Nov 20, 2015

How to be ruthless when revising

Today I'm going to talk about structural revising. The big, heavy kind that involves ripping your whole book to pieces and then Frankensteining (yes, that's a word) it back together. For me, this is one of the hardest things to get started on because it means letting go of my book in its previous incarnation. A lot of times, I'll go through and trim and spackle manuscripts when what I really need to do is gut the whole thing. A massive edit is daunting, but it helps to have a solid process so you can get through it efficiently, with as few tears as possible. So here goes:

1. Figure out what your goals are for this revision. Things like speeding up pacing, cutting or adding characters/subplots, fixing character/plot arcs. Write it all down.

2. Open up your MS. Write an outline of it, with a paragraph for each scene (not chapter), making sure to include the major plot points and any information that's essential to the story. Then CLOSE the old MS file.

3. Now hack through the outline with a machete until you get to the bare bones of your story.  Cut out any stuff that doesn't fit with the new goals you've outlined in step 1. The reason why I do this in outline form is that it's much easier to kill my darlings from far away. If I start reading through scenes, I start getting attached to them again. I find beautiful paragraphs I spent hours perfecting. I start to think, "Well the story has to be this way because of the logical flow from the last chapter and the one before." No, it doesn't, because we are clearcutting this manuscript and it's going to look like a barren, charred field for a little while, but then we're going to grow a bunch of new stuff and it's going to be way better, I promise.

4. Pour yourself a nice big drink or have some chocolate cake. You need a reward after all that.

5. Read through your new outline, move stuff around, brainstorm new ideas. If you're not sure how to fix everything right away, add notes like [more cool magical stuff here] or [thing makes character X really sad]. Sit with this outline for a few days or even weeks, let things percolate. Don't do any actual writing yet, just mull over the whole story. By now, you might be coming up with some amazing new ideas that help to let go of the old version.

6. Finish the outline as much as you can, but understand that it's just a tool and isn't set in stone. If things change later, that's fine.

7. Take a deep breath and open up that old MS file. Cut all those scenes you said you were going to. This part hurts less if you cut/paste them into a separate file, and it's a smart thing to do anyway. Somebody on a writing forum once told me, "I kill my darlings and then I put them all in a file so I can harvest them for body parts later." Try not to feel bad about losing these scenes, and don't be shy about harvesting parts of them later. They all shaped the book and made it whole, even if they ended up on the cutting room floor.

8. If you use Scrivener, this next part is probably way easier. I do everything Word because I get a perverse pleasure from doing things the hard way. Rearrange the salvageable scenes in the order of your new outline. Add notes for things that will change, both within those scenes and between them, in square brackets or all caps or highlighted -- some way that you can easily spot within the file. Again, I bet Scrivener would be awesome for this, like you could use those virtual notecards or something. Once you're done, you'll have an ugly little hybrid of draft and outline, but it'll be all laid out and ready for you to get started on.

9. This is the part you've probably been either itching to do or dreading, but get writing! Fill in all those gaps, smooth out all those transitions, write those new scenes. This part always feels great to me, and is less daunting than a first draft because I know my characters and the story, even if it's different now.

10. Once you've finished the new draft, do a higher-level edit (maybe using a  revision questionnaire). Then do a line edit to make sure each word is sparkling and wonderful.

11. Do something to celebrate. Heck, celebrate every time you finish one of these steps. This is really, really hard! But so worth it in the end.

Happy revising!