The Long Revision Slog


Last night (or rather this morning) at 3 a.m., I finished the revision of Crimson Wind, the second in my Horngate Witches series. It was a truly difficult revision. A long slog, as my title suggests. I usually love revisions. I think much of the real writing of a book or story happens in revision. What I mean by that is that in your draft, you try to capture the story as well as possible, but in revision, you look over the whole and you see where you can push at theme, develop character, strengthen plot, escalate tension, tighten prose and dialog, and generally take the book to the next level. Or up several levels.

This time the revision was really hard. It was worth it by far–this is a much much much better book–but it was truly difficult. When I first wrote the book, I had the worst time with the opening–which in this case, encompassed the first 7 chapters. The problem was that I had two points of view and a lot of what was happening overlapped in terms of time, so in switching points of view, I would have to take a step back in time in terms of: meanwhile, back at the castle . . . (no, there were no meanwhile back at the castle lines, but you get the point). That made for a very disjointed narrative line. But that wasn’t the only problem.

Those first chapters didn’t have a lot of action. They had a lot of tension and actually there was a very amount going on, but it didn’t seem to build together well and it didn’t seem a proper foundation for the rest of the book. Yet it was ALL necessary. It had to be there to make character motivations and later developments work. So in the course of preparing the book for my editor, I rewrote those chapters from scratch several times, and then I revised and tweaked and poked and chopped until I had what I considered to be “good enough.” I knew it wouldn’t stand, but I had reached the point where I didn’t have a clue how to fix it and oh, yeah, there was a that pesky deadline. So I sent it in, hoping that my editor and agent would pinpoint the real problem that I couldn’t see and then I would be able to proceed.

In the meantime, my beta readers responded and they were generally happy with it. But I still wasn’t. I knew it could be better. So I continued to poke and revise while I waited for my editorial letter and agent response. My agent responded first. She agreed that there were problems and offered some pretty specific critiques. The angels sang. I finally had some direction to take for revision. I took her comments and started evaluating the manuscript. Her comments allowed me to truly re-see (re-vision) the book and so I began to work.

But it was really hard. Knowing what to do was one thing. Doing it was another. It felt like building a house of cards. I had to balance things carefully and gently impose each next element without knocking the rest down. There was so much going on and I could feel when something wasn’t right. Sometimes I spent hours and hours on a single small scene,  tinkering with it until I felt it click into place and I knew emotionally that that part of the story was solid. It felt a little bit like cracking a safe–listing hard to hear the tumblers fall as I gentle turn the dial into place.

I’m not sure my metaphors are conveying what I want them to. I truly feared that this book was broken and beyond my skill to repair. I was relying more on trial and error and instinct to tell me if things were weaving properly. I was combing over and over the same material and then inserting tiny little pieces to get it right. Here’s one more metaphor–it felt a little bit like tuning an instrument and listening to hear if the sound was clear and true or if it wobbled and was slightly off key. Even slightly would have made later chapters and developments fall flat.

So as I said, I sent it off last night. I think it hits on all notes and I’m really proud of the book. I’m also terrified that I don’t have enough distance to really tell. Time will tell. Rather you–readers–will tell. I’m glad I didn’t give up and settle for good enough. I’m glad I kept pushing myself to make it the book I wanted it to be. Sometimes it was a hard and difficult slog through deep sticky mud, but I made it to the other side and it was worth it.


15 comments to The Long Revision Slog

  • I know what you mean. Some books are a pleasure to revise and others are painful. I have two going through the process right now and I have reached that “I can’t tell if it works or not” stage. Thank heavens for critique groups.

  • Critique groups are gold if they are good. Good luck!

  • “Re-see (re-vision)” That is a little gem of wisdom that I will carry with me for the rest of my days. Thank you, Di. I have done revisions on more than a dozen books, but never have I thought of the word as anything more than a variation on “revise”. But of course, you’re absolutely right. When we revise, we re-examine — we do everything we can to see the book anew and test that old vision from which the prose originally sprung. Again, thank you for this.

  • Oh, and congrats on getting the rewrites done. That feeling of reworking a book and nailing it is so satisfying. I’m glad for you

  • It seems to me that whenever you’re doing something structurally nonstandard, there has to be a certain amount of “seat of the pants”. We’re so hardwired for expected patterns; in order to satisfy, stories must either conform to those patterns or break them while still satisfying the unwritten rules that govern them. There’s no choice but to feel our ways through. It’s hard–but the stories that succeed on these terms are the ones that take our breath away. Can’t wait to see what you’ve done!

  • This post is great! Not that massive struggling is great, but the idea that you have to literally “re-see” your work is fabulous. It’s something I try to impress on my Composition students. “Revision” isn’t the same as “editing.” It’s rethinking what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, what the point of a particular word, sentence, paragraph, etc. is. I have gone through this with some of my work (fiction and non-fiction) and your description of it was spot on. It is also always great to hear about a writer successfully getting through the process and making it work. Congrats!

  • Mikaela

    This post is great. And it is spot on with the troubles I have been having. I know that there are problems, but I cannot see them. So far, I have “solved” it by simply putting the draft aside. For awhile ( 3-6 months), and then returning to it. It works, but I know it is ineffective.

  • Bill Hause

    Great post, thank you very much. Congrats on getting it done. I do have a revision question for you… What kind of pattern do you use to revise…Do you read through a scene changing things as you here them or do you have a checklist of things you are looking for…Large stuff then tinker with sentences…

  • Di! Yea, on the re-vision!
    Like David, I will carry that word with me. I can’t wait to see how your opening chapters ended up.

  • David–Thanks for the congrats! Looky! I have wisdom! Wheee!

  • Barbara–well said. I can’t wait to find out if what I’ve done is actually good! I think so, but . . .

  • Peafaerie–exactly.

    Mikaela–setting it aside is terrific. I wish I could get things done earlier so I had time to set aside.

  • Bill–I’m a terribly linear writer. I fix things as I go along. I have a frind who combs out the big stuff and then goes back for the small. I haven’t mastered that. I do it all at once, chapter by chapter. This time required a lot of pulling threads out of the original draft and reweaving them. But I had to do it starting from a new beginning and working forward, and making sure each piece was set and sound before I moved on. I try to make a list of things that I need to get done, but I rarely look at it. I end up working on instinct.

  • Faith-I came so close to sending you chapters to see what you thought about it as a book and about it as a sequel to BN. I so hope it works.

  • Di,
    Seeing you slog through revisions during Word Wars is one thing, but hearing about those struggles in detail… wow. Glad to see you got it all worked out and sent off. Here’s hoping your editor likes the story and can maybe help you pinpoint exactly what needs to be tweaked.