Revision Strategies: Edit or Start Again?

blank computer screenIn my 19 years as a journalist and editor, editing was always open document, save as version 2 (or 3 or whatever, we actually used our initials) then clean it up. Don’t waste what you’ve already got. Build up the weak spots, move sections around, polish up the sentences and viola! The final piece. We always worked off that first draft.

So I was surprised — shocked was more like it — when author and former editor Lisa Graff said at the 2010 Austin SCBWI conference that once she’d finished her draft, she’d scrap it and start again. Scrap it? Start with a new blank document? No “save as”?

Last week, Cynthia Leitich Smith described the same revision strategy:

“writing the entire story with a beginning, middle, and end, and then printing it, reading it, tossing it and deleting the file.”

But Cynthia explained what seemed like madness to me in such a useful way:

“It’s a comforting strategy, one that takes a lot of pressure off (nobody but me was going to read it anyway) and offers the opportunity to get to know the characters and their world. You don’t commit to a working manuscript based on that first effort. (It would be a very shaky foundation.) Instead, you start over fresh, armed with lessons learned from the intensive pre-writing.”

Wise words indeed.

Personally, I don’t know if I could just scrap an entire draft — especially not delete it!

But in the last two revisions I’ve done, I can see that there’s something to this start-again strategy. As I edited my last novel, I began by reworking scenes sentence by sentence, but I started to get frustrated. The story wanted to move ahead, but my brain was saying, ‘hold on, we just have to figure out how to get this older sentence in there.’ Finally, I cut the older version and pasted it into a different file and rewrote the scene with the new focus I had in mind, with the plan that later I’d go through the “cut” file and see if there were any parts I particularly wanted to keep.

Not only did my writing go faster, but the scenes came out better than the earlier versions, with more depth and plenty of new parts that surprised me. When I was done, I started to look through the cut segments, but quickly realized I didn’t need to. If there was some excellent sentence in there, it no longer fit, and it was no longer needed.

Fear had kept me from trying this before. Fear of not being able to reproduce something that I thought was good. I figured, if I could keep what was good, I could make it better by just building up the weak spots, moving sections around and polishing up the sentences. Stick with the foundation and carve from there.

While that’s a perfectly good revision strategy, I learned that starting again from scratch gave me the freedom to explore my story and characters just like I would within a first draft but with all the knowledge I had gained during my earlier versions.

For chapters that needed minor work, I stuck to my old routine. But when I had an idea that would dramatically change a scene, I started it as if it was new.

So I understand what Lisa and Cynthia meant now, and while I still wouldn’t hit that delete button on a first draft, I do love being able to start over.

What are your strategies for revision?

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John Green says it's ok to suck, and other links

Catching up on some of my blog reading today, I found a great YouTube video (I can’t display it on here, but check it out at Beth Revis’ Writing It Out blog, it’s worth it) with Looking For Alaska author John Green telling us what NaNoWriMo does:

  1. teaches us discipline because you need that if you’re going to write 50,000 words in a month (Note from me, especially in November. Seriously, NaNoWriMo creators, why did you choose November, which has Thanksgiving and the beginning of holiday shopping?), and
  2. it’s ok to suck in the first draft.

And for all writers who hate to revise, Green says that in all his books, he has cut 90% of the first draft in revisions, and some of the best parts of his book were written in revision. I saw Green talk at the SCBWI summer conference a few years ago, and, funnily enough, he was talking about revision then. So, he obviously really believes in it. And hey, if it works for him and he’s so successful, might be something in that. 😉

Now for some other cool links:

This one is from January but for some strange reason popped up in my Google Reader today. Publishers Weekly has an article on Penguin’s hopes for the U.S. debut of Catherine Fisher‘s Incarceron, and it looks like it’s one of those books children’s book writers should put on their must-read list. I’ve added it to mine.

Guide to Literary Agents has an interview with Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency, and Tamar takes books from middle-grade older and she really likes fantasy. She looks like a good one to check out.

And here’s a nice bit of economic news, with a great showing of how wonderful the children’s book world is. Amid all the reports of bookstores closing, Publishers Weekly reports that Michelle Witte, an associate editor with Gibbs Smith is planning to OPEN a children’s book store in Centerville, Utah. Fire Petal Books is set to open its doors next month thanks to some help from HarperCollins Children’s Books editor Molly O’Neill and author Neil Gaiman, who have both provided items for a fundraising auction. The auction ends on March 20, so go to the Fire Petal Books page and check it out to show your support, because we can never have too many children’s bookstores. Good luck, Michelle!

