Monday, February 12, 2007

Ask the Author: What about Revisions?

I get this question a lot. Probably because I teach a class called "The Art of Rewriting," and maybe because I make the embarrassing confession that I actually like revisions. I'll say it again -- I like rewriting.

Anyhoo, this came to my inbox the other day:
"I just finished up the rough draft on my [INSERT GENRE] book. (Hurrah!!!!!!!) I'll be starting the revision soon--do you have any pointers or major things you keep in mind when you are revising?

To be honest, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the task of revision. It's exciting on one hand and on the other there's that stabbing question in the back of my head--what if I miss something, what if I don't get it right?"
I think that's a common problem - the heaviness of seeing revisions as the FINAL process. And if it's final, it's gotta be perfect, right? Well, not for now. Not if you take it a step at a time.

Here's what I wrote back:

1. As I revise, I let myself take it in layers. I read through, take notes, knowing I don't have to make it perfect, THIS time.

2. I look for consistency in characters - did I introduce someone minor and forget them? What plot threads need tightening? Did I find someone "new" at the end, or discover a new strain that must be woven in from the beginning?

3. I search for tension in setting and character. Does every chapter count? Every scene? Every paragraph? What characters need to be brought to the front? Who can be eliminated, or melded together? How can I make my settings more purposeful, more colorful, more alive? Am I bringing enough to the reader, in terms of excitement?

4. Hooks. At the end of each chapter, do I have a reason for the reader to turn the page? Something they don't know yet, must find out in the next chapter?

5. Honesty. Does what I've presented hold up to the "reality" meter? Do I buy it?

6. Emotion. How can I make it come alive to the reader? Am I writing in hopes that it is funny or sad, or is it truly funny or sad?

7. Language. This part takes me the longest. Choosing precise words, making each sentence purposeful. Culling the extraneous that doesn't forward the plot. Making metaphors strong, tightening dialogue, building pictures in scenes.

I take all this in layers, as I said, with cooling off periods in between. It's funny how when you let a manuscript get "cold" you see so much more of what needs work. That's some of the best advice I can give. I'm sure there's so much more...but that's what's off the top of my head..."

And here's a funny from my mom, who asked me the other day, "But how do you know when you're done?" She was almost shy about talking shop with her daughter the writer, which I thought was the cutest thing ever.

I told her you know when all you're changing are the little things: the commas, verb tenses here and there. Personally, I know when it pleases me. When the thing comes together and sings a little bit, all on its own. That's when I know, it's time for my baby to fly.

Okay, writers. How do you approach revisions? Any advice you want to share? Maybe what NOT to do?


Blogger ScottM said...

How much and at what points do you include others in the revision process? Do you like to get opinions early and then go on your own, or do you like to finish the whole thing and perhaps have one or two trusted reviewers read it when you think you may be close to being done?

4:44 AM  
Blogger dee said...

I'm all for finishing first. You can't edit what's not on the page - and so much changes once you start to recieve feedback. Although I found this an intersting run down: big plot issues first, then the small character anomolies and then the verbiage. I think many writers get hung up on the verbiage first or the innane things, like punctuation. I had a twenty minute discussion in my critique class last week about M Dash...REALLY??? the time is much better spent talking about character flaws, dropped threads and plot development.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Britta Coleman said...

When to include others...that's a good question. I've done it both ways: sharing the early draft for critique and waiting until I've got it fleshed out A to Z before I invite those outside opinions. Personally, I prefer to write that initial draft with the door closed. Then I share it with my trusted reviewers and ask them to wield their red pens with bravery and integrity.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Britta Coleman said...

Oh, the dratted M dash. I got busted on this in critique the other day. I will testify that copy editors REALLY know how to use them, so trust that if you can't M-dash to save your life, someone will eventually rescue you.

12:05 PM  

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