little milestone on my end, as I made it far enough through all those chaotic novel revisions over the last 2 weeks (Novel Revisions: Work is Messy, Book May Bite and Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character) to be able to print a full novel draft again on Friday night.

Little celebratory dance. Cheers. Now time to get back to work.

Printing the draft feels like an accomplishment — so neat and finished-looking in its binder. But it is just a milestone before the next step of revision.

Each day I work on novel revision and engage in conversations with others in the same process, I notice there are specific techniques that writers use to manage the complex work of novel revision.

While we all probably do most of our drafting and revision on the computer, there are specific strategies writers use in revising from a print copy.

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When Do You Print?

The first time I wrote a novel draft, I printed copies all the time — I think I had a 4-foot high stack of at least 12 different drafts. But I’ve come to hate the messiness and waste of paper, so rarely print these days.

With my current WIP, I didn’t bother printing until I had my first complete, holds-together draft. In particular, I was going on a 3-week road trip, so printed to have the draft to take with me when a computer wasn’t available. There is a picture below of the draft I worked with last summer.

Even with changes, I haven’t bothered to print it again over the winter, because so much of what I was doing was outside the manuscript — character and story development, and writing new scenes. If I wasn’t going to work from the printed draft, there was no point in printing (caveat: other than to have a backup).

I knew it was time to print again when the next step of revision was to read through to see how things held together and test for the ordering of scenes in building the story structure. I’d already completed any petty tasks (ran a spell check to catch distracting corrections) and had pasted all pending material into the draft. I was no longer actively writing new material — I thought I’d filled all the “holes” and was ready to read for what worked, what was missing, what needed chopping, what needed moving.

For me, this will be an intermediate read: I expect big moves with this revision. I’ll have to chop scenes of motivation that were replaced by a new backstory. I’ll be merging or chopping duplicates where I’ve written the same scene more than once (not uncommon for me, as I keep “hearing” different perspectives or detail to a scene). And I’ll be making big choices about structure: I’ve written a handful of scenes from different character perspectives, so need to make a choice to structure multiple viewpoints or convert those scenes to something the MC would have known.

Others may print when they are ready for line edits or sharing with beta readers. I may be doing line edits in some places (polishing verb tenses, fixing/adding transitions, perfecting punctuation and word choice), but mostly I assume I’m not there yet. That will be the next print and read-through — which will hopefully be soon.

What is the Process of a Printed Read-Through?

Other writers use a neater process than I do. Ann Hood has said that she writes for 2 hours every day in a relatively linear order and begins the day’s writing by revising her work from the day before. When she has a completed draft, she prints it off and carries it to a local coffee shop where she goes all the way through the draft marking her edits.

Revision checklist-Similarly, young adult writer Alissa Grosso shared her process in this post for Teachers Write! last week, describing how she reads through a printed draft, marking all corrections in red ink.  She said it takes her about 4 days. She then makes the noted corrections on her computer draft.

My process is similar, with the exception that I use more than just pen in marking changes (see strategies, below).  So far, I’ve made it about one-quarter through, in one day.

  • In places where the text is polished (the opening is essentially done), I’m doing a close reading, noting decisions that need to be made (a date, a year, a city name, the name of a background character) and scrutinizing word choice.
  • In nearly-there sections, it’s time to insert any missing quotation marks (I’ve become minimalist in not typing them during initial writing, but they’ll be needed in submitting).
  • If you’ve read any of my quick drafts, I sometimes draft loosely, allowing almost stream of consciousness in details and thought; now, as I decide which scenes are working, I’ll be editing together the sentences that will stick. (That’s a burdensome approach, but it seems to avoid the overwriting that can come about when first getting to know a story.)

I will probably begin implementing changes into the computer draft before getting all the way through the read-through. Other writers finish all reading/notations on the full draft before going back to the computer.

If you’re going to make the changes on the computer anyway, why waste time with a printed draft? Read on to see some of the visualization strategies the printed draft allows.

What about really messy drafts?

