revising, part 1: first draft

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Rachael, who’s been chosen as a runner-up in the Modern Heat contest (hooray!), posted a comment asking me to talk about how I revise my work. I assume this is because you’re facing revisions, too, Rachael?

She said: Would love to hear more about how you revise and whether this is purely from editorial feedback or you have a method of revision you go through for each book.

I think it’s because I’ve been working to such tight deadlines for the past four years, or maybe it’s because I’m half-pantser half-plotter, but when I write a first draft, I don’t tend to revise at all, or minimally. If the scene I’m writing is rubbish, I’ll scrap it and start over, but I won’t go backwards in the book to fix stuff I’ve already done some time ago.

There are two reasons for this: one is that I’m a perfectionist, and could easily get caught up with making everything “perfect” before I move on, which would mean I’d never get a book done. The second is that I never know precisely what’s going to happen as the book goes on, so it makes more sense to revise earlier parts once I’ve finished the whole book, when I’m confident of the story, the emotional arc, the structure, the imagery and symbolism, where I need to scrap or add subplot, etc. Otherwise, I’ll have revised it earlier for nothing.

This means that in theory, once I’m done with a first draft, I can have a lot of revising to do. For the past few books, though, that hasn’t happened. I think I’ve been lucky, and had a fairly clear vision of the characters from the start and the kind of plot and structure that were necessary. Most of my revisions have been to add depth, flesh out plot and character, or refine what was there in rough from the beginning.

With this book I’m working on now, though, a lot needs to change. Even such basic things as the verb tense. A couple of the secondary characters are totally wrong at first, I wrote lots of unnecessary bumpf to write myself into the book, and the subplots are off. About midway through I came up with lots of ideas that I thought would solve my problems, and as I wrote I incorporated them in as if they’d been there all along. Some of those ideas work, and some of them don’t and have to be scrapped. I’m going to have to rewrite or seriously change most of the first 30,000 words.

The upshot of all of this is, that composing and revising are, for me, two different processes. I know some people can revise as they go, but I don’t choose to. I could, but I think it would slow me down and I’d end up revising a lot more.

Anyway, with this book that needs lots of revision I expect I’ll follow the same revision process as normal. And I’ll talk about that a little bit later, tonight or tomorrow, because now I have to tend to cranky child.

And eat chocolate.

(This discussion continued in part 2 and part 3 and part 4 and part 5.)

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  1. I love these posts of yours….thanks 🙂

  2. I love burbling on about process and craft and what I’m learning (or what I should be learning, anyway), so this has been a fun couple of weeks of blogging for me.

    Send your friends over! 😉

  3. Ah revising.. I love hearing your revision process, Julie!

    I tend to revise as I go along these days. I do a few chapters then sit down with a pen and mark up the ms. I just can’t face the thought of huge rewrites at the end or an editorial hatchet job. 🙂 On saying that, I decided to do a massive rewrite of my March 2009 LBD about 6 weeks from deadline. I think it saved me from any editorial pian, thank goodness. Previous one, Just Say Yes, went ‘as sweet as a nut’ (as my gran used to say) from start to finish.

    Don’t you find that nothing *ever* goes to plan with novel writing!

  4. I think, though, Phillipa, that you are more sensible than I and actually know what’s going to happen in your stories as you write them? Rather than discovering the most basic things as you go along?

    6 weeks from deadline?!?! That’s very well organised. I’m usually revising right up to the day before.

    And yup, you’re right there–nothing ever goes to plan in this business.

  5. I’m not very sensible at all *only* because LBD, rightly, make me do a proposal. As for the six weeks, I had to abandon all my other work (the REAL work ahem) to rewrite ISHBM as I just didn’t think it was working. I handed it in a few days before deadline. I like it now> 🙂

    I’ve had to work to deadlines of just a few hours for all my writing career and I get the same adrenaline rush with a big project. I feel physically ill If I’m not ahead or on of schedule!

  6. Great post Julie. I’m a panster who’s trying to be more a plotter so I get the basics of the story right and don’t focus on the wrong things. However what seems to have happened is that I’ve slowed right down in output and it worries me. At the rate I’m going I don’t think I’ll complete an ms for years, as I get really hung up trying to make everything perfect as I go.

    Perhaps I should stick with the pantsing and focus more on revision at the end like you. It used to work well for me.

  7. Ahhhhh, Phillipa….proposals. *shudder*

    I know, I feel panicky when I’m behind, too. Adrenaline is good, but only so far.

  8. Carol, maybe it’s worth trying to write without revision, just to get the flow going again. With my first few mss before I was published, I revised as I went; it was mostly after I had deadlines that I developed this way of working and I do think it works better for me.

    But different things work for different people.

  9. Sounds a bit like what I do, although I’m not a perfectionist. I tend to write the story in one go, no edits, then once I’ve written the first draft go back and amend anything which I might have made notes on. Unless it’s the current chapter then I might go back and either add or delete words etc. This book I’m working on now I will have to go back and do many may cuts because it’s going to be way too long for the age range and longer than my first book. Oh well, have an idea what I need to cut. Maybe I would change this routine if I was doing it to deadline.

  10. Thanks Julie! IT’s so interesting to hear about writing and rewriting process.

    After a recent full request I had to add in about 10k to a mss and that meant quite a lot of revising. Still don’t think I quite got it right but I’m hoping revising will be better now that I have more of an idea where to target my writing!


  11. Fascinating reading all the ideas regarding revising. For months I’ve been thinking I’m doing it all wrong to discover that truthfully, there isn’t a “wrong” way, but minor adjustments by the individual writer is the way to go. Yegads I torment myself so much.
    I’m a pantser/plotter combined …my first two completed novels were write/revise after putting scenes together, not always created consecutively either, but it worked, just writing scenes as they came into my head and then putting them together…hmmm…who said writing is easy…must be “daft” as you British would say. lol
    I don’t have a great sure thing plan to write a novel (sigh) and probably never will. Thanks Julie

  12. Julie, I agree with you that it’s a good idea to finish the first draft, even if it’s too long, before you decide what to cut. And also that you’d tend to know what needs cutting even before you finish. Good luck with it!

  13. Thanks for asking me to blog about revisions, Rachael! I love talking about craft and process, and hearing about how others do things.

    Adding 10K can be surprisingly easy–it’s adding the *right* 10K that’s hard. I think you’re right, too, that having a definite market and audience (and even editor) in mind can help a lot with revising your work.

  14. Hi Judith, and welcome!

    You’re totally right that revision process totally depends on the individual author. It also depends on the individual ms. I’ve had mss that I thought needed very little revision, but my editor and agent disagreed. 🙂 Similarly, mss that I thought still needed a lot of work, but my editor loved as it was (well, okay, only one of those).

    I guess the thing is that as you write more and more, you learn what works for you, and when that stops working so well, you try something else.

  15. Can’t wait! And yes, it IS beautiful 🙂

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