Wait a minute, Leigh, didn’t you just write a post on revision hell? I mean, yes, but that’s the good kind of hell. First drafts, for me, are just my brilliant ideas being INCREDIBLY NOT BRILLIANT.
Revision is where ideas start to shine (even if it’s another type of hell to get them there). Here, let me illustrate with DANCE:
Unfortunately, you can’t get to the magic without a first draft. To quote the incredibly talented Victoria Schwab:
So… what helps me to push past? To just get those flipping words on the gosh darn page?
This is a new one for me. I’m a former pantser who’s made the switch over to the dark side…and I’m never going back. Having a road map, an attack plan, just knowing what needs to happen helps me cut down on the amount of time I spend staring at blank pages. I may change it later, completely re-write a scene with a new idea, but as long as I have something that I know is moving me in the right direction, it can only get better from there.
The only way to do it is to do it. If I only wrote when I felt inspired and creative, my first drafts would never get done (or, they’d take like twenty years…). You’ve got to get disciplined sometimes to get things done.
Sticking to a schedule helps. I designate a few hours in the day for drafting and I USE THEM. That also helps take the pressure off the other hours in the day that I’m not writing (because, you know, life), since I have some time carved out. By the time I get to that designated writing time, sometimes I’ve even tricked myself into being excited about it!
Sprinting with other writers on Twitter helps too. Knowing that at the end of the sprint I’ll have to admit if I got 0 words down pushes me a little harder. Plus, it’s just nice to know you’re in it with others.
This may seem counter-intuitive to my first two tactics, but daydreaming about the day my book is on the shelves motivates me to make sure I’m taking the steps to get it there. And those steps, unfortunately, including drafting.
(Warning: Don’t let yourself get too caught up in tactic three)
What works for you? How do you push past the first draft? Leave a comment. I can use all the tricks I can get here!
We all know writer envy and impostor syndrome are bad. Everyone’s journey is different, there will always be someone doing better and worse than you, writing is not a competition, etc. So true . . . And yet so easy to forget, especially when you’re in the clutches of the green-eyed monster. All the more so when you’re staring enviously across the divide separating writers with a day job and full-time writers.
It can happen in an instant. One minute you’re working productively at your desk, entering data into a spreadsheet for your supervisor, perhaps; the next minute you find yourself surreptitiously checking Twitter, and there it is: an ecstatic tweet from a fellow writer that sends you plummeting into a dark pit of envy and / or self-doubt. It could be something as simple as a full-time writer happily announcing at ten a.m. that they’ve met their daily word count goal and plan to spend the rest of the day curled up with a good book. You, meanwhile, have at least a good six hours of office drudgery left before you can drag your tired self home and try to squeeze out a few words before collapsing from pure exhaustion.
This particular brand of writer envy has bit me square on the behind more than once. But if I’m honest, it’s more than wishing myself in the shoes of the writer who is free to devote all day to her words. I envy her, yes, but the darker truth is that behind the envy, I fear that this full-time writer is the “real” writer, whereas I am merely a wannabe—someone who sometimes manages to squeeze in a bit of writing during her “free” time away from her “real” job.
The thinking goes something like this: real writers spend all day in cozy studies surrounded by books, their loyal dogs at their feet, as they type away on their masterpieces-in-progress. When they aren’t writing, they are happily reading books for pleasure. In short, the real writer’s world is a literary world, free from the demands of time cards, traffic jams, and unreasonable bosses. The real writer is above the rest of us, living an ideal life in a perfect world that I could never hope to access.
Don’t laugh, but this is what I truly believed the writing life was like until a few years ago, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo on a whim and discovered that I could actually draft a novel in thirty days without quitting my day job. Sure, that first draft of my first NaNo novel was total crap, but so what? I wrote it! Just as importantly, I did it as part of a community of people who, like me, made time for writing in spite of jobs and families and innumerable other commitments that come with being an adult in the real world. Over the couple of years, I revised that first novel, drafted a new one, and started revising my second novel, all while becoming more involved with an awesome community of writers through online groups (shout out to my #PitchWars and WFWA peeps!) and a local writer’s conference.
