Strategies for Effective Revision – II

Yesterday, we reviewed two challenges facing the author with a revision. Today, we’ll carry on, with the goal of making an Action Plan.

You’ve had the feedback. Now, what do you do?

1. Put your emotions on hold.

This is hard, but it’s the only way you’ll be able to revise effectively. Give yourself some emotional distance from the work. Most editors are very careful to not be personal in discussing changes to the work, because they know that we are very engaged emotionally with our creations. Remember that this is not an attack upon you or your talents – it’s an attempt to make your work better, so that you will be more likely to succeed. Every single work can be improved in some way. It’s good to have the chance to make that improvement – and to have an editor who cares enough to add this step into the process – before the book is printed.

2. Read.

Most editors will send a revision letter – either on paper or digitally, as an email attachment. As we discussed yesterday, your Action Plan may not be immediately clear from your editor’s comments. Most editors are also more than willing to discuss their comments and even to brainstorm with authors in order to find solutions. I like to take some time (a day or two, depending upon the extent of the revisions) to read the letter multiple times, to look for patterns and consistencies, and to begin to formulate a revision plan. I also make a list of questions, so that I can the most out of such a conversation in the least amount of time. It’s possible that editors are the most over-worked people in the world – but they also have valuable expertise to share.

3. Listen.

As mentioned above, it is invaluable to solicit the advice of your editor and to ask questions in order to get a better idea of her concerns, and the ways in which you might address them. In order to do this, it’s important to listen during your conversation with her. Take notes, too, because even if you think you’ll remember everything she says, chances are you won’t.

4. Ask.

Have your list of questions ready – “where exactly did you think the pacing began to lag?” etc. – and listen to the answers.

Here’s a hint – one really good question is “Why?”

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, I delivered a book. My editor called me up several weeks later and told me that she hated it. I was pretty shocked, not just that she was as blunt as she was but because I loved this book to bits. I was a bit spooked.

I asked her why she hated the book. She said she hated the hero. Again, a major blow because I loved that hero.

I asked her why she hated him. She said he said things that really annoyed her. Again, I didn’t understand this. This hero had a kind of rough charm, and I liked him a lot.

So, I asked for an example of what those kinds of things were. She immediately gave me one, and explained why his comment made her so mad. I did have to admit that he could have been more diplomatic in that particular case.

I asked for another example. She didn’t have one. I suggested then that we remove that line of dialogue and the heroine’s response. There was a moment of silence while she read the page a few times without that chunk of dialogue, then she admitted that could work.

In the end, instead of having to give the hero a complete personality transplant and rewrite the entire book, I deleted a couple of lines of dialogue. When I worked through the book manuscript for the revision (there were other things to be done), I looked for places where he was less than diplomatic and either softened them or had the heroine respond to him with annoyance.

Over the course of the book, then, we had a nuanced change in the hero’s ability to be a little bit more diplomatic, one linked to his desire to win the heroine’s heart. It worked like crazy, and was a comparatively small change to make. I really like that facet of that book – it’s terribly romantic – but I would never have thought of it myself. I only knew to make it because I asked so many questions.

And this is the point of the revision process. I would have said that I loved that book when I first delivered it, but actually, I loved it a hundred times more after that revision. It was better. It was stronger. The revision process, when it works, builds on the strengths of the work and makes it into a better book. Revision doesn’t change the book into something else. It makes the book more of what it already is, finding angles within it that can be explored to deepen the story. Revision isn’t an imposition. It’s an opportunity.

The better your questions, the more precise your questions are, the better you’ll be equipped to make your action plan. If your editor offers to brainstorm with you, take her up on that offer when you’re stumped.

5. Think.

As discussed yesterday, it takes time to create an effective revision plan, because it takes time not only to see the connections between any comments, but to figure out how technically to address them.

If, for example, your editor thinks the pacing of the book is too slow, she might describe this as the book “lacking momentum” or “having too much introspection” or that she “was waiting for something to happen”. There can be any number of solutions to improving the pacing – you could cut the word count overall; you could add more dialogue; you could focus on action; you could diminish the amount of description or introspection. Which one of these courses is the right solution will depend upon the book and your voice and the subgenre in which the work will be published.

The more precise you are in defining what must be done (eg. “cut the work by 15% in total length”) then the more clear you can make your directives in your action plan. (eg “cut each 5000 word chapter to a max of 4300 words”.) It is easier to fulfil precise plans.

