Things I learned from revision

June 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm (Anatomy of a revision, Writing work)

So 31 Days of Revision (like 30 Days of Night, only with fewer vampires and slightly warmer) was, I think, an overall success.  Keeping track of my progress was a good way to reassure myself that yes, I was making progress, as well as providing a little extra incentive to actually make progress.  It’s one thing to slack off on revising a chapter when it’s just me and a looming deadline; when it’s me, a deadline, and the possibility of the entire internet watching me at any moment, that’s another matter.

That may not be an unmitigated good, though.  This revision went quickly, and I think I may have pushed myself a little too hard near the end.  Particularly since I did not blog the step that went after the revision: the prose-polishing, last-bits-wrangling, what-the-hell-is-this-character-still-doing-here draft.  Because I’d set myself a difficult deadline, I ended up doing that draft in about three days.

Three days.  500 pages (450, by the time I was done).  If I had tried to blog about it, the resulting entries would have consisted entirely of “AAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa garble blit fner AAAAAAA” and other such insightful commentary.  The result was a damn good novel, at least to my eyes, but I’m not sure I can do that again.  The resident organist had to keep pulling me away from the computer so that I could get a rest.

That said, the whole revision-and-blogging process taught me a few things:

  • I can do it.
  • It’s really not easy.  I needed all the time I had to spare, and some important things did not get done because I was revising (BRAWL, social contacts, certain household tasks…come to think of it, I’m crap at those anyway.)
  • The pace of the revision may be why I didn’t have my usual crisis midway through.  I tend to start questioning whether this novel is even worth it around about Chapter 12-15, and this time I didn’t have time to question myself.  I had to get those chapters done no matter what.
  • There’s gotta be a more efficient way of writing a beginning.  I think I went through five separate beginnings for this novel, and this last one works better than any of them.  Why didn’t I just skip to that step?
  • I love my endings.  But I need to slow down when I revise them.  They take just as long to polish as the other chapters, if not more, and I might as well take the time to fix them the right way in the larger revision.
  • Keeping a scrap file of all the material I’ve cut from earlier drafts?  Totally worth it.  They make great sources for later pillaging.
  • It is never, never so simple as just moving a conversation.  Context is everything, and if I don’t have reasons for my characters to be having this conversation at this time, then I need to find them.
  • I seem to have a thing for characters crashing through windows.  Not autodefenestration — well, in one case someone throws himself out a window — but usually crashing into a room via the window.  What would you call that?  Refenestration?
  • I still don’t know if this novel will sell.  But I’m glad to have turned that first draft into a really good novel, regardless of sales.
  • Insulated mugs rule.

What’s next?  Well, I’ve got half a first draft here, and even if I’m going to have to make some major changes so that it matches the revision, it’s still a good start.  So it’s off to the composition stage, spinning this story out to an ending that may or may not involve jetpacks.  And quite possibly waltzes.  But not both at once.  I will probably not be blogging this process, partly because I’ve just started a new job and balancing composition and work will be difficult enough as it is, partly because it’s substantially less interesting.  I may try to do semi-regular updates, along the lines of “here’s what I wrote this week: the horrible old woman in the hall, a misunderstanding involving garden implements, more rooftop chases (which will probably be cut) and an excruciating parental conference.”  (All of these are in the first part of the draft, by the way.)

Thanks, everyone, for your help and your support.  It really meant a lot, and it helped me push through this draft.

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Revision: Day 31

May 27, 2011 at 11:21 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Momentum is a wonderful thing.

Yes, I still have to go through and fix the rough spots (Chapter 12 in particular, and Chapter 14 is dragging more than it should). But this revision is done.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be out on the street holding my laptop above my head and making Tusken Raider noises.

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Revision: Day 30

May 26, 2011 at 11:28 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Chapters 22 and 23 are cobbled together, but it’s pretty enough outside that I really don’t want to spend more time at the computer. Chapter 24 can wait till tomorrow.

When I hit this point in a revision, or even in the initial composition, there’s always this strange momentum. I don’t want to stop working, even though I’m burning through chapters much more quickly than I’d thought I would. I can see the end in sight — thirty pages! Plus a short coda to add! — and every time I step away from the computer, I can feel the pressure of those last few pages.

I make line edits to two more early chapters, then print another four. Some of these sections are actually pretty good already; it’s just a matter of finding the weak spots.

