Thoughts on Novel RevisionFebruary 17, 2011
Saturday morning, I got to do something that I was both thrilled and honored to do. Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, and I gave a presentation on revision to the San Francisco chapter of the Romance Writers of American on revision. (Edited to add: He writes about it HERE.) Specifically, we spoke on how to start thinking about revising something as big as a novel.
Novels are interesting beasts. They're, obviously, not articles, or short stories, which the brain can deal with wrapping around in one sitting (not FIX in one sitting, of course, but the breadth of a short story can be comprehended, much like the way a bicycle works can be understood -- we can see the parts, and we can remember what importance the gears have while thinking about the brakes).
Novels are more like cars, I think. Say someone gives you all the parts to build a car, dumps them in your driveway and says, "Here you go! Just put this stuff in the right kind of order and you'll have a car!" Or really, let's look at this analogy a little deeper -- the truth is, no one is going to bring you those parts. You have to find them, find all those words and sentences and paragraphs in scrap heaps and then haul them home yourself. And THEN you have to make them into something that runs. By yourself. And no one really cares if you build a car or not, and you have to do it in your free time that you could be using for different things. The only manuals you have to go by say things like "avoid adverbs." Avoid adverbs! That's like avoiding spark plugs! We have to have a couple in there, for pete's sake!
I've abused the analogy further than I needed to, but the point is: Writing a novel is hard. Finishing the first draft is sheer TRIUMPH. The feeling of writing the words "The End" ranks up there with really great sex, downhill speed skiing, jumping out of an airplane (I'm not going to test that last one -- I'm daring but not crazy).
And then once you're done, you're faced with . . . crap. A lot of drivel. Wasted scenes and plot devices that went nowhere. Your five year old nephew could do better in crayon, and maybe you should give the manuscript to him to use for scratch paper.
Where do you START? That's the really scary part. And that's what Chris and I talked about. He was the voice of inspiration -- the world needs YOUR novel (it does). You can fix it (yes, you can). It will take longer than you think it will. You are not wasting time. It is better than you think it is. Some of his tips can be found HERE. He was great -- he's a fabulous speaker, very inspirational, and so funny I heard women hiccupping in the audience through tears of laughter.
My part of the presentation was on the how of it all. I'm all about concrete steps (like: touch the manuscript every day, even if you just open it, go pale, and close it again), and I like knowing how I work, what works for me. Some of what I spoke about you can read HERE. Of all my tips, the All Important Post-it is the biggest one. Don't write in the margins of your manuscript as you go: You will never, ever, ever see that page again. Instead, jot that idea on a little Post-it. Put in on a page, and glance at that page every time you sit down to work. It's like MAGIC, I swear it is.
But the coolest part of the whole thing was at the very end, when Chris asked to go around the room and ask for revision tips from the members. What did they wish they had known about revision, what did they wish someone had told THEM early on in the process? Out of probably 35 people there, every person had something different to say, something valuable. I remember these: Alice Gaines said, "Don't panic." Elizabeth Jennings said, "Every scene has a weight, a heft, and it's good to remember balance: place the lighter ones next to the heavy ones." Ooooh! I can't remember any of the rest with my sieve-like brain. I'm going to email the group and ask them to come over here and leave their smart, smart comments, so you can see them.
And you, what do you wish someone had told you about revisions? What have you had to learn the hard way?