And you know what I found? Far from being literary gods and goddesses who lived perpetually at the altar of words, almost all of the writers I met (including the published ones) either had full-time jobs, were full-time students, or were the primary caretakers of small children. In short, these “real” writers have more going on in their lives than reading and writing. They were real people. People with goals and setbacks and problems and creativity and intelligence and incredible grit.
And that’s a good thing.
Because the truth is, no matter what your deepest, darkest writer envy or impostor syndrome may lead you to believe, the words that you force yourself to write at ten p.m., after a grueling 12+ hour workday, are no less legitimate than the words someone else pens from their cozy home office at ten a.m. It doesn’t matter what time of day you get the words down, or what other real-world commitments you’re juggling in between. It’s all writing. We’re all writers.
I think it’s important to start off this post by stating the obvious. Everybody has obstacles in the way of writing, whether or not they have children, or homeschool, or have a full time job. There’s always something. But I can only speak to my experience. I think what I say here can be used by people in any situation though (with maybe a few tweaks.)
Now…onto the post!
Writing is hard. Period. Writing with small children running around the house? Harder.
But if you love to write, then you’ve probably figured out by now that you are a better parent when you are writing. Having a creative outlet opens up your imagination. It helps you show your children what it means to work at something and follow a dream. It lets you work off excess…emotions. 🙂
However, when I first started writing, I did this for a few weeks. I just couldn’t help it. I was so obsessed with the idea of writing and getting my words on the page that I sat in front of my computer for hours and wrote while my kids played or watched TV. And I was super productive. But I didn’t feel very good about how I was parenting.
So, how do we find a balance?
This is something I’ve worked extra hard on, and had to refocus on recently, so I wanted to share for you my rules and routines. These might not be your rules or routines. But I’m hoping you can see what works for me and get an idea of what can work for you. Because you won’t be a good writer if you feel like a terrible parent/don’t live life. And your life will feel half-lived without writing.
#1 – Set a schedule. I know women who wrote an entire book on their phone while nursing a baby. That was their schedule. Nursing time = writing time. I know parents who wake up at 5 AM before the kids are up to get their writing time. Personally, I do it in the evenings after I put the kids in bed. I sit outside their bedrooms and write while they fart around until they fall asleep. They are pills, so this usually gives me a good hour. And you can be extremely productive with only an hour of writing a day. Bottom line: find a time that works for you and try to stick to it every day.
#2 – Tell your spouse. When I first began writing, I felt a bit guilty that my writing was cutting into my alone time with my husband. And in the beginning he would call and ask what I was doing and couldn’t I come and hang out with him? But when I eventually felt confident enough in the fact that I wanted to write and I wanted to write every day, I told him. And guess what? If you’re not married to a jerk, they’ll understand that this time is important to you. These days, my husband helps me clear out that hour of time. He hands me the computer, tells me to go write, takes care of the kids if they’re being super distracting and not sleeping. Your spouse is your partner in everything. Even your writing.
#3 – Be selective about your beta reading and critiquing. Beta reading and CPing is a vital part of being a writer. But it also takes a lot of time. Personally, I try to make sure I only have one thing to beta or CP at a time. If I have a backed up line of manuscripts to read, I make sure to let everyone know when I’ll be able to get around to reading. I treat my beta reading as part of my writing time, usually only reading a couple chapters a night. This makes me a slower reader, but I set those expectations with the person I’m reading for right away. Another way you can make sure you are getting in your beta reading and CPing without feeling like it is taking over your life, is by putting it on your kindle and reading while you exercise, or when you take the kids to the park, etc. The key is to find what works for you so that you aren’t a total screen zombie around your family.
#4 – Make a schedule for family time and keep it. Just like with writing, make sure there are certain times of your day when you are consistently not writing, not beta reading, not on the internet, and just spending time with your kids. Face to face. Keep this schedule with the same (if not more) consistency as your writing schedule.
