Impossible to do until you’ve finished a draft. Unlike Lot bringing his wife out of Hell, you have to look back over your shoulder, in order to figure out what you’ve begun. Impossible to do unless your defensive shield is down. Impossible to do unless you allow yourself some emotional distance from the original impulse that got you started, and the labor you’ve already invested.
Revision is the glorious part, I keep telling students. It’s the present you get when you’ve blocked out a story that matters, something with energy and life force. You’ve swum the full lap, you’ve figured out what it takes to draft your idea (or your feeling, or your memory, or your dream), and what do you have?
Well. A mess, most likely. Of course it’s a mess. It’s a draft, and the first one at that. So how do you approach it? How do you approach it without falling into a frenzy of self-hatred? How do you tackle that draft so that you’re doing more than simply moving a few words around and polishing the surface? Because if that’s all you do, you will never understand what you’ve made. And if you don’t understand it, you can’t make it into the best writing it can be.
So here’s one approach to wrestling your writing. Try it. If this doesn’t work, keep experimenting. You’ll find your revision strategy. And you’ll know it’s the right one when you, too, realize that revising is the best part of writing.
1. Take one piece of blank paper for each section or chapter of your story or novel. Write down what happens there, the events of that chapter.
2. Write down what’s known about specific characters—what’s revealed, what’s hidden. Notice the things you’ve inserted subconsciously and consciously—character’s quirks and traits, thematic elements, repeating events and ideas. Make a section at the bottom of each page for those elements you want to be aware of— those you want to avoid and those you want to embrace.
3. On the sheet for each chapter, trace the journeys the characters are taking, so that you can identify moments that are missing, as well as moments that are out of balance.
4. Research. On your pages, note the things you don’t know—how to throw pots or invest in the stock market, or what it would be like to have a particular illness or break a certain bone. Does your character have vertigo or know Queen Victoria? Now’s the time to make sure your facts are right.
5. Pin those beauties up somewhere and study them. Page after page after page. Does each character have motivation? Are you using the right moments in the story, or are there other events you’ve kept “off stage” that might add tension and mystery? Most importantly, have you figured out what it is that powers this story for you? Why you are telling it? When you know this, you may want to shift around the events of the story even further, to better communicate the Big Belief which is behind the writing you’re doing.
6. Okay. So you’ve figured out why you’ve written this, you’ve clarified what happens, you’ve identified the weak spots. Now add in those elements that will tighten and strengthen your arc, and study your pinned-up pages. Anything else? Are the chapters in the correct order? Is there an extra character? A character needed? Another crisis? Put it on your charts. And get started on your next draft.
7. You’re done with draft 2. You feel good about the order of events. You feel good about the tensions you’ve created. You feel good about your characters. You know why they’re in the story, and what happens to them. What’s next? Read the whole shebang out loud. Yep. Every last word. Pencil in hand. Imagine you are reading to an audience, and you want to entertain them. Circle anything that sounds awkward or is difficult to say. Circle anything that gets in the way of the efficient communication of your fictional dream. Watch for metaphors. Are they logical? Do they bump up against other ideas you’ve had for the same character? Are there too many of them? Watch for rhythms that don’t work. Watch for words that are rhythmical but don’t say anything specific. Get to know your flaws. This can take much longer than you want it to. Read every last word, even the sections you know are fabulous. They’re probably the weakest parts of all.
8. Draft 3 is done. You’ve really let all the questionable bits go. You trust your event order. You’ve thought about character, situation, tension, word choice, rhythm, point of entry and point of view. You’ve got the facts right. You’ve given yourself the option to choose the difficult path on every sentence, and you know you’ve made the right choice. Now show the manuscript to someone you trust. Or maybe even three people: someone who loves you and will always have your back; someone who scares you a little; and someone who reads precisely the kind of book you want to write. Take all that feedback from your readers, and try to breathe it in slowly, using your chapter outline sheets and your revised draft to pencil in notes and questions to yourself.
Are you done yet? Probably not. But you’ve taken your eyes off the forest and gotten to know the trees. My bet is that you’re probably having fun. You’re revising!