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REVISION: The Neverending Hamster Wheel of Revising Doom (Reader Questions)

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So, as promised, my penultimate post about revision is going to be answering questions that I didn’t get to in the previous posts. I’ve taken the liberty of combining similar ones. I have also taken the liberty of translating the question “are you going to ever write a third faerie book?” into Welsh, using google translate.

peanut's strawberries

Ydych yn mynd i erioed ysgrifennu llyfr trydydd Faerie?

and I’m going to answer it in Lithuanian using google translate. Because I have to tell you, one of my favorite pastimes these days is reading foreign articles on Shiver using google translate. I never knew pronouns could be so hilarious. 

Yra dar vienas, mano galva, tačiau jis yra už kitų, eilutė turi būti rašytinis. Sullivan yra karšta, nors, tiesa?

Now that that’s taken care of, we can handle the revision questions.

1. When do you revise? Can you start revisions/editing before you even finish the novel? Do you change things as you go along or do you mark them down and change them after you have finished reading through?

The great overarching wisdom out there is that you should wait until the end to revise, but I’m afraid these are all lies. Well-meaning lies, but lies nonetheless. The reason this wisdom is out there is because 95% of all people who start novels never finish them. Some of the times, this is because they go back and begin to work on the first part and enter the Endless Hamster Wheel of Revising Doom and never escape.

Personally, I revise as I go along, but not at a line-editing level. This, however, doesn’t really register on my revision radar, because I will revise it again completely once it’s all done. I write like this: write a chapter. Reread that chapter, write the next. Reread that chapter, write the next. When I get stuck, I will reread from the beginning and see where I went wrong, because stuck for me means that I took a wrong turn. And then I’ll revise wherever it is I misstepped. Then back to write a chapter, reread for pacing, write again . . .

I don’t mark down changes. If they’re big enough to make me stuck, I’ll change them before I go on. Otherwise, I’ll assume if it was bad enough to stand out when I was reading it this time, it’ll stand out again when I reread and revise at the very end.

2. And how long does it take you to revise a novel?

This varies widely, like how long it can take to write a novel — it depends on how sweeping my changes need to be. I fully expect to spend two months working on FOREVER. At least. With SHIVER, we went back and forth for over six months. For LINGER, it wasn’t even a month. It’s done when it’s done.

3. How many drafts do you do? And do you keep copies of all of them, or just go over the original document? Do you only do one thing per revision? i.e. adding back story in your 1st run-through, filling plot holes in your 2nd, grammar in your 3rd, etc.?

I don’t think I have a tremendously precise answer for this. The most streamlined revision process I ever did was for Linger, and it was three passes. Once to write the book. Once to go over about seven very big picture items. And a final to tweak nuances and motivations in a line edit stage. That’s pretty much my basic model, but sometimes it will take another pass if you shift something majorly in one of those passes. I don’t like doing a bunch of little passes; it makes me lose the pacing of the thing and my objectivity.

A word about grammar. Typos, word choice, and grammar are indeed looked at once you get published, but we have a specific set of edits that we do for them, called copy edits. Copy editors are not the same as your actual editor, and they look at grammar, make sure that you don’t have a historical fact wrong, verify that you meant for the high school in your book to let out in May instead of June.

Why am I telling you this? Because the most important thing a writer can figure out about revision is that these copy edit things are not important to the overall story. They’re crucial, but they come absolutely last after you are ready to send that puppy to agents or to print. They do not belong in any other stage of revision. To get caught up in them is, again, to take up residence in the NeverEnding Hamster Wheel of Revising Doom. Also, if your critique partners are sending you only suggestions of that variety, they need to be replaced.

4. Have you ever edited something out that you wish you would have left in? Like… Not only at the current moment, but even looking back on your other four books?

I can’t think of anything, actually. Well, no, I take that back. There was originally an epilogue to Lament and I miss that ever so slightly. It wouldn’t work now, because of what I wrote in Ballad, but I do wish Lament had an epilogue. I think after writing 5 and a half books and going through edits five times, that’s a pretty good average. 

5. When you revise, based on the helpful advice from your crit partners, do you ever worry about losing your individual’voice’ along the way? Do your editors and crit partners and other WHOs always understand your core before they start the slaughter? And if they do understand the core, do they target their suggestions at highlighting that core?

