HOW TO REVISE A BOOK
Friends! Your responses to my last post about book banning have been fantastic and insightful. Many of you even have plans of attack to help stop book banning in your communities. It’s amazing!
There are some other things to tell you about.
First . . . Devilish is now out in paperback! Right now! And it’s even more . . . goldenrod! Yes, the cover has been revamped a little. It now looks like this:
Now, on to today’s topic . . . I get a lot of e-mails asking for writing advice. I like to give this out on occasion, and now is as good a time as any.
Right now, I am revising Suite Scarlett. It seems like everyone I know is going through some kind of revision from hell right now. It must be revision season. So let’s have a look.
Here is the Writer. The Writer has finished the first (or second, or third) draft of his book. He’s feeling good. Clever. After all, he finished a book—and that counts for something. He has sent the book off to his Editor, and is now enjoying a little breakfast.
The reason the Writer is so happy and smug while the draft is away with the Editor is because he no longer has to look at it. Naturally, though, he knows it will come back. He isn’t finished. He will have to revise.
WHAT IS REVISION?
Maybe this seems obvious—but then again, maybe not!
When I was in college, I was a staff member at the writing center. A dozen or so students, from freshman to graduate level, were assigned to me. All of them were having trouble writing and revising their papers.
And so they came. A third of them were shattered and fearful, convinced they would never be able to finish writing a paper. Another third were surly and looked like they wanted to punch me in the face simply for being alive. The final third fully expected that I would rewrite their papers for them.
Some people who had been told to revise their paper actually heard this: “You suck. Unfortunately, there are no beds open right now in the Home for the Extremely Stupid, so we will send you to the writing center instead, with the hopes that you fall into a big hole on the way over there.”
Other people felt that the professor was in the wrong—that the papers made perfect sense. They took every edit or mark as a deep personal insult. “But this is a personal essay/my story/my opinion,” they would yell/cry at me. “It can’t be wrong!”
Quite a number of people would nod away as I spoke, promising to bring back revisions. A few days later they would return with papers that were virtually identical to the ones I had just seen, with a handful of words swapped around and a few spelling errors fixed.
The angry people still looked like they wanted to punch me.
Two things finally occurred to me:
1. I wasn’t being paid nearly enough for this job. (One day, when I saw my boss floating through the library with that look on his face that said, “I am going to find Maureen and give her more students,” I hid inside a bunch of automated shelves and hit the switch, closing them in around myself. Such was my morale.)
2. People have widely varying ideas about what the word revision means.
There’s an adage that “writing is revision,” and I think it’s true. It marks the difference between merely writing something down and really writing something. I can’t take two very quick steps and say I was running. I have to make lots of quick steps in order to call it “running” and not just “quickly changing position.”
It’s sort of the same with writing. Books aren’t written once—they’re written five, a dozen, twenty, fifty times.
“How many times do you have to revise?” you ask. “What’s the right number?”
Who knows? There is no right amount of revision. In fact, you might say (if you are the kind of annoying person who says stuff like this) that books are never finished. When you see them in a shop or library, they are nicely bound between two hard covers and seem stable. But books are actually heaving, organic, ever-evolving messes that have more or less been beaten and tamed into a kind of submission and shoved into a document. Even classic books written by long-dead authors are often edited and tweaked or even rearranged a bit by editors. Shakespeare is a total mess, as multiple versions of the plays exist.
There is always a way to change things around. Herein lies the problem if you do this for a living.
REVISION AND THE PROFESSIONAL WRITER
Let’s get back to the Writer. He has been patiently waiting. He is finished his breakfast now. Let’s talk about what revision means to him.
Revision is part of his job, and he likes his job. He really does. But in order to do it, he needs his Editor.
The best editors are artists—make no mistake. They need to understand stories inside and out. They look at the shape and flow of the events, the way the characters respond, the style of the writing. (Certainly one of the most famous in literary history is Maxwell Perkins, who is repsonsible for bringing us an extrodinary amount of modern American literary classics.)
Editors are also psychologists. They have to tell the Writer all of their thoughts in a clever way that moves the Writer gently in the correct direction. They write up their views in something called an edit letter. (Or ed letter or editorial letter—whatever you prefer. It’s a letter.)
The edit letter usually begins with something like: “Dear Writer, Another job well done! This book is really shaping up nicely! I like you a lot!”
