Piecemeal Manifesto #4 – My 5 Rules for Revising
Allegedly there are writers out there who can draft a story or novel, do a polish, then send it off to their agent who then has no trouble selling it. If these writers do exist, there’s only one appropriate way to respond to them:
Because man, revising is work. Like hard work. But it’s also the writing I like doing the most, so that’s weird, right? I’ve written elsewhere on here that I hate drafting. But if I can get a shitty first draft down, I then have something to work with. Generally my first readable draft is like a weird, unwieldy, smoke-spewing machine leaking oil that’s held together by duct tape and gum. It’s a machine that does what I want it to, but it doesn’t do it well. So the goal of revising is to get the machine to run beautifully. Here are my personal rules:
1. It’s all about plot. Because I think most readers are reading for plot, I attack the story first, checking for plot logic, inconsistencies, and pacing. If I can’t put “therefore” or “but” between scenes, I have a problem. And in a you-probably-don’t-want-to-see-how-the-sausage-is-made moment: If the characters are doing things inconsistent to who they are, I either have to change the scene or gerry rig the character to make their actions make sense. In DON’T GET CAUGHT, I needed a character to be able to do a certain action at the end of the book. The only way I could make it work was by changing her job in the second draft to include this ability. Other writers may have the foresight to do this on the first draft, but I sure don’t. And oh man, make sure your main character is, you know, actually important.
2. Tighten, tighten, tighten! I don’t like books that waste my time with extraneous scenes, chapters, description, subplots, etc. So if a scene isn’t essential to the plot, I cut it. If I’m not sure if I should keep a sentence, I cut it. If I can cut a chapter by adding a paragraph to in another one, I do it. I believe in the ‘late in, early out’ approach when it comes to scenes and chapters, but my stuff doesn’t read like that early on. My first draft usually runs long, then gets smaller with each subsequent revision. My first readable draft of DGC was 94K. The version that got me signed with an agent was 81K. The version we sold to Sourcebooks was 74K. And the first revision of that draft that I finished this morning is at 68K. There’s not a lot of fat in the novel, just the way I like it.
3. Trust your instincts. If you have a feeling something’s wrong, there is. Fix it. Always assume your readers will spot plot gaps, bad logic, and inconsistencies. Because they will, and you’ll look sloppy.
4. Line edits last. I get the plot and characterization finished first–this can take a bunch of drafts–before I worry about the writing. I barf it all out on the page, terrible sentence by terrible sentence, in order to get the story to work. I tidy it all up, making it read as smoothly as I can, last. Generally, I read a page until I find something clunky, fix it, start again at the top of the page, read until I find another problem, fix, and begin again, repeating until I can read the whole page without stopping. It takes some time, but is worth it.
5. Don’t over-carve the pumpkin. I picked up this gem from Daryl Gregory. Because we’ve all done that, right? Thought, “I’ll just do this one final cut on the pumpkin” and then it’s ruined? Or if you’re anti-Halloween, made the disastrous decision to cut your own hair, which always starts okay, but at some point you go too far and then:
Because, man, it’s easy to revise forever and not let anyone see it. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer: “It’s unsettling, isn’t it? When you realize there are only so many things you can teach a child. And finally, they are who they are.” That’s your novel. At some point, you have to let it out into the world. You can only hope when you release it, some agent, publisher, reader, etc., doesn’t