How to revise a novel, according to my commenters.

So, I hear (via the  #AWP12 hashtag on Twitter) that last night, Margaret Atwood brought the house down at AWP with her keynote speech.

I cried a little on the inside when I read those tweets, because I love Margaret Atwood and I’m sad that this was her year to be at AWP and my year to not go. But as I said a few days ago, just because some of us writers aren’t in Chicago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some knowledge dropped on us.

Earlier this week, I blogged about my fear of revising a novel and issued a plea for help. And, as always, my fellow writers came through in the clutch with all manner of advice.

Here, in no particular order, is the revision advice that I received this week. It’s enough to make a girl want to get revising right away:

“I go over my text a few times, says SickBoyMcCoy, writer of the online serial Bad Blood Bandits. “The first is just to enjoy it. If I can’t do that due to grammatical or spelling or just structure then it warrants change. The second time I go over it and look for ways to push what I have just a little further. The third time I try to detach myself from what I have written and try and think of the most radically different ways I could have told the story and if none of them outshine what I’ve done it stays. It’s enough to drive someone to drink.”

HannahKarena (whose blog is sadly no longer available for me to link to) recommended a technique she read about in No Plot? No Problem! a craft book written by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWrioMo, (For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month):
“I’m about to start revising my own novel this weekend–I’ve been putting it off for weeks because I’ve never done it before–but I’m going to try the index card organization of scenes method that everyone is raving about .”

E.S. Cameron recently wrote that she’s addicted to revision. Here’s her advice:

“I haven’t yet finished a first novel draft, so I haven’t yet revised one – but it seems to me that how you revise depends on where you are in the process. Start from the top and work down, from macro to micro. This is how I would approach it:

MACRO: The first thing I would look at is the story/plot, and fix any gaping holes/problems. Then I would look at form/structure: is this the best way to tell my story? If the answer is no, I would start moving things around until it worked.

IN BETWEEN: From here, I would look at elements like place/detail, character development, dialogue, etc. to make sure that I’m hitting all my targets in these areas. This step would probably involve adding a fair amount of text.

MICRO: Then I would go though chapter by chapter and start cutting mercilessly – any sentence/scene not carrying its weight would have to go. Finally, I would start doing line by line revisions, looking at my specific word choices and sentence structure, making sure that every sentence does what I need it to. (I feel strongly that people underestimate the importance of sentence structure.) This last step I would repeat as necessary.”

Matthew Dicks, author of Something Missing and Unexpectedly, Milo tweeted this advice: “Read aloud. Remind yourself that this is just the first of many revisions. Try not to hate yourself when it sounds like dirt.”

UPDATE: Whoops! Matt Dicks has also penned another book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. It was released this week in other countries, but as with all delicacies (seasons of Sherlock, fashions from Europe, etc.) we will have to wait months (it releases in August) before we can get our hands on it in the U.S. European and down-under folks, go find this book! Read it, review it and don’t include spoilers!

Alena Dillon of The Time is Write has revised four full-length manuscripts. Here’s her process:

“When I’m done with my first draft, I print the whole thing out. I too am an underwriter (you mentioned that you are in a blog a few days ago), but most times I have a feeling where I’ve gipped my manuscript. For instance, if I think a theme or a character may be lacking, I’ll flip through the manuscript and highlight whenever it/he/she appears so that I can visually see its/his/her arc. Each theme or character would get its own color: green for mother, pink for loss, etc. I like to see physical presence as vividly as possible, and when I get a sense of that, then I read through and mark where I could write more (or, rarely, less), and what I could write–but I don’t actually do the writing until later. Revision takes a lot of courage and momentum, so I don’t interrupt that if I can avoid it.

If I don’t have a sense of what is needed, I’ll read a craft book, keeping my particular manuscript in mind as I read. For the novel, I read Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons and took notes of what came to mind that my novel might need done. Then I placed those notes beside me as I read through the manuscript AND MARKED THE HELL OUT OF IT. The more cross outs, stars, arrows to the back page with a list of what is needed, the better.”

After reading all this good advice, I remembered that I myself am not completely without revision resources. One of my mentors once told me to put work away for a month, then to read the whole thing in one day as if I were reading someone else’s work. Also, Rick Moody visited my MFA program to give a lecture on revision. His lecture, I remember, was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to get out of there and revise something.  I didn’t have anything to revise at the time, but I still have the notes from the lecture. I plan to re-read the notes from his lecture, re-read this blog post and get crackin’.

Maybe E.S. Cameron is right; maybe a writer can get addicted to revision.

Revisions scare me.

Right now I’ve got a knot in my stomach because the manuscript for my novel is out to one of my writers’ groups. I gave it to them last month, and recently, two of the writers emailed to admit that they hadn’t yet read it. And I replied with something like: “Aw shucks, that’s fine, take your time.” But what I meant was: “I’m sort of hoping that all three of you have lost your copies to three separate freak manuscript flash fires, which will mean that we can’t have our meeting to discuss my work next month.”

