HOW DO YOU REVISE AGAIN?
Hi friends, I recently finished a major revision, and because every time I need to do a major revision I find myself googling, "How do you revise again?" I thought I'd lay down a step by step example of how the impossible thing gets done. Everyone's process is different, so mileage will vary. But I hope this helps, future Sheena, or googling writers who find this. Revising is hard, but you can do it! STEP ONE-- GET FEEDBACK FROM PEOPLE I TRUST, AND THEN TRUST THAT FEEDBACK I've written here on how to find and train beta readers, but the tl:dr is don't send your book to someone who is not on your team, but if they are on your team, LISTEN TO THEM. They want you to succeed. Their solutions aren't always right, but the problems are always real. dun dun If something doesn't make sense, or if I rebel against their suggestions, I ask myself this question. "What problem will that solution solve?" Then I take those problems as ways I can make the story better. The goal is a better story, and if your feedback comes from people with that same goal, then it does you good to listen. Also some of the most helpful feedback comes after I ask this question..."What do you love?" I don't ask this question to get pats on the back. I ask this question so I know what I need to keep. And sometimes because I need a hug. STEP TWO-- KNOW YOU CAN DO BETTER This does not mean you call your previous draft a flaming pile of trash. (Sheena) It also doesn't mean that your last draft was perfect and anything you do will mess it up, so why bother? (Sheena) Knowing I can do better, gives me the balance I need to get started. This is a mindset that reminds me that I have the skills to make the story better. Knowing I can do better, gives me the confidence to kill my darlings, and the ability to recognize when something is good. Because sometimes I read a sentence, and realize I can not do better than this sentence, even though I'm trying, this sentence is good. It gets to live. The secret to revising, is the ability to recognize when something is good. So that leads me to tip three... STEP THREE--FOLLOW THE LOVE What you love is the story. What your editor or agent or CPs love is the story. Feedback that makes me excited, or clearly points out a problem I didn't see was there, or that just resonates down to my bones...that is the story. Revising is all about finding the story. Everything else can fall away. STEP FOUR--ORGANIZE FEEDBACK BY CHARACTER Before I get started, I rearrange all my feedback by the character it affects. I copy paste all of the notes into lists. Sometimes feedback is on more than one list because the problems affect more than one character. Once I understand the problems I want the revision to fix, I assign character solutions. In this last revision, my main character let other people do too much, so my goal for her was to make her more active. So for every scene I revised that she was in, I asked, how can she make choices that move the plot? This solved problems of pacing and over-inflated word count, increased intensity and connection to the character. Once I understand the problems enough, I can figure out ways my characters will lead me to solutions. Then I simplify all those solutions into a single overarching revision goal for each character. For example, Y-- make her more active and easier to connect to the reader X-- more him more likable M--motivations need to be more commonplace so reader can connect to her Once I have a clear idea of how I want to change the characters, I start at the beginning. STEP FIVE--BUILD A BRIDGE This may get a little odd. Imagine you see a giant chasm, like the grand canyon, or that thing in Star Wars where they are standing on the edge of a missing bridge, and they need to get up to a different level, but the only way across is to go over a giant gaping bottomless fall into the cold vacuum of space. Look at it from the side. On one end is an overhang where your characters are staring out at a fall that will definitely kill them. On the other side of the chasm is a lighted archway that represents your happy ending. This is the point where your characters need to go in order to survive. Now what I do, is I imagine all those I LOVE THIS moments as floating rocks hovering in this chasm. That kissing scene...hovering rock. That inevitable betrayal...hovering rock. I start with what I love. These floating rocks, arranged more or less in chronological order, become the path the characters will take. Then I add in what I love from the feedback, filling in rocks and ideas in the order that they most likely will appear. Sometimes feedback contradicts what I love. I have found it is always better to follow the feedback. It's so important to look critically at what you love. This last revision I needed to cut a character that I adored. I rebelled at first, because I loved her and I thought the story would not be my story without what she added to it. But I agreed with the feedback, about what problem cutting this character would solve. This character undercut my main character's growth by being too capable. So I took what I loved about this character, those lines that I loved and those things about her that made her important to the theme of my story, and I gave them all to a different character. I consolidated two characters, and found that these contradictions in her character now made this new character so much more interesting and authentic. I solved the problem, but kept what I loved. By looking at the story as plot points, and not specific chapters, I found that I could cut huge sections, make events happen thirty pages earlier. I looked at what I loved, and thought how can I keep that but change it so it fits this new version of the story? I focused on what I loved, on what made the story the story to me, and lost everything