The Editor may very well mean these things, but she generally says them to keep the Writer from freaking out and taking an overdose of Scrabble tiles. This is the psychological part of their job. They have to make sure the Writer stays sane and finishes the book.
This particular Writer ignores all those bits and goes right to the part that describes what needs to be done. The Writer already has his own ideas, and maybe the ideas of some friends.
Editors never (or rarely, or shouldn’t) say: “You did this wrong. Failure, Writer! Failure!” They usually talk in terms of what’s working well and what could be done to strengthen what’s there. They will often suggest cuts or places to move material. Editors do not make you do things. They do not sneak into your house and change passages of writing while you sleep. They do not threaten to break your arms (usually). They coax.
Sometimes the edit letter expresses exactly what the Writer is already thinking. Or there may be major curve balls—things the Writer thought worked but the Editor doesn’t really understand or like. There may even also be parts the Writer hated and was planning to destroy—and yet the Editor seems to love them. This is often even more baffling.
Some writers like to have a lot of other people read their books as well. They like the chorus of voices and opinions. That’s a good approach.
However, it’s not an approach I like. The only notes I usually take are from my editor. I could show my stuff around to lots of great people, but then I would go half-insane trying to coordinate all the different notes in my head. For me, one voice is best.
Generally, revisions should go big (global plot points, POV, chapter structure) to small (minor details). Think of it this way: if you were designing a house, you would have to figure out where the kitchen was going to go. Then you think about how everything will fit inside the kitchen—where does the stove go, or the sink? It’s a long time before you ever think about setting the table or sticking up hilarious fridge magnets—largely because you may not yet a table or fridge or maybe even a floor.
So it goes with your story. You need to know what happens in it. What’s the order of events? Who tells the story? These are the kinds of things decided in the first drafts. As time marches on, they’re supposed to remain more or less solid.
In theory. It doesn’t always work in practice.
It’s a good thing that the Writer doesn’t design houses—because he would move the kitchen around seventeen times, rip out all the bathrooms, add six more stories, and set fire to the roof.
Sometimes, in order to save the book, you must destroy it during revision. At least if you are me. I’m certainly not alone. Massive, last-minute rewrites are a well-known phenomenon. You can even read blogs about it! Witness the story of Scott Westerfeld getting 16,000 words into Extras, only to realize that he was writing from the wrong point of view—and then simply chopping those 16,000 words and starting again. Or Justine Larbalestier ripping out entire chapters of her new book.
I tend to hack the book into all of its component pieces, spread them out, and then systemically (don’t ask me what kind of system that matically refers to) rearrange them and delete them. From there, I reshape the story and write it again.
Here, as an example, is what Suite Scarlett looks like right now.
Those are the different story events, color-coded by type, arranged into working sections. It is very pretty. I enjoy looking at it. It is behind my head right now as I type this, and it reassures me.
I started doing this because, somewhere around the third draft of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I tore off the entire first third of the book and changed a major portion of the plot. From then on, I needed to see everything at a glance and track all the big movements. But I write every book differently. I’m really glad I’m not alone in this. Here’s the frighteningly wonderful Holly Black talking about how she reinvents her style with each book.
This is one of the exciting things about writing. Everyone does it differently. Maybe the Writer’s adventures will be helpful to you, maybe not. My only real, hard piece of advice about the writing process is this: if anyone tells you that there is just one method or a correct way of getting it done (few people would, but there’s always someone), they’re wrong. If you want to revise your book completely backwards, while hanging upside down covered in bees . . . feel free. Choose your teachers carefully. In the end, you’ll teach yourself anyway.
THE END OF REVISION
There comes a point where either a.) the Writer decides the book is as done as it is ever going to be, or b.) it’s just due. Most people I know, including our Writer, use b. as their stopping point. At this point, the books move on to finer levels of editing—line by line and word by word. The Writer still may try to delete or sneak in a new chapter. Sometimes this is permitted, and sometimes the editor must intervene.
The only person I have ever known of to beat the revision process at its own game is the fantastic Jasper Fforde. If you go to his amazing website, you will see that he offers book upgrades—much like computer software gets updated. You just go to the site, book and pencil in hand, and make the changes he lists. And presto! Updated, never-ending book!
Frankly, the thought of that makes me a little dizzy. I may have to go rest my head.
I hope this has helped. If you have any thoughts/tips/advice on revision, the comments are open!
Posted: Sunday, August 19th, 2007 @ 2:03 pm
Categories: Holly Black, Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Suite Scarlett, advice, writing.
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