I hit upon this in the core post, so I won’t belabor it, but this: you need to know what you’re trying to say, the most basic point of the book, and then you need to check your ego at the door. Don’t fight with your crit partners over their suggestions. Don’t defend your book. Just look at their suggestion and if you don’t like what they are suggestion, ask yourself WHY they are suggesting it. Think of it like this. Manuscript –> Problem –> Solution. When you get an edit, they are telling you the third thing. Your job is to use their solution to diagnose your actual problem, and then come up with your own solution. I won’t lose my voice because I come up with my own solutions based upon the information I’ve gotten from my inferred diagnosis.

And no, my critique partners don’t’ always know what my core is. I sometimes have to say: this is what I’m trying to do. How do I get there?

6. 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 don’t think that this can really be tackled in this post, because it’s not actually about revisions, its about the editorial relationship — which is a great question, but also way too broad to answer in a para. The short answer is, yes, you can always negotiate. Editors are fully aware that what they are suggesting is only one solution to a problem and if you see the problem, you can suggest another solution for it. If people really want to know more about this, I can do another post about this in the future.

7. Just curious…Do you revise your Merry Fates stories? Or they sort of first drafts?

They are definitely first drafts. I usually set my timer for an hour and post them. The last one I wrote on my lap top while in the passenger seat of my husband’s truck, on a two hour drive on the way back from Busch Gardens.

8. You talked earlier about the core: How do you know what that is? I’m revising a young adult urban fantasy and the one thing I wanted most from it is that it is a young adult version of the quick-paced urban fantasy series for adults I like that are typically mysteries.

That’s a good goal, but it’s not a core — genre doesn’t count as core. You need something more specific than that to hold onto, something that lit that particular story’s fire under your butt. It would be like me saying that my core for SHIVER was the paranormal romance. That’s way too broad to be useful.

Your core is what made you sit down to write that first line. It’s what keeps you up at night thinking about it. It’s the theme you wanted to talk about, the point you wanted to make, the character arc you wanted to explore, the mood you wanted to paint, the folktale you wanted to explore, the metaphor you needed to write.

9. How do you know when enough is enough?  Does it ever end?

It sure as skippy better, because revising doesn’t pay the bills. I think it’s about goals for me. I read through the entire manuscript after I’m done and, along with my editor and crit partners, I get a sort of list together of the big points I need to tackle. Like with LINGER, with that broad spectrum pass. I got seven main to-do items from Editor MixTape, and I went down the list and began to tackle them. They all made ripples that affected other scenes, so it was an all-over affair for each point, but still, when I got to the end of the list, I was done and ready for nit-pickier stuff. So if I’m revising on my own, I’d do it the same way. I’d go through and read the whole thing and maybe get a list that looks like this:

    – first third lags in pacing
    – make Bucko more sympathetic
    – chapter with tractor accident needs to be streamlined
    – cut whipped cream episode
    – make Stuffy’s motivations more obvious
    –  increase sense of dread up to salon scene
    – cut Fendi from final chapter
    – combine Rocky & Bullwinkle into one character

And then when I got through that whole list, I’d go back and reread it and see if that fixed all my issues. Usually it’ll take me 1-3 passes like this. Then it’s time to hand it off to objective parties and see if they have any outstanding issues.

The thing is, don’t nitpick. Don’t get stuck on line editing. A good editor can see through those things, but a good editor can’t see through wild story problems. And hold onto your manuscript for the right reasons, not just because you’re afraid to send it out. Fear is not a good reason to keep revising.

10. I just want to say that each time I see your icon it makes me happy. Did you paint that? Is there a way to see the full res/get a print? It doesn’t get much cuter than a dog trying to eat strawberries with a spoon.

Um, yes, this is one of my drawings. It was back in my I-want-to-be-a-book-illustrator stage. That’s my dog Peanut, and those are my strawberries. No print, though, sorry — I just don’t have a big enough file to make them available. And thanks. 🙂

I think that’s all of them — let me know if I missed you. And the final post tomorrow will be a revision example. So . . . stay tuned!

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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Copyright 2012