Tag Archives: Revisions

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.

Where to Begin

In the draft I’m currently revising, I have a hook at the beginning, then I kind of establish some stuff, and then something Really Exciting happens at the end of Chapter Three. I used to cross my fingers and hope readers would just hang on until the end of Chapter Three, because then I gave myself decent odds of hooking them for the rest of the story.

Yesterday, with the help of a critique partner, I had a rather embarrassingly belated epiphany: move the end of Chapter Three to the end of Chapter One. Duh.

The thing is, I knew starting in the wrong place was a common problem. In the book I wrote after this one I’m revising, I sat down with the specific intent of starting in the right place, with the inciting incident happening in Chapter One, and the results were fantastic. I should have known ages ago that this was what I needed to do.

But I had it in my head for this ms that the hook at the beginning was the inciting incident, and then I knew a couple of months had to elapse before the Really Exciting Thing. So I had two chapters of montage, basically, before I got to the really good part.

This was a terrible idea. I can admit it now.

I had to challenge my fixed ideas about what order events happened in, and ask myself whether there was any real reason the Really Exciting Thing couldn’t happen right away, and then we could allow time to pass. And there were reasons, but none of them were things I couldn’t get around with a little revision work.

I’m doing that revision work right now. It’ll be a few days before I’m ready to field test the results with beta readers, and I’m sure it’ll need further tweaking, but I can already tell I made the right decision. I no longer have this big chunk of timelapse montage weighing down the opening chapters of my book, which are so critical.

It’s good to remind myself that just because the story is “the way it happened” in my head doesn’t mean I can’t rip it up and move things around if it’s better for dramatic tension.

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.