6. Sketch out a plan of attack.

This is very broad stroke and is most useful for major revisions. Make a list of scenes which have to be deleted, those that require major changes and those that need to be written. If the chronology needs to change, work it out on paper before you touch your digital files. In my experience, leaping in to make the change without a clear plan of attack, only leads to disaster – and a lot of extra work.

This map or plan will be invaluable when you get right into the line by line work of revising. Keep it by your computer to check your orientation. I don’t outline chapters, but for those of you who do, a revised chapter outline might be a very useful map.

7. Back up everything.

Even if you backed up when you delivered, do it again. Ensure that you have multiple copies of the book manuscript as it was delivered, preferably in different file formats and different media. Yes, Murphy is alive and well and living in the publishing business. Protect yourself and your work.

8. Duplicate your files and change their file names.

This gives you a set of files for the manuscript with which you can do anything, secure in the notion that you have a complete back-up if you need to restore something. It is imperative that you change the names of the duplicated files, so your computer’s operating system doesn’t get confused and start saving new files on top of old ones. Putting the duplicates into a different folder or directory isn’t good enough. (Go ahead. Ask me why I know this.)

9. Do your rough cut first.

Work quickly through the manuscript, deleting the scenes that have to be cut. If you need to correct the chronology and change the order of events, do it now, and do it fast. I recommend doing this quickly because it is hard to slice apart your work – working with speed makes the slashing less painful. It’s also easier to keep your perspective – you want a bird’s eye view of the work when you do this. You’re also less likely to be seduced by your own prose if you don’t stop to read it and remember how much you love it – that only gets you into the mindset of fighting for every sentence. You can’t do that if you’re going to revise effectively.

10. Take a break.

After what I call “the slash and burn”, I need to step away from the work for at least a day. Go for a walk. Dig in the garden. Go to yoga. Swim some laps. Do something physical and try to not think about the work. When the story slides back into your mind, you will have an even more clear idea of how to proceed, on a more detailed level.

11. Write the new scenes required.

This is a matter of taste, or maybe of the particular project. Sometimes it’s easier to write the new scenes before revising the entire work. Sometimes it’s easier to write them when you’ve revised to the point where they belong. I usually do a first draft of them before looking at the whole work, plop them more or less into position, then edit them when working through the whole book again. If the new scenes are at the very end of the book, I’m more likely to write them when I get to them, but that’s just me.

12. Start from the beginning.

Go through the work from the beginning, revising as you go. Keep your action plan in sight, and try to read the work as if it were an entirely new story to you. You may need to do this several times to ensure that the entire work is as polished and clean as you like.

13. Keep a “Cut” File.

I always create a file for scenes or even paragraphs which are cut from the revised version but should be included somewhere in the work. It might be that they interrupt the flow of the story as it has been revised, but that those passages include pieces of information that the reader needs. I paste them all into this Cut file, so I know that what’s in that file has to be put back into the work somewhere.

The key to this strategy is that I use cut and paste – I cut from the ms and paste into the Cut file. If the passage (or part of it) goes back into the ms, I cut from the Cut file and paste back into the ms. At any point in time, whatever is in the Cut file is NOT in the manuscript file.

After working through the entire manuscript once, I check the Cut file, and fit everything that’s still there back into the revised work. When I go through the work the second (and subsequent times) I can readjust its position or streamline it better into the text.

14. Take frequent breaks.

Don’t underestimate the psychological toll of a revision. You are discarding work you have done, creative work, and there will be particular passages that are very hard to chuck. I often play a game with myself with these passages, and tuck them into a separate file instead of deleting them. They’re no longer in the book manuscript, but they don’t feel trashed to me. I throw them all out once the revised manuscript has been accepted.

As you work, take lots of short breaks and be kind to yourself. Walking is the very best therapy during revision, IMO.

15. Do one last read through.

Even when you think you’ve nailed the revision, take a day to read through the whole thing one more time. Check your editor’s original comments and your notes from your conversation(s) with her, and ensure that you’ve addressed her concerns. Quite often, solving the big issues takes care of the little ones, or makes them irrelevant.

16. Deliver.

Check your spelling and your word count and send that beautifully revised ms right back to your editor, right on time.

17. Reward yourself.

You’ve just done something very difficult. You’ve probably done it in a professional manner and delivered it on time. There may be additional small tweaks to be done, but with any luck, you’ve taken care of the big stuff. Do something nice for yourself. Even a scoop of ice cream helps.

18. Start your next project.

You know you have one waiting. Dive in – whatever you’ve learned from doing revisions will be clear in your mind. You probably won’t make a similar mis-step twice.

Phew! That’s a long list! Does that help?

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