Tag Archives: Revisions

So Many Drafts

Hey there, writers in the trenches! Let’s have a little talk about tweedle beetles drafts. Specifically, numbers of drafts.

I know that when I started out writing novels, I had no idea how many drafts a book went through before it got published. Thinking back on it now, I get all Ming the Merciless and want to tell my past self, “Pathetic writer. Hurling your manuscript out into the void, without the slightest inkling of what is out there. If you had known anything about the true nature of publishing, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.”

Uh, no, really, actually, it’s totally great and awesome. BUT! I sure as hell needed to revise more.

So, in case any of you are despairing about how many times you’ve overhauled your book, here is a bit of data for you on my debut novel:

THE TETHERED MAGE went through around 6-7 drafts before it was ready to go on sub to publishers. Once Orbit accepted it for publication, it went through several official rounds with my editor—a major structural edit, minor structural edits, little fine-tuning kind of edits, copyedits, etc. But I did a couple rounds for each of the structural passes before my editor saw them. So it came out in the end to around 13 drafts.

Now, some of those drafts were me getting 20K words in and then going “Ugh! Start over!” Other drafts were just polish passes, where I was buffing up the language to a high shine and not making any major changes. But one of them was me revising from YA to adult, historical fantasy to epic fantasy, AND adding 50K+ words (almost doubling the length of the book from first completed draft to final draft), so I feel like it all evens out.

I created the doc for the very first draft of THE TETHERED MAGE in early 2014. I took some time off from it in there to work on revising an earlier book, but finished the draft that went on sub to publishers around the beginning of 2016. It sold in June of 2016 (BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER), and I continued to revise it for several months; it finally comes out next month (WHEEEE!).

Mind you, that wasn’t the first book I wrote. The book that got me my agent went through about 10 drafts before it did (I started querying it way too soon, though, on like draft 5). And I wrote other books before that.

Every single page I wrote, every revision pass, made me a better writer. The me of 2 books ago couldn’t have written THE TETHERED MAGE. Heck, the me of draft one of THE TETHERED MAGE couldn’t have written draft 13. Revision is where I learned the most, and still where I do my best work.

I’m working on revisions for THE DEFIANT HEIR now (the sequel to THE TETHERED MAGE). I’m really excited about them! I feel like this draft is going to be a big step up from the last one, and it feels so good to see the shape pulling true, and the pieces falling into place. I used to hate revision, but now that practice has given me a better understanding of how to spot areas for improvement and fix them, it feels awesome to make my book sharper and shinier with every draft.

Writing on a deadline, with an editor, is very different than writing on my own, and I don’t have the luxury to allow myself draft after draft. But I’m nonetheless already on draft 5 by my own count (my editor saw draft 4 as my “first draft”), and the version I’m giving her next month will probably be draft 6.

So, my as-yet-unpublished writer friends, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to embrace revision! The difference between my first drafts and my final drafts looks a lot like the difference between my writing 5 years ago and my writing now, and that’s not a coincidence. You never know how many times you’ll have to tear down and rebuild before you get it just right, but it’s well worth the effort. Every draft teaches you something, and takes you one step closer to the end of the publishing rainbow…

…Even if it’s NOT ACTUALLY A RAINBOW IT’S A WEIRD RAINBOW-COLORED NEBULA THING WITH AN OMINOUS FLOATING CITY IN IT AND YOUR ADVENTURES ARE ONLY BEGINNING.


Reset to Save

I just turned in the first draft of THE DEFIANT HEIR, Book 2 of Swords & Fire, to my editor today! YAY!!!

BUT WAIT! Let’s walk that back. While this is the first draft Lindsey is seeing, this is not even close to the first draft I wrote of this book. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what draft it was. Because in the process of writing this book, I kept going back to the beginning so much, I might as well have been trying to fight the end boss with insufficient levels and mid-tier equipment.

And you know what? It worked out really well for me. So now I’m going to tell you about it, in case this is useful to anyone else.

My saved-off incomplete drafts look something like this:

Early drafts: 15K words

Middle draft: 70K words

Late draft: 125K words

Final “first” draft: 140K words

Weird, right? I KNOW! Here’s how that happened.

One different thing about writing this book was that since my publisher wanted to put a teaser chapter at the end of THE TETHERED MAGE, I had to get the beginning into really good shape very early in the process. So I wound up writing several drafts of the first 3 chapters before moving on to the rest of the book.

This was actually SUPER helpful. It gave me time to re-find the characters’ voices, feel my way into the story, and get some new characters and elements more solidified in my head before proceeding. It got the early, derpy, HA HA I’M JUST SPLASHING AROUND IN THE WATER I CAN’T ACTUALLY SWIM DURRRHHH stage of drafting out of the way.

After that, I was in a strong position to launch into the rest of the book. I forged ahead, pushing onward even when I hit a section that I knew I wasn’t nailing, because there was this pivotal sequence I was really, really excited to write and I just had to get there and get it out of my system. Both because I just HAD TO WRITE THIS PART, but also because it was SO pivotal that it was going to affect how I looked at the rest of the book.

