So here’s my desk at the moment, after my latest novel revision.
I know. It’s not pretty.
What’s worse is the entire floor looks the same way. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of the full horror of the scene.
I’m normally an organized person. I own things like file folders and binders, and I actually use them. But when I’m writing, chaos reigns. Pressed for time, under the gun of a deadline, I jot notes on random scraps of paper. I make lists. I draw timelines. Much of my novel writing actually takes place “off” the page, in notebooks and on scraps, as I try to wrestle through plot problems. I can’t stop to clean anything up. Every scrap of time goes to pushing this book to the next level.
Is it truly chaos though? I can actually understand the archaeological layers here, representing a revision process that began way back in March. I can tell you the green pages are notes from a conversation with my editor. Dark pink post-it notes represent major problems, and ideas for fixing them. Pale pink = quick fixes. Yellow = placeholders in the print out of the manuscript. The photocopies lying around are articles taken from my once-organized research binder, information I needed to have at my fingertips. Oh, and the bowl? It had chocolate caramels with sea salt.
I get asked about my revision process a lot when I talk to kids at book events. This time, I tried to pay attention to how I was doing it. I’m not sure if this formula would work for everyone, but it works for me. Here are the basics of how I do a FIRST revision, the “big” one:
1. Print the original draft and put it in a binder. (See, I told you I start out organized!) Highlight any material that seems important to keep. Put hot pink post it notes (“red flags”) on problematic pages.
2. Open a new Word document. RETYPE THE BOOK. Yes, I know this is basically insane. But I have to do this retyping process. That forces me to look at every scene — and every sentence — anew. Do I feel like retyping this? Is it boring? Is it a lie? Maybe it shouldn’t make it into the next draft. Sometimes I find patches from the original draft — good scenes, great dialogue — that I can simply scoop into the new version. And that’s glorious. That’s like swimming and hitting a patch of warm water. It’s also very rare. Most of the manuscript gets entirely rewritten. This is why it takes so long.
3. Write “Off the Page.” If I am stuck, I write notes by hand. I write in the character’s voice sometimes. I list options, moving from the most obvious solutions to the least. I list pros and cons of various plot points. Or I “block out” a scene in all caps, in the Word document, so that I figure out what I’m trying to do before I start lovingly crafting sentences or layering in details. Then I “write over” the all caps in regular font, making the scene “real.” I do this a little in first drafts too, but not as much. In the big revision, I have to force myself to think about every scene, every plot point.
4. Phone (or Email) a Friend. Sometimes premature feedback can mess me up, but other times it’s useful to brainstorm ideas out loud, or run a few pages by someone. If I’m losing confidence, and a trusted reader likes the story so far, that can really spur me on. Or I may get fresh insights into a plot problem.
5. Set benchmarks. So that I don’t get bogged down endlessly rewriting chapter one, or dawdling over sentences (style revisions can come later), I try for two chapters, or 20-25 pages, a day — and that can take all day plus a late night shift.
6. Eat Chocolate Caramels with Sea Salt. Lots.
What about you? How do you get through big revisions and live to tell the tale?
This is such good advice!
Now to get a manuscript binder. 🙂