Dr. Changelove, or: “How I survived revising my book”

Let me start by introducing myself: I’m a first-time novelist. The training wheels are still on and I’m baffled, bewildered, awed, and often scared by this process known as writing.

Going from the assumption that there are others out there like myself, I’m going to also assume that at least one other person could benefit from what I’m learning.

It would seem that person is you. So, yes, this was written just for you. Enjoy.

It’s been my experience that writing a manuscript is much easier and much, much more fun than revising it[1]. I wrote a story of over 110,000 words in less than a year, and … stalled. I’ve already revised the whole thing several times over, but now I’m stuck at the really hard part.

We’ll get to that. But first, what does revising entail, what is it?

It’s whatever you need to do to make your manuscript more enjoyable to your readers.

That’s all it is. “Enjoyable” can mean many things, sometimes you set out to entertain, other times to enrage. Hopefully that’s what brought your readers to your work as well.

Most of your readers will be annoyed by repeated errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, so you’ll want to go through your manuscript and take care of that. That’s the easy part. If you want to be thorough, you can employ a copy or line editor for this. Even though they might suggest hundreds of edits, it’s still easy, because the changes will almost always be relatively minor.

The hard part is when you solicit input from others on your story as a whole, and receive their honest feedback. How do you incorporate their impression of what you wrote, with your own vision of it? As with most things in life, many of the answers you’ll find to this question are short, simple, and wrong. Here’s an example:

“Revising is taking a critical look at your own work.”

That’s actually so bad, it’s not even wrong, to misquote Wolfgang Pauli.

For most of us it’s true that we are our own harshest critics. There will be times when we read our manuscript and are ready to condemn it wholesale as worthless trash. It happens. The problem with that, and with the example quote above is that it’s impossible for you to be objective about your own work. You’ve invested too much of yourself in it.

And that’s the first thing you need to realize. You’re too damn close to your own material. To make revisions means just that, to re-vision. And to do that means you need to take a step back. How?

  • Put the manuscript aside for 6 to 12 months, and then come back to it.
  • Change the font of your entire manuscript.
  • Print your manuscript and read it on paper.
  • Read your manuscript in an unfamiliar place.
  • Have your computer read your manuscript out loud to you.

You get the idea. Get some distance from your work, and then see it in an unfamiliar light. It could help you see things you hadn’t noticed before.

That’s still not the hardest part, though. The hardest part is deciding what to keep and what to change, after people you trust have given you their opinions. After all, you trust them, right? That’s why you asked for their input in the first place. What if they come back and tell you that a big chunk of your book is boring? Or that all of it is confusing? Or that your language is too dense? Or any number of things that you really don’t want to hear?

What if the person saying this is a professional editor? Because you should hire one, once you’ve fixed all of the more obvious problems on your own or with the help of your friends.

This is the hardest part and where it gets dicey, especially for a first time writer. The answer seems obvious and simple, but is very hard to follow:

You must have a thick skin.

Sorry, there’s no way around this one. Try not to think of the feedback as hostile, the other person is almost always just trying to help. Also:

You must trust your own voice.

For a new writer this is especially hard, because you may not know what your voice is. That’s okay though, it takes time to find your own voice. In the meantime, turn the problem on its head and look at it this way:

What am I trying to say?

Ask yourself why you wrote this book in the first place. Are you trying to tell a story? Then, in simple terms, what is that story about? You should try to condense it into a single sentence. Something like this:

  • “This is a romantic story where love wins over immense obstacles.”
  • “This is a story about the horrors of being eaten alive by ants.”
  • “This is the true story about my grandmother’s escape from a loveless marriage.”

Notice that genre is not mentioned, it’s all about the core of the story. Whatever your story boils down to, find it. Then remove all parts of your manuscript that don’t tell that story. Yes, that’s hard, but it’s also very important. Ask yourself some basic questions:

  • What is the central question I’m pursuing in my book?
  • What interests me about this question?
  • What is it about this story that makes it mine?
  • Do I have the right protagonist?
  • Do I have the right point of view?
  • Do I have the correct number of characters?
  • Am I moralizing? If so, can I get my point across without doing so?
  • Am I repeating myself? Look for patterns[2].

