How to write a book

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: revision is RE-vision

guardAll this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue , a fundamental misconception about self-editing and letting the manuscript rest. I want to end on this note –

out of the tunnel

The revision journey

A clear message emerged as we discussed my usual stops in the self-editing process – checking the pace, structure, character arcs, tone, using beat sheets and the number of passes you might do to get a scene right. Revision is more than a process of tidying and troubleshooting. It is a voyage towards a state where we know our book extremely well.

It reminds me of when I was at school, revising for chemistry A-level. For a long time the equations and Periodic Table rules seemed an impossible amount of information. I kept rereading my notes, hoping more would sink in, when gradually I noticed it was making sense as a grand pattern. From that point, I felt I could use it.

When I first start to revise a novel, it is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t scrape even a GCSE pass. Revision brings familiarity, clarity, the insight to understand what human forces are at work in the book, how the themes will bind it together, where the most fundamental resonance lies. And that’s why I find revision is more than a process of correcting, polishing or changing. It is learning to use my material. And it is thoroughly creative.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersmlThe beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. There’s also more about it here.

Having inflicted a new post on you for the last 7 days, I’ll be a bit less prolific next week. The next novel-nailing post will be on 17 August, although there will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual. And of course I’ll be answering comments. On that note –

Any thoughts on the creativity of the revision process? Let’s comment! Except for Robert Scanlon, who raised this point already in his most recent note here. Robert, you can give yourself a gold star for being ahead of the class 🙂

25 thoughts on “Self-editing masterclass snapshots: revision is RE-vision

  1. Haha! I got an honourable mention! But I’m going to comment anyway. I should show you my beat sheets (v colourful, like yours!). In fact, I’m currently working on one–book 3 in a series– and I agree with you. For me, this is part of the process I love (not that I hate the first draft as many do. I like it, it’s just …. a marathon!) and it is truly creative.

    It’s like the ideal ‘bake-a-cake’ recipe: First take all the ingredients, mix them all together and shove them in the oven. Don’t like how it came out? Pull all the ingredients out again (hey, magic!) and re-bake. Better now? Not quite? Do it all over again.

    Then in the middle of all of that, a brilliant idea comes. What about if I introduce this new ingredient early on. Won’t THAT be a hoot?! Cake is now even better.

    And so it goes.

    What I love about the beat sheet in particular is that is allows me to see ‘the ingredients’ almost at a glance. It’s my reference; my analysis tool, and I’m so glad you taught it. I have to admit, I do procrastinate about hand writing out one line for each scene (in tiny writing) – after all, I’ve just written the damn thing! Why do I have to write an outline out again? But then I force myself to do it; add the highlights, colour code the characters and POV, add the symbols for whether there is conflict (or not), tension (or not!) and excitement (or not! Whoops!).

    And the grand prize is that you get a much better book. I could never show someone my first draft – I’m with you on that Roz! (I also took A-level Chem and went on to a degree in it. Now I can’t remember a thing.)

    Great series, Roz, keep ’em coming!

    1. Ho ho, Robert! And while cake-making is good sweet fun, editing is better because Word has an ‘undo’ function! And isn’t so fattening.

      If you find the beat sheet is a bit gruelling straight after you’ve written the draft, you could always leave it a bit. I have to admit with Ever Rest I’ve been so impatient to start seeing it in the complete, rounded way that I wrote the beat sheet immediately, but I usually leave it a month or two.

      Glad you’ve enjoyed the series, Robert! And thanks for coming here and baking.

  2. Yes. 🙂 Sometimes it isn’t until we get something down, and have a chance to look at it from a global distance that we see ‘the obvious’.

    To me, the obvious is always an insight that should have been staring me in the face, but wasn’t, because I wasn’t ready to recognize it. Once I am ready, I could kick myself for not seeing it sooner.

    The thing is though, your subconscious doesn’t work in a nice, linear fashion. It shoots pieces of the jigsaw puzzle all over the place, and expects us to put the pieces together. But without all the pieces, we can only guess at the bits ‘in negative’. And most of the time we guess wrong. Then suddenly we stop looking at the individual pieces and start seeing the puzzle as a whole. That is when the shapes of the missing pieces suddenly become ‘obvious’.

