Revisions, revisions – button your raincoat

I”m not sure what’s going on this summer, but I’ve received a huge share of works that appear to have never been revised. It’s like the authors belched their story out in much the same manner as the beagle after a full platter of nachos and sent it out into the world where sharp fanged, black-hearted editors will tear them to shreds.

Not once did the authors feel the need to sit back and let their story just marinate in its own juices. If they had, they would have seen the warts – rushed storyline, undeveloped characters, weak plotting, syntax/grammar issues. Instead, those little eager beavers fall prey to premature submitulation.

Lesson 1: What’s the rush?

You’ve taken all this time to write your story and it’s not going anywhere, so why the big race to shove it out the door? Reminds me of how Mom would barely button my raincoat before shoving me out the door to go play. This I can forgive, since I wasn’t the easiest child to raise – even for the infinitely patient like Mom.

But manuscripts must have their raincoats fully buttoned, or the water will come in and dampen their little pages in the form of a ton of rejection letters. Writing “The End” is literary catnip, and I understand the desire to send it outside to play. Just remember that chances are strong that it’s not yet waterproof.

And don’t let it marinate for a weekend. Let it sit for a few weeks, a month, longer, if need be. The goal is to see your story with fresh eyes, and it takes time to get to that point of objectivity.

Lesson 2: How/what to revise

Authors often ask me how to revise – should they focus on minor changes or go for the Big Kahuna and make major changes, or beagle forbid, try a completely different approach. My answer is: It depends.

There are no absolutes or rules in writing. You need to go with your gut. AND YOU MUST BE OBJECTIVE.

Minor changes: Sometimes a writer hits gold and the work only needs some minor tweaks. Maybe adding a short scene, or adding a couple sentences to clarify a point or develop a character. Yes, I’ve met such authors. No, they were not publishable.

Minor changes are done by those who buddied up to their Ego. As in:

“Hey, Ego, how’d we do with this manuscript?”

“Phhht…are you kidding? We totally knocked it out of the park. You need to be ready to take calls from those Pulitzer folks because you are going to be FAMOUS.”

Mr./Ms. Ego is not your best friend. (S)he is a vapid toolbag.

The Big Kahuna: This is where us mortals usually reside. We finally banged out our story, we let it marinate, and then we began reading. The usual reaction is, “Holy brainfarts, Batman, who wrote this dribble of rotten oatmeal? Surely I didn’t.”

It’s okay. Revel in your crapitude because you’ll find – after you’ve downed a pitcher of the beagle’s margaritas – that your story really isn’t that bad, and you’re simply seeing it with fresh [albeit inebriated] eyes. I recommend consuming an entire box of Twinkies, and then settling down for the Big Kahuna.

Yes, you may have to write complete new scenes, or add chapters. You may have to get rid of one character and add a new one. Or maybe the foundations suddenly got very shaky and you need to consider revising the intricacies of your plot. This happened to me. I went back after a few week’s marinating and flipped out. What was soooo fabo before now sucked stale Twinkie cream.

This. Is. Okay.

I gave Ms. Ego a vacation, got down to business and ripped the thing to shreds. There were major revisions to be done, and it took me a long time to get it to where I felt it was ready for prime time. I must have done something right because it went on to win a gold medal IPPY.

The point is that if you’re going to revise, why limit yourself to taking the easiest route? Oftentimes our first effort isn’t the best effort, so we shouldn’t be afraid to dig into our story and do whatever it takes to make it sing.

Lesson 3: Time factor

Yah, yah, everyone is in a hurry, and I can’t figure out this logic. What are you in a hurry for? You usually get one bite at the apple, and if you send out something that’s still green, then you’ll have blown your chances. I’ve had authors whom I’ve rejected send me the same manuscript three and four times – saying they revised it. It’s probably a character flaw within me, but if I’ve rejected something and didn’t invite the author to resubmit after a revision, then I don’t change my mind. It’s no longer fresh to me.

So time really is on your side in terms of doing it right. Show your revisions to your writer’s groups, your friends, family – anyone who will give you an honest critique. Get some balanced feedback because they’ll be able to tell you what does and doesn’t work.

Lesson 4:  How many revisions?

Heh, this is easy peasy – AS MANY TIMES AS IT TAKES. Okay, so it isn’t that easy, after all. You revise until you feel satiated. It’s a gut thing, supported by your beta readers. But you need to be mindful of getting into trouble.