Honestly: I printed this copy off completely ready to cut scenes apart and shuffle them like cards if that’s what it took to envision how they best fit in the storyline. We do that with student writers in workshop, sometimes, when their ideas are good, but the writer needs the ability to kinesthetically shuffle their sentences and paragraphs into a more powerful order. In my case, the linear telling of the story needs adjustment to control when the external and internal conflicts converge and reveal, for resolution.

That ability to visualize and physically move text around is a main advantage of printing a draft. On page 72 of her book Real Revision, writer Kate Messner shares Darcy Pattison’s “shrunken manuscript” technique. Kate shrinks font to the smallest size, single-spaces and minimizes margins so an entire novel manuscript can be printed on few enough pages to lay out across the floor of the living room. Shrunken to this scale, it’s possible to see the “big picture” of entire novel in a single view.

What do you look for, when viewing this big picture? Where are characters introduced? Where does the inciting incident occur? When is information revealed? Where do internal and external conflicts converge? Resolve? Where are there holes? Or, are there too many scenes happening to slow the action down? Do reveals happen too early or too late?

Some Technical Strategies for Printing

The shrunken novel approach gets us into interesting territory. We’ve all been taught that finished manuscripts should be submitted in 12 point classic fonts, double-spaced, with a 1″ margin.  A full-length adult novel can take 200 pages to print. But, for revising, forget those requirements: when printing for revision, use strategies that help you see and work with your manuscript.

Condensed drafts left you visualize more per page, in a less cumbersome draft. Over time, I’ve come to prefer working with drafts in 10 or 11 point font (closer to book text), and in 1.5 spacing, rather than double. (Set yours to a comfortable size: yeah, I can relate to having difficulty with small text up close.)  I customize to narrow margins (half-inch at left, top and bottom), but I leave a full inch at the right. On drafts where I planned to write lots of comments, rewrite scenes or plan research, I’ve left a 2-inch right margin; otherwise, I use the blank backsides for comments.

Play with the look of the page. You may notice in the picture above that I printed “2 pages per sheet,” creating a book-like layout. Tech-specs: I used 10 point, Times New Roman font. Spacing is 1.5, with half inch margins. Using landscape layout, I used the Word option to print “2 pages per sheet,” which is equivalent to columns, but without fit issues. This book-like layout has been easy to read, condensed, and with enough room to work with the text.

Display or print in different formats. Similar to the note above, simply printing in a different font (go from TNR to Calibri, or the other way around) can help you see your manuscript with fresh eyes. An extreme version of this comes from the fact I seem to notice typos more once I’ve posted to my blog. Using that, I’ve saved sections of text as a draft post (not published), and viewed it on my blog to spot revisions.

Scrivener or Word? You can print directly from Scrivener (“compile to print”) but I compiled from Scrivener to Word, then tweaked the manuscript in Word before printing. Word allows more control over margins, printing layouts, fonts, etc., and you can preview before printing so you don’t waste paper.

Working with my WIP's first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Working with my WIP’s first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Pen, pencil, highlighter…or all those fancy flags? If you are visual, go all in. Both as a writer and a teacher, modeling for students how to take control of their reading, I am all for using color and tools that take control of your draft:

  • Back to Kate Messner, with her shrunken manuscript spread on the floor, Kate uses colored Post-Its to mark key moments, characters, props and reveals in the manuscript.
  • With my draft last year (in this picture), I used large, tabbed Post-It flags to mark chapters, with room to write summary of the chapter or list pending questions. Smaller flags marked key scenes. Color helped signal different characters and conflicts.
  • In my current draft, I am reading with different colored highlighters, so I can highlight my favorite wording and key scenes or details. With these highlighted, I can make clearer decisions about the sections I will cut. I can rescue important details from scenes being cut. I can make clearer choices about which wording to use when merging a scene I’ve written more than one way.
  • If you don’t use highlighters during your review, you can use the trick we teach kids in writing workshop: write your corrections in ink, then use highlighter to mark comments once you have implemented them into the next draft. A good way to keep organized and know where you left off in your work.

color keyDon’t take my word for it… Check out this picture-diary of how I use colors and other strategies as I get to work with this manuscript in Tuesday’s Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures.

