Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – The Revision ProcessPosted: May 20, 2020
The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The Revision Process
So I’m in the middle of a fairly lengthy revision process for my latest novel, and it brings to mind a piece of advice a mentor once gave me. When I began writing short stories, I joined an online critique forum that in retrospect helped shape me in some crucial ways. It was a pretty tough, competitive space when it came down to it, and the other writers there didn’t mind (lovingly) tearing stories to shreds if it meant giving enough feedback to fix what wasn’t working.
There was a guy there called Gary, older than most everyone else who frequented the group, and I tended to see him as an authority, a friend, and a bit of a task master. Gary was fond of quick little rules and guidelines, notepad-like pieces of wisdom that could really set a young writer up for growth.
“Expect the revision process for any given story to last two to three times longer than it took to write in the first place.”
In other words, by Gary’s estimation, if you were to write a quick story in an afternoon, you’d expect to spend an additional two to three afternoons revising and sharpening it to an appropriate level. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how in-depth the revision process can be. Sometimes it’s pretty easy-going, but for the most part, if you’re not doing some cutting here, expansion there, general tightening of language on all levels, and if you’re not willing to kill your darlings, as the saying goes, odds are you may be doing it wrong.
So what if we’ve written a whole book? Does Gary’s piece of advice still hold up? In my experience, it does. Due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances in my life, my novel took about a year to write. So does that mean it’ll take me two to three years to finish it? Not precisely. I worked on it for a year, but in fact, I only wrote about 300 words a day for a grand total of maybe fifteen hours of actual writing per month. Fifteen hours times twelve months equals 180 hours, and 180 times two is 360. Bare minimum, that is the equivalent of fifteen full twenty-four hour days of revision. Maybe more like a month and a half if I plan on sleeping, eating, or ever seeing my wife ever again.
Now remember, that’s only the initial revision cycle. More work will likely need to be done in order to bring that book up to production quality. Realistically, once you add in the services of an actual editor, you’re looking at several additional weeks or months of back and forth nitpickery. It’s the nitpicks that save us, by the way. Make sure you get plenty of them at breakfast time. They’re like daily bowls of Wheaties. Nitpicks make writer big and strong!
It’s part of the overall level of dedication it takes to turn out a good piece of writing, right? And we all expect to have to work a little more after we’ve initially told a story, or at least we should. I’m not big on hard and fast rules. Really, I’m not. I think “rules” in writing can and should be broken now and then. Generally speaking, these kinds of prescriptions are for writers, not for readers. Inside baseball, not meant for actual spectators, you know what I mean?
Even so, there are some commonalities to this process I believe every writer can and should keep an eye on. First of all, get comfortable removing chunks of flesh from your manuscript. Just straight-up cutting large sections that may have had stuff in it you liked. Also, get comfortable rewriting everything you just took out. Only better. Hopefully. If parts of your story slow the narrative down, add unusual or unnecessary complications, or otherwise just don’t fit in with what you’re trying to achieve, that stuff’s dead weight, detritus. It’s got to go. Gird your loins, fellow word-wielder. Things are about to get messy at the slaughterhouse.
A good piece of meat isn’t born precooked, and neither is a good book. You can always resurrect some of that cut material and insert it elsewhere, but the same idea applies: if the words don’t fit, you must acquit.
Man, I’m on a roll today.
Another important thing to consider is if you want to make focused passes or not, keying in on just one element at a time, starting with larger issues like pacing and character development. This is a good idea if you’re new to the process or just like to stay organized, and it’ll probably save you some time in the long run. By making several focused and element-specific passes, you’ve got the opportunity to hone in without distracting yourself with other stuff that may change in the long run. My only suggestion for this type of revision process is to keep notes along the way. Ideas may spring to mind, better concepts for how to handle any given character or scene or larger story element, and you’re going to want to keep track of everything you intend to change for your next pass.
Admittedly so, I’m much too erratic and scatterbrained for this method, which means I tend to just charge in like a bull in a china shop and really tear the place up until its “redecorated” just how I like it. Mine is a messy process in this way, but it’s also just how my mind tends to work. Not everyone has the equivalent of sixteen trained chimpanzees careening around their heads, doing their level best to run the ship. If I don’t feed them at a regular time every day, Bingo—he’s the captain, see—he orders the rest of the chimps on strike, and then I’m in a real chimp ship pickle. Nobody wants that.
Where was I? Ah yes, serious discussion of the revision process.
A lot of what you’re going to be doing is in fact that more minute stuff, especially when you’re really getting down to it and most of your broader strokes have been made. Changing the language of the piece, the flow, tightening your syntax, all of that is important as finishing maneuvers. Just make sure you’re not revising so much you’re only shifting elements around and not necessarily improving anything. That can happen easily, which is why it’s also important during the revision process to take breaks when you need them. And I don’t just mean a break of a few minutes or hours. Sometimes you’ve got to let your manuscript go for days or even weeks just so you can come back at it with fresh eyes. The ability to forget what we’ve written is a great asset, so use it.
The annoyance and pain of all this is temporary. You have to keep that in mind. However, once they’re released to the general public, your words are forever. So now is your opportunity to line them up exactly as you want them. In the end, all you can do as a writer, as a creative individual of any kind, is your honest best. Will all your extra hard work pay off? That’s an eternal question, always in motion, and anyway, what’s your definition of success? I mean really?
I’ll have another Craft and Practice topic for you guys next month. Until then, cut a little, cut a lot, but don’t cut to the quick. The chimps in your brain may not like losing any of the good stuff. See you in June!
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