Before you can even talk about the specifics of revision, you have to talk about getting into the right mindset for doing this work. I have five suggestions for how to approach whole manuscript revision:
1. Be patient.
So many writers rush through the revision process. It’s tempting to think you are close to the finish line — because after all, you have finished a rough draft — but there is still a lot of work to do. I happen to think revision is extremely fun and resonant work. This is the place where your story can leap to life, where the real writing happens that takes your work from good to WOW. Don’t cheat yourself by trying to speed through the process or hurry it along. Try to enjoy it and be patient.
2. Consider the whole.
The point of doing a revision on a full manuscript is that you have the chance to step back and consider the whole thing as a complete entity. When you read the whole thing through, you can see the sweep of the story, where it has weaknesses, where it repeats itself, and where it goes on too long. Considering the whole also allows you to look at chapter transitions — the critical beginnings and endings that do so much to lock in narrative drive.
3. Be honest.
The time to shake off any ego-like attachment to the work is now. Yes, you made this thing. You made it from scratch and you love it and it may be the thing you are most proud of in the entire world. You may sometimes even dream of glory. All that is well and good, but set it aside for now and let yourself be honest about what you are seeing in the pages.
~ If, for example, you hate the opening and wonder if you should start at Chapter 3, instead, face that truth. Let yourself write it down as a viable possibility.
~ If the middle sags or a character falls flat, face that truth. It probably means you lost the character’s motivation and got mired in surface-level plot — this happened and this happened and this happened.
~ If there are threads that get dropped, or that arise out of nowhere, face that truth. You can weave them back in later.
~ If the ending doesn’t pack the punch you want it to, face that truth and think about why. It probably means you aren’t crystal clear on what your character wants and why — because if she knows what she wants and why, and she gets it at the end (or realizes she doesn’t want it or doesn’t get it), we should be feeling that resolution very deeply. Note that what she wants is never just the bumper sticker we begin with — to be loved or to be rich or to feel like she belongs or to raise her voice, etc. It’s always tied to a specific desire — to be loved for something other than how she looks; to feel like she is truly accepted by the group of people who race bikes on Saturday morning up in the mountains behind Boulder; to raise her voice when her boss makes her feel small.
4. Be brave.
Looking at the whole means that you don’t just make the small changes. You don’t just rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. You might rebuild the whole deck. You might build a totally different boat.
5. Trust the creative process.
The creative process is rarely linear, straightforward, or predictable, and that can sometimes make it seem slippery — as if it only comes like a lightning strike from God, or from a fickle muse. Those of us who create things, however, or work with people who do, know that there is an underlying pattern to the creative process that you can depend on: With hard work, projects move from fuzziness and doubt into clarity and wholeness. I think David Bayles, in Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, says it powerfully:
“The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”
It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to bring a book to fruition — and so much of the best of that work happens in the revision process. Don’t cheat yourself by trying to speed through the process or hurry it along. Trust the process and trust yourself to write the book you want to write.
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