Postcards from the Depths of Revision

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When I was little, I turned my closet into a black hole of cardigans. I was so affronted by the precious three seconds it takes to hang sweaters on hangers that I tossed them into a pile that grew until one day I tried to pull one from the wall of knits and cotton and it collapsed and buried me.

Revision has a similar level of peril.

You find one minute detail that doesn’t sit right and pluck at it and all the plot threads come tumbling down. If you’re like Past!Me and are for some reason allergic to outlining, the whole manuscript might unravel. If you’re like MoreRecentPast!Me and dipped into outlining like you ease your way into a cold pool (just the toes, then the ankles, then the calves, then the thighs, then—NOPE, NOT TODAY), the manuscript might veer off in a different direction entirely. Either way, you end up wanting to bang your head on the desk.

I’m now four months in on a revision deep dive. I’ve tried a dozen different methods of revising my hot mess of a first draft. I’ve axed Act II, thrown it in a blender, and reassembled it with a few new ingredients added in. I’ve written out timelines, charts tracking scenes, charts tracking characters, charts tracking my sanity. I approached sunrise from the other side, where the light streaming in your window doesn’t wake you up but makes you say, “Sweet lord, I forgot to sleep.”

Hello desk, meet head.

My parents’ go-to excuse for making me do chores or tedious tasks—”It builds character“—once made me grind my teeth, but a decade later I’ve found it’s a lovely warm-up exercise for the Deep Pit that is revising the book you want to hook an agent with and hopefully get published.

In no particular order, here’s where I went wrong, and what I learned.

Make your plot shaped less like splatter paint and more like a funnel. 

I have a tendency to word vomit ideas on a page and stitch them together like a haphazard quilt. This works for a first draft, when you’re just playing around with ideas, but not for creating a cohesive story. Plot and structure do not need to meander just because you like to make things up as you go along.

Sit down and write some semblance of an outline. You can make a bulleted list or a diagram following the three act structure and fill in scenes. After a medley of trial-and-error, I developed a charting strategy using the love of my life, excel sheets. First, I wrote out the three main conflicts: 1) the primary internal and external conflicts of the main character; 2) a secondary conflict dueling with the first; and 3) an overarching, big-picture societal conflict that the story addresses. Then I make the chart itself, where I list the chapter name, number, POV, what happens, the tension, which of the three conflicts it ties into, and how it fits in the emotional journey of the character. That way I can keep track of all the different directions things go without losing sight of the overall arc.

Now the ideal shape of the story itself and the individual chapters, according to outliner extraordinaire Libby Hawker, is a funnel. They start off broad, drawing the reader down, until they make a final, clear point that hammers home the theme. Once I started viewing the plot as a funnel bringing the reader in, I was able to better finesse the direction the action took.

No, not everyone has to talk. 

Six third-person POVs is four or five too many. I clung to my different characters because I thought showing the in-depth emotional struggles of multiple people was vital and that they all had essential information to share with the reader. Not true. I took away emotional development from my main characters—the crux of the story—in favor of random side plots.

My current challenge is sifting through old drafts to make sure all the necessary information from unnecessary characters gets planted back with the main protagonists. Y’all pray for me.

Beta readers and critique partners are the best things that will ever happen to you.

Here is, by and far, the best advice I have ever received related to improving your craft: You are only as good as your constructive criticism. I found multiple wonderful beta readers and critique groups to work with and they have honestly saved my story. Find someone who writes in your genre (and therefor knows what to look for and how best to critique you) and work out some kind of schedule to keep you both accountable. Say, three chapters a week. Whatever works.

The best way to find beta readers is to go to conferences and network or join local writer’s organizations. I have also found some success with Facebook groups and by scrolling through #cpmatch on Twitter. (Also, shout out to Hannah Kates, Nicole Aronis, and M. C. Shaffer for being their lovely selves.)

Watch your back. 

I mean that literally. I would sit for 4-6 hours hunched over my computer and be confused the next day why my shoulders hurt and my back was sore. A good rule of thumb is the 50/10 rule—work diligently for 50 minutes, then take a ten minute break and get up and walk around. Raid the fridge. Run outside. Cartwheel across the rooftops or whatever. Just move around.

First drafts are destined to be terrible by virtue of being first drafts. 

Never, in the known history of publishing, has a writer thrown together a first draft and had it published as is. This is due to the same reason museums display finished statues rather than solid chunks of marble—that un-sculpted hunk of maybe hasn’t been refined into anything recognizable yet. Don’t expect to word vomit a future Newberry winner on the first try. Just get the ideas down, then you can refine it and sculpt it into a future stranger’s favorite book.

Anyone else have any tips on revision? Leave a comment with your revision horror story/tale of triumph, and maybe I’ll doodle one of your main characters.

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