Write On!

What writers can learn from the Olympics

Revision update: On chapter 22 of 30.

I’m taking a pause in my Houston SCBWI conference coverage for a little Olympics wisdom. Check back in tomorrow for National Geographic Children’s Books editor-in-chief Nancy Feresten.

We all know the Olympics are great for that ‘WOW! People can do that?’ factor. I must admit, I tear up when I see what some of these people do. We enjoy seeing the athletics of these individuals, how they tone and push their bodies to do amazing feats. And we think how great it must be to stand on that podium with a medal around our neck. We live high because of what they can do.

But how can they change our lives? Well, they can’t, but they can teach us some important lessons that can.

perseverance: The U.S. hasn’t beaten Canada in ice hockey since 1960, but the team just overturned that record with a winning 5-3 score. They’ve now gone through Switzerland and will be playing for a chance for a medal.

Writers often don’t hit gold off the bat. Some of the biggest writers went through multiple rejections before their books were published, and many writers weren’t published until after they had written a number of books. perseverance is key.

Passion: Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdic broke ribs during training but persevered and won the bronze.

Writing is full of setbacks (although less painful than broken ribs). Sometimes the ideas aren’t flowing, doubt has turned your thoughts negative, or a critique was less positive than you had hoped. For many writers, these can be crippling. There’s a statistic that says that something like only 5% of the people who start writing a book actually finish it, and of those 5% only about 1% continue the work of revising and polishing for submission. (The numbers might be slightly off, so don’t quote me, but it’s something close to this.) Passion is what pushes a writer through the dark times and back into the light.

Practice: As the youngest skaters to ever win a gold medal — at their first Winter Olympics, no less — Canadian figure-skating partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir appear to be an overnight success, but what they make look easy is far from it. Virtue and Moir have been skating together since she was 6 years old.

When we read our favorite books, we might think it was easy for the author, placing just the right word in just the right place to get just the right reaction from the reader. But we don’t see the hours and hours and drafts and drafts that writer went through to get that particular word in that particular place for that particular reader. They say, practice makes perfect, so…

Go for perfection, but enjoy your wins: For skier Bode Miller, being all he can be — being perfect — has been more important than medals, but when he scored a gold during this Winter Olympics, he was more than happy. Nobody’s perfect, but in our writing we should all strive to be as perfect as we can be. And when we reach something good, we should reward ourselves. Give yourself a gold medal next time you write a sentence, paragraph or scene you’re particularly proud of.

Funny, all these are P words. 🙂

What have the Olympics taught you as a writer?

Write On!

The NEED to write

Manuscript update: Today I’m starting my next revision of my current novel, and I’m excited and nervous.

It has been three weeks since I’ve written, and the longer it gets, the more antsy I get.

It’s funny, but when I’m writing, everything else in my life goes so much more smoothly. I don’t know if it’s the need for a creative outlet or what, but my brain works better when I’m writing.

I wanted to give my manuscript a little space between revisions, but it has been difficult not to jump right back in. I miss the characters, the story, the situations.

The best thing to do, I guess, would have been to start writing my next book while I let this manuscript sit, but I got busy with another project — non-novel writing — and haven’t had time.

Plus, I knew that writing another book would take me a few months at least, and I didn’t want to put this revision off that long and didn’t want to have to stop writing the new book so I could revise this one. But the stories of my future books are haunting me too. I NEED to get writing. 🙂

What about you? Do you feel the pull to write? How do you deal with it? Do you ever work on more than one manuscript at the same time, and if so, how?

Write On!

Seven deadly sins of novel writing

Angela Ackerman (a.k.a. The Bookshelf Muse) has finished her collection of posts about her seven deadly sins of novel writing, and they’re good to read for writers at all stages of a manuscript. On Monday, I’ll be beginning what I think — hope — will be my last revision of my current novel, and as I go through the chapters, I’m going to make sure I haven’t made any of these sins.

Here are her sins:

1. Keeping the stakes too low for the characters. Conflict keeps our worlds going round.

2. Characters that don’t measure up. Characters should be unique, yet natural; likeable, yet flawed; active, yet true to character.