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What About You?

What revision strategies have worked for you?

Do you have specific strategies for print revisions, or do you do most of your revisions on the computer? Or what questions do you wish someone could answer about revision?

I’m debating a post on using Scrivener software — do you have questions (or feedback) about it?

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Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can't argue with that. c. Elissa Field

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can’t argue with that. c. Elissa Field

One of the biggest jobs I addressed in novel revisions over the winter had to do with one of my three main characters. She was originally the main POV, but I wasn’t excited about her voice.  Not helpful: I thought of her as relatively unlikeable: sullen, and not the way Jane Austen used to fix by saying, “It’s just that she has her head in a book.” No. My girl, Carinne, was broody.

I’ve written about my challenges with her twice before. You don’t need to read these now — they’re long-ish and I’ll give explanation, below — but here are the prior posts:

Is this Character the Best POV?

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

That last link shares a tool I used to evaluate the stakes for my characters — which revealed what I had already suspected: weakness in Carinne as main character was hint that she is not really the center of the conflict. 

In early versions, it was natural for Carinne to be the main POV as she fell in love with the other main character and tells the story (in present and past) after he is reported to be dead. Her POV allows his life/death to remain in question.

But in revisions over several months, much of what I’ve written has been from other points of view (Michael Roonan, his best friend, and his son, Liam). I set aside the actual WIP and went “off road” into the internal and external motivation, the characters’ voices and backstories and fears and desires, the setting. The male MC, Roonan, had a famous motorcycle racer for a father, and the voice of Roonan came alive the more time I spent thinking about that. (Here’s a bit of draft-work I shared from Roonan’s perspective)

As Roonan’s voice comes alive in new material, it allows the 3rd person POV to not be centered on Carinne but alternate between characters. The fix: Carinne is not “flat” when seen through Roonan’s eyes — and the story is stronger for being centered on its conflict.

c.Elissa Field

c.Elissa Field

It’s Not You, It’s Her

Going to the other posts listed above, one of my struggles with Carinne was that “challenge of the character most like myself.” While Carinne is not an autobiographical character, I still have that authorial “blind spot” and resistance in portraying her.

I called her broody up above and that’s the “character like myself” obstacle: my own self-consciousness about never wanting to be melodramatic or complain gets in my way when expressing Carinne’s crisis. In hard times, my family’s attitude is, “Well get to work and solve your problem.” But, uh — that attitude isn’t helpful when you’re a character depicting your reaction to an inciting event and wrestling your way through a book-length conflict. If authors toughened up and spared the emotion, we’d have very short books.

Following advice in those posts, I had to create authorial distance to see Carinne as outside myself, and I had to be unapologetic. When Carinne fights with her mom in an early chapter, I can’t be thinking, “I don’t want to write about fighting with a mom. What if my mom thinks I wrote it about her?” Because — well, yeah, I did, in the sense that I used the knowledge of how uncomfortable it is to be at odds with your mom and that it was a sign to the reader that the mother knew something more was going wrong with Carinne. As I occupy and own that truth, the scene I first envisioned loses thinness and takes on the resonance I intended. If you read yesterday’s post, the “something more going wrong” is the revised backstory that has me so busy right now. In getting to know Carinne outside myself, a much clearer backstory arose, empowering her motivation throughout the book — and also helping me see her as a character distinct from my own experience. There was no simple trick to doing that, other than continually asking myself, “Why would she do this?”

Likewise, in answering that question, I had to step fully into — and not back away from or deny or justify — the choices Carinne makes. I had to let her make bad choices — resulting in a memorable story — rather than back away and try to say, “She didn’t really do that.” Oh, yeah, she did that! She was bad, and we’re having fun reading the consequences. Um. I mean, sorry about that, Carinne.  When I fully owned what she had done and went deep into why she would do it, the story took over.

Now to Integrate Those Changes

At this point, integrating these changes into the WIP seems to resolve the issues with this character by writing Roonan more fully, seeing Carinne from his perspective and having Carinne own her experience. As the story gets going, it now seems clear that she has a good reason for her broodiness: She’s raising a baby by herself who was fathered by a man she last saw when he saved her from being shot, and feels isolated when everyone thinks she should get over it.

