Keep Revising: The Best Advice No Writer Wants to Hear

Every time I start a new round of revisions or edits, I save off a new version of my book. That way, if I decide I liked something better the old way, or want to salvage some language from a scene I cut two versions ago, it’s easy to go back and find what I want to keep from the earlier draft.

It also makes it easy to see how many rounds of revisions I’ve done. Here are some stats for you on JANUARY IN SHADOW, the book that got me my agent:

I started querying with draft #6.

I rewrote from MG to YA in draft #9.

I got my agent with draft #10.

I just sent her draft #13.

I went back and looked at draft #1 recently, and wow, it was… not great. Luckily, I realized that at the time, and rebooted completely after about 20K words. I’d say maybe 5% of the words from that first draft made it into the current version. You can tell by the stats above that if I’d bitten the bullet and revised to YA earlier, I probably would have had to do fewer drafts.

Some of those revisions were really minor polish passes, where I was mostly just hunting down rogue adverbs and shining the voice to a sparkle. But other revisions involved ripping out the guts and restuffing—changing characters, throwing whole chapters out, reworking relationships, shuffling the order of major events, you name it. Draft #11 was a major revision in response to my agent’s initial feedback, but my beta readers helped me realize I hadn’t dug deep enough, so I dove right back in and did another significant revision before sending her draft #12, which was much better.

I really thought I was ready with draft #6. I thought the book was as good as I could make it, and I was ready to query. But I was wrong. I still needed to really listen to my beta readers’ advice and my own instincts. I needed to ask myself hard questions about every part of the book that didn’t feel completely awesome to me, and not flinch away from the answers.

I needed to push myself to raise the stakes, dig deeper, push harder, until the book wasn’t as good as I could make it, but rather as awesome as it could possibly be.

Nobody wants to hear “You should start over” or “Major structural rewrites will make your book much better” or “You should do the work to improve your craft in your area of weakness and then come back to this.” But sometimes that’s what you need to do, and you’ll be a better writer with a better book if you throw yourself into those big scary revisions with enthusiasm about how awesome your book will be when you’re done.

Never be afraid to do the hard work to make your book not just good, but amazing. If you love it, you can do no less.

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of THE TETHERED MAGE, first in the Swords & Fire trilogy, coming from Orbit Books in October 2017. I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

2 responses to “Keep Revising: The Best Advice No Writer Wants to Hear

  • bckinney

    I number my revisions by date instead of by raw #, and spin off a new version anytime I make major changes/deletions (defined as “anything where I could possibly want to go back to the old version).

    But this means sometimes I spawn off a new copy every day. I have 30+ versions even of short stories. Sometimes that profligacy makes it easier for me to carve and reshape and make those big edits… But instead it usually just means I’ve put exponential effort into prose and wording.

    The magic, of course, is finding those bits and weaknesses that deserve the big change! Beta readers are the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Laura

    Very good advice. I cringe to think how early I queried. The book wasn’t even close to ready. I ended up doing several revisions and three full rewrites before I got to the draft that found my agent.

    Revisions don’t stop when signing, either. I sent my agent my eighth draft of my second manuscript, because it took me that many revisions to get it to a quality where it was ready for her to see it. It’s a waste of her time for me to send something I know could be better. Imagine if your agent had to read first and second drafts for each client – there’s be no time to actually sell books.

    Liked by 1 person

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