After I finished that part, I was at about 70K words. I was halfway done—though at the time I thought it was more like 2/3, but that’s another story—and I was eyeballing that section I’d blown past which I knew wasn’t working. I had ideas on how to fix it, but they were story changes that would affect how the rest of the book would turn out.

It was a tough choice. Press ahead and finish a draft I could show my alpha readers, to get feedback while there was still time to act on it? Or go back and do some significant rewriting, so I could do a more final first pass at the rest of the book? It was especially tough because I had a deadline staring me in the face, and if I went back to rewrite, I’d miss the first draft milestone I’d set for myself.

I decided to rewrite. And it was the right choice. I had a much better sense of where I was going because I now knew where my characters had been. The new stuff I wrote when I caught up to where I’d been came out well on the first try.

Then I got almost done, and I hit another dilemma: I was writing the climax, and I was second-guessing my plans for the ending. I had ideas for more changes to that same @$!#$% section of the book that had given me so much trouble the first time around, and I also needed a sanity check on a few other elements of the book, and all of it might affect the ending.

So I sent the 95% complete draft to my patient alpha readers, with an incoherent email basically going “GUYS I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF THIS IS ANY GOOD WHAT IS HAPPENING I’VE BEEN WRITING ALL DAY EVERY DAY AND HAVE LOST ALL PERSPECTIVE HEEEELLLLP MEEEEEEEE.” And they were really awesome about getting back to me super quickly with encouraging noises and their thoughts on the various dilemmas I was facing. It gave me the clarity and morale I needed.

I had to go back and edit that one stupid section AGAIN, and then write the ending, and FINALLY I had a draft I could show my agent to get her feedback! It was much later than I’d wanted to get it to her, but… BUT… the draft I sent her was SO MUCH STRONGER than it would have been if I’d pushed ahead and finished that earlier draft instead of going back and restarting all those times. I’d worked through a lot of problems on my own, and the draft I sent her was in good shape and much closer to done. In the end, it SAVED me time.

So I guess my takeaway is this: Trust your instincts. If your instincts are telling you to go back and fix something before you keep going, DO IT. The rest of the book will be much clearer and better and more on track as a result, and you won’t wind up writing a bunch of stuff you’re just going to have to rewrite in the next pass. But if your instincts are telling you to press ahead, because you’ve got some other stuff you need to sort out first before you go back and edit, do that.

There is no magic in a completed first draft. It’s okay for the first complete draft to actually be the third, or the seventh. Or, hell, the fifteenth, if that’s how you roll.

This book will still go through a lot of revisions before it’s done. But I’m really glad I got some rounds of them out of the way when it was only 15K words, or 70K, rather than 140K!


Achievement Unlocked: Revision Milestones

Looking back, the big turning point in my writing career came when I embraced revision.

Cocky teenage me thought everything I wrote was awesome, and only needed light editing to be perfect. Eventually, I realized that the first draft is only a starting point, and the most important part of the writing process is elevating your book from promising to kick-butt drop-dead awesome through an Edge of Tomorrow-like process of revising it again and again until you have honed it to a bleeding edge of badassery.

It can be really hard, though, to know when you’re ready. When you’ve leveled up your skills in the unforgiving lava dungeon of revision until you are prepared to fight the boss monster of querying.

It occurred to me today that there are certain milestones writers tend to pass as they gain XP crunching their way through writing career side quests. I spent a few minutes brainstorming a list of some revision achievements many writers seem to unlock before finding success in publishing. If you’re wondering if you’re high enough level to poke your head into the boss monster dungeon, it might be worth taking an look to see how many of these you can check off.

You certainly don’t need to have done all of this stuff—if you’re good enough to get it right the first time and haven’t had to do some or even most of these things, that’s awesome. But I’d suggest that if you can’t check off at least 5-6 of these, you may want to grind some more revision levels before querying. And I would suspect most agented writers can probably score at least 50%.

Have you ever (on any book, not necessarily your current one):

Cut a major character, or merged them with another character?

Cut an entire chapter?

Significantly changed the order of events (moving whole scenes/chapters around)?

Cut an entire subplot?

Added an entire subplot and woven it into the story?

Started over completely?

Rewritten an entire chapter (or the equivalent) from scratch?

Had 50% or fewer of your first draft words make it to the final draft?

Done a complete reimagining of a major character?

Rewritten your first page(s) completely 5+ times?

Done a revision pass focused specifically on improving one general/abstract aspect of the book, such as voice, setting, stakes, through line, etc?

Changed POV, tense, viewpoint character(s), age category, genre, or another similar major meta-structural element?

Written 5 or more drafts of a novel?

Completed more than one novel?

Trunked a novel?

What am I forgetting? If you comment with other common “achievements,” I’ll add ‘em to the list! (And maybe I’ll do a more reach/advanced achievement list someday and make it into a full-fledged Revision Hell test or something.)

Happy revising!


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.


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.


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.