Saturday, 9 September 2017

Revising a book

This was the second of my two pieces for Rebecca Bradley's excellent blog, which I'm reposting here. The initial one was on first drafts, aka the terror of the blank page, this one is on what to do once you've filled those pages.

Once again, make sure you check out Rebecca's blog to read about other writers' revision process; it's a cornucopia of great advice.

Your first draft has been completed, what state is it generally in?

Kind of a mess! It’s usually missing important scenes, characters have changed names halfway through, the geography and timeline is often a bit mixed-up, I’ve given places names like ‘Toytown’, characters are named after actors who I think could play them… the first revision is about going back through and fixing all of the placeholder stuff that I only put in there until I could think of something better.

What is the first thing do before you start to revise?

The most important thing to do is nothing.

As in, take some time off and don’t even look at the manuscript for a few weeks. I need to be able to come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Usually it’s not as bad as I had feared, and the things that need to be fixed are more obvious.

When I’m ready to go back over the manuscript, I print out a hard copy and go through it with a pencil and a set of highlighters, with a notebook to record anything that requires more detail.

How do you assess the damage that needs working on?

I read through the whole book. Normally I’ll have a good idea of what scenes and elements will need the most work before I start, but it’s important to see how it reads as a book, even in rough form.

I also find this process often gives me better ideas for new scenes, or ways to tweak existing ones.

Do you allow anyone to read that very first draft before revisions or can you assess it objectively yourself?

Are you kidding? No one ever sees my first drafts but me. I hate showing anyone a work in progress until I’ve been through it at least three or four times. I even get paranoid when someone walks into the room while I’m writing, and change to another window on my screen.

I email each day’s work to myself as an extra backup, and I have a recurring nightmare about accidentally sending a work in progress to my editor or agent.

What do you initially focus on, when approaching the completed first draft of the manuscript?

Getting the structure right, making sure the plot holds together and makes sense, and that the pace works. I usually end up cutting scenes and adding new ones if I feel the story is sagging at a certain point, or if I notice a key character disappears for too many chapters.

Do you have any rituals, writing or real-world, when revising a manuscript?

I like to book myself into a hotel for a couple of days to immerse myself in the book. The more remote the better. I like to go to places out in the country where I can go for a walk to give myself a break and wool-gather.

Essentially, my concept of what it is to be a writer was formed by watching James Caan in Misery at an impressionable age.

In what format do you revise, paper or computer?

As above, I print out a hard copy to read through and make notes, but after that I go back to the computer, save a new version of the file, and do my edits on the screen. I set my documents up with headers for each chapter so that it’s easy to navigate around the document and to switch the order of chapters if necessary.

How messy is the revision process – can you go in and repair areas or does the whole manuscript get decimated?

I quite like the process of pulling it apart and putting it back together again. Generally there will be some parts that don’t need too much work. Other parts will need major surgery, others will be taken out altogether. I’m an adder, so my books usually put on ten thousand extra words between the first draft and final draft. While it’s a net gain in word count, I’m still cutting stuff that doesn’t work and killing darlings as well as adding new material.

Is revision an overhaul of the story or is it minor editing?

The first run is usually more of an overhaul, but after that it settles down into a series of smaller and smaller edits until (in theory) I get it right.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made to a story during this process?

One thing I tend to do a lot of work on after the first draft is the ending. In one case, I expanded the ending and changed my mind about who the villain was! That obviously entailed going back and laying a lot of the groundwork earlier in the book so it felt natural.

When first drafting, many writers keep track of progress by counting words in a day. How do you make sure you’re progressing as you’re revising?

Good question, and with editing there isn’t as easy a way of gauging your progress as keeping track of words per day when writing a draft. I usually have a deadline on edits, so I’ll know it has to be finished by a certain date and work back from there, working out how many pages I need to cover a day.

Of course, some pages need more editing than others, so it may take a few hours to edit the first hundred pages, and then days to edit the next twenty.

Do you prefer to write the first draft or do you prefer the revision process?

Whichever I’m not doing when someone asks me! I probably prefer revision – it’s easier to fix something that already exists than create something from nothing. I always say there are hundreds of ways to fix a first draft; there’s only one way to fix a blank page.

What do you drink while you’re working?

I really want to give a more rock n roll answer, like Jim Beam black label, but usually it’s coffee, switching to tea when I’ve had too much caffeine. Occasionally I’ll have a beer.

How long does this process take and what shape is the book now in?

It usually takes a few weeks to do it right, although when I’m against a deadline, I need to cram that work into less time. When I’m getting close to finishing I’ll work way into the night fixing the last few things.

You never really get to a point when you think it’s perfect, you just get to a point where you’ve done as much as you can and it’s time to stop.

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