The over-revision: I’ve had a few authors who have been revising for years. Of course, they’re at the point of shooting themselves because they believe it’s not right yet. In several of those cases the authors over-revised. It’s like when my mom,  sister, and I tried to make my aunt’s spaghetti casserole. None of us could remember the recipe in its entirety, so we kept throwing things into it. By the time we were done, it tasted like a mushy pile of goo.

Like my mom, sister, and me, authors don’t have an Off switch that prevents them from fidgeting and futzing to the point where the original story simply falls apart under its own malaise.

Lack of focus: Other authors have been revising for years because they lack a central focus – what is the story trying to say?

Without a defined intent of what you want your story to communicate, you’ll never know when you’re done. Instead, you’ll try to make your story scratch too many itches – say too many things – and you’re ultimately left with a mushy pile of goo that you keep revising because deep down, you know it isn’t saying anything. It just wanders aimlessly – like when I can’t remember where I parked my car.

For a perfect example of focus and intent, I look no further that of one of our new releases, Charting the Unknown.

Travelogue essays/personal memoirs can be iffy if the author doesn’t have a clear focus on their central theme. Author extraordinaire Kim Petersen never takes her eye off the ball. She made me screech with laughter, clutch my heart, and grab for the box of Kleenex as she and her family got the point in their lives to where they decided to build a boat, dump it in the water, and proceed to shove off for the world at large [hello…including TWO teenagers!].

But what is always at the core of Kim’s fabulous book is her coming to terms with Fear – who Kim has imagined wears a Donna Karan suit and who holds all the power and calls all the shots. It’s a powerful theme because we all suffer from some sort of fear, right? And what more horrifying/perfect place to slay our personal dragons than cooped up in a boat, where we can’t outrun them? With a strong focus, Kim is free to introduce all kinds of other elements to her story that appeal to a very large audience – boaters, family issues, homeschooling, losing a child to SIDS.

And as talented as Kim is, I’m under no illusions that she revised many times.

Lesson 5:  Reading your revisions

Many of us read from our computer screens, and that’s fine. But when you believe you’re done revising, go kill a tree and print it out. Only from a printed page will those warts pop out in all their colorful glory. Take your evil red pen and mark that sucker up. Write notes in the margins, circle words, and cross stuff out that doesn’t work. This is exactly what we do when we edit.

Never, never, ever rely on your computer screen. You’ll miss the important stuff. Pinky swear.

Lesson 6:  Write a lot

In the end, revising is a gut feel. And this is why so many new writers miss the mark. They simply don’t have enough writing experience to have developed a sixth sense about their writing. Debut authors rarely publish their first book. It’s usually more like their third, fourth, or fifth book. They cut their literary teeth on all the other stories and learned the technicality of putting together a story and telling it in a clear, entertaining manner.

They also learned a lot about their own foibles. For example, I always include a ton of backstory in my first and second drafts. And why not? These drafts are me telling myself the story, and it helps me see my characters more clearly. But as I revise, I whittle the story down and revise it into a tighter format, keeping in the essential parts and tosspotting the crud. The more I write, the more I understand myself and my silly tendencies.

They used to bug me, but now I see them as an exercise I need to go through in order to get to the end. It’s part of my idiom and it works for me. However, the new writer hasn’t been writing long enough to understand their little idiosyncrasies and that they have a budding habit of overdeveloping their characters – which could result in a lot of rejections.

Suggestion: Write a lot. Don’t look to publish – just write. You’ll get to know yourself a lot better and your particular weaknesses and strengths. You’ll learn to find your voice [oh-so important].

In short, you’ll eventually learn how to button your raincoat so the water doesn’t come pouring in. Cos, baby, it can be cold out there!

5 Responses to Revisions, revisions – button your raincoat

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    And read it out loud ;).

  2. Rik Roots says:

    I wonder how much blame can be laid at the doors of NaNoWriMo?

  3. Bob Stewart says:

    Your columns are so interesting and you must be a heck of an editor. I wish you accepted fiction.

    Keep up the good blogs.


  4. Rik, I don’t understand the comment about NaNoWriMo. Can you explain?

    Bob, thank you. This is one of the lovely things about being a small publisher – I can take the necessary time to edit the bejabbers out of something so that it shines. And I’d like to think I do a pretty darn good job of it.

  5. Linda says:

    Spoken like the true genius you are (apart from the Beagle)I remember being an arrogent young whipper snapper of a writer, thinking I knew best, but no. You are never too talented or too old or even too published to learn. And I bow before your talents. xx

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