#5 – Give yourself grace to sometimes break the routine. The nice thing about setting up a schedule and time limit for your writing each day, is that when something comes up and perhaps you have to meet a deadline and write like a maniac for eight hours a day for a month or something, you can do that. You have set up and lived your writing and family life in such a way, that you know this crazy onslaught is temporary. You have built up a good “reserve” of family time, so when you have to be a little more absent, you can do so without guilt. Because you know that you will be back to being the awesome parent and spouse that you are. Your kids are part of your writing team, too. If you have made sure that, for the most part, writing has not constantly diminished your quality time, they will also understand and support you.
Life is all about balance. And I hope some of these ideas help you find yours!
If you clicked on this post, chances are you’re a writer with a day job. Maybe you unequivocally love your day job, and you’re able to effortlessly maintain a perfect balance between your non-writing career and your creative pursuits. If so, this post is not for you. (Also, I’m incredibly jealous.) But if you’re anything like me, you’re sometimes tempted to view your full-time job as the enemy that’s holding you back from achieving your writerly dreams. If only you didn’t have to grade those papers / sit in those meetings / finish that report / deal with your annoying boss, you would actually have time to write. You daydream of spending endless hours at home in your pajamas, happily typing away on your work-in-progress, instead of wasting your time mindlessly entering data into yet another spreadsheet. You peek at social media during your lunch break, only to find that your writer friends who are unburdened by the demands of a non-writing job have already met their writing goals for the day—whereas you haven’t written a word. In moments like these, the message couldn’t be clearer: your day job is not your friend. It is a burden to be escaped as soon as possible. In fact, if you didn’t have to worry about pesky little things like rent and the electricity bill, you’d have quit already.
Before you start drafting that letter of resignation, though, hear me out: your day job may actually be good for your writing. Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to pay the bills, your non-writing work can actually be a source of inspiration and freedom.
Yes, you heard me right: freedom. It may be difficult to view your job as liberating when you find yourself chained to your desk, but hear me out. Many full-time jobs offer paid time off—a luxury you wouldn’t have if writing were your only source of income. If you’re lucky enough to have paid time off, maximize it: take every vacation and personal day you’re entitled to! Use those days for writing time, travel, or much-needed downtime. Few things in life are more restorative then a paid vacation . . . And knowing your personal finances won’t collapse if you take a break from the daily grind is a freedom that many full-time writers would envy.
Speaking of finances, there’s something liberating about having a reliable paycheck that’s independent of your writing. In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert describes the freedom that comes from uncoupling creativity from your economic needs and argues that relying on creativity as your sole means of financial support may place an untenable burden of stress on you and your art. When you’re supporting yourself financially, you have the option to write whatever you want, without stressing about publishing trends or the ever-changing market—which can potentially afford you more creative freedom than writers who must, like it or not, always have one eye on the bottom line.
And a non-writing job’s potentially positive impact on your writing goes beyond the financial. In her blog post “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet,” literary agent Carly Watters points out that working outside of the home often offers writers opportunities for social interaction and inspiration they wouldn’t necessarily find if they were at home working in their PJs. I know this is true for me. I could’ve never conceived—let alone executed—the idea for my novel, THE LOVE TEST, if not for my years of experience advising international college students on immigration issues. My non-writing job informed and enriched my plot, my characters, and my themes. And while I may not look forward to another early morning at the water cooler after a late night of revising, who knows? That water cooler conversation may spark the idea for my next project.
And if it does, then my day job may actually be more friend than foe.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Penguin Random
Watters, Carly. “Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet.”
In my last post, I shared why I’d made the switch from pantsing to plotting, and why I’m glad I did. Now, I’ll show you some of the nitty-gritty of how I plot! As a reforming pantser, I needed an outlining system that would be flexible, forgiving, and help me plan out my books and get a feel for a story’s strengths and weaknesses without triggering my, ahem, commitment anxiety. I still begin my stories with some grey areas, but this gives me a wonderful jumping-off point.
