Saturday, June 16, 2007

Revisionism: Or, What I Do After "The End"

I’m finishing the rewrites and revisions on my novel, which has gotten me to thinking about the process of revision itself. Like writing, this is a very individual process, and there is no one way to do it – but it is something we as writers all do, to one degree or another.

Unlike some of my fellow Wyrdsmiths, I don’t revise as I go. I figured out long ago that I need to keep the momentum moving forward – that, for me, to stop and go back means possibly getting stuck in a cul de sac of rewrites. While this may lend a certain degree of spontaneity to the work, it also means that when I am finally done with the whole thing, I have one heck of a pile of comments from the group to go through.

So, how do I handle not only a pile of a manuscript, but also the five to seven printed copies with hand written comments, plus the notes I took at meeting, plus the changes I realize I need to make on my own?

Here’s what I did with the current book, "Dust and Steel". I will likely change it around next time, but in this case, the book was long, the plot and sub-plot complex, and the changes I ended up making significant in some ways. I also knew that I would only be able to work on the revisions in fits and starts due to life, which meant I had to start out organized so I could keep it all straight.

The Process:

1. First, I sit down and type up a rough Flow Outline of the book itself. This is a chapter by chapter break down of the key plot points and action in each chapter. I also note when characters are introduced for the first time. Even if you had a detailed outline to begin with, this is a good way to see what has changed in the writing, as well as get a feel for the overall flow of the book.

2. Next, I go through all of the notes I took during the critique process. Since I keep a specific Revision Notebook for this, they are all in one place, which makes life easier. I freely mark up, highlight and make margin notes throughout the notebook.

3. Then I open a new file on my computer and go through the MS comments from all of my critiquers, one chapter at a time. As I read each chapter’s comments, I type in key thoughts or suggestions under a separate bullet (and note who made them), along with any riffs and thoughts I come up with on my own. Note that I am already sifting at this point, taking some suggestions, discarding others, and so on.

If I have a change that will span several chapters, or will require me to back-track/leap forward in the book, I make a separate note in the back of my Revision Notebook.

4. After this, I go back through my critiquers’ notes (see step three) and add any that were left out to the revision file mentioned above.

5. Then, I re-read the book. All of it. However, I don’t linger over it. If something works, I leave it alone – if something is awkward, I note it in the margin and move on. I am not rewriting at this point: I am making a final pass, critiques in hand, and noting what I think needs to be changed on the page. I freely mark out whole pages, sections, and even chapters for deletion at this point if I feel I need to, only noting what will be used to replace them (if anything).

5 1/2. At the same time, I am keeping a set of what I call “Hand Notes”. This is usually a yellow legal pad with a page for each chapter. Here is where I scribble notes like “Foreshadow/build this up earlier” and “why does Character A do this if he wants that?” and so on. It is a conversation with myself that covers broader topics that I can fit in the margins.

6. Lastly, I take the Flow Outline and mark the bigger picture changes on it, including the ones in the back of my Revision Notebook, complete with lots of arrows and notes and all kinds of fun stuff. Yeah, I could type it all in, but I’m still a pen guy in many ways.

(Assembling the above can take a couple days to a week or two, depending on mow much you need to revise, length of MS, available time, how much coffee you consume, etc.)

Then I sit down, marked up master MS in one hand, revised flow outline in the other, hard copy of the revision file in the third, and hand notes in the fourth, and…

Hmm, four hands? I wish.

Is this a lot of work? Hell, yes. But if you are working with a more amorphous MS that has altered over time, like mine did, it is also a very good way of focusing your thoughts before jumping into the revision process. It is also easier to do if you are not on a deadline, or at least close to one.

Needless to say, this process isn’t for everyone, or even for every book. I am certainly going to work at keeping my next book tighter so I can skip at least some of this. At the same time, though, it is very thorough, and it gives you a chance to step back and see the book as a whole, rather than the specific sections you have been working on here and there. For that reason alone, I expect I am going to keep several of the aspects of the above process, only in a (hopefully) slightly more curtailed form.

So, what above works for you? What doesn’t? Too broad, too A-R, too limited? If you’re one of those writers who revises after typing “The End”, how do you do it?


Kelly Swails said...

Pretty much like you do, Doug. I'm a go-with-the-flow writer, too; if I stop to nit-pick chapter three I'll get stuck. It's a lesson in letting go, isn't it: you're writing chapter 13 and you know this bit in chapter 5 is going to change, so you write 13 like 5 has already been changed, but hasn't yet ... whew. As far as revisions go, my method isn't as complex as yours but not as organized, either. I make notes on the MS, write in a notebook, and have little post-its strewn about my desk. It drives my husband insane sometimes. If he wrote he'd be a "Chapter one will be perfect and then we'll write chapter two" kind of guy.

Douglas Hulick said...

Hey Kelly,

My "system" started out almost identical to yours, actually, but quickly became more organized for sanity reasons. I knew it was going to be hit and miss as to when I could work on the MS, so I decided I needed a really good road map this time around.

If anything, this time through has inspired me to try to be less of a "go with the flow" writer next book. I don't know if that will work, but I do know that I want to streamline the process a bit, if for no other reason than to reduce my own frustration levels.

Some people seem to work pretty well with your husband's method, too. It's always fascinated me in a kind of "How do they do that?" manner, along the same lines as, say, a really flexible yoga practitioner. I appreciate it, but I just can't fathom me doing it. :)