Beth Bernobich: The Revision Monster


BethBernobichThe moment you finish your first draft, you are filled with delight. (And often, exhaustion.)

But let’s focus on the delight. You did it! You finished this most amazing and wonderful novel and you hope everyone loves it as much as you do, which is lots and lots and lots and…

Eventually you stop squeeing and climb down from the clouds. Maybe you spend a week or so retrieving your house from chaos. You catch up on life and family and everything else you neglected, including sleep.

Finally, a week or a month later, you open up the document for your amazing, sparkling draft and…

And here, the reactions vary. Some writers revise as they go along. They end up with a first draft that’s really a final draft. But others (like me) stare at the screen with dismay.

How am I ever going to fix this? I wonder.

Same as we do every other time, Pinky.

The first time you confront a messy first draft, revision might look like a horrible monster that will eat you alive. Once you’ve gone through the process–whatever that particular process is–a few times, you start to recognize the phases. You might still go through that first rush of panic, but you start to trust yourself.

It’s a mess, I think. But I can fix it.

Again, this is just my own approach, but here is how I tackle revisions.

First I save a copy of the original draft and make backups of everything.

TheTimeRoads.CoverThen I print the whole document and lock myself in my office to read the manuscript in batches. I don’t stop to make corrections. My goal here is to capture a picture of the book as a reader might see it. The pacing and flow. The rhythm of the prose. The parts where information is missing, or where it’s presented in confusing or contradictory ways. If a section makes no sense, I draw a question mark in the margin. If the prose is clunky, I draw a line next to those paragraphs. But I don’t stop to figure out how to fix the problem.

Once I’ve made this first pass, I make a general assessment of the manuscript’s main problems. Was I too soft on my characters? Did the ending seem rushed? Did any part of the story seem too simplistic? Is anything missing?

At this point, I remember Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. My book is a flock of birds, so I tackle them one by one, chapter by chapter. I figure out how to answer those question marks. I iron out the wrinkles of the prose. I cut and trim and compress the slow parts, and add the information, or sometimes entire chapters, that I missed the first time around.

This takes a while.

When I’m done, I have a version that is ready for wider feedback. And I need to have fresh eyes look at this story. I need those impressions and suggestions, because by this time, I’m so immersed in the world and the characters, it’s often hard to see what works and what doesn’t.

When I’ve collected everyone’s feedback, I read their comments all at once, then each one again. This gives me the group picture as well as the individual reactions. Maybe they all tell me the middle section needs more work. Or maybe they all loved the part where the main characters meet for the first time.

I let this all simmer and percolate for a while, then I tackle the third draft. I fix and spackle and cut and add. Then I print the whole thing again and read it through out loud. Here is where I catch any last missing pieces, or the prose that is almost, but not quite right. Just as I did before, I don’t stop to figure out how to rewrite any section. I just draw a line in the margin.

Pause. Another backup. One last pass to call it done.

And that’s how I conquer the revision monster.


BIO: Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in, Asimov’s, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Her first novel, PASSION PLAY, won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy in 2011. Her newest release, THE TIME ROADS, is available from Tor Books October 14, 2014.


2 comments to Beth Bernobich: The Revision Monster

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for your post, Beth. I guess this confirms that I’ve got the basic approach down, I’m just **sllooooww**. Been working on that third-draft stage since the spring, but I guess that means the end is, well, coming up anyway.

    Any suggestions for boosting flagging enthusiasm in this last stage? My spackle is going on sort of gloopy.

  • Hey, Hepseba. I’m glad my post was helpful.

    Flagging enthusiasm is not unusual. I remember going through revisions for The Time Roads and thinking, “I hate this book. I never want to see it again. Blah!” (And I’m someone with a painful need to finish things and finish them right.) When that happens, I take a break from editing. I re-read a favorite book. Or I switch media and watch a good movie. I remind myself that it’s bird by bird and there’s no rush. (Even when there is.)

    Or sometimes, I go back and re-read what I’ve already edited, because that reminds me I *can* do this and look how well that last chapter turned out.

    Or I talk with a writer friend who’s read the previous draft. And they tell me they love my work, they want to see more, and they are looking forward to the new draft.

    And remember to breathe. To be kind to yourself. It might sound goopy, but it’s true.