My system is a mish-mash of ideas from several authors:
Melanie Jacobson, who taught a class at LDStorymakers 2015 on how she uses the Rachel Aaron method to increase her productivity even though she doesn’t have the liberty of writing 8-hour days
J. Scott Savage, who taught a phenomenal class on Four-Part Pacing at the same writing conference. His lesson plan for that isn’t online anywhere, but point #5 in this post gives a broad overview of how it works. (Robin LaFevers also touches a bit on this idea in the link shared in point #4.)
Dan Wells’ 7-part Story Structure model, although to be honest I hate the long second act idea and so I interpret it much more as Robin LaFevers lays out in this blog post—four equal-length acts (which fits nicely in with the four-part pacing idea in my previous bullet point)
The first thing I do is to make some sort of a quick-and-dirty key to my broad, overarching story shape. Usually, that takes the form of a query-like document: maybe 3-5 paragraphs, eloquent or not (usually not at all), which convey the story’s heart and the major plot points, if I know them. Before I do anything else, I try to at least know the way the story starts and the way the major event that happens at the climax. Lots of writers say that it’s essential to begin knowing your ending, but I find that for me it usually takes some fiddling around to discover what my ending needs to be. My end usually comes out of both the story’s themes and the direction the climactic event. I also try to isolate what my character’s goal is and the steps they try to take to achieve it (and how they’re foiled). I didn’t know this technique when I was outlining my first plotted novel last year, but as I’m going through the process again I’m finding Dan Wells’ 7-part story structure very helpful as a way to pin down key events that shape the story. Often at this point, these events are pretty fuzzy—along the lines of “Something happens that makes Rose see Bryony with more sympathy.” Detail can come later!
Also at this point, I like to take some time to tease out my central character’s desires, needs, contrived persona vs inner essence, etc. I really like these questions from Robin LaFevers for doing this. Martine Leavitt also has some good ones (I learned them in a class from her last year, and unfortunately can’t find them online anywhere). Essentially, any questions that get you thinking really deeply about your character is a good jumping-off point.
My next step, usually done either before I start outlining or while I’m in the early stages, is to draft a first chapter. I write voice- and character-driven stories, and so it’s really important for me to be able to feel like I’ve nailed down a character’s voice before I dive into plotting the book out. Both times I’ve done this my first chapter has ended up changing somewhat, but for me, it’s still worth it to gain the extra glimpse into my character’s head and voice that drafting the first chapter gives me.
Once I’ve done that, it’s on to outlining!
I use a notecard method to outline. Because I have a toddler and so really don’t have the space or ability to use actual notecards strewn about the room, I use the notecard function on Scrivener (you can find lots of simple tutorials online for how to make this work). I make a folder in my Scrivener document called “Outline,” and that’s where all of my cards go. I begin simply and not at all chronologically, much as Rachel Aaron suggests here. I begin with a brief line about the scenes that I know (I don’t worry about dividing those scenes into chapters until drafting)—usually the basic structure I’ve figured out in my pre-writing. I usually write only one line on my cards at this point, often very vague, and I fill in more details as I go along and find the world becoming more vivid and real to me and the small pieces of the story lining up better in my head.
After I’ve gotten down the scenes that I already know, I look at my notecards and figure out where I can build bridge scenes. I ask myself questions: What will it take to get my character from this card to this card? I slowly lay out the story as it comes to me, one card at a time, jumping around to whatever part of the story arc feels most accessible and easy to pin down. If I find myself getting stuck, I do as Aaron suggests in her post and switch tracks for a little bit—I’ll go back to my character dossiers and fill them out some more, or write a couple of paragraphs about the setting, or flesh out more details for the scenes I already know I need. Before long, whatever element I was missing in the outline will click into place and I’ll be able to keep going forward. I’m both a commitment-phobe and a nervous writer, and this stage is both exciting and incredibly nerve-wracking. I frequently feel like flinging up my hands and shouting “WHAT EVEN SHOULD HAPPEN HERE?!” Usually, I just have to ride that feeling out, and the next step ultimately comes to me!
