Do Over

Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?

Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.

I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.

This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.

When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.

Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.

Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.

I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.

Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.

Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.

Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.

Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.

Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.

Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.

Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!

Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.

In brief, a few more questions:

Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

Is this scene going on too long?

Have I omitted something important?

Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?

This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.

I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.

  1. Oops! I goofed. I typed in the title of this post and nothing else and accidentally hit PUBLISH. Now I don't know how fast my posts get transmitted to subscribers, so I apologize if you got just a title. I quickly posted the rest and then did a little additional revision afterward. If nothing is italicized in your version of the post, hit reload, because I made a few more changes beyond italics. Sorry!

  2. You make me excited to revise my NaNoWriMo novel. I know it needs some serious revising and editing in places; bookmarking & printing this to keep for later. Thanks so much!

  3. I agree with the term change! Self-editing sounds too much like you expected to have turned out a near complete book on the first pass, meaning that you are expecting too much out of yourself on the rough draft, leading to *self-editing* during the rough draft process, leading to writers block! I like the idea of putting out something that needs revision, revision, and another revision, more. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder that perfection is unachievable!

    Your list of things you think about during revision is really helpful and the example you gave from Ella Enchanted about emotion was very enlightening. Can you talk more about this in a later post – "Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too far fetched to believe?" I think this takes real skill and is ultimately what makes a book satisfying.

    (Actually, you could probably take each of those revision points and do a whole post on each, but start with "leading the reader along," 🙂 please.)

  4. I'm very excited about my revising process. Writing the actual first draft of something, my NaNoWriMo novel for instance, is always a challenge. Revising, going back over, having better ideas, clarifying, pretty much giving my story a face lift (or maybe even an entirely new identity) is my favorite part. It's the part of writing that I can get into more than any other.

  5. Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

    This is exactly the question I work on when I'm revising! I feel as though I always start sentences the same way or use the same words without much imagination. I guess I need a Thesaurus handy! But this is the question I need to concentrate on the most, so thank you for bringing back up in my mind! I can't wait to start revising once my first draft is complete, I'm excited to dive back into my story at the beginning.

  6. Thank you Gail for the post.
    I was just wondering. If i want to right a little series, how much do i leave the reader hanging at the end of each book?
    Do i leave the conflict completely unsolved, do i have them solve it but make a new one, or have half of the conflict solved. Stuff like that.
    From Lizzy

  7. Hi,
    I was just wondering, how do you convince yourself to start working on something? Usually, as soon as I start a piece I can't stop, but starting is hard for me, especially long pieces. The longer the piece, the harder it is. Whenever I go to my computer, I open the draft, then do my best to subconsiously put off writing. I check my email. I play a game I haven't finished. I check forums. I do homework. I tried your trick of starting from the middle, but it was the same problem over again.

    Any advice?

  8. These are great pointers for revision. Thank you for posting about this topic, and I'm with Erin on hoping you'll someday address the following in a blog post: "Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too far fetched to believe?" Thanks again!

  9. Erin and Kim–I'm keeping a list of future topics, and I've added your requests. Thanks!
    Chantal–Yes! Keep that thesaurus handy!
    Lizzie–My PRINCESS TALES series is six stand-alone stories that take place in the kingdom of Biddle. My two books in the DISNEY FAIRIES series (third book on the way!) are more series-like, but I didn't approach them with a series arc, so I'm not an authority. Try looking at series you love and take notes on how the authors do it.
    Asma–I suggest you try not to think about length. Just tell your story and see how long it turns out to be. It's an art to write compactly.

  10. This is something that I am maybe overly sensitive to…the repeated use of "I". It may or not be something to be tuned in on but if "I" (there it is again) seems to be popping up every other sentence, I go back and take a look. For instance, in your post you repeat "I" several times and that's fine…but if you are "I" sensitive as "I" am "I" change the phrasing.

    This is exactly the question I work on when I'm revising!
    I feel as though I always start sentences the same way or use the same words without much imagination(It feels as though I always start sentences the same way or use the same words without much imagination). I guess I need a Thesaurus handy!(A Thesaurus would be handy!) But this is the question I need to concentrate on the most,(this is the question that plagues me)…and so on.
    I hope this helps and believe me, "I" know where you're coming from.

  11. This is a handy checklist. I'm getting itchy for December, so I can attack my WiP. I promised to revise an older project and let the WiP chill for a month.

    Now I'm aching to get going on my revisions. Thanks again for another helpful post!

  12. I've loved Ella Enchanted for years. I take it out when I'm depressed and need comfort and when I'm traveling. Reading what you say about it is like hearing someone talk about an old friend.

    I was delighted when one of the NaNoWriMo pep talks was from you. Looking over this has made me very happy.

    Keep writing, please.

  13. I agree with Wendy the Bard. Ella Enchanted was as good as a bottle of Tonic.=)

    I read through your post yesterday and thought about all the advise you shared about revision. It actually sounded like fun to do it and after a while, I took out a short story written ages ago. Right now I'm in the process of doing it over and its coming out better as each line is being processed. Thanks for all the tips which helped me realise I'm not too bad a writer at all.=D

    I was wondering, do you have any advice for getting inspiration for a story? As in, wanting to write something really badly, but finding your imagination doesn't cooperate?

  14. This is excellent advice, thanks. I'm facing a long, slow slog of a revision of a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2008 as I let my draft from 2009 stew. I'm getting mired in the detail and the process, since I feel like I'm going about it with dental picks when the story may require shovels and dynamite. This post (and the comments) are inspiring.

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