I read somewhere that readers don’t want to know how a book gets made. Don’t reveal the magic! Let the creative process remain a mystery! But this is a site for novelists, so . . . please step inside the sausage factory for all the gory details on second (and subsequent) drafts!
In my How to Finish: Project Management Techniques for Writers class, I tell my students that sitting down to write or revise without a plan is like going into a meeting without an agenda. Highly unproductive and super irritating. But unlike other people’s meetings, where we can’t control the agenda — unless you’re like me and ask, “What’s the goal of this meeting?” and if they don’t have one, you exit stage right — you can control what happens when you sit down to write.
Easier said than done, though, amiright?
I already wrote a post about the agony of second drafts. At the end of the post, I mentioned that second drafts are like giant menstrual cramps. I stand by that statement. What was missing was how I went about getting to the upside of the cramp. I had motivation but no plan. No idea what to do once I sat down. No agenda. Hence, I’m still working on the same second draft I groaned about back when I wrote the post in [looks at post date] 2015. Ahem.
I am on the upside of the cramp now because I finally figured out a revision approach that works for me. In the spirit of transparency and helping others, today I pull back the curtain and show you the inner workings of my revision approach. But first . . .
Different strokes for different folks
Different people have different styles of revision. Some people are able to revise as they go. There are people who outline vs. pantsers (those who “write by the seat of their pants”). I approach a first draft like a sprint. I try not to stop. My main goal is to get ideas down and see what I have at the end, even if it’s a piece of shit.
There’s something really satisfying about a shitty first draft. There’s no pressure to be great. I write all the way to the end and don’t worry about it. Sometimes, I write THE END when I hit a specific word count goal because I don’t know what the story will be until I’ve begun to revise. I could write 200 pages before I actually get to the story. And I won’t know that until I read through all those pages.
There’s no right way to revise. There’s only what works for you. More important than how you revise is that you actually revise. However, many beginning writers approach revision as if it’s merely rewriting sentences or moving them here and there. The task of revision is either too daunting or they haven’t learned how to apply a critical eye to their own work. A lot of writers either give up or they go out with their novels too soon and become either discouraged or angry or both when agents don’t bite.
Don’t do that. Revise instead.
My writing and revision process
Revision is daunting whether you approach it for the first time or the fiftieth. It’s the subject I’ve written about most on this site. But it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming. This is where I put on my project manager hat and talk about process. You may not have figured out a process of your own yet. If you have, then you’re ahead of the game. But many writers are flummoxed when they stare at their pages and begin revision (remember: meetings without agendas, ugh). Where do we start?
It’s easy to lose your way and forget where to begin when you work on one novel for years. It’s not exactly like riding a bike, but sort of. You know the basics, but you still fall down at least once anyway. Or, at least I do.
Students in my Project Management for Writers class also wanted to know what sorts of tasks were involved in my revision process and asked me to share some of the details of what I wrote on the whiteboard during that section of the class. This is what I wrote (basically):
- Write the first draft through to the end.
- Put the first draft away for at least a month, sometimes a year.
- Write something else. Critical. Avoid “all eggs in one basket” syndrome.
- Read-through of draft:
- Highlight (literally, with markers) Good, Fix, Bad when reading the first draft to identify what’s working and what’s not working. Avoid mega notes. Let the suck envelop you.
- Assess overall issues with plot, structure, characters, point of view, tension, pacing, etc. Cry.
- Assess what each main character wants: Want, Obstacle, Action. This is from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Many drafts suffer from the author not being clear on what the characters want. Ask:
- What does your character want?
- What is your character’s obstacle?
- What action does your character take to get what they want?
- Create a new outline for the next draft. Determine which existing scenes need to be deleted or rewritten and which new scenes need to be written. I attended Mary Carroll Moore’s session on the W Structure at last year’s Muse and the Marketplace Writers’ Conference session and found it helpful for ensuring that the pacing doesn’t drag and that there are critical turning points for characters throughout. I also assess it based on the Three Act Structure. Just for good measure.