I also find it helpful to make lists of things I want to remember to include as I go—subplots, character arcs, small details that become important, literary devices like objective correlatives that I want to keep present throughout the story. As I skip around in my outline, adding more and more scenes and more details to the scenes I’ve got, I often refer to my list to make sure that I’m keeping all my metaphorical plates spinning the way I want to be. For example, in my last book, the MC’s younger sister was an extra-difficult toddler, and it was important for various reasons that a reader could see that. As I outlined and after I’d finished, I went through and made sure that I was having consistent scenes showing the toddler sister throwing a tantrum or doing something else that illustrated the stress she was placing on the family.
Once I’ve got what feels like all the scenes in my book briefly sketched out on my notecards, I color-code them. This was the serious lightning-bulb moment for me as I was experimenting with outlining for the first time! In Scrivener, I used the icon at the corner of the notecards (if doing physical cards you could use a highlighter), and chose a color for each of the four quadrants of my book. I identified the scenes that were transitioning into new sections (Plot Turn #1, Midpoint, and Plot Turn #2), and then I color-coded everything from that transition point to the next according to the quadrant of the book it was in. When I was done my document looked like this:
This was the point in my first outlining experience where the angels really started to sing, because all of a sudden I realized that not only could I get a feel for how my plot would play out as I wrote, but I also could diagnose pacing problems before I even began drafting. I was able to make sure that all four quadrants of my book had equal weight, and recognize which sections were too long and which needed more scenes to flesh them out. Later, when I hit the point about 2/3 of the way through my first draft at which I decided to make some major changes to the plot, I was able to refer to the outline in order to make sure that the new plotline would carry similar weight to the old.
The last thing I did with this book—which I didn’t do perfectly all the time, but which definitely did increase my writing speed when I did it—was to use Rachel Aaron’s scene pre-writing from this blog post. I had a notebook specifically for this book that I used to block out each scene before I wrote it, in the most basic of ways. This was especially helpful for those times that I would get interrupted in my writing session before I finished the scene I was working on; because I had it neatly laid out in short form in my notebook, I could easily jump back in later when I had more time. The instances where I didn’t do this were typically scenes which had come to me more fully as I outlined—there were some scenes in my outline that were already basically blocked out, because they’d been so clear in my head as I was outlining (or, alternatively, because I’d struggled knowing what should come at that point and so done some free-writing to figure it out).
Obviously, using this method didn’t get me writing 10,000 words daily, as it did for Rachel Aaron (I don’t even write every single day!). But it did consistently up my daily word count and, even more crucially, make it so much easier for me to pick my story back up and keep working on it when I’d been interrupted, something that had previously always been a struggle for me. And it did help me to create a much more powerful, tightly-woven, well-paced, and emotionally resonant book than I had ever managed before—a book that ultimately landed me my stellar agent! While I imagine I’ll still have projects that I prefer to discover as I go, I also imagine that I’ll fall back on this system much of the time, simply because it improved both the quantity and the quality of my writing so greatly.
At the end of her productivity class last year, Melanie Jacobson finished with a challenge for any of the students in the class who wanted to boost their productivity to give her suggestions a try. Since that challenge was what ultimately pushed me into stepping out of my pants-y comfort zone, I’ll extend that same challenge to you: Are you feeling frustrated with how many words you’re tossing in revisions? Are you never living up to your word count goals, or struggling to get into the flow of your story and losing it easily? Just for one book, try this out—and go right ahead and make changes and modifications so that it suits your writing style (I most definitely did).
I’ve always considered myself a die-hard pantser. As a budding writer, all my first attempt at a chapter-by-chapter outline did was convince me that outlining removed my need to tell the story with an actual novel—I got a few chapters into drafting it and then gave up, my driving need to write that book gone. After that experience, I usually plunged into my books with a decent idea of what the protagonist was like and a very hazy concept of what the plot could end up being, and let the story take me where it would. I’d make a rough outline as I went, but that was it: I was committed to letting my stories grow organically.
