Tag Archives: Revising

Go Back and Revise, or Keep Drafting?

I’m at that point on my WIP where I know I’m going to make some edits to chapters I’ve already written that will significantly change a viewpoint character. I have to make the choice whether to go back and revise now, or to forge ahead and finish the first draft before revising.

Normally, I’m a big fan of revising first when this sort of thing happens. It’s hard to build on what came before if you don’t even know what that is. If I haven’t rewritten those scenes, their emotional content can’t inform what I’m writing now. I can’t make subtle references back to what happened there, or let the particulars of those key events drive how my characters act and make decisions now. I can’t refer back to those unwritten scenes in dialogue or internal monologue.

In this case, though, I’m going to forge ahead. Because this is a multi POV project and I’m trying to do some cool things with how the POVs play off each other, I already know there’s a lot of revising in my future. Anything I go back and revise now is just going to get revised again when I’m done, and the new stuff I write now is probably also going to get revised…maybe even completely rewritten. This is not going to be a “clean, awesome first draft” kind of book. It’s going to be messy before it gets pretty.

So I’m going to let go of perfectionism (for now) (at least a bit) and forge ahead, choosing momentum over continuity in this draft. Different books require different strategies!

I know I’m not the only one who’s faced this dilemma… I’d love to hear how others have handled it!


Questions to Ask During Outlining (or Revision)

I’m working on a new outline now for my restart of my WIP. For every scene I add to my outline, I’m asking myself these questions:

What changes in the scene? – If nothing is really different at the end of the scene than it was at the start, I probably need to cut the scene or combine it with another one. This question helps me catch “show the status quo” scenes or “establish the characters” type scenes that don’t add anything to the story.

What is at stake in the scene? – One of the big reasons I’m rewriting my current WIP in the first place is that I realized while plenty was happening in the first 15K words, and my characters were learning things and doing stuff, they didn’t really have strong personal stakes yet. It doesn’t matter how action-packed a story is if the characters don’t have deep personal reasons to care about what’s going on.

What will keep the reader compelled to read on at the end of the scene? – This should be an exciting question or situation they want to know more about, and it can’t be the same thing scene after scene. I need short-term dramatic pull to get them to turn the page and start the next chapter as well as an intriguing overall arc.

Does the emotional tenor of the scene follow from what happened just before? – If I murder someone’s parents in Chapter 8, they shouldn’t be chatting about boys with their BFF over cannolis in Chapter 9. But it’s way too easy to do this by mistake.

Is the one-sentence description of the scene similar to that for another scene? – For example, in the outline I’m working on, I had two scenes where my outline description was basically “Character A confides in Character B, and Character B encourages Character A.” Same two characters. When I catch this kind of thing, usually I combine the scenes into one.

It’s easiest to ask these questions at the outlining stage, because then I can catch problems before I write the scenes and save myself work. However, these are also questions I try to ask myself during revision (especially if I’m looking to cut wordcount). If I’m honest with myself about the answers, they’ll catch a lot of problems for me.


The 15K Rewrite

First drafts are such a wonderful, magical thing, full of infinite possibility and the intoxication of the blank page. They are also, usually, crap.

There’s a good reason for this. We’re just getting to know the characters, find their voices, establish the story. Here’s an example of what the first several chapters of one of my first drafts might look like:

  • Let’s choke the voice to death trying to make it beautiful!
  • Who the hell are these characters? Maybe if they putter around for a while, I’ll find out.
  • Inciting incident… 2-3 chapters too late.
  • Now let’s talk about the inciting incident in such a way as to establish our characters! Because nothing gets you turning pages quite like establishing the characters.
  • Maybe we can talk about our backstories a bit, too. If we do it while walking around or eating breakfast, that’s not exposition, right?
  • Uh-oh, nothing exciting has happened for 4 chapters. ARBITRARY ACTION SCENE TIME!

…Yeah. Really gripping stuff.

But wait! By around 15K-20K, all this flailing around has actually accomplished something. I’ve got a sense of the characters and their voices. I’ve fleshed out the inciting incident and how it impacts them. I have a better sense of what their lives and goals were like before and how the inciting incident changes everything.

Time to start over.

For the past couple first drafts I’ve written, when I got somewhere around that 15K-20K mark, I opened up a new doc and tried again. This time, I was armed with a much better understanding of my characters and my story. I didn’t entirely throw out that first try — I brought the good parts over into the new doc — but I approached it like a from-scratch rewrite.

