Friday, March 18, 2016

On Revision

What is revision?

I'm always surprised (though by now I shouldn't be) that I need to define this not just once but many times for my language arts classes each school year.  Somehow, many of us are taught that if we get to be good enough writers, we'll no longer have to revise.  We'll get it right the first time, and won't need to fix anything except maybe a few commas.

It's been almost exactly 18 years since I was offered my first publishing contract (on my birthday, April 16, 1998), and 8 years since I started teaching, and now abruptly I feel very old- no, that's not what I was going to say.  In those years, what I've learned is that, as you become a better writer, instead of revising less, you revise more.

I love writing first drafts.  They're fun.  I make a few notes, do just enough research to get me through, and then I fly by the seat of my pants.  I get to know the characters and figure out their story as if I were putting together a puzzle.  If I'm lucky, I find the edge pieces first, but there are always a few bits I put together because I see them and they're there, even if I have no idea yet how they attach.

Sometimes I get partway through a first draft and go, "This is boring," and walk away.  Sometimes I lose pieces and never quite finish the puzzle, though it nags at me.  Sometimes though, I finish, look at the final product (50, 60, 70 or 100,000 words) and think, "Oo, that's a good idea.  I should turn that into a novel."

 I should write that book.

A manuscript, and first notes on bright orange Sticky notes
The current state of Mancer II: Of the Divine
So I do.  These days, my first step in revision is quite often to throw out the first draft.  I keep a copy of the file, of course, and I use it as reference, but I've reached a stage in my writing career where the idea of re-writing 100,000 words just makes more sense than anything else.

I start with paper.  I read the first draft, not bothering to correct spelling or grammar or continuity, but recording big events, relationships, facts and people.  I make an outline of the novel I first wrote, usually on Sticky notes.

Then I ask myself the big questions:

  • What does the reader need to know up front? I like to get all important world information and introduce all key characters in the first 1/5th of the book.  If it's something particularly confusing, something contrary to the reader's expectations that they're going to assume is different, I need to take particular care in how it is introduced.
  • What information can wait? My worlds are vast and complex, and my characters have detailed histories.  A reader does not need every single detail right away, and if you give it to them, they will be bored and overwhelmed.  It's too much, and leaves no space for plot.
  • What is the big plot? What are the sub-plots? How are they introduced? You'd be amazed how often I don't even know what the big plot of a story is until halfway into the first draft.  That needs to be fixed in a rewrite.
Then I go to my outline, and I begin moving things around.  What can actually be kept? What needs to be changed?

In Mancer 2: Of the Divine, my current project, one major change is that I have a character who was 17 and therefore a dependent of her parents in the first draft.  She took on a different role as I continued to write, to the point where her being 17 is patently ridiculous.  She needs to be older by several years.  That changes everything about her interactions with other characters.

One of my other notes is, "These people have lived across the street from each other for 10 years.  How are they only just meeting?" Their relationship needs to be long-standing.  If that's the case, what has changed recently to set these events in motion?

Another note: "WTF? How does this timeline even make sense? Where is she from?" Oops, I never figured that out.  I have someone simultaneously growing up in this country and somehow inexplicably also having important events in her life happen somewhere else she had no reason to be.  Huh.  Guess I should fix that.

Crazy charts and other notesI make a lot of notes.  I write on paper at this point.  I use print-outs and slews of Sticky notes.  I draft-write best by typing, but I plan best with a pen in my hands, when I can physically rearrange text.  I'm a kinesthetic learner and a visual thinker.  I build plot structures and examine their shapes geometrically, and for that I need something physical, not just a computer screen.

At this point, I also do extensive research.  I talk to beta readers, writing group members, and sometimes total strangers.  I consider ideas, sleep on them, throw them out, pick them out of the trash, reconsider them, and sometimes throw them out again.

Finally, I'm ready for the next step: 

I start a new file, and I stare at the blank page.  It's time to begin writing a book.

MS Word file saying Chapter 1 (then blank except a cursor)


  1. Hi Amelia,

    Thank you for sharing your insights. I am a 29 year old PhD student who is avoiding my third revision on my thesis at the moment. Something I saw on fb reminded me of your books, particularly Midnight Predator, and I went down a rabbit hole and ended up here. Nice to see that you are actively sharing your craft. Your work really inspired me as a teen. Just wanted to say thanks. Best, Annika

  2. Lol, I enjoyed the candid humor while you equipped fellow writers.
    P.S. I hate revision but my husband loves it. You made it sound doable but also very enjoyable.

  3. I just have to know...what type of notebook is that there, with the squared paper?

  4. In fact, it is highly recommended that writers should do additional research on the topic that they will be writing about to expand their knowledge on what the article is all about. See more here rewrite an essay