Right up until last year, as my daughter hit her second birthday and her naps were dwindling rapidly. I was losing anything that resembled regular, uninterrupted writing time, and was now forced to write in drips and drabs—ten minutes here, twenty there, maybe forty-five minutes at night a few evenings a week if I was lucky. Each super-short writing session increased my frustration, since it felt like it took me at least that long just to get back into the flow of story, let alone producing meaningful content. I knew that if I was going to make a true go of writing as a career, I needed to change my methods.
In May of 2015, I attended the LDStorymakers conference in Provo, Utah for the second time. While there I attended a myriad of fabulous classes, but one in particular that lit a fire under me and gave me the courage I needed to ditch my pantsing ways and switch to—gulp—plotting on my next project. The class was taught by author extraordinaire Melanie Jacobson, who said she’d switched from pantsing to plotting a few books into her career, after realizing that she was regularly having to cut and rewrite enormous chunks of her stories before they could go to print. After that wakeup call, she started using a revised version of Rachel Aaron’s plotting method—one that doesn’t require you to be writing full-time—which she’s been using ever since. Melanie shared lots of her productivity-boosting tips in the class, and finished up with a challenge for everyone there to try it out at least once.
I went home scared but inspired, determined to put on my big-girl pants and plot my way into greater productivity. I started plotting my next book on the flight home from the conference, one notecard at a time. After a week or two, when I was ready to begin drafting, I was shocked to realize that I was now regularly able to write a thousand words in half an hour. Even when I was stuck or distracted, I was getting at least half that—a far sight better than anything I’d been able to do before. I also was much, much more able to maintain my focus and re-access my “writing zone” better when I had to split writing sessions up into small segments throughout the day. In just about every rubric I used, my productivity had at least doubled.
And that wasn’t the only benefit—I also was able to make much better use of writing tools like subplots, themes, and objective correlatives, because as I outlined I was able to see which sections those things were lacking in. In that book, for instance, I needed my main character’s mother to be under a lot of stress, and decided that one way I’d do that would be to make the main character’s baby sister a spitfire prone to massive temper tantrums. As I outlined, I was able to make sure that the baby sister was having meltdowns frequently enough that a reader would easily be able to see the stress her personality was putting on the mother. I was also able to make sure that other subplots, themes, and metaphors were carried all the way through the book, evenly balanced in each of its acts. As a result, instead of having to fight to unearth the aspects that make a book emotionally resonant in revision (the way I always had before!), I was able to work them right in to the first draft.
As I drafted, my outline was neither perfect nor foolproof. I made changes as I went—about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that the thing I’d outlined as my climactic event just wasn’t working, and I ended up bringing in a new plotline that dramatically changed my book’s course (and even its genre). And, of course, I still had to do plenty of ripping out and rewriting as I revised. But, to put that in perspective: With my last pantsed novel, which I revised during Pitch Wars 2015, I had to change the order of almost every chapter and rewrite probably upwards of 50,000 words. With my first plotted novel, I was able to leave the structure exactly as it was, and while there were a few chapters here or there that were trimmed or rewritten and one plotline whose timeline changed during my revision, the changes I made were much smaller and more manageable.
And one last thing: my new outlining system? It’s fun! As I worked through it for the first time, it felt like doing all the most delightful parts of writing—researching, daydreaming, and creating the raw stuff of story—without the anxiety and insecurity that comes from actually drafting or the tooth-grinding frustration of revision. I always enjoyed the excitement of pantsing a book, the thrill of sitting down at a keyboard and watching the story take shape before my eyes—but this was like that feeling distilled down, without any of the very real angst that comes with having to dump large sections of a pantsed book because they didn’t support the overall arc strongly enough.
I gotta say, after having done it this way? I can’t imagine going back to pantsing again anytime soon. As a querying writer, I also experienced much more measurable success with my outlined book than any book I’d ever queried before; I ended up with ten agent offers! A few of the agents involved had read my previous (pantsed) book, and as we were chatting on the phone during the offer call, mentioned that the plot of the new book was so much stronger and tighter than the plot of the old book—a fact I definitely attribute to the outlining system I used!