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

I dread making revisions to this novel. I don’t know why. No, I do know why. I just hate to admit it, because it seems silly when I say it aloud blog about it. I dread revisions because I worked hard on this novel all last year and although I know it is still lacking, I’m afraid to ruin what’s already been written by meddling with it.

This has always been my fear about revisions; that I’ll work on something so much that I will destroy it.

I was introduced to this concept young; my father is a visual artist and he often gave classes to the kids in our community, both privately and through the local parks and recreation department. My brother and I ended up in a lot of these classes, partially to teach us art, but mostly to give my mom a morning off from us.

My dad used to tell his students that one of the biggest challenges in art is not the art itself, but knowing when a piece is done. You might create a lovely line drawing and ruin it with too much shading. You might get so into a painting that you mar it by concentrating too much on the details.  When you’re painting or drawing, each stroke is potentially fatal.*

Recently, I realized that I’ve been applying this visual art lesson to my writing. I’m afraid that I will overwrite, or over-edit my novel and ruin it. In fact, I’m always under-writing things for just this reason.

I know that this isn’t logical – working in Microsoft Word is not the same as working in charcoal. Still, I fear tampering with something so much that it’s no longer as good as the original idea.

Also, the idea of revising something as large as a novel scares me. How can I stand back and look at the shape of a story that’s nearly 300 pages long?

If you have any answers for that, let me know. Because as soon as my readers get back to me, I’ll have no choice. It will be time to revise.

*My father never said that exactly.  I doubt a class of seven year-olds would have responded well to “each stroke is potentially fatal.”

The elusive ending.

As my MFA program winds down, I’m seeing lots of members of my cohort (that’s MFA-speak for “my class”) writing Facebook statuses that look like this:

Joe Schmo has typed the last words.

Jane Doe sending her thesis out, OMG collapsing brb.

BobTodd just typed THE END.

I’m going to be honest. While I’m happy for my classmates and proud of their accomplishments, I’m jealous. The portion of my novel that is acting as my thesis is  complete, but I want to type THE END. And I thought the end was imminent (and not in a Harold Camping kind of way). Two weeks ago I wrote that I was beginning to write the end of the novel, and I was, but here’s the thing – the end of the novel just keeps getting further and further away.

The excellent Phil Lemos (who typed THE END on May 16) recently blogged that he was proud to have finished his novel. He wrote that he had started many novels in his life:

I emphasize the word “start,” because I would always get about 20 pages in before something else would command my attention — birthday parties, homework, the latest comic book — and I would toss the novel aside.

I know the feeling. I have a filing cabinet drawer dedicated to dead novels. Below are a few examples of the things that languish in my little drawer of horrors:

•There’s one novel, written when I was 15 years old, which thankfully petered out by the time I turned 16. I wrote about drinking and drugs and lots of other things I had no experience with as a 15-year-old. As a result of my innocence, bizarre things happen. My characters take one sip of beer and are wasted. Someone walks by a pot smoker and suddenly starts acting as if they’ve been dropping acid. It’s like Reefer Madness, but in the form of a bad novel. I should have thrown this manuscript out when I was in college, but I keep it as a reminder of how bad my writing can be.

•There’s another, almost complete novel, which features dinosaurs and a theme park in a dying Midwestern mill town. It’s a really good science fiction novel, if  I do say so myself, and I’m very proud of it. I hope to salvage it someday by rewriting everything in third person, because it does have some flaws. The biggest flaw?  Michael Crichton already wrote it. It’s called Jurassic Park.

• There’s an action novella (written before Sept. 11) featuring a reluctant member of a domestic terrorist group who is forced to go to Boston in order to  pick up a mysterious package. That piece is almost done. I’ve already written the ending. It’s missing two pages, right between the ending and where I stopped writing. It’s been like that for a decade. Just two pages.

And there’s my real problem, because that’s where I always stop writing. I write the end. I write almost all the way up to the end, and then I stop. I get distracted by life, or, more likely, by another novel idea.

I’ve overcome some of these obstacles. I’ve been dragging my feet creatively for some time, but I’ve stayed strong – I’m writing at least 500 words every day. And last month I knew I must be getting near the end because I came up with a new novel idea, an opening scene and a soundtrack to listen to while writing it. I jotted down some notes and resisted it. I kept on plugging along with my current project.

But now I realize that I’m falling into my old habits. I’ve already written the last page. And I’m trying to close the gap between where I am now – which seems not far from the end – and that final couple of paragraphs. Two weeks ago I thought the end was very, very close. No more than a day or two of writing.

But the more I write, the more it seems like I’m just filling out my daily word count and not advancing the plot. All of a sudden my protagonist heads off to do something completely unrelated to the story. Or stands in a park, musing. Could it be that I’m actually trying not to finish the novel? Am I afraid to say good bye to the characters? It seems more likely that I’m just afraid to finish my draft.

Why? Maybe because  a finished draft brings me one step closer to being accepted, rejected  or ignored by agents, publishers, the reading public and potentially by my friends and family. Or maybe I just like a little self sabotage to spice up my semester.

Or maybe it’s none of those things and I’m just the slow kid in class. It always did take me longer to eat my lunch and finish my math homework.