Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on Revisions”

  1. I don’t know what moodling is and it sounds like you need a plush wingback chair but congrats on the interesting post :).

    Revisions can be a pain but I don’t think I’ve ever culled tens of thousands of words. Any tips for being able to tell what plots are working and where the pace needs to change?


    1. My best advice? Get a reader you really trust — and someone who knows the industry and the genre is extra beneficial. If not an agent, then at least someone else who reads a lot in the same genre you’re writing in. They’ll be able to help you figure out where it drags or where it seems too crunched-up for the type of book that it is. There’s a lot to be said for reading it to yourself out loud, which I did on my last pass through the completed manuscript. That can give you a sense of where the dialogue drags too long or where you’ve spent too much time describing or filling in backstory. And I think some of it is just down to instinct. With the giant 20k section I cut, I was finding that, ultimately, I was doing way, way more work than should’ve been necessary trying to negotiate around it, justify it, and explain it. It had become this giant block I had to work around or hammer in, rather than something that fit as part of the story. At that point, I had to step back and realize that if the scene was fighting me that much, it was for a reason.

      I also write in Scrivener, and it has some features that helped me keep track of things. The book has three plotlines, and I used Scrivener’s flag feature so that I could get a visual representation of the braiding of those threads. Sometimes I realized I’d have too many from Plot B in a row but we hadn’t heard from C in a while. I could also use icons to mark where conflict or combat happened — so I could make sure I wasn’t going too long without an action sequence of some kind.

      And then, getting down to the micro level, some great advice I’ve gotten was the “but then” rule. I made sure I could summarize each section with a statement including “but then”, which signaled some kind of reversal, obstacle, or major change. If I couldn’t get a “but then” into the scene, then it really wasn’t doing anything to move the plot along, and I had to decide whether to rework it, kill it, or move it somewhere it could do more good.

      Hope that’s helpful! Thanks for reading!


      1. Cheers for that. I think I’m probably the opposite :). I tend to write far less than I need to and yet people still call my writing on the maximalist side!

        I’m interested in finding better ways to keep an eye on those sorts of issues myself. I already have some close reader friends and now an editor but I want to be able to improve my own editing as well.

        Surely you have scenes which are moving up to the next but then scene? That’s what I’ve never understood about that particular kind of mental cue but maybe that’s just how my head works.

        The scrivener visual cue sounds like a great idea. I’ll have to look that program up. I’ve heard of it before but because I write in a linear fashion I didn’t think it would help much. I also wasn’t sure if it was for windows or mac…

        Cheers all the same.


        1. Previous drafts had “set-up” scenes that led up to the next “but then” in the way I think you mean — and those had to change or die. I’m someone who loves just spending time with characters, and while that’s often necessary in the preliminary stages, it’s not always or even often fun for a reader. The character can’t just sit there thinking about her life; she has to learn some new information, or encounter an unexpected challenge, or something has to interrupt her. If there’s no “but then”, the story isn’t moving along — which increases the chance that a reader will get bored and put the book down. Learning that lesson has been a hard process for me, because I’m the type of person who happily read encyclopedias as a child. I don’t need constant action, and if the character is interesting enough, I’ll cheerfully wallow in her head for ages without anything actually happening. But most readers aren’t like that, and for a book to sell, I can’t be that self-indulgent. I was ruthless about the “but then”s on this last draft, and the book is stronger for it.

          I *love* Scrivener and champion it ridiculously. I’m a very nonlinear writer, so its various corkboard and binder features are invaluable to me, but I think it has a lot of advantages for linear writers as well in terms of being able to track progress, outline, compile notes and research, etc. It’s available for both Windows and Macs now, with free trial periods (and if you Nano successfully, you get a code for a massive discount).


          1. Characters still have to get to these locations though. I tend to ensure there is some conflict in the conversation on the way to these next big conflicts but still…constant conflict can grate. I believe the occasional down period is needed too.

            Every writer writes differently but I really can’t get my head around how you non-linear types manage doing things that way! It’s like connect the dots, starting at many different ends at once!

            Ah, I think the visual clues would probably be the most useful to me out of all that. I’m not a huge planner. I’ve tried that method and it sucks the fun out of the process for me. I’m not one of those that think about their books and ideas for weeks and months and years. I get an idea, a rough idea of where the plot is going and often research as I go. I’ve found I work better that way.

            However I love visual representations as I find it hard to say where one scene starts and another ends or to get a good overview of the whole novel and specific sub plots. It sounds like scrivener might be good for that.


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