Many writers cringe when they hear the word revision. For some it’s a never-ending process. For most it is tantamount to pain and frustration—the point where the story you thought worked out just fine seems so flawed it is unredeemable. For every writer, though, it’s unavoidable.
I’ve come to love revision, but only after discovering creative ways to approach it that make it as engaging as the writing process. In particular, I’ve learned how to break out of a rut that almost every writer can no doubt relate to.
A never-ending cycle
You’ve spent a long time writing your manuscript—months, a year, maybe a few years. Now, guess what? You’re celebrating the completion of your first draft (time to open a bottle of champagne)! You don’t wait too long before jumping in to draft two, so you start at the beginning and pass through, making changes as you go. If you’re like me, you will find things that need to be fixed, parts that need to be re-written, or things that don’t make sense. It might take a few months to do draft two like this, and by the end you already have a huge mental list of things you have to tackle when you start draft three. Maybe you rectified a plot hole you spotted in the beginning, but when you got to the end you realize the change you made has complicated things further. Maybe you realized your small town prairie setting makes your slow-paced drama feel bland and want to try setting it somewhere more exotic. So, you head into draft three, ready to make more changes. But then you notice something that slipped your eye while going through draft two; it takes almost as much time to get through draft three. Eventually it has to stop, you figure, so you move on to draft four, five, six, and so on, but there’s more and more that keeps showing up, like layers on a giant onion. The drafts might be getting better, but it’s hard for you to know where the heart of the onion is. You reach a point where you feel like you’re going in circles, find yourself reciting some of your characters’ lines while standing in the lineup at Starbucks, and your best friend gently suggests that maybe you should set your book aside and try something else.
Is this you? It was me for my first two manuscripts. They both ended up in a box. So, what changed?
I realized that a key step was missing, in between draft one and draft two. In my case, my writing process is a bit more organic, so I don’t exactly have drafts, but nonetheless I reach a point where the story is all knit together. And at this point, I stop being a writer. I do a cold read.
Pretend you have the next Harry Potter
Let me clarify what I mean. In a cold read there’s no writing, no making changes, not even a moment to stop and plan. When I do a cold read, I pretend I just got my hands on the next Harry Potter book and might even call in sick to work so I can read it. Doing a cold read is about jumping in a tree-hopper and whizzing past your story at reader-speed. It’s the only way you’re going to see it the way everyone else is going to.
There are some dos and donts that come with this. Do take notes, wherever something niggles, and write down three words in succession from that part (the page number is helpful) so you can get back there quickly when you start revising. Do get through it as fast as you can, with as little distraction as possible. Do be critical and thorough, leaving no stone unturned.
Don’t write out plans for how you will resolve the problems you notice. Don’t second-guess yourself. And don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t make any changes to the manuscript, no matter how much a typo on page 71 may bug you (but do write it down in your notes).
If you are disciplined enough, you might feel comfortable doing this at the computer screen, but if you want to eliminate all possibility of breaking the don’t rules, then print it out. Sometimes it’s fun to go to Staples or any printing store and ask them to make you a miniature booklet. This way it feels like you’re actually reading a book, and helps you get in “reader mode”.
Bird’s eye revision
After you’re done, it’s time to put those notes to use. Now you can go front to back. If you are an outliner, like me, you might revise your outlines, break your story into frames and set up a spreadsheet to track evolving character and plot threads. Your notes will help with this as well. But if you prefer more spontaneity, then your notes from your cold read will nevertheless be a helpful guide for when you go back into the woods and hike through your next draft at writer-speed.
Draft three, and beyond
So what do you do for draft three? Draft four? More cold reading. You might want to get your second draft out to beta readers so you can use their notes to help you on draft three as well. Depending on how the timing works, you may have some feedback from beta readers in a third, fourth, and further drafts. However your particular manuscript develops, cold reads in between help you zoom out each time to appreciate how your story is actually evolving.
A live test
Eventually, you’ll reach the point where your cold reads bring up nothing new, and you’ve heard back from all beta readers. Your manuscript is ready to be tightened and polished to a shine, but your eyes are not going to do the trick. If you’re lucky, you might know someone who’s an enthusiast and is willing to listen to you read the whole thing out loud to give you additional feedback. If your story is novel length, that might take a while (so you might want to pay them for their time), and it might feel like a lot of work, but reading your words aloud is a sure way to catch things like repetitive syllables or idioms, awkward sentences or rhythms, or unrealistic dialogue. Most importantly, there’s nothing like the feeling of confidence one has after reading one’s work aloud and knowing it sounds just right.
Though there will always be things that can be better, doing a cold read between drafts, with a live reading at the end, is a sure way to ensure you discover your manuscript’s full potential during revision. I used this technique for my first title, The Pact, and have been using it for the development of my current manuscript (its sequel), and it’s changed the way I approach story development. I hope this has been helpful and will inspire you for whatever project you might be working on.
About Graeme Brown
Graeme Brown is a Winnipeg author and junior editor for Champagne Books. He writes epic fantasy, with his first story, The Pact, now available through Burst Books. He is a frequent blogger and a tweeter, and a third year math student. His hobbies include running, yoga, computer programming, and reading.
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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