Now, that sounds like a goofy question, no? I mean everybody knows what revision is. It’s where you take the next step with your book to make it better.
Well, yes. But quite often when I send back an edited manuscript and critique (30 pages of it!), writers are surprised when they find they actually have to rewrite the book.
In essence, especially new writers think that all they’re going to have to do is input editorial changes. That’s not, however, what revision is about. Or, perhaps there will be polishing to do (always!). But that’s not it either.
Writing a first draft is about getting the characters going, as they run through the Storyline. Which isn’t the Plot. And there’s a big difference in Story and Plot.
Story is about what happens in the course of a novel. It’s your characters acting and reacting to events outside themselves, as well as the Achilles’ Heels within. That’s Story in a nutshell.
Plot, on the other hand, is about the structure of those events and how they fit together. I.e., the shape of things that occur. Do the characters traverse the events along the grand arc of fiction? Or do we get off track and have too much set-up, sagging middles, and a rush to the end? That’s all about the shape of the book as well.
I always counsel writers to just write the first draft. Just write it. Don’t worry about shape and structure. Get to know your characters, find out what makes them tick. Discern why simply eating ice cream makes your hero cry, or why she drinks when her mother calls. Or any litany of things that comprise their foibles.
You have a vague sense of what the novel’s about when you start, no? Perhaps where it’s going. When all is perfect in heaven, how it ends. But it’s in the process of meeting your characters and then racing after them as they traverse the course of this journey where a book is born.
And if you’ve done that right, what you have is one big blob. Filled with scenes you’ll kill, but which taught you something about how Esmeralda met her husband, you know the one—the nice, stolid, salt-of-the-earth but boring man. Whom she married on account of her first love deflowered and dumped her and she vowed never to love romantically again. Ah, yes, that part of the story!
And it’s great that you now know that. Fabulous! I often find out the most intriguing things about my characters in that first draft. Who knew!
But it doesn’t mean your reader needs to experience that first love and loss with Esmerelda. Just that it happened may suffice.
Which is what revision is about. Here you have your blob, with all this fabulous information about the folks and what happened. Then revision comes along for you to shape it into a real book.
Which takes a ton of killing off scenes (and maybe ancillary characters), filling in holes, and rewriting.
I do know writers who outline meticulously before penning word one, and follow that outline to the letter. But the problem with this (and what I almost always see from these manuscripts) is that if you’re sticking to the outline, you can’t chase your characters where they truly want to go.
And you clip not only their wings, but your own as well.
What’s then left is dry and on the surface. Not our hope when beginning a novel!
This also happens a lot when folks self-edit as they write that first draft. You know the feeling—Oh! This is where the chase scene should go! But when that’s a mental construction as you’re in the creative birth, most of the time you’ve just left your character’s head, and gotten stuck in your own.
And the result is almost always stilted.
Horrors! The opposite of what we seek.
I love what Joseph Campbell said about this:
“Just as anyone who listens to the muse will hear, you can write out of your own intention or out of inspiration. There is such a thing. It comes up and talks. And those who have heard deeply the rhythms and hymns of the gods, the words of the gods, can recite those hymns in such a way that the gods will be attracted.”–Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p.124
Well, just yes.
So let go in the first draft. Follow the Protagonist’s and secondary-but-important characters’ lead.
Once that’s down, get ready for the real work.
What Revision is Not:
Inputting line edits. Some of the scenes may get axed anyway.
Polish. That’s your last step.
What Revision IS:
Taking that big blob, and putting in place the real structure of a novel.
The funny thing is, structure is the same no matter what genre you’re writing. Good books follow the arc of the storyline, with specific gradations of plot points along the way to hold them up and move them along. Revision is where you get analytical about pacing. Where you outline the acts of the story, and how those build upon one another. When you pinpoint how plot changes character, and character drives plot.
That comprises the second draft.
And then you see where you are. Because it may comprise the third draft as well.
Not until the shape is right on do you begin the actual polish, although if you’re like me you’ve polished along as you went. That’s just not the primary focus on rounds two and possibly three.
Great books take a long time to come to fruition. They go through many drafts.
But when written well, a great book takes your breath away.