3. A weak voice. To quote Angela, “Voice is the song of the story, the heartbeat of the main character. It is nothing short of magic.”

4. Plot holes. Including, illogical steps, saggy middles and coincidences.

5. Bland writing. Use all five senses and choose words wisely.

6. Drowning the dialog. Too much, too little and “said” vs. anything else.

7. Giving away too much. Showing vs. telling and how much to reveal.

Thanks for these, Angela. A great guide.

Can you think of any more deadly sins of novel writing? What sins have you committed lately?

Getting to know your characters

Revision update: Nada! I’m away on vacation, but I’m going to get back to it soon.

Anita Nolan posted a link to character questionnaires from the Gotham Writers Workshop. They’re very useful, and I plan to bookmark the page, but it made me think of how we get to know our characters.

I read about using character questionnaires a few years ago. Basically, the questionnaires pose a bunch of questions and you fill in the answers as they pertain to your character(s).

The problem for me, however, is that I learn about my characters as I write the story, often having to go back to earlier chapters and make adjustments because of things I’ve learned in later ones. So, filling out a questionnaire before I’ve started to write is difficult. I don’t know those answers yet, and just making something up seems forced; the character tells me the answers as the story develops through the choices he or she makes.

However, I do think questionnaires can be useful at all parts of your progress:

  • Before you start writing: Running through a questionnaire can help you decide what you know about a character so far and help you figure out what you’d like to find out as you write the story. But, don’t be discouraged if you don’t know all the answers yet, and don’t try to force them. This is a time for awareness.
  • As you write: Everytime you learn something about your character, write it down somewhere to save and see if it answers any of the questionnaire questions. Remind yourself of the questions you still don’t have answers to, so you can look for the answers as you continue to write.
  • When you’re stuck: If you’ve lost track of your character and/or story, you can revisit the questionnaire and the answers you have so far, fill in any new answers you have, and see if any of these point you in the right direction for the next part of the story.
  • When you’re finished the first draft: Once the whole story is done, finish the questionnaire as much as you can. If there are still questions you can’t answer, maybe they’re a part of your character’s life that you don’t need for the story, but try to imagine what they would be anyway based on what you know of the character. Write down everything you can, a bible about your character’s needs, wants, feelings, decisions, choices, beliefs, likes, dislikes, etc.
  • Before you revise: After you’ve given yourself a break from your manuscript for a while, use the answers for your questionnaire to familiarize yourself with your characters again. Then, as you revise, make sure every action, decision, etc., all match who the character is at that part of the story.

How do you use questionnaires? How do you get to know your characters?

Write On!

Revising takes patience

Revision update: Finally on chapter 9.

Ok, so you know how I keep saying I’ve figured out what I needed to do to fix the problems I was having with my first eight chapters? Well, something was still nagging at me. We were still taking too long to get into the real meat of the story. There’s a scene that I liked and it had a purpose in the story, but it was one more chapter getting in the way of starting the real story. Ah well, I figured. At least it’s interesting, but that nagging feeling was still there.

After exhausting all my options, I was satisfied with my first eight chapters and decided to move on. The next part is where the meat starts, so I had just been working on the initial chapters in a lump before.

At 3:30 Saturday morning, I was trying to lull myself into sleep with a re-run of Baby Boom and some hot chocolate and I decided to look over the next set of pages I was going to tackle, chapter 9. And there, in my sleepless haze, I found my solution — again — I think.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve come up with the solution for this same problem, and although I think it’s the best idea so far, I’m not kidding myself by thinking it will be the final rewrite.

Revision takes a lot of patience. I’ve talked about Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision Method on this blog a lot, and when I started revising this book, I decided to try it, but the further I get along, the more I’m convinced that revising in only one pass takes a LOT of experience. You have to have quite a few books and revisions behind you, like Holly has, to really be able to fix all the issues in one go. I think I have that instinct for when something’s not quite working as best as it could, but it takes me a little longer to figure out what I can do to make it work the best.

But no matter how many revisions a book takes to get it in tip-top shape, it’s worth it. Maybe I should have insomnia more often. 🙂

How are you with revising?

Write On!

Keeping readers guessing

Revision update: Still slogging through the first eight chapters, this time with a fine tooth comb looking for word choices, etc.

