Taming the Dragon (Or: The Art of Revision)

Happy December!

In Jacob news, I saw Coco recently and I wanted to recommend it to anybody who’s down to cry. I have this theory that Pixar uses our tears to water their gardens and that’s why Disneyland is so green and beautiful. But we love them for it, right?

In all seriousness, it’s a beautiful movie. The story, the themes and messaging, the graphics, and the representation of the Latino culture made me happy even if I walked out a little red-eyed! I couldn’t help but wonder about the writers and the process they took to develop the story. How many times did they go back to the storyboard? Did they write somebody out? Did those twists come to them naturally? How many lines were deleted and added after the initial draft?

We have to remember that writing is a fluid and ongoing process and not a one-and-done deal. Recently, we talked about Stephen King and how he nearly destroyed the original manuscript for Carrie. But what happened between the time his wife dug it out of the trash and the first time it was bound into a book? I can’t profess to know much time passed for him, but I can imagine there was quite a bit of work in between, just as the screenplay for Coco probably had to undergo its own share of narrative revisions.

I love when people ask me what my own revision process looks like, because it’s honestly my favorite part of the cycle. Everybody does it differently. Some swear by a three-draft method where it should only take three major revisions to get your manuscript market-ready. I’ve seen a checklist that goes through somewhere around 30 passes. I see merit in both, because you have to use what works for you! For what it’s worth, here’s what do:

  • After I type “THE END”, I put the manuscript into a different font than what I wrote in and then format it to my own liking, usually double-space and Garamond or Times New Roman. Then I save a PDF and pay to have it printed, spiral-bound, and shipped to me. Seeing it bound and spanning a thick stack of paper gives me that happy boost–a tangible sense that I’ve accomplished a major step already. Plus, I really recommend paper as opposed to the machine for that first revision (call me a Luddite if you must!) There’s something almost cathartic and valuable in taking an actual red pen, post-its, highlighters, and marking that bad boy up!
  • The first pass is just me reading for glaring big-picture issues: plot holes, continuity errors, major lapses in characterization, and pace issues. When I see something that needs a change, I slap a post-it on the page. In fact, I slapped one on page one of my current WIP: “rewrite in 1st person POV.” Naturally, this means the first revision takes the longest and requires the biggest changes!
  • Once I make these major changes, I feel ready to show it to betas who can help me assess the big picture. It’s crucial to get outside feedback. Have you ever played Cranium, where it asks you to do something like sing a simple and well-known song using only the syllable “doo”, and suddenly you’re frustrated that your buddy can’t tell you’re “dooing” Happy Birthday? “How can you not know this?” you ask. Of course he’s heard the song a million times, but he’s hearing it in a brand new context and all the info you need is at the forefront of your mind. When you reread your own work, you’re listening to yourself “dooing” Happy Birthday, so of course it makes sense. But other people have to understand you, too. So you ask for feedback. I usually get a couple friends I trust, plus an equal amount of people I’ve never met before, like a professional beta reader who is not invested in my emotional well-being or obligated to be nice to me. When the feedback comes in, I start taking notes and figure out where it all converges. That’s where my attention needs to go in the next draft. I always have to remember to take it with a grain of salt, because it’s not going to come back perfect! 🙂

  • You may have to do this a couple times or find somebody who’s willing to reread your changes, but over time, you’ll start to close all those big gaps. Your manuscript only gets better! Once all those gaps close, the next drafts are about sentence fluency and the flow of the book. I recommend reading aloud. It’ll take a long time, but it’s the best way to catch those places where somebody else might stumble! The sand castle can stand on its own now, but you want it smooth, right? Take your shovel, pat it down, shave off those lumps, and make the words sing.
  • Crutch word time! I run the whole manuscript through a word analyzer and figure out what I’m saying too often. It’s usually a lot of just, so, very, suddenly, was, and even. Find your crutch words, cut them out, and that will usually bring your word count to a submittable length.
  • After this, I close my eyes and hit send. This is right about where I was when I submitted THE CARVER, THE UNSEEN, and THE HUMMINGBIRD. Of course, once the publishers get involved, that kicks off another couple rounds of work, but if you land somebody great, they’ll help you and tell you exactly what they’re looking for while also keeping true to your vision.

Again, none of this is set in stone. It’s different for everybody. While this process has worked well for me, I definitely wonder what kind of work goes into Coco or my own favorite books!

Does your process look any different? Let me know in the comments if you have a revision ritual you want to share!

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