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?