I can’t even tell you how helpful this was. Not only was that first quarter of the book immensely better, but I launched into the rest of the first draft after the rewrite with much greater mastery of the story. The first draft of the rest of the book was better for it. I’ve heard from other writer friends who’ve done the same thing, and they’ve generally been enthusiastic about the effect as well.

Right now I’m at around 16K on the first draft of my new WIP. I’ve just hit the point where I can look back at what I’ve written and go ugh, this could be better, and I know how. And I’m about to hit a really good break point.

It’s rewrite time.


Honest Answers to Querying Writer FAQs

For fun, here are some honest answers to the questions querying (or pre-querying) writers REALLY frequently ask.

Q. Is my book any good?

A. Yes. But it could be better.

Q. OK, is my book good enough?

A. WRONG QUESTION! It’s never good enough. Back to the revision pits!

Q. How do I make this book better? I’ve looked at it so long my eyes are bleeding.

A. Give it to good, honest CP’s. Take a month or two off from it and start something new (not a sequel). Fall in love with the new thing. Learn from it. Now come back to the first thing, especially if you don’t love it anymore, and you will magically be able to make it better.

Q. But I want to start querying NOW!

A. NO. No exceptions. Take the time off and start something new to get some distance first. DO IT.

Q. OK, I did it. Now, OH GOD, how the HELL do I write a query letter?

A. Go critique other peoples’ letters in a forum or blog workshop somewhere first. Also go look at query contest winners on the big blog contests, and figure out what you like about your favorites. Also, QueryShark.

Q. That’s a lot of information. Can you sum it up in three words?

A. Yes. Character, conflict, stakes.

Q. Ugh, writing a query letter STILL sucks.

A. It will always suck. Go get feedback on yours now.

Q. Does my query letter suck?

A. WRONG QUESTION. Ask yourself, “Is this so awesome anyone in their right minds would immediately NEED to read this book?”

Q. Seriously?! THAT’S the bar?!

A. Yep. Terrifying, isn’t it?

Q. Dude. I should just quit.

A. NO. No quitting. BACK TO WORK.

Q. I sent out my query letter. WHEN WILL AGENTS GET BACK TO ME?!?!

A. Never. They will never get back to you. Your suffering is eternal.

Q. NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

A. Or you could check QueryTracker.

Q. Argh, now they’re getting back to me and it’s all rejections! Does my query suck?

A. Yes. Or else your book isn’t ready.

Q. How do I know which one?

A. Get feedback from someone whose judgment you trust who will be honest with you. Then listen to it. Then revise.

Q. I’m getting requests! OMG OMG!!! What do I do?!

A. Keep calm and query on.

Q. HOW LONG CAN IT TAKE AN AGENT TO READ ONE FREAKIN’ PARTIAL?!

A. Ten thousand years.

Q. Will they EVER get back to me?!?!

A. Not always. Non-responses on fulls are a thing.

Q. SERIOUSLY?!!?!? That is the WORST THING EVER!!!

A. Yep.

Q. Can I nudge?

A. On your full? After 3 months or according to guidelines. No sooner. Get your finger off that send button. (Smacks)

Q. When do I give up on this book and move on?

A. You should already be writing the next book the minute you start querying. If your book isn’t getting the response you want, stop. Pause. Look at it. HARD. Make it better. Make it better than that. Then try again. Chances are it’s not hopeless, you just queried it too early.

Q. I looked hard, and, um, I think it might be crap. NOW should I move on?

A. If it’s actually crap and you’re not just having a low moment, sure. If you’ve got a new book that’s better. (If not, why weren’t you writing it all this time, hmmm?) If it might not be crap, or you don’t have anything else ready, BACK TO THE REVISION PITS!

Q. You say that a lot, don’t you?

A. There’s a reason for that. Every book can be better, always. MAKE IT SO.

That was fun! What did I miss? Got any suggestions for more Honest Writer FAQs I should add?


Dramatic Tension Part 1: Layers of Tension

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about dramatic tension. I think manipulating dramatic tension is just as important as plot, character, and voice, but it doesn’t seem to get talked about as often. Yet dramatic tension is often the biggest factor that keeps me reading—it’s what makes a book un-put-down-able. It’s how writers can strive to hook readers from page one and keep them all the way through until The End.

I have a ton to say about dramatic tension, but for this post I’m going to start out talking about using dramatic tension at different levels of granularity. What do I mean by that? Well, for an example of a masterwork of dramatic tension, let’s look at The Hunger Games.