If you don’t have a question you’re pursuing, and if it doesn’t interest you, don’t revise. Re-write. If you’re not engaged in it, there’s no way you’re going to be able to make the reader take interest.

Did you know that books can be smarter than their artists? It’s entirely possible that your book is about something you don’t even realize. You need to find out. This is the part where you actually do need to listen carefully to what your beta readers and editors are telling you. Trust yourself, but take seriously what they say about what they think the story is about, and what it means to them. You could learn something about your own work.

Once you figure out what your story is about at its core, your job is really quite simple:

Guide the reader through your story.

At some point your story takes on its own life, and you can sometimes feel like an ant chiseling away at an enormous statue of an elephant. Don’t be that ant. Instead, try to think of yourself as the curator of a museum, and try to help your readers see the elephant. Be the guide.

While you’re digesting this, there’s something else you should keep in mind:

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Sooner or later you’re going to have to make a choice. Either you put the finishing touches on your work and send it out into world to fend for itself, warts and all, or you put it aside and forget about it. Before you decide to do the latter though, consider this:

It’s okay to be imperfect. It’s okay to still be learning. Hopefully you’ll never stop learning.

So, don’t be scared that you’ll look back on your work in five years and cringe. It represents where you are now, in your process of learning, and that’s fine. Every great writer has been there. Or here. You know what I mean.

A good way to learn is to read a lot, especially in your genre. An even better way is to take notes while you read, and to keep those notes. It’ll force you to step out of the narrative and consider the craft, and it can be a handy reference later, if you’re ever unsure about how to do something. Chances are you’ve read a work where the author did what you’re trying to do.

Revising alters you as well as your manuscript. It’s all part of that process of learning. That said, resist the temptation to go back and completely change the earliest parts of your manuscript because you feel you’re a better writer now. That is, unless there’s something technically wrong with them. Or unless you decide to rewrite the whole book.

The perfect is also the enemy of a good yarn.

Can you imagine how boring your story would be if you followed every piece of good writing and editing advice that’s out there? That includes my advice, such as it is.

Smoother is not better.

You want there to be something that makes this work yours, that makes it stand out. You want to surprise the reader, but don’t take it so far as to bring them out of the narrative. And don’t let that something be grammar wrongly or bad speling.

Plot out a timeline of your story. Does it work? Are there gaps? Is there a logical progression from one scene to the next? Speaking of scenes:

Don’t use scenes for everything, or the pacing of your story will be much too slow.

Beware the info-dumps and the debilitating swamps of excruciating detail. Summaries move the plot forward quickly, scenes slow the pace down. Be cognizant of where you use scenes and why. Could you have summarized that scene instead? Was it important that you drag the reader through every last step of what happened?

Is your story compelling on a human level? How many senses have you employed in your story? This may sound counter-intuitive, but to be more universal and engaging, get specific. Use the different senses of your protagonists, make the reader connect to the experience. Make them smell it.

On a practical note, keep copies of all your drafts. Chances are you’ll go too far in your quest to revise, and that your penultimate revision will end up being the best.

So, can revising be as much fun as writing the first draft, after all?

See what I did there? I looped back to the beginning of this little essay. That’s a good way of ending a manuscript; it creates a sense of closure. Take a hard look at how you’re ending your story now. Does it give the reader a satisfying sense of completeness, and a reward for reading your book?

Also note how I didn’t answer my own question. That’s okay too. No one said your manuscript has to be perfectly symmetrical, or that every loose thread has to be tied up.

Allow yourself to be imperfect. Doubly so for your manuscript.

Good luck!

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[1]I’m still not done. So, there’s that.

[2]Actually, patterns are good. Our brains love patterns. Just don’t repeat yourself (too much).