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Revision: Day 29

May 25, 2011 at 10:39 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Chapter 20, down! Now with more bitter regret, more actual answers, and a lot more broken glass! It is, unfortunately, a very talky chapter, but it’s fairly short, so that might balance it. I’ll know when I go through a second time.

And Chapter 21! This one I wrote a version of in the very first draft, then scrapped. But no, it really does belong here, so long as it doesn’t go off into the old long digression.

And even a start on Chapter 22! Again, the end of the chapter is right, but getting there isn’t quite in alignment — certainly not now that I’ve added all this new material. I chop out everything that isn’t needed, add an outline and segments for what will be needed, and then pause for the day. Maybe I’ll get it this evening. Or maybe I’ll put my feet up and watch something goofy.

And what’s this? Chapters 5-8, printed out and ready for line edits? And actual sunlight outside? Oh yes, I think this will do nicely.

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Revision: Day 28

May 24, 2011 at 8:54 am (Anatomy of a revision)

In a reverse of yesterday’s order, I scrawl on several early chapters, then compose in the afternoon, writing the end of Chapter 19. Man, I’ve put this character through the wringer. No regrets, though.

In the evening, I finish up line edits on the rest of the early chapters I’ve printed, then set it down for the night. I seem to be bad at taking breaks at this stage.

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Revision: Day 27

May 23, 2011 at 11:45 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Chapter 18 goes down early. Woo! Some of that is chopping out irrelevant bits, but mostly it’s that I’ve rewritten the back half of the chapter to make more sense. Also, ending with a bang always helps.

I get about 1500 words of Chapter 19 done as well, then scrawl on the last few chapters, outline a coda, and write line edits on a little of Chapter 1. I think I can do this.

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Revision: Day 26

May 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm (Anatomy of a revision)

It takes a little while, but Chapter 17 is complete. And a lot more streamlined, though it’ll need a second check.

Tomorrow I’ll be composing large chunks of text to patch the gaps I’ve torn in the story, so I print out the first four chapters so I can go over them and start fixing the rough prose that got left in last time. It’ll give me something to do in between composition phases, and something to get my eyes away from the screen. The story now almost holds together; now it’s time to make sure I’ve told it properly.

And you know, these early chapters are pretty good…

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Revision: Day 25

May 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm (Anatomy of a revision)

Chapters 15 and 16 go down quickly, although I think I’ll want a second look at both of them. And then it’s a matter of figuring out what comes next.

I’d come up with a few important points over the last couple of days — X shows up again at the end, heralding a battle of wills with Y, Z should be the one to accidentally expose Q’s lies — so starting with those, I work out what goes next. Some of it is, I admit, based entirely on the principle of “what would be most awesome,” which is more than a little subjective.

However, I get the order of events fixed, realize I can salvage more than I’d thought of the end, and outline segments of the next three chapters. Cue the Young Frankenstein.

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Revision: Days 23 and 24

May 20, 2011 at 8:26 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Day 23: Chapter 13 is complete, and more easily than I’d thought. But Chapter 14 is a bear; not only am I swapping conversations, that means the reason for each conversation now makes no sense. Plus, I’ve got extra characters still hanging around with nothing to do, so I need to write them out of the story. GET OFF MY DAMN LAWN YOU CHARACTERS YOU DON’T LIVE HERE ANY MORE

Day 24: I wonder if the increased incidence of capslock in these entries is a bad sign.

Anyway, I finish up Chapter 14 after figuring out a few elements that make more sense. It’s still rougher than I’d like, but it’s no longer a roadblock. And that leads into the two cleanest chapters so far: 15 and 16.

Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to work out the sequence of events in 17 and beyond, and it’s still eluding me. That means some more of the stare-out-windows part of the writing process. (Kate Beaton has a good illustration of one of the problems with doing this in public. Also, if you’re not reading her history comics, you need to start. Now.)

Still: more than half done and the story’s holding together.

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Revision: Day 22

May 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm (Anatomy of a revision)

Or not.

I sleep poorly, waking at 3:30 and staying that way till maybe half an hour before the alarm. As a a result, I’m bleary and crabby when I finally get to the computer. Still, I wrangle the three chapters into one, even if it both needs a new scene and needs to be cut down. (Yeah, I’m not sure about that either.)

There’s always a point midway through a revision where I just want to yell SCREW THIS GOING HOME and toss the manuscript over my shoulder. I don’t think I’m there yet — I’m just tired. It helps to know that the next two chapters aren’t too bad –a scene to add, then some swapping around of who talks to who when — and the two that follow them are almost perfect.