On the grand, overarching level, we’re desperate for the entire book to find out how the games will end. Who will win? Who will live? Will Katniss have to kill anyone she cares about? At this level, we’ve got the key dramatic questions for the whole book. As writers, we need to know what those questions are, make sure they’re sufficiently compelling, introduce them nice and early, and sustain interest in the answers through the whole book (which of course involves throwing in a variety of twists and wrinkles along the way).

But tension also operates at other levels. We have lots of smaller questions we care about just as much in the moment as we do about the big ones. What will Katniss do about Peeta’s big public confession? How the heck is she going to get down out of that tree alive? Will she wind up pitted against Rue? These many layered sources of tension operate on different scales (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, etc) as well as in different areas (physical danger, romantic tension, etc). It’s the intersection of different kinds of tension, playing out in both the short and the long term, that makes it impossible to stop turning pages.

If the only source of tension in the book was the long term question of whether Katniss would live, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and engaging. It’s the personal implications of the life and death choices she has to make, small and large, moment by moment, that keep us reading. If she only had one big choice at the end, we’d never make it that far. As writers, we need something at stake in every scene—something specific to that scene, not just the overall stakes for the book (though it can certainly tie in to the larger stakes).

At various stages, I like to do a dramatic tension check on a book. I find it’s useful at the outlining stage and again during the revision phase. I try to identify the sources of dramatic tension for the book as a whole, for each major arc/act of the book, and on a chapter-by-chapter level. I ask myself “What is the reason the reader can’t put down the book at this point? What compels them to keep reading, even if they really should go to bed or get some chores done?” If I don’t have a good answer, or if my answer is vague or wishy-washy, or if it’s the same as it’s been for the last 3 chapters, I know I have some work to do.


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.


Revising in Phases

I used to try to do all my revisions in one pass. I’d gather all my feedback from CPs and beta readers, plus my own notes, and pull everything into in one document in the order the issues appeared in the book. Then I’d go through from start to finish and try to fix everything in order.

Lately, I’ve been doing it differently. I break it down and do several revision passes, each aimed at a different kind of revision.

This works better for me, because I don’t have to keep switching modes. Some people may have the right kind of brain to watch pacing in a scene and make sure the emotional stakes are coming through and cull unnecessary adverbs and clarify backstory points all at once. I, however, lack this power.

For the revision I’m working on now, I’m planning four main phases:

1) Structural Edits. Stuff like combining characters, plot changes, shifted story or character arc focus, new scenes… things that affect the bones of the book. I’m doing these first because structural edits can wreak havoc on everything around them. Gotta knock out those walls and build those additions before you can polish the counters, or there’ll still be dust and chunks of plaster everywhere.

2) Point Edits. These are edits to very specific points in the book, usually from feedback. They include stuff like clarifications, line edits, additions of a thought or detail… anything that involves swooping in, editing a sentence or two, and then leaving for another scene. This pass goes after the structural pass because who knows if the line I’m editing will even still be there? But it goes before the make-it-pretty phases because sometimes when I’m parachuting in to the middle of a page with a point edit, I can wreck the flow of the paragraph without even realizing it.

3) Flow Edits. In this pass, I’m focusing on voice — both overall narrative voice and character voices in dialogue — and setting. Mushy-squishy, hard-to-define, subjective stuff where you really have to have your brain immersed in the flow and rhythm of the book and can’t be stopping every few paragraphs to make unrelated tweaks. While I’m at it, I can keep an eye out for places where those structural and point edits wrecked the flow or created awkwardness. I can smooth things out and make sure the prose is singing in tune.

4) Polish Edits. In this pass, I’m doing the nit-picky language type edits… cutting excess words, searching for and destroying empty words like “just” and “that,” eliminating adverbs that aren’t pulling their weight, that kind of thing. A lot of this will happen with searches for guilty words or even suspect punctuation marks. Hopefully I’ll still be able to stand looking at my book to do another full read-through checking out each sentence to make sure it’s well formed, too. This has to be a separate pass from the flow pass even though both are focused on polishing the writing, since if I’m looking at nit-picky details I can’t hear the music.

I hope to run it by some beta readers between either passes 2 and 3 or possibly 3 and 4, to get one last round of feedback before finalizing things, and to make sure I didn’t break anything too badly with the edits.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the amount of work, but I’d be lying to myself if I said it wouldn’t be worth it.