I am currently in the middle of some major revisions. In fact, I’ve been doing almost nothing but revisions for the last few months, first short stories to submit to the Dell Award and now my small-child magician novel. So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how I revise. Over the past several years, my writing style has changed significantly, and so has my process for revising, but my goal has always been the same: to tell a good story.
For me, revising effectively has a lot to do with understanding how you write in the first place as well as how you read. Because once you’ve finished a first draft, you have to step back and look at it not as your baby that you slaved over but as an editor and as a reader. It’s an oft-repeated bit of advice, but revision does mean reseeing, looking at the work anew with time and perspective and then, of course, changing what you see to make it better.
So first, before I do anything else to a draft, I put it away. This is partly because I am a firm believer in writing shitty first drafts—it’s better to get the words down on paper and worry about making them the right words later—so I tend to hate most of my first drafts—sometimes unreasonably so—and I need time and perspective to see what is truly terrible, what needs to be fixed, what is not as bad as I thought it was, and what is actually really good.
But before I even look at the project again, I ask my writing buddies to look it over and give me some feedback. I am a very social writer. I do better writing in a group alongside others—even if that group is convening over the internet—than I do writing in a room by myself. I need the ability to ask questions and bounce ideas, and my ability to help others with their own stories can give me insight into my own work. The knowledge that I am not working alone, in short, helps me work more efficiently. And I have to revise in a similar way. I’m working on getting better, but I’m not so good at finding flaws in my own projects, especially when it comes to plot. I need feedback from other writers and readers to point out the things that need to be fixed, and once I know what needs to be fixed, I can usually come up with how best to revise on my own.
I am getting better at finding problems myself because I’ve started paying more attention to how I read. When I finish reading a book, I either loved it unconditionally, loved it with reservations, only thought it was so-so, or just didn’t like it. But I don’t just leave it at that. I try to analyze why I feel this way about the book. Why exactly do I love it unconditionally? Or what makes me have reservations about loving it? How come I thought it was only so-so? What about it was so terrible that I just didn’t like it? I examine a book from a writer’s point of view, looking at the choices the writer made and why I think they made them, contemplating what choices I would have made if I was writing it. To give an example, I recently read a book that I really loved, except after everything the characters had done to get this far, the ending fell kind of flat for me. When I thought about it, I realized that any other ending wouldn’t have been right for the characters, but it still felt wrong to me, because after so much excitement, this ending felt anticlimactic. So if I was writing this book, I wouldn’t have changed what happened in the ending between the characters, but I might have changed the setting or the events to make it fit better with the tone of the rest of the story. And by examining books and short stories that I read like this, I am practicing the skills I need to see the flaws in my own writing.
And once I see the flaws, I revise. Sometimes the revising is big. I have completely rewritten several stories several times. Sometimes the revisions are small tweaks that change the tenor of a character or a scene. Sometimes, I start at the beginning of the story and revise from there, but sometimes I jump around. There is advice all over the internet about how best to revise and rewrite. Some authors have detailed, step by step processes, complete with questionnaires or color coded outlines, that they use to revise every time. Personally, I try to listen to the needs of the story and the needs of the reader and find the place where those needs intersect and balance.
One thing I almost always do before I submit a story, however, is go through it and cut all unnecessary words, because I know that I tend to overwrite my first drafts. I set a target word count that I think the story should be based on its genre and what I accomplish in the story, then I do the math to determine how many words I should cut per page in order to reach that target. Then I use an abacus as a counter, and I start cutting words without actually changing the story. And I can almost always do it, and it almost always becomes a better story.
Revising isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright hard. Finishing a first draft of a project is not, in fact, the hardest part, and sometimes the thought of plunging back in, armed with my trusty toolbox of revising tricks, sounds like a drag: “And here we go again.” But whether I want to delete the file and burn all existing copies and pretend it never happened or else revel in the glory of finishing, there is always more work to do, and it is always worth doing. I try to view that work—revision—as a chance to get back inside my characters and my stories, to discover again why I loved this idea and why it was worth writing in the first place, and to make the changes that will turn my clumsy first draft into a story that shines, a story that others will want to read.