else. It's about looking past my brilliant sentences to the events of the story and finding the plot. Everything that doesn't follow the same trajectory falls into the dark river of death that is below. Even if it's a well crafted beloved sentence, or a masquerade scene where a character thinks the character he is in love with is dead, but then pulls off her mask and finds her and it's so romantic I want to scream, but it doesn't fit in the story so it's gone now. sigh. Not everything I love can fit into the story, but if you start with what you love, you can keep most of it. And I've found that what I replace it with, is often something I love more. Sometimes I know how to fill in the spaces between the things I love. Sometimes the answer is to squeeze the world tighter so those things I love happen one after another. Most of the times, the characters goals are tools that will build the bridges between one step to the next. Once I have a clear picture of the skeleton path of floating rocks, I pave the beginning to a solid run off point. I work and work and work, until the first three chapters are just right, and those characters of mine have propulsion from the inciting incident to throw them forward. I start those next chapters like monsters are chasing after my characters. I focus one step until the next, one step at a time, filling in those gaps, moving the story forward. STEP SIX--MAKE IT AWESOME Once I've got a clear picture of the plot and character changes, I ask one more question. How can I make this more awesome? In order to elevate the scene into a story, I ask myself, "How would I fib to make this chapter more exciting?" Now for some scenes, the ripped down raw truth is exactly what you need. But sometimes you need embellishments. Stories are supposed to be bigger than life. So I ask if this were a movie, how would I make this scene more intense, or just more awesome? What choices can I make, to make this cooler? Can it be a band of robbers instead of a lone thief? Can the car be a Camaro instead of a Toyota, can the outfit have daggers, can the humor be tinged with romance? Can I make the explosions bigger, the quiet moments more heartfelt? Can I make this better? Remember step two. YES YOU CAN! STEP SEVEN--FLASH CARDS
I'm not a plotter, so most of the above techniques are all done in my head. I focus on one step at a time, moving forward toward an ending I know ahead of time, with my focus on making it better. But then I always reach a point when the story is too big for me to carry in my head. This is when I get overwhelmed and my brain turns to mush and I cry and eat junk food and I want to give up, because I can't do this, (what was I thinking?), I should quit my job and work in insurance. This usually happens in Act Three, when things are intense and characters are going to die, and I also need to start tying threads together. Instead of quitting, I break out the flash cards.
I like flash cards, because they give me the flexibility to change while writing, and also, because it feels like playing a card game. I start by assigning each character a different color. I write their names, their goals, and their motivations.
Their goals are their truth, what they want or need, what motivations flavor their choices, etc. I love when characters are foils for each other, when their goals are the same, even when they are at opposite sides. Then I go through and write plot points on each card, telling the character's story plot point after plot point. I focus on one character and basically tell the story as if they are the main character.
Then I arrange them into one line, like stacked dominoes. What event leads to the next? What needs to happen first? I play with the cards, sometimes adding more moments, sometimes giving moments to other characters, until I have a path. I love the colors, because it helps me know when I lose a character's story for too long. Like this.
That's not right. Once I'm satisfied, I stack them like playing cards. I draw the top card, write that moment, and discard it when it's finished. I just keep going, following the order of the cards until I reach the end. This helps me feel less overwhelmed by the size of the story. I trust the work I did earlier, and just focus on one step at a time until I finish the dang thing. Sometimes, as I write, those plot points change, or move around, or disappear because they aren't the story anymore. And that's okay. They are just flashcards. It's okay to throw them away or to rearrange them. They are a tool that turns overwhelming stuff into tiny card-sized steps. That's my secret when it comes to revising. You just focus on the step you are on, and then keep moving forward, until eventually you reach the last one. STEP EIGHT--LAST STEP
Once I have the shape of the thing, I go back and re-read and revise and revise and revise. I add voice. I add internal. I cut off paths that don't need to exist. I build up sections that are the foundation of a major path I didn't realize was so important when I wrote it. Basically I pave this rocky path the very best I can. I get feedback again and use that feedback to polish and fill in gaps, or to fix any place they trip on a loose rock. Then, once I can read the whole book in one sitting, I edit out filter words (that, just, looked), make a word cloud to find words I'm using too much (hand, eyes, turn, I'm looking at you) and then I read the whole thing out loud and do a line edit to try to catch as many typos or comma errors as I can. Then it's done! I celebrate! Buy the thing, watch the netflix, send it on to my agent. And promptly remember a few plot holes or issues I'd forgotten to fix.
And I send her a no wait, wait, wait, read this one instead email. Then sometimes, after I hear her feedback, I go back to step one. *shrug emoji* Happy revising, fellow nerds!