I’m also keeping an eye on Anita Nolan‘s series on beginnings on her blog. Yesterday she had tips to hook the reader, and the first was keeping them curious. This is a good tactic for every part of the book, but especially for the beginning. If a reader is curious about what’s going on, he or she will most likely read more, and that’s exactly what we want. To keep the readers reading, keep them guessing.

Knowing what to put in a first chapter and what to leave out can be difficult. I think it’s a tool a writer learns over time. It’s one I’m learning right now.

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading first chapters from the bestsellers in my genre on my shelves to see how they do it, and I’ve come up with three main goals for the first chapter:

  1. Introduce the character, setting, situation,
  2. Make the audience care about the character,
  3. Make the audience curious about the character and, thus, the story.

So, I’m looking at my first chapter with those things in mind, and anything that isn’t necessary at this point to those three goals, I’m leaving it out. Hopefully, it’s working.

How do you decide what goes in your first chapter?

Write On!


Revision update: I got some good stuff done on Saturday, but nothing Sunday, and nothing yet today. Uh oh.

I am still working on my beginning, the first eight chapters, which essentially makes up most of act one. Beginnings are very important, from the crucial first sentence, first paragraph and first page that must draw the reader in, through to the first few chapters that must hook a reader enough to make them not want to put the book down.

On Saturday morning, I was re-reading my first page for the umpteenth time, trying to decide if it did for me what first pages in recent bestsellers do for readers. I decided to do an experiment, and I went through my shelves reading the first pages of all the books that I have in my genre. This is invaluable, I believe. These are books that publishers have invested in, and the bestsellers are books readers are enjoying. These books are the standard we all should be writing toward.

Reading those first pages, I could pick out the elements each one had, emotion, character, setting, theme, tone for the book, etc., and how they were shown or told. Some had a sense of foreboding, of things to come, some just made you interested in the character.

For example, in Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, we know Gregor is frustrated and bored, but not just that, so frustrated and bored that he “resisted the impulse to let out a primal caveman scream. It was building up in the chest, that long gutteral howl reserved for real emergencies.” That’s great showing. Collins also tells us there’s heat, that Gregor is banging his head on a screen, so probably a screened in window or door, and that it’s the beginning of summer.

With Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, things are told more, but that’s mainly because the book is written in first-person narrative; you’re not just in the character’s head seeing things from his point of view, he’s telling you the story of his life so far. In this first page, he tells us that he recently learned something about himself and that if we think we might be the same, we should put the book down, because it’s dangerous. He tells us his name and age and that he has been expelled from school.

After reading these and others, I went back to my first page and identified the elements. I could quickly see what I was lacking and figured out how to remedy it.

Beginnings are the first impression for agents and editors and future readers. They’re so important. They set up the rest of the book. And if you don’t believe me, try Richard Castle, the fictional mystery novelist star in ABC’s show Castle, which I LOVE, by the way. Nathan Fillion is great. Anyway, as Castle says: “When I’m writing a story, the beginning is always the hardest, but if you can nail that, the rest of it will just fall into place.” (Watch the Kill the Messenger episode here; the line is around the15-minute mark.)

I don’t know about the rest of the book writing itself, but Castle’s right about beginnings being hardest.

This morning, I was catching up on blog reading and saw that writer Anita Nolan has beginnings on her brain right now too. She has just started a series of posts on beginnings. I’ll be keeping an eye on those.

How do you work on your beginning?

Write On!

Trying new things

Done today: More of Chapter 2

Revision remaining: 162 pages

Daily pages needed to be finished by end of November: 3.6

I had a mini break-through this morning when I was working on my revision.

Yesterday, I had started editing chapter two, but got stuck on one paragraph that I liked but knew it didn’t fit where it was. I questioned whether I should keep the paragraph or take it out.

This morning, however, I looked at the scene a different way and realized the paragraph wasn’t the problem. The beginning of the chapter led up to the action, then I broke and skipped in time to right after the action. Because of that, I was skirting over the main action and excitement, denying it to the reader.

So, this morning, I wrote out a new middle section for the scene, detailing all the action that I had skimmed, and that paragraph I had been questioning before fit perfectly in the new parts.

Revisions are for trying new things and spending time thinking about how to really tell the story in the best way possible.

What are you trying today?

Write On!