- Assess every scene based on Michelle Hoover’s instruction. This is the most helpful tool I’ve used for revision, hands down. She shared it at a Novel Incubator writing retreat. I’ll see if I can convince her to teach a class about it because it’s incredible. It requires a lot of time and thought, but writing isn’t exactly Paint by Numbers, so there you go. The gist involves assessing every scene to ensure that you have:
- A clear beginning
- Character desire & action (from Michelle Hoover and Lisa Borders)
- Concrete desire of a character: The specific object, situation, person, or achievement your protagonist desires.
- Abstract desire of a character: The abstract or intangible component of your protagonist’s desire: love, freedom, power, control, etc. This is often why your character desires his or her concrete desire. The abstract desire deepens the meaning of the story as you go. Without an abstract desire, your story risks feeling flat and less resonant to readers.
- Antagonists & Fears
- Setting & Physicality details: all the sensory details that enhance a scene
- A turning point: this is the most important element to ensure that shit happens in your story and that there are stakes for your characters. Otherwise, why should a reader care? Why would they continue reading?
- A clear ending
- Ensure the main plot and subplots have an arc by the end and support each other.
- Rewrite draft based on the W Structure and the scene exercises.
- One or two times between 2nd draft and before micro revision: Send draft to writing group for feedback on full novel. Incorporate feedback.
- Go back to #4 and repeat as many times as necessary until all the major issues have been addressed.
- Rewrite abstract or unclear sentences.
- Remove or replace weak or repetitive words and phrases, clichés, etc. I have a penchant for the word “just.”
- Read draft out loud to listen for sentence rhythm and variance, dialogue issues, and revise as necessary.
- Send revised draft to beta readers for feedback on final issues.
- Revise as necessary.
- Ship it, baby! (To my incredibly patient agent who has watched deadlines go flying by my head on this gnarly draft since 2015.)
I give myself deadlines for every item on this list. I highly recommend deadlines. Even if you pull it out of the air. It helps to have a date to work toward so you don’t lose momentum. And it helps you to create a writing habit. And if you miss them, like I do, create a new deadline.
Here’s what this process looks like in Scapple for my second novel:
There’s also Word, Excel, and Scrivener involved in this process. Yes, it is intense.
If it looks like a lot of work, it’s because it is. It also looks a lot like I imagine I do when I run: not pretty, but it gets the job done.
How many drafts does it take?
Much like the revision process, the number of drafts you need to get the story right is entirely up to you. In his book On Writing, Stephen King mentions that he typically writes three drafts. If I were to count, I would probably have about 12 drafts all told on my debut novel.
Take as many drafts as you need to get the story right. At the end of the day, that’s why we write: not for the fame or the fortune, because those things are not guaranteed. You can’t control any of that. What you can control is the story that you put out into the world.
You have to be willing to do the work. And writing is rewriting.
When you’re stuck:
Whenever I feel like I don’t know what to do next, I pull out my process and go from there. Still, writing blocks happen. For me, they’re more like frustration periods where I don’t know how to fix a story problem. Here are some of my go-to tools to help me think and get back on track:
- Read other books – in and outside of your genre. Reading is so critical and by far the best way to learn and to understand craft. By reading, you’ll pick up other structures and techniques and ideas. Analyze how and why the story works. Then apply the same critical eye to your own work.
- Ann Hood’s three story questions and positive/negative scene assessment as outlined by Celeste Ng.
- Save the Cat, Blake Snyder, beat sheet to see where I might add some stakes and dramz:
- Write something else. Rather than stop writing altogether, begin working on something else.
And when you’re feeling lost and like your story will never come out on the page as vividly and amazing as it does in your head, think about this closing quote, which comes from James Scott Bell:
“Repeat this often: It can be fixed. Neil Simon was once watching a play of his in rehearsal. It was obvious something wasn’t working. The director of the play knew it, too. In the darkness Simon wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it to the director. The note said, I can fix it.
That’s a phrase worth putting up in your writer’s space. Because a writing problem can be fixed. All it takes is tools and experience. And you get both the more you write and revise. Remember that. Any problem can be fixed.” — from James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self Editing
Writing is not for the faint of heart. With everyone vying for the attention of agents and editors and readers, a stomach for revision and the tenacity to keep at it can set you apart. As that famous Head & Shoulders commercial advises, “Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!