Saturday, June 6, 2015

How to Revise a Book

I'm in the throes of major revisions on my novel-in-progress for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, tentatively titled Write This Down. As always happens with me, I've gone from thinking of the revision prospects for this book as hopeless to having the first round of major revisions done - and easily done. So I'm trying to distill my own guidelines for myself in making the revision journey in the hope that these may be helpful for some of you.

These guidelines work only in the situation when you already have feedback from a trusted editor, trusted writing group, or other trusted first reader. For me, feedback from others is absolutely essential. How do I know if what I've written is funny if I don't know if a reader laughs? How do I know if what I've written is touching if I don't know if a reader gets tears in her eyes? The chief issue I'm wrestling with in this book is that my editor thought my protagonist - whom I adored - was "unlikeable." How can I know how others respond to my main character unless I ask them? So this leads to the first step in the list I'm making for myself now.

1. Get feedback from a trusted editor/writing group/reader.

2. Wait to revise until you truly accept that feedback. This may mean letting some time pass. (Luckily, when you are dealing with editorial feedback, you're all but guaranteed that lots of time will have passed). For me, this usually means having additional conversations with my editor/readers to make sure I really get what isn't working for them about the manuscript as it stands. (They themselves may not even have distilled this fully until probed by your thoughtful questions.) Even though I trust my editor completely, I can't revise on blind trust alone. I have to get it myself: get exactly why the book isn't working now.

2. Save the old manuscript in a different file and create a new file for the revised one. This is also key for me. The new file is where I'm merely trying out revision ideas. The old file remains safely preserved should I change my mind and like it better, after all. This has never ever happened for me in my entire career. But knowing that first draft remains untouched allows me more freedom to experiment.

3. Just start. Yes, right now you have no idea how to proceed, but just start anywhere. I have two approaches to this. Sometimes I start with low-hanging fruit: I pick the one problem with the manuscript that I know I can fix easily. This tends to be inefficient, because it may mean fixing small cosmetic things that may not even survive the final revision; it's been likened to "wallpapering a wall that's just going to be knocked down." But I thrive on seeing progress, on gathering any forward momentum. In my current manuscript, my editor (and one writing group friend) disliked the name of Autumn's brother's band. I changed that in five minutes, or less. Yay!

Usually, though, it just means starting in the first chapter and going on from there. Here I had to add two new chapters before the previous first chapter, as it was important to establish Autumn as a writer and show in real time, not offstage as I had it before, the crucial incident with her brother that sets the story in motion. (Yes, I actually had this mentioned only in passing the first time around. Terrible! Horrible! But I couldn't see this until I got outside feedback.)

So: just START.

4. Each revision session, read over the revisions you've made so far before going on. This also allows me to pat myself on the back for what I've already accomplished: "Look how much better it is already!" It also allows me to tinker and wordsmith as I go, which I like at this stage, as I want to feel that each chapter is building a sound foundation for the new structure and shape of the book. But others may disagree on this point and urge you just to keep going, which is good advice, too. Chiefly, though, rereading the first revised portion in this way every day plunges me directly into the altered world of this new draft.

5. When you have enough confidence in how the revisions are going, read through the rest of the entire manuscript on the screen and make notes for yourself about what else needs to be done. I make my notes right on the manuscript all in caps so they are easy to see. ADD NEW SCENE BETWEEN AUTUMN AND HER FATHER HERE. Or: MAKE DAD LESS MEAN. Or: TONE DOWN AUTUMN'S SNARKINESS RE HUNTER. Or: ADD REFERENCE TO KYLEE'S KNITTING. Oh, the bliss of knowing that I have a plan, a real honest-to-goodness plan!

6. Keep going.

7. Keep going.

8. Don't change things that don't need changing! This is the single biggest way that I see writer friends go wrong. In their zeal to overhaul a manuscript, they change stuff that WAS working, stuff the reader liked BEST. Don't do this! In order to avoid doing this, make sure you know ahead of time what readers did like about the book. If it's nothing at all, maybe you should set this aside and write a different book. But if there are a lot of strengths in the story already, don't mess with them. You are NOT writing a new book; you are revising THIS one. I try to revise surgically and fix only what needs to be fixed. This is the single biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

9. When you are all the way through with this round of revisions, and you've done all you can do at this point, send the book back to your editor/writing group/reader for their reactions. Hope that they are not assessing this as the "after" to the previous "before," but in its own right. It really doesn't matter if the book is better than it was. What matters is if it's good enough, measured against literary standards that have nothing to do with comparing how it is now to how it was then. But don't agonize any more. Send it off!!! Let others do your agonizing for you. That I am willing to do this is the second biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

10. When you get their comments back, repeat this process again (and again, and again) as needed.

See? Revision isn't hard. It really isn't!


  1. Excellent points, Claudia. This is what I need while I'm revising my current WIP. I've copied it and put it into my revision folder where I can refer back to it periodically. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, dear MJ! I have a one-year-old granddaughter now and can't wait until I can start sharing your eggs-cellent picture books with her. :)