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REVISION: Bring on the Clowns, or Revision, Part 1

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So I have just begun the fun-filled process of revising FOREVER. When I mentioned the word on Facebook, I instantly had folks expressing puzzlement, fear, and distrust. Basically, it was the reaction most people have to clowns.

But revision is not clowns. Revision is not even a necessary evil. Revision is to drafting like finishing school is to pregnancy. After you carry that drafting literary baby for nine months and it pops out with snaggle teeth, bad hair, and the inability to carry a tune, you can take all the time in the world sending it to the dentist, finding a hair stylist, and getting music lessons.

In other words, revision is going to save your life, baby.

I solicited questions about revision a few posts ago and as they rolled in, I realized it’s waaaaay too much material for one blog post. So there for, I’m designating this whole week Revision Week on my blog and it’ll culminate in me showing how I would revise an actual piece of my writing.

To start it off, I’m going to do a really brief summary of revising, and I’m going to use the time tested method of 80s’ book reports. The Who/What/Where/When/Why. Oh yeah. You know you love it.

WHO: Who all’s involved in these revisions? Sometimes it’s your editor. Sometimes it’s your critique partners or beta readers. Sometimes it’s just you. There is nothing wrong with any of these methods. Surrounding yourself with good people will often keep you motivated, but surrounding yourself with people who are slightly out of sync with you is worse than having nobody at all. I have great crit partners and I blogged about how I got them here. The thing to emphasize here is that you don’t need to have anyone else. You can start your revisions with just yourself and ingredients you probably already have in your pantry.

WHAT: What exactly are you trying to do with revisions?
Revision is like water, it’s good for everything. You’re looking to fix pacing, make characters consistent, make dialog natural, delete unnecessary scenes, tighten themes, eliminate extraneous characters, add connecting scenes. You know what I don’t care so much about? Fixing typos. Changing word choice line by line. Making sure that I don’t have two Mondays in a row. That stuff will not make or break a book and it’s the very last thing you do. Revisions, to me, mean gutting the pig. Big picture. Global. Not line by line.

WHERE: Where do you start? This will depend on you, dear reader. Sometimes you have a very specific idea of a problem area and you know right where to fix it. Sometimes you have scenes that you know need to be written and you can go right to them. But more often than not, you’ve lost total objectivity and the whole thing looks like the same word typed 60,000 times. So I start at the beginning, because that way I can judge pacing. I often have a document with a table of all the scenes in it. Who’s narrating, what happens in it, how many pages it is. Color-coded to say which day it takes place on. I’m visual so the more I can climb out of my novel and make it into a box I can hold in my hands, the closer I am to feeling in control.

WHEN: When do you start? You need a month, at least. I’ve revised two weeks after finishing a draft, but it is not ideal, and if you’re not on an insane deadline, why do anything less than ideal? What you’re trying to get back is your objectivity — that super power that allows you to read other people’s books and instantly see the flaws? Yeah, you want that back again. So you’re going to need a month during which you don’t open that document even to peek. Hopefully you’ll be reading and thinking about entirely other things during that month. And possibly you’ll even have your manuscript cheaply bound by while you’re waiting, because something about seeing your book bound like a book will really help you with pacing and objectivity in general. One month. At least. NO PEEKING.

WHY: Why don’t you hate revisions, Maggie?
Because I don’t fart glitter and unicorns. My words don’t come out of the faucet perfect. Even when I can write line to line in a way that looks pretty darn good, the overall themes and characterization and pacing always need help to be their best. It is in no way, shape, or form optional. Everyone revises, from the newbie to the Pulitzer winner. And it’s not something that you get “better” at, so that you eventually don’t need it. My revision for FOREVER is more sweeping already than the one for LINGER. But not quite as dramatic as the one for LAMENT. Every book is different — the only thing that stays the same is that they’re all going to need to be prodded with the red hot poker of revision at some point or another.

Like the clowns, you can keep finding them scary, or you can learn to live alongside them. I’ve made my peace with the smiling buggers.

So. Um. More to come on Monday. As before, if you have specific questions (I have many that I’ll be tackling) about revisions or about one of the five W’s here, leave ‘em in the comments. It’s a bit like being asked how you tie your shoes. It’s unwieldy to figure out how to describe just what I’m doing.  

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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