The Art of Fiction:
Where Do I Begin Revising?
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
"The first thing to remember is that writing and rewriting are two very different things . . ." —Lenard-Cook
Revision can be a daunting task, especially if the project you're looking at revising is a novel. It's easy to say start with the big stuff and move to the small, but when you sit down with your manuscript, it's hard to know where to begin.
The first thing to remember is that writing and rewriting are two very different things, so different, in fact, that they involve discrete areas of the brain: It's your right brain that creates, and your left brain that edits.
Ideally, you should keep these two aspects of yourself separate. One of my students recently said that every time she wrote a new sentence, she looked at it, pronounced it awful, and rewrote it. Then she looked at the new sentence and rewrote that. This slow and meticulous method of writing may have worked for Flaubert (or maybe not: look at how little he left us), but it's something I strongly discourage, mainly because it hampers the creative side of you until, finally, your creative side gives up.
What that student was doing was allowing her editor to get in the way of her creator. It's a common occurrence that arises at least partly from when we were kids and were told to clean up our messes. What I'm telling you is to go ahead and make a mess and worry about cleaning it up later. I'm telling you to resist the "parent" telling you to clean it up now. I'm telling you that the parent needs to get out of the room, until you get to the rewriting part.
Instead, whenever you feel the urge, just write. Don't worry about spelling, grammar, sentence structure, paragraphing, how it looks or sounds, or even what your mother, children, spouse, or friends (or enemies) will think. In this creative right-brain stage, you are simply getting it all down on paper. Thanks to the wonder of computers, you'll be able to go back again (and again, and again) and fiddle with it later. In short, don't stop to analyze. Don't stop at all.
". . . while other people's thoughts are helpful, the final arbiter — the final editor— on this go-round is you." —Lenard-Cook
The Editor Cometh
Let's say you've done as I suggested and just written. You've typed (hallelujah!) "The End" and printed out your manuscript. You've (as I suggested in last month's column) made a list of each scene and how it fits into your bigger picture. You've considered whether each scene belongs, and whether the order they're in best serves the story you're trying to tell.
Now, the editor cometh, with his/her blue pencil. The editor, of course, is you. (You may be in a writing group, of course, and have gotten others' input. Or you may have asked a few trusted others to read the manuscript and give you constructive feedback. But while other people's thoughts are helpful, the final arbiter – the final editor – on this go-round is you.)
What you the editor are going to do is print out a fresh copy of your manuscript. Then you're going to carve out a chunk of time in which you can read your manuscript, front to back, in one day. The one day is particularly important as you may forget things overnight. You need to have as much of the story and details cooking in your head at the same time as possible for this part of the revision process to be effective.
"I call it the going to the bathroom test. Will your readers keep reading, even though they need to go the bathroom?" —Lenard-Cook
The Marathon Read-Through
When the day arrives, make yourself comfortable. Make sure you won't be interrupted. (Answering machine: check. Babysitter: check. Beverage of choice: check. Etc.) Keep a pen or pencil in your hand. (This will ensure you will write your thoughts on the manuscript rather than mull them.) Of course, you may write as much or as little on your manuscript as you want.
I do a lot of writing on mine. Here are some (but by no means all) of the things I note when I do a marathon read-through: change words and phrasing delete words, sentences, paragraphs move words, sentences, paragraphs write notes to myself in the margin, such as "c/f earlier ref to W" (this Lisa-ese translates to "cross-reference to earlier reference to W," and means that I've found a connection worth making more explicit in some way); "doesn't work" (self-explanatory); and "cut?" note what-ifs that occur to me as I read ("What if W doesn't go to this meeting?" "What if a new character is introduced here?") note possible moving of sections and chapters elsewhere delete extraneous repetitions put stars where more is needed, and, if something about what that "more" might be occurs to me, a word or two to jog my memory when I return to the writing stage (creator me will write these later) note where my attention lags
This last item is particularly important. I have a very short attention span – I'm usually reading half a dozen books at the same time so I can switch from one to another when my mind wanders. But certain books do hold my attention, and these I read very quickly. Then I read them again, to see why they held my attention. The reason I do this is that I expect my own books to generate the same level of attention-grabbing and holding-on.
I call it the going to the bathroom test. Will your readers keep reading, even though they need to go the bathroom? Will they, finally, take the book to the bathroom with them? Or will they suddenly find a place where they can stop and put the book down? I don't want this latter to happen. I want my readers to take the book with them. So if my attention lags while I'm reading my book, it's pretty certain a reader's will, too.
"I like to put the whole project away for at least a week (preferably longer) after my marathon read-through." —Lenard-Cook
After the Read-Through's Over
I like to put the whole project away for at least a week (preferably longer) after my marathon read-through. This gives my right brain time to mull some of the big picture things I've learned about the book. I'm not consciously thinking about these issues, but I know my subconscious is subtly tossing and turning the new information and ideas.
When it's time (I know it's time because whatever right brain's been percolating rises to the surface), I copy the file with a new name in my computer (I use the month and year of the revision). Then I park the marked up manuscript next to my computer and begin going through it. This process is going to take me at least a month, and sometimes a lot longer. Next month, I'll show you why.
This fall, I'll be devoting a column to your questions. If you have a nagging question about the craft of writing, email me in care of the editor-in-chief of Authorlink at firstname.lastname@example.org.