My remaining insecurity in revising Carinne will be that she is the voice of the opening chapter, which carries so much weight. That is, the first page is a disembodied internal monologue in Roonan’s voice, hinting at death and guilt, then the chapter opens with Carinne watching their son in the backyard, and responding to the inciting incident of the son questioning his father’s absence.

Beta readers have liked the opening, but I’ll still be jumpy about it as I finish revisions and I’m sure I’ll keep pushing myself to get her voice right. (What was the theme yesterday? “Sometimes the Work is Messy” and, “Danger – Book May Bite.” )

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Daredevil: Sharing a Bit of Today’s Work

I did something brave the other day. I submitted an excerpt of chapter one for consideration by a lit mag that publishes first chapters. (If by any wild chance you happen to be a reader or editor at said magazine-that-publishes-first-chapters, can I say just how fabulous you look?)

I won’t post the opening, to avoid negating “first pub” rights, but I wanted to share a bit of the work I’ve been revising.  So here is a short bit of Carinne’s conflict from the end of the chapter, an excerpt from my novel in progress, Wake:

She sees herself already, weak as she will be later, when Liam has fallen asleep – not in his bed, as other mothers would be so good to do, but stretched out long like a dog across her bed, sighing in his sleep as if it were such work to be here on this earth as a little boy, such relief those hours left alone to sleep, return to wherever it is he came from.  Wherever it is children come from and the dead return to — and she won’t be able to fight it, that urge, once again to hunt for Michael Roonan. Search websites and news footage and maps shot from space, pictures so accurate a man could be standing in that shadow beneath a cloud, looking up to wave.

Search until sleep took over. Never to find.

As if it had never happened.

I ran, she remembered.  Ran.  Escaped the agent dispatched from Dublin Centre, escaped the gardai at the rotating brass doors at the front of the hotel, slipping, ankle twisting.  Everything moved.  Rushing cars that might have been standing still.  Pavement rushing up to her, blood on her palm as she brushed gravel from her knee.  Blood at her wounded shoulder, gauze plastered in a crust to her skin.  A tunnel in her shoulder, perfectly-pierced hole raged through by a bullet plucked with stainless tongs.  The sound.  The sound of that flattened lead bud clanking into a metal pan, tongs rattling behind it.  Bullet. Real.  Real as a bullet clanking into that metal pan.  I was there.

She might have screamed it into the street, turning heads of Dubliners, of footballers anticipating a match, tourists murmuring as they all did, “World Bar, St. James Gate…”  Her vision blurred.  She stumbled blocks she could not have retraced, voices calling to her in her stumbling rush, blood maybe seeping through the bandage at her shoulder, crazed fear at her eyes – here and there they called out as to an injured animal, “You, there!”

Me there.  Over and over they called it out.  Me there. I was there.

Tiny bud of infant, even then, swimming its way north.  Evidence.  There, then.

Here, now.  Liam stretched asleep, like a dog at her feet.  Given over to it, once again: searching on her laptop into the night.  Hunting for Michael Roonan.

“I’m sorry I’ve lost your father,” she whispers.  “I’m sorry I have no answers for you.”

If you want to leave constructive feedback, I’d welcome answers to these questions:

  • Does the character/action/voice hook you? Do you want to read more?
  • Are there any details that work? Is there wording that is confusing?
  •  If Carinne seems flat to you, what do you feel is missing? If she’s not flat, reassure me if you found her engaging.

Read more about where revisions take me next:

Read this January 2014 post, which continues to share how I push Carinne’s character and explore the perspective of her son, Liam, including a draft excerpt from this same chapter, written from Liam’s perspective:  Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict.

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What About You?

What challenges do you encounter in writing character, or what approaches do you take to understand their motivations?

I find I’m slow to describe physical appearances — are there certain details you always include or tend to exclude?

I’ve enjoyed connecting with readers about your current writing goals and challenges. If any of this post or the links resonated with you, let me know.

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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

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Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Revision