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REVISION: Nothing is Sacred (Except For The Stuff That Is)

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Okay. Revision week. I got so many questions about revision last week that I decided to do a series of posts on it this week, culminating in me actually picking apart a piece of Real Maggie Writing as an example. The first post in the series, summarizing revision, is here.

As I was trying to figure out how to go from broad to narrow with this topic, I started scouring the questions for clues on what I ought to talk about next. And I found a bunch of questions that all sort of have the same answer.

“What kind of reasons did they give you for needing to cut something from the book? And how difficult is it for you to accept these requests? Do you ever have the ability to say no, this must stay? Or is a -change it or forget it- kind of scenario?”

“I teach my students to revise short pieces, but where do you even begin with a novel?”

“When you revise, based on the helpful advice from your crit partners, do you ever worry about losing your individual voice along the way? And if so, how do you not do that?”

“So my question…how much crit is too much crit?”

So. There are shades of difference to these questions, but I think they all have the same answer (well, partial answer). My number one ground rule for revision is this:



Core is what your novel is. It’s not what your novel is about. It’s the thing that made you want to tell this story and no other. It’s the theme, or the character, or the setting that made you love it. You have to know what the specific core of your novel is, because that’s all that you’re going to consider sacred. Everything else is negotiable. I am quite happy to tear down a novel to its bare roots if I think it’ll make the literary plant healthier. And quite often, that’s what you have to do. I don’t really consider such a revision a disaster either. Dumping nearly everything you have and starting anew is not really actually starting from scratch, anyway.


When painting with oils, especially transparencies, the old masters used to take incredible care with what layers of color they put down, even if they covered them all up with another color. Why? Because if you painted a canvas orange and then painted it black, the black will look different than if you painted that black over blue instead. Layers are subtly transparent and the eye will still see the nuances of the layers beneath it.

So your manuscript is like that. Even when you tear down to the ground, you’ll still be bringing the nuances of those scenes that you wrote before to your manuscript. Nothing’s ever truly lost. Especially once you make a new document and label it “outtakes” to put all your cut material in. No, you probably won’t use that stuff that you cut out. But your biographer will have it on hand later when they write the book about you.


So when I start a revision, I need to know what matters, and it becomes untouchable. So no matter what crit partners say, editors say, my lurking evil devil self on my shoulder says, that core stays intact. For SHIVER, my core was the mood. It was to be a slow, slow build to a bittersweet end, no matter what else disappeared. I’d cut the werewolves before I cut that mood and pace. I got a lot of feedback during the editorial process that I had to sort through, and while it was great to have a chance to really hone and focus, it also meant I had to tie myself to the mast of what I wanted out of the book. I got a ton of great suggestions. And some of them would’ve changed the pace of the book considerably. Sometimes I had two editors and critique partner giving me the same advice and I had to stand on everything that I believed and wanted for the book and say, “No. I know that sounds like a great idea and it IS a great idea, but no, you have to trust me. It’s not that kind of book.”

But you only get to have one or two of those core things that cannot be stepped upon. Normally, when two readers both offer you the same advice and you disagree — it means you’re wrong. This is where the nothing is sacred bit comes in. You have to be willing at every step of the game to ask yourself “is this wrong?” Because sometimes, when something isn’t working on page 326, it’s because you did something messily on page 12. And sometimes that something you did wrong on page 12 is buried in the most beautiful line of prose you’ve ever written. Or sometimes the reason why your pacing is  wonky is because you bantered too long in chapter four, even though that banter is the best banter ever written. You know that saying “kill your darlings”? Well, this is what it means. You don’t have to kill something because you love it too much. But you have to be willing to cut it even though you do. Nothing is sacred except the core. (Now chant that fourteen times while wearing a cloak and we’ll get a proper cult going).

So. I’m off to go work cut things off the core of FOREVER. My next post is going to be more nuts and bolts of revision, so if you have any questions . . . keep ‘em coming.

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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