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Thoughts on Novel RevisionFebruary 17, 2011

RwarevSaturday 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?


It was a GREAT meeting. So inspirational!

I wish I had known I could do it. I never knew I could complete something as big and ambitious as a novel until I actually finished my first one. It's like everything else that seems impossible: Take it one day at a time, don't give up, and you'll get there.

It really was an awesome meeting and I feel so proud to have been a part of it, and the chapter in general. You are all pretty spectacular in my book.

My advice to my younger just-starting-out self was to remember that everyone starts somewhere. It's easy to feel small in this business and to feel like everyone is one step ahead of where you want to be. Keep your confidence high and your eyes on the computer screen.

You already got my comment. I hate revisions with a unending, violent passion. When I get a revision letter, I scan it quickly and then set it aside for at least a few days.

Did I mention I hate revision?

Thanks, Rachael! I missed that meeting, so I appreciate this post. Looking forward to your new book... :)

I finished my first novel for 2010's NaNoWriMo, and I've been staring at it balefully ever since. I WANT to revise it...I really, really do. I think about it all the time. But every time I convince myself to sit down and actually do it, I freak out and run away. Le sigh.

What I wish I had known from the start... I don't know if I would have paid attention to my own advice. I've learned this through trial and error: start with the pitch, expand to a synopsis, then write the book. That way revisions will be about deepening the story. Also: when I didn't know how to go about revising my novel, I would have told myself: Just start, and trust yourself!

Thank you. Thank you for sharing your Post-it method. I just went over and read "The Dreaded Rewrite," and, for the first time, I have a good strategy for tackling my dissertation as it becomes big and unwieldy and as I begin substantial revision. I'm going to suggest other academic writers read your piece, too! Woo hoo!

(Pssst . . . In that article, there's a typo in your book title: It says "How to Knit a Long Song.")

Thanks for the great tips you gave us, Rachael. I'm another fan of your Post-it method.

My advice to my younger self would be that no matter how fantastic a pitch opportunity seems, I shouldn't pitch unless my pages are ready to go out that day. Racing to finish revisions after receiving a request for pages from an agent or editor is just too stressful!

Oh, dear heart, I'm revising now! (You didn't know I'd moved on to a novel, did ya!)

And actually I don't mind it. It means re-visioning, and figuring out what the hell I really was doing, which is different from what I thought I was doing --

but nothing can really get written -- academic articles, dissertations, poems, short stories, memoirs, NOVELS -- till something's on the page. The real writing is in the revision.

At least I tell my freshmen that all the time, and I see I actually believe it, which is nice, cause it means I haven't been lying.

My advice was that it doesn't have to be absolutely perfect; it does have to be turned in by deadline (sometimes phrased as "it doesn't have to be perfect - it has to be Thursday"). The quest for perfection, which you are not going to achieve in this lifetime, can stop you from actually achieving anything. And if you aren't going to make your deadline, let your editor know as early as possible. They need to know if they'll have to adjust their schedule.

I think the biggest issue with revision for me is defining the difference between 'Writer Brain' and 'Editor Brain'--that is, Writer Brain is the one that says "Wow, this scene was neat and fun to write!" and Editor Brain is the one that counters with "Yes...but it has NOTHING to do with the novel. Take it out. NOW." Sometimes you need to be ruthless with your favorite scenes to make it professional. ;)

Dear Rachel,

This was sooooo timely. I am just starting revisions on a MG novel.

Thanks for all the links.

Also, thanks again for the inspiration to join NaNoWriMo in 2009 - just see what you made me do!


This is so weird. I get an email about a KNITTING book (my passion) and I end up reading about revision which should be my current passion! I did NaNo first time this year and swore the novel was fantastic/publishable/unlike my 1st crazy novel.

I got sidetracked by a tip from a well-known writer's book (How to Write a Novel or some such) who said, "after you've got your first draft done, put it aside and rewrite the whole thing again without looking at it"

I just could not do that. It actually stopped me from working these past 3 months. I've just started again & I think I've go to try it my way first.

anyhoo, knitting, novel advice AND a tortilla soup recipe? You are my kind of woman. Thanks!

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Rachael loves it when book clubs read her work! She's happy to attend book clubs that read her books either in person or via Skype. Contact her at rachael@rachaelherron.com to make arrangements.


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