Check back next week for part two of my “pantsing to plotting” series, in which I’ll give a breakdown of how I plot now!
I’ll admit it: drafting a novel is my least favorite part of the whole process.
Wait, wait! Before you ban me from the super-secret writer’s society, let me explain. I love coming up with a story—noodling a raw idea around in my head until it is a great al dente. I love revisions—adding tasty ingredients to the sauce until plain tomato becomes gourmet marinara. I even love editing—the sprinkle of parmesan cheese and the fine china.
But drafting? That’s chopping onions. I know they are going to make the meal tasty, but by themselves they are unsatisfying, too crunchy and pungent, and prone to making me cry.
Some people are shocked when I tell them I spend more time in the planning phase than the drafting phase. But the more time I spend thinking and writing about character backstories and wounds and the major plot points of a novel, the faster and easier it is to write the novel.
Is it a procrastination technique? Sometimes, yes. The more time I spend planning the novel, the fewer words I have to pound out on a keyboard on any given day. Nothing is less sexy than talking about daily word count. It’s way more romantic to sit on the couch in the wee morning hours with a cup of coffee and my notebook, pondering theme and symbolism.
“But real writers write,” you may protest. “BIC time is the mark of a professional! I’m supposed to type X number of words per day until they come pry my cold dead hands off the keyboard!”
Patience, my intense friend. Nothing about time thinking is time wasted. As long as I’m actively thinking about the story and the characters and not scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, thinking can be more valuable than typing.
My first ideas aren’t the best ones. If I had the seed of a story idea and immediately started typing, chances are the whole book would have to be rewritten from scratch—if I even made it to The End in the first place. Ideas take some time to marinate before they get really juicy. The more time the book is on my brain, the better it becomes.
To a certain extent. At some point, the thinking does become procrastinating and I have to throw all the ingredients together and hope the delicacy I planned doesn’t burn. That’s where it becomes Hell’s Kitchen or Top Chef. Here’s your time limit: GO! But even within the frenzy of fast drafting—chopping and mixing and measuring and trying not to get hair in the pot—there’s room for thinking time. For me, there has to be. My original ideas evolve, and by the time I get to the next turning point, I have to figure out what else it needs. Maybe I got overzealous with the garlic in act one, or spilled a can of tomatoes at the midpoint. These things can be resolved mid-stream with a little extra thinking time. I could plow ahead with no tomatoes or a breath-destroying base…or I can adjust the recipe accordingly.
The extra time it takes to really think about your novel can be the difference between an award-winning entrée and a mishmash of whatever is in your kitchen at the time. I know where I’m eating. Bon appetit!
There’s something about Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton, that is. And there’s something about the epic new musical that shakes up everything we ever thought about Broadway. Alexander Hamilton is “young, scrappy, and hungry.” And as writers, it’s impossible not to identify with his intense ambition, his passionate lyrics, and his willingness to do what it takes to survive.
As I’ve been tapping into my own ambition to tackle some big revisions in the PitchWars manuscript I’m querying, Hamilton has been in the background. I’ve blasted it from my computer, my car, anytime I need to fill my heart and mind with the intensity of ambition, of a nation so young it can barely crawl.
About to start a duel? Any Hamilton cast member will tell you there are “10 things you need to know.” About to start a revision? There are only 5 things you need to know.
You know you need to do the revisions, but just thinking about it makes you want to hide under your desk. Maybe an agent has sent you some awesome ideas for revision, or other readers have pointed out some cracks in your plot. Pout a little, then put on your big-girl panties (or briefs, for you gents). And within the week, dive in. If George Washington had escaped the Battle of Yorktown to pout and eat ice cream at Mount Vernon, none of us would be here.
This is the R&R anthem. Maybe you were hoping for an offer from an agent, but the agent asks you to revise and resubmit instead. Don’t despair. This is incredible. This is YOUR SHOT. This agent has spotted something special in you. It would have been easy to send a nice “thanks but no thanks” but instead this agent has chosen to spend their time helping you make your book the best it can be. This is golden. Do not throw it away.
