Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How I Write: Revisions--How To Begin

Welcome to another weekly post in the How I Write series. This series of posts is the brainchild of Ansha Kotyk, who--along with the other participants, including Yours Truly--haunts the forums (registration required) of the Romance Divas website. You can go here to find a list of all the participants with links to their individual blog posts. We'll each be posting on the same topic each Wednesday for the next two or three months--longer, if it goes well and we're having fun with it.

This week's topic is Revisions--How to Begin.

I think it should be obvious, but just in case, let me spell it out: This is how I do it. Every writer has to discover his or her own process. You have to try different approaches to plotting, writing, editing, all the stages of producing fiction--and then settle on the ones that work for you. I think you're well advised to keep trying new things--you should never stop learning--but ultimately you have to use the techniques that work best for you.

I don't do a lot of revision. I make notes as I write, keeping a list of every character's name, and a short (one line) description of who/what they are, their purpose in the story. I do the same for places--named businesses, ships (star- or otherwise), cities, nations, worlds (I most recently wrote a spacefaring science fiction novel, so that was an issue). Why?

So I have crib notes when I revise the novel. I'm a seat-of-my-pants writer, not a plotter. Most of my plotting goes on in my subconscious or as I'm writing. If I introduce a new character as I'm writing, I generally don't spend a lot of time thinking about just the right name. I pick one and run with it. (And put it in the notes.)

When the time comes to revise the novel, I first look to see if I've given the same name (or names that look or sound too similar) to more than one character. Sometimes I have. Then I have to change them. Or if the names are too joke-y, the sort of think I do to amuse myself while composing. (I had an "Al Mondroca" in the first draft of my most recent novel. Al Mondroca. Almond Roca. Get it? My spouse objected, and rightly so. So he became Al Martinez in the final manuscript.)

Once the novel is complete, I put it aside for about two weeks and work on other things. Then I pull it out and read it through from beginning to end. I fix any missing words, homynyms (too/two/to, etc), and other obvious faults. I may add little text here and there to smooth out rough transitions, but not a lot. Then I give it a computer-aided spelling check (and add new genre-oriented words to the computer's dictionary...).

Then I give it to my spouse, who reads it and makes notes. My spouse is not a writer. My spouse does not want to be a writer. My spouse is, however, a voracious reader. Which makes Spouse a great beta reader because I'm not looking for a writerly critique. I want to know if Spouse, coming at the novel with no preconceptions, simply as a member of the target audience, likes the novel. Is it engaging? Does it hold his attention? What, if anything, throws him out of the story? What did he especially like?

Once I have that information, I can go in and make whatever changes he's suggested--if I agree with them. This is where craft comes into it. No reader is going to "get" or like everything you do. (Some won't like anything you do.) So you have to find a beta reader whose tastes are close enough to yours that you can trust that they're looking for the same things in your work that you want your readers to take from it. My spouse's tastes in novels don't parallel mine in some things, but we both know that, so the things Spouse bothers to mention are things I generally can agree are problems. Even so, you must take criticism with a pinch of salt. Is this a valid point--or is it a matter of taste?

I make whatever revisions are needed. Then I print the whole thing out and read it slowly, line by line. This can take several days. At this point, I'm looking for typos, dropped words, extra words, awkward constructions--all the things the spellcheck or grammar check didn't catch. I mark up the manuscript with a red pen. Once I'm done, I go into the electronic file and fix them all, along with any final changes (more smoothing of transitions, adding details that need emphasis, etc.)

At that point, it's ready to send out. Notice that I don't submit the novel to a critique group. I'm a member of one, though we meet seldom and irregularly. But that group serves a different function for me. Once my Spouse has given input, and I've made the changes I think are valid, I'm done. At that point, the only critiques I'm interested in are those that come from editors, in either the form of a rejection letter or a contract offer. (Heinlein's Rule # 4: You must send your story to someone who will buy it.)

Which is not to say that I won't show the manuscript to other writers and get their input--but that comes after I've begun sending it out to editors. I'll go into this in more detail next week, perhaps, but I believe in looking forward rather than backward. If my rejection letters show me a weakness in my work, I'll work on improving that aspect of my craft. But I'll apply that learning to the next novel. I won't be revising the finished ones. What's done is done, and the best I could do at the time. I believe I'll learn more by applying my lessons to new novels rather than trying to revise and improve old one. (Heinlein's Rule # 3: You must not rewrite except to editorial order. If an editor offers to buy my novel if I make some changes, that's when I'm prepared to revise a finished work.)


  1. You don't know how completely jealous I am that you revise so little, or rather that you write so cleanly that major revisions are not required. :)
    I want desperately to always look forward... hmmm maybe that will be my new mantra! Thanks!

  2. Gail, have you always wrote clean first drafts, or is this a skill you developed over time? Just curious.

    Can't wait to hear more about your process next week!

  3. Tatiana, I suppose it's something I learned over time. I haven't really thought a lot about it until recently. It's just the way I write.

    On the other hand, I don't know that Ansha should be jealous of it. The price for not doing a lot of revision is that I have a lot partial stories that never jelled. If I get to the end, it's usually easy to clean up with minimal editing--but plenty of stories I've started just ground to a halt.

    Someone who revises might've been able to salvage such stories. (Which is one reason I'm still trying to learn how to plot first, then write--and revise. Not to CHANGE how I write, but to add another tool to my tool box.)