Thursday, May 01, 2008

Facing the Revision

Over a month ago, I had reached the conclusion that Streetwalk, the novel I'm currently querying agents with, deserved a rewrite. A couple trusted agents and one of my lovely critique members gave some wonderful feedback that called for major structural changes. I would have to rehash most of the plot, pretty much rewrite the entire book, and scrap pages upon pages of my hard work. That was over a month ago.

Revision had always been daunting to me and one of my least favorite stages of writing. I liked writing the new stuff, exploring, creating. Plus, my difficulty stepping back and looking at the story as a whole made the process even more tedious. So I spent a month thinking and brainstorming, something my girlfriend likes to call procrastinating. I hate it when she's right, so I had to prove her wrong.

I spent Monday coming up with a game plan. I created lists of items that needed to be addressed, I recreated the outline to fit in with the story structure, I cleaned the house and I stocked the fridge. I wouldn't give myself any excuses.

On Tuesday, I unplugged the phone, turned off the internet and wouldn't let myself leave the house until I had a grasp on this revision. And you know what? It worked. I went through, page by page, deleting and rewriting and cutting and pasting, and though I threw out six chapters and wrote whole new ones, it wasn't as difficult and as tedious as I thought. I have hit my stride. Tuesday night, after working from 7am to 7pm, I had revised over 100 pages of the novel and let myself call it quits. And though I can't ignore my e-mails, phone calls, and chores everyday, getting the rhythm and proper foundation has made all the difference.

Revision Tips:
  • Have a plan. If you have an outline or at least an idea of where you need to take your story, you won't get blocked midway through the process
  • Rewrite. I've seen many people just tinker with existing scenes, trying to make them fit into the new story. It's better to chuck it and start anew. The scene will come off as fresh and it will be more fitting to the story. Later, you can always add bits of dialogue or description from the previous version.
  • Don't give in to distraction. If you're like me, when you're in the writing zone, nothing could tear you out of it. But with revision, you're more removed, more in tune with the world around you, especially when you hit a block. Don't let yourself check the internet or turn on the TV or sit down with a book. Glue yourself to the chair and force yourself to work through the hard stuff.
  • Don't leave when you're blocked. I can't revise an entire novel in one day, therefore, at some point I'm going to have to stop and leave it for tomorrow. The temptation is to leave when you lose steam or you reach a point where you don't know what's going to happen next. That is not where to stop. It will just make it more difficult to start work the following day. A Chicago Contingent member calls it the 80-20 rule: only write 80% of what you know and leave that last 20% until you figure out more. It makes it easier to start work for the day if you know exactly what you need to do.
  • Talk it out. It always helps to bounce ideas off of someone but if you don't have anyone to listen, talking it out to yourself sometimes helps. Tell the story, in your own words, like an improvised synopsis. If you hit blocks when you're telling it, chances are you'll hit blocks when you write it. If the plot sounds cheesy or coincidental when you say it aloud, it probably is. Talking the story through before it hits the page often helps work out some of the kinks.
  • Don't edit or fact check. That comes later. First, get the best draft that you can, tell the best story that you can. Line editing and fact checking aren't creative endeavors; you can do them whenever. Don't lose your creative drive by stopping to check the syntax of a word or to make sure a street really exists in the city you're writing about. Just write.

I've always hated the revision process and I've always had to tell myself to get used to it. Once I think I've "finished" this book, enough to send out to agents at least, the revision process has only begun. The agent will want revisions, then if it sells, the editor will want at least two. We're always learning things about our writing processes and this week, I learned that revision isn't such a bad stage. I just had to approach it with the right attitude and from the right angle.

Feel free to leave your revision strategies, because I assume I'm not the only one who finds this process daunting. But it's a necessary step in the writing process, just as much as reading aloud or writing query letters. We have to do it, so it helps to have a plan.


Picks By Pat said...

It sounds as if you've got a good plan, and some good advice for the rest of us.

I use an outline to keep from feeling lost, but once in a while, a character veers off the page...sometimes I follow them. Other times, I drag them back.

Good Luck.

Quinn said...

I like the 80/20 rule - that's something I'd never thought of before, but it's a good idea. It really is hard to get back into the swing of things when you've plowed through everything you know you need to do.

I hate revision too (while begrudgingly accepting its importance in the process) so I'm impressed that you're willing to so completely overhaul what you've already done in the name of a good final product. I can only hope to have that kind of dedication if I find myself in the same spot. Good luck!