Whatever revisions you need to make, you’re exactly where you need to be. Set big goals, set sub-goals, but don’t sacrifice quality in a rush to speed things back out into the great querying universe. There is no reward for being the first one back out.
Sad but true. No matter how many readers you’ve had, how many tabs on your revision spreadsheet, things will never feel complete even after you’ve obsessed over every line of feedback on your to-tackle list. Stop right before you’re at the point of sabotaging all the good work you’re already done.
Why? Why do you do it? Why do you write; why do you revise? Because you love it. Because as writers, we all love it. Be true to your craft and your vision of the story while remaining open to the visions and possibilities that others present.
Alternatively titled: It’s your revision, cry if you want to
Or narcissistically titled: Bow down, I am the Revision Queen
In the past year, I’ve taken the same MS through two BIG revisions. Like, for real, BIGGGG jobs.
During the first revision I cut somewhere around 30k words, then wrote about 20k new ones. I made a huge structural change to how the story was told. I added a new character and a new subplot. I completely changed the ending of the book. It was better.
Then, a few months later, I found myself cutting another 30k (ish) words. I added about 8k new ones. I condensed an eight-month timeline down to three, which meant rewriting the first act and dealing with the fallout (including changing the entire arc of one of the relationships). I removed the character and subplot I’d added in revision 1. I merged a few other goings-ons later in the story. Again, it was better.
After each of those revisions I declared “I’m never doing that again.”
I would do it again.
Because here’s the thing, each time, my MS was significantly better.
And now that I know my first victory over the BIG REVISION wasn’t just a fluke, here’re my best practices for survival:
Figure out what you need to do. Figure out how to track it.
This may sound obvious, but when you’re faced with a BIG revision, organization is key. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as it’s something that works for you. Make a clear roadmap of what you need to do, and track what’s still on the list to tackle.
I’ve done this a few ways: In excel, with detailed lists of what needs to change in each scene and color coded tracking to see my progress. In Scrivener, using the notecard feature as a “to do” list and emoji check marks ✔️ in the nav to see which scenes were done. And, of course, the classic paper and pencil route.
There’s no right or wrong way here, but you’ll need something to stay afloat.
Start small. Celebrate what you get done vs. stressing about what’s left.
Trust me, you’ll feel better. Looking at your MS when you’re facing a BIIIG revision is kinda like dumping a bazillion piece puzzle on the table and then realizing that all the pieces are upside down and you can’t flip them over. It’s overwhelming.
Once you’ve got a road map, pick something to do first. Just one thing. And do it. Try not to think about the rest of the things on the list, just make sure you’re doing that one thing right and well.
Then, celebrate that it’s done! Pat yourself on the back. Get a cookie. Whatever. You did a thing, and while it may feel like NOTHING in the grand scheme of the HUGE revision, it’s a thing, and it’s done, and eventually they’ll start piling up to feel like progress.
Then, take a deep breath, pick a new thing. Repeat forever.
Turn off your feelings (and possibly your soul).
If you’re facing a big revision, it’s likely you’re gonna have to kill some darlings. Get cold. Get objective. If things need to go, they need to go. Sometimes they’re good things. Sometimes they’re clever things or sweet things or funny things. Things you still like, but they just don’t fit anymore.
Save them somewhere, maybe they’ll fit elsewhere. But don’t waste valuable revision time and energy forcing them. You’ve got bigger things to do, let them go. You wrote good things, you’ll write more good things. Keep moving forward.
Get fresh eyes.
Find a beta read who’s never read a previous version. You want someone with no previous knowledge of your characters, world, or plot to see if your changes are having the right impact.
Someone who’s read a previous version will still have good insights (e.g., “I thought this scene was stronger in the previous draft,” “I thought that scene you deleted gave strong insight into X character”), but they’ll also have previous knowledge that will skew their read. They’ll be reading to compare. New eyes will catch new things.
So take a deep breath, go forth! Attack Revise! Win!