We here at Magical Words have posted before about revisions and our editors’ revision letters. I’m going to write about it again today, not only because I’ve been casting about for a topic for today’s post, and not only because I happen to be in the middle of revisions, but also because it’s nearly impossible to understate the importance of the revision process to the quality of a completed novel. You know those stores that sell unfinished furniture? The desks and dressers and chests are all put together; they’re solid and everything fits. But they haven’t been properly sanded; there’s no stain on the wood, no finish to make them shine. That’s what even the best novel would be like without revisions. Yes, the structure would be solid; you’d be able to tell that the author had plied his/her craft well. But it wouldn’t be done.
I received the revision notes on book III of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy from my editor this past week. He had a few issues with the book, and pointed to one scene in particular that needed to be reworked. Aside from that though, this promises to be a fairly easy revision, dealing mostly with small matters of phrasing and tone. There may be a couple of other scenes that need to be tightened or expanded, toned down or punched up. Things of that sort. Still, even though the revisions on this book will be limited, I wouldn’t want too many people to see it until I’ve had a chance to go over the manuscript again.
For me, the revision process is about more than fixing problems my editor identifies. It also offers me the chance to edit myself. It’s been a few months since I finished this book. Reading it through now, I can see things in my own writing that I missed earlier and that my editor didn’t notice or didn’t mind. Some of them are subtle; some are so glaring I’m embarrassed to think that ANYONE has read the thing. (“Good God, David! Did you really write that?! Were you drunk? Asleep? Just plain stupid?”)
In a larger sense, reading the book over for revisions allows me to experience the book fresh, to see how the narrative flows, how the characters develop, how the language sounds. If I had my way I’d finish a book and put it away for three months before sending it out to anyone, including my editor and my agent. I immerse myself in my writing, and I often can’t see everything clearly in the days just after I’ve finished a novel. Waiting a month or two would allow me to put some distance between the creative process and that first critical look at the finished product. More often than not, though, I can’t afford the time. I usually finish my books on time, but just barely. I finish them, polish a little, and send them out to my editor. I can do this in part because I know that I’ll have another pass at each book when the revision letter comes back. By then, I have that distance, and I can find the passages that don’t work. And, just as important, I can see the ones that do. There’s something special about reading through a book I’ve written and finding something that I don’t remember writing but just love, be it a turn of phrase or a snippet of dialogue that I’ve nailed. I have to be my own critic, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to pat myself on the back, as well.
The revision process on this book has been especially challenging and rewarding. Because an editor is bound to take some time going over a manuscript, it’s not uncommon for an author to get back a revision letter on one book while s/he is in the middle of writing the next one, or even done with the next one. When the revision letter for book I of the Southlands series came in, I was well into writing book II, and with book II, I was already writing the series finale. In this case, the revision letter for book III has come in after I’m done writing the first book of a new, unrelated series. After living in the Forelands/Southlands universe for eight years — creatively speaking — I’ve moved on. My head is filled with the details of a new world, with the stories and voices of new characters, with new story lines. It’s not easy stepping back into the Southlands.
And yet, I have no choice. On the one hand, it’s been hard to make the transition. I want to get back to the new shiny. I’m ready to begin writing the second book in the new project, and the last thing I want to do is move backwards into the old series. It would be like someone taking away my new iMac and telling me that I had to go back to working on my vintage 2001 Windows machine again. [Shudder…] On the other hand, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing this last book. Without realizing it, I’d come to miss these old characters and their world.
What does this post have to offer those of you who don’t yet have an editor sending you revision letters? A couple of things, I hope. We’ve said this before at MW, but it bears repeating: A book is never going to be perfect. And in fact, in our quest for perfection we can overwork a book and make it too precious, too studied; we can rob it of the spontaneity and passion that made it worth writing in the first place. If you’re struggling with a book, and feel that you can’t get it quite where you want it, maybe you should stop working on it and put it away. Not for a day, not for a week, but for a season or even two. Write something else. Put some creative distance between yourself and your book. And then go back to it and read it through, not as the writer who first created it, but as your own editor. Resist the temptation to begin revising as soon as you encounter that first imperfection. Instead, read it beginning to end and make notes to yourself. Truly submerge yourself in the role of editor. Even write yourself a letter outlining all that you love about the book and all that you think needs work. (That first part is crucial — don’t skip it! It’s important that we give ourselves credit when we get things right.)
Then, armed with your own editorial notes, begin the rewrites. Eventually, when you’re working on your fourth or fifth or sixth book, you won’t need to go to these lengths to self-edit. But at this stage, you can do yourself more good by stepping out of the role of writer and into the role of editor. You’ll be teaching yourself to edit your own work (a skill every writer needs) and I guarantee that you’ll see things in your writing — positive and negative — that you’ve never noticed before.
David B. Coe