So you've finished your novel -- but have you? That first draft needs work, but where to begin? In
Kari Sperring grew up dreaming of joining the musketeers and saving France, only to discover that the company had been disbanded in 1776. Disappointed, she became a historian instead and as Kari Maund has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favorite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s been writing as long as she can remember and completed her first novel at the age of eight (twelve pages long and about ponies). She’s been a barmaid, a tax officer, a P.A. and a university lecturer, and has found that her fascinations, professional or hobby-level, feed and expand into her fiction. Living With Ghosts, her first novel, evolved from her love of France and its history, ghosts, mysteries, Celtic culture, strange magic, sharks, and sword-fights: The Grass King’s Concubine, has even found a creative role for book-keeping. She lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner Phil (who helps design the sword-fights) and three very determined cats, who guarantee that everything she writes will have been thoroughly sat upon. She’s currently at work on her third and fourth novels at once, because she needs more complications in her life. She can be found at http://www.karisperring .com, on Facebook (Kari Sperring), Twitter (@karisperring) and on Live Journal as la_marquise_de_.
I’m revising a book right now, and, as a result, my instinctive response to any question about revisions is ‘revisions are the worst. Apart from writing the first draft. That’s the worst, too.’ When it comes to writing, I definitely tend to the Eeyore. Whatever I’m doing right now is the hardest thing, the most uncontrolled, unfocused, worrisome thing.
I’m a very ill-disciplined writer. For preference, I write without an outline – and if I do outline, it tends to consist of a handful of possible scenes plus notes on theme and feel. My desk is littered with scraps of paper on which I have scrawled ideas for future scenes and plot-turns, many of them only semi-legible and usually out of order. Whether or not I get to them is very random: it depends on what turn the book takes and on what I remember. None of which helps when it comes to revising.
With both Living With Ghosts and the book I’m currently working on, I wrote a complete first draft and then rewrote the book from scratch, ending up with a different plot, new characters, and a different outcome. Quenfrida didn’t enter LWG until draft 2. Nor did Joyain. The first draft of the current project seemed to consist mainly of walks and conversations. This new one is full of riots and acts of sabotage, and one of the protagonists is currently disembodied. It’s not the book it was, and I hope it’s better for it, but right now – as always seems to be the case with me and revisions – it feels vast and sprawling and random, a morass of scenes and ideas galloping off in nine different directions, and me in the middle trying desperately to get the whole thing back under control.
But revisions are crucial. I’m a slow writer, as well as a messy one, and my early drafts are littered with plot wisps and abandoned meanders, as I go through and discard ideas. Revising not only lets me find these and excise or complete them, it lets me see where the book needs expansion and reinforcement, even if I don’t always know how to do that, exactly. There is always a Perfect Book, hovering just out of reach over the words and chapters. Despite the drafting and redrafting I did on LWG, it didn’t really come properly into focus until it and I landed on the desk of my editor at DAW books, Sheila Gilbert. I had put it in a drawer for a decade, I had reworked it at least 6 times, but even then I remained too close to it. Sheila saw things I had missed, and showed me how to make my workmanlike draft into, I hope, a good one. A good editor is worth their weight in rubies and should be celebrated from the mountaintops. Right now, the revisions I’m working on – the new book has the working title A Fire of Bones – have been informed and tuned by Sheila’s keen eye, and once again, I think the book is better for it.
Even though, as I write them, as I write this, my brain is telling me that revisions are, like first draft, the worst.
There are two core statements that sum up my view of revision:
1) It's a spectrum, and
2) It's an iterative process.
By the first, I mean that revising a story can mean anything from fiddling with commas all the way up to throwing out the text and starting over -- though I tend to refer to the latter as "rewriting" rather than "revision." There are no clear boundaries between these levels, either, and I rarely do just one at a time: even if I'm going through trying to cut down a scene for better pacing, I'll add bits here and there to make the text flow better, or delete a paragraph and replace it with something else to fix an issue of characterization. (The main exception is when I'm going through page proofs for a book before publication. Then I have to limit myself to only the smallest of prose changes, for purely logistical reasons.)
By "iterative," I mean that revision often proceeds in multiple stages, and is almost never completely done. There are always more changes I could make, little places (or big ones) where I could improve the story later on. I've only written one story in my career where I feel there is nothing else I can do to polish it -- but the story in question is only 376 words long. At lengths beyond that, perfection is impossible to attain.
It's hard for me to say what my revision process looks like, because lately it's been changing. For years I would write my way through the book from beginning to end; then I would print it out (in a format I call the miniscript) and go through two rounds of edits. The first was the "chainsaw edit," done with a red pen, and aimed at macro-level issues like pacing, continuity, characterization, and so forth. The second was the "line edit," done with a green pen, and aimed at polishing the prose. Straightforward, relatively efficient, and it served me well.
But of course it wasn't really that simple. I would often start off a session by reading through the previous night's work (or multiple nights' worth), and of course I would tweak things as I did so. Sometimes I'd realize that what I'd written really didn't work, and then I had to delete it and replace it. One of my novels didn't even get a miniscript edit right away, though I printed it out for posterity; I knew the first draft was sufficiently bad that the only way to approach the process was to open a new file and start the book over again. With later books, I found myself having to pull out entire strands of plot and replace them before I could move forward in the story, or running close enough to my deadline that I had to start revision while still writing the end of the book. The fourth Memoir of Lady Trent is the first novel in my career I didn't print a miniscript for, because I wound up doing 90% of the revision onscreen before I was done with the draft.
It will probably get a miniscript soon, though, because I'll be revising the book again, this time with editorial feedback. And fundamentally, I read differently -- better -- when the text is on the page than when it's on the screen. I am not enough of a scientist to tell you why this is, but I pay closer attention to the page, see things that would slip past if they were just pixels. This is why I still have a copy-edited manuscript mailed to me, rather than handling everything through Track Changes. (Well, that and the fact that I don't use Microsoft Word, and would rather open my veins with a rusty spoon than start.)
I don't claim my approach to revision is the best, in terms of either results or efficiency. Other people have methods for single-pass revision, or always polish as they go, or habitually throw out their first draft and redo the entire book. If there's one habit I would recommend to every writer, though, it's reading your text out loud. I do this with all short stories, and I even try to do it during copy-edits for novels, because there is nothing else in the world that will make you as aware of your words. You'll find the places where your sentence structure is awkward, where you overuse a particular word or create a distracting rhyme. You'll spot errors that would glide right under your radar in silent reading. And while you're at it, you'll probably improve your ability to perform readings for an audience -- a useful skill for a writer to have.
Fundamentally, though, there's only one rule: make it as good as you can in the time you have.
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She has most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Memoirs of Lady TrentA Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk, and two more to come). She is also the author of the Onyx Court historical fantasy series (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, and With Fate Conspire), the doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy, and more than forty short stories.
When she’s not obsessing over historical details too minute for anybody but her to care about, she practices shorin-ryu karate and pretends to be other people in role-playing games (which sometimes find their way into her writing).