    Apologies for waffling on like this. I think I’m trying to define the process for myself more than anyone else.

    1. Hi Andrea! Your description of the blurting subconscious is spot on. It knows something is there but not what it is. And as we’re stuck with it, we then have to decode it.
      What’s more, we could find a million ways to describe it!

      1. lol – I’ve just started uncoding it after months of not having a clue! Wish there was such a thing as ‘clear thinking’ for the subconscious. 😉

  3. This has been a great little series, Roz. I’m teaching a workshop on revision in October and have to keep it to one hour–as if! Revision, to me, is the most important–and most fun–part of the writing process, where you get a chance to make everything click and resound and MEAN something. Thanks for sharing all these great questions and answers.

    1. Thanks, Erin! I’ve got to make a speech soon on editing and have been asked to keep it to 30 minutes, so I feel your pain. Definitely include those lines you’ve written here as they contain core essentials. Click, resonance, meaning. Definitely. That’s what it’s all about.

  4. I’m a planner, and my stories usually turn out more or less like I intended them to from the beginning. However, to paraphrase an old military saying, no plan survives first contact with the keyboard. I always change things along the way as better ideas come along. The bits between the major beats occasionally take an unplanned zig or zag. But I don’t worry about those unexpected detours–that’s what revision is for.

    Revision is my chance to see what became of the plan and decide what nips and tucks are necessary to bring everything into alignment. I love revision because the book is always so much better when I’m done than it was when I started. I do two major revision passes. The first is a “continuity” pass right after I finish the first draft. The second is a “re-visioning” [I like that term and I’m keeping it!] pass after I get feedback from beta readers. I do two other passes related to line editing and proofreading, but I rarely modify the story in those.

    Your masterclass series is brilliant, Roz. I’m really enjoying it. The comments from other writers have been a big part of that enjoyment.

  5. Interesting. This reminds me a lot to the Stephen King metaphor of unearthing a fossil, and I tend to agree. When I revise my own work, it seems like a lot of the time all I’m doing is looking at the details of the scene and changing the ones I include, or how I include them. The scene itself doesn’t change (well, sometimes it does, haha) but how I tell it can change drastically.

  6. I enjoy first-drafting and revising in different ways. There’s a feeling of safety in having a completed draft, like when the plane rolls to a stop on the runway and you think, “Okay! I got here!” Then you can catch your breath and get on with the next leg of the journey.

  7. I love writing the first draft. It is a wild and unfettered romp through the story. The landscape of the tale unfolds before me, characters wander in and out of the story unfettered, and words tumble and stumble out. I can easily write from 3000 to 5000 words per day. Imagine my shock when it needs revision!
    You idea of re-vision is a very helpful one. It seems to me re-visioning expands the process so that you don’t necessarily end up trying to manipulate the ingredients into a perfect cake, but have the freedom to bake scones instead.

  8. Hi Roz,

    Timely bit of inspiration. I’m approaching the end of the first complete draft of my WIP (after a few aborted attempts) and dreading the onerous task of building the beat sheet. I just want to start rewriting and improving. But I like the idea of going over and over the material until it’s clear in my head.

    Part of the problem I’ve had is that, as I’ve improved the story and made it stronger, I’ve not let go of old motivations, so my protagonists are in two different plots at the same time (I’d hoped this might neatly resolve into conflicting goals, but alas life’s not that easy). So what I need to do is exactly as you say – go over everything time and again until the reason Mr. A does X to Mr. B is clear in my brain.

    By the way – since my drafts always peter out towards the end, I’m thinking of rewriting from the end backwards. That way I know what I need to set up in the previous chapter. Does that make sense?


    1. Hi Jon! Glad this helped. You touch on a good point here – about relics of your previous drafts. You might find that you’ve now developed better reasons for Mr A to do X – and the older reasons might be getting in the way of a more streamlined plot. With a bit of distance you might see you don’t need the original ideas at all.
      As for writing from the end backwards? Yes, that makes perfect sense. Have fun!

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