And after that? Well, I did have a few minutes to myself with my notebook earlier. I know how to precipitate one character’s second crisis of confidence, and I know two things need to happen in quick succession for the “oh crap” point of the story to work, but I’m not sure what the order should be. That’s the sort of thing I can work out over a long walk, though.

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Revision: Day 21

May 17, 2011 at 10:04 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Halfway through revising Chapter 11 the other day, I realized that the following three chapters were dry as toast. Looking at them again confirms it, and my initial idea of handing them over to another point of view doesn’t help. However, chopping them down into one chapter with one unified point of view should make this less of a dull bit for the reader to skim through and more of a breather from the action.

I get about halfway done with this new Chapter 12 before life intercedes. Bah. And tomorrow isn’t looking good; I’ll have some longhand work time, but little computer time. Maybe a long evening write-with-hot-cocoa session might fix that.

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Revision: Days 19 and 20

May 16, 2011 at 8:52 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Day 19: Chapter 8 falls in the morning, more quickly than I expected. I use the rest of that no-internet block to outline exactly how I want Chapter 9 to go, then take a quick break.

I write most of Chapter 9 in one long session while out of the house, add on another bit at the library, and finish up in the evening. It’s more painful to write than I expected; I’m putting characters through some wrenching events here, and even though I’m the one orchestrating their actions, I still feel bad for them.

I’m starting to get into the part of the novel that worked well without major structural changes. In theory, this means I’ll be moving more quickly, since certain chapters stood well on their own. Not sure how this will work out in practice.

And I’m still trying to figure out how to pull things together at the end. One or two things are falling into place — the identity of an unnamed character early on has become clear, and I can bring him back near the end to completely devastate one of my narrators — but the order of it is still uncertain. I think I’m going to need another staring-out-the-window session before I can assemble the ending properly. Ideally, it’ll make a good break between revisions.

Day 20: AAARGH where is the time going

Chapter 10 gets revised across two sessions, followed by Chapter 11. It’s a better chapter now that I’ve chopped a good half of it away. So much of this stage of revision feels like some weird puzzle: add one piece, take away another, see if it works, add another piece, take away another . . .

I’m moving quickly on this, but I can’t help feeling like I ought to be faster. Maybe it’s that I’ve set an unreasonable deadline for myself, maybe it’s a side effect of seeing “day 20” and “chapter 10” together and wondering why the numbers aren’t closer, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Maybe I just need to switch to decaf.

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Revision: Day 18

May 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm (Anatomy of a revision)

Chapter 7 gets knit together — okay, stitched clumsily, with lots of lumps — and since I have more time on my “no-internet” block*, I start in on fixing Chapter 8 as well. I add a very slimy conversation, then swap out who’s doing what. Some irrelevant questions go by the wayside as well.

Part of the problem with this chapter is that when I first wrote it, I knew I needed a defining character change in it. However, I couldn’t decide where it should go, and so I put it in several times. The result is that her development starts, screeches to a halt, resets, and then starts again. This will not do.

* I use a program called Freedom to shut off my internet-surfing capacity for a set block of time. This means that 1) the internet’s siren song is muffled for a little while and 2) I have a given amount of time that is dedicated to work. It’s amazing how useful the latter can be; I keep working till the buzzer goes (longer if I’m close to the end of a chapter), and if by some chance I finish the chapter early, then it’s on to the next one.

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Revision: Day 17

May 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm (Anatomy of a revision)

Today Chapter 6 gets written! And oh, I like how I’ve ended it. This revision is getting substantially bloodier.

Chapter 7 may be a problem, since I’m knitting together three different pieces. Still, I think I can pull it together in the morning and have the evening free for tweaking Chapter 8. The shape of that one is still the same, it’s just a matter of which characters are taking which roles.

Also, one of the advantages of having to do laundry at the laundromat — and there are few — is that I have a block of time where I’m sitting down away from the computer and away from most other distractions. (Small children who think my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is the Best Sippy Cup Evar do not count.) So I scrawled notes on several more chapters, including one that has been giving me trouble for some time.

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Revision: Day 16

May 12, 2011 at 6:52 am (Anatomy of a revision)

Okay, so maybe Chapter 6 won’t get written today.

But here, have a link to an illustration of trouble with character-wrangling. Perhaps I need to add more tigers. And free beer.

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