So you’ve finished it, the short story or poem you’ve been sweating over for days. Or maybe you even have about 100,000 words of a novel sitting on your word processor. Congratulations! Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, treat yourself to an ice cream, or something. Enjoy the moment because as soon as you’re done it’s time to get to work.
It’s time to revise your work.
Think of yourself as an auto mechanic who has just built an engine from scratch. It sits there in the engine compartment, all shiny and clean, and hey, when he turns the ignition key it actually starts and runs, he feels pretty good. But the master mechanic is not satisfied with creating an engine that merely runs. He immediately begins making adjustments: the timing, the fuel/air mixture, etc. He is not satisfied until he has coaxed every ounce of horsepower and efficiency from that engine.
Our goal as writers is to make sure our writing is as finely tuned as that mechanic’s engine.
So how do we do it? By revising and editing.
I have spent the last few months doing this very thing to my new novel and thought I’d share with you my technique. I call it revising by layers.
Revising something as large and complex as a novel can be an intimidating task. There are a lot of moving parts: plot, subplots, major characters, minor characters, themes and descriptions. Trying to get each and every one as close to perfect as possible, all at the same time, is almost impossible. That’s why I break it down into smaller parts, each involving a separate pass through the manuscript.
First, I revise for plot, making sure that every twist and turn logically flows out of the previous decisions, no matter how surprising the twists. This also means making sure the time line is accurate. In Deception Island, I decided I had the protagonist back in action too quickly after suffering a gunshot wound, so I wrote a few new scenes to give him a little time to recover. Of course, this meant pushing the time of everything occurring afterwards back a day. Everything that happened on Sunday, now was happening on Monday; Wednesday was now Thursday. It meant changing every day reference from that point to the end of the book.
The second layer I look at is characterization. I go through the entire manuscript and make a character list. Every character that is given a name, whether they have a speaking role, or not, goes on the list, along with a note about their role in the story and any description I may have given them. The purpose of the character list is twofold. First, I have a habit of occasionally changing a character’s name partway through the work. This list corrects that and makes sure Joe is not described as a redhead in chapter two and as a blond in chapter ten. It also avoids having characters with similar names (such as Dan and Don) which could cause reader confusion.
The third layer of revision is what I call (for want of a better term) continuity. This is all about getting the details right. If you describe the hero’s house as having a brick facade in chapter one, you don’t want to describe it as wood in chapter eight. You also don’t want her driving east every day on the way home from work, then later in the story have her marveling at the sunset. Much of what I found is not quite as obvious, but still enough to break the illusion for a reader. I had one character’s office on the ninth floor in one place, then the nineteenth in another. In another spot, I had the hero complaining about cold, wet feet in chapter twenty, but described him packing hiking boots in chapter two. I had to change chapter two so he didn’t have boots to make the later scene make sense.
The fourth layer is where I start getting down to the artist part of writing. In the heat of writing the first draft, I often resort to cliches or other easy methods of writing. Which is perfectly okay. Sometimes I don’t want to slow down the overall creative process in order to think up an original simile for a particular description. That’s what revision is all about, reading the manuscript closely and weeding out overused devices and replacing them with more creative ones. I, personally, find that in a first draft I overuse the verb “nodded” in dialogue. (as in 350 uses in 200 pages) What I do is use it as a place-holder during dialogue. Someone in the situation, doesn’t reply to the other character immediately. There is a brief pause, which I fill by writing “he nodded.” But 350 times? I had to use the “find and replace” function to find them all, then decide whether “nodded” is really what I mean, or replace it with something more creative.
The next layers are all about tightening up the story. If I have used five words to say something and can do it in three, change it. If something doesn’t either advance the plot or add to the depth of character, cut it out. Sometimes entire scenes will need to be taken out. As you read, ask yourself: “will removing this scene, sentence, phrase, or word, prevent the reader from understanding the story?” If your answer is “no,” it probably needs to be cut.
The best tool for revision is distance from the work. The object is to see and judge what you have written, not what you intended to write, or thought you’d wrote. The best way to do this is to take a couple of weeks off between revisions. Read something. Work on another project. Do whatever you can to get your mind off the project, so when you do return to it you do so with an objective and critical mind.
How many layers are there? How many times do we need to go through the manuscript before it’s ready for the publisher? As many as it takes. There is no set answer to that. Every writer is different and every manuscript is different. We revise it until we can’t make it any better.