Monday, May 2, 2016

Revisions Checklist

A post by Mary Fan
Writing is hard. There's a lot of advice out there about how to buckle down and just get that damn book written. Can't edit a blank page, first draft is supposed to be crappy, don't worry about it and just get it done, etc. etc. etc. Which is all true. But what do you do once you have your SFD (that's Shitty First Draft) banged out? How do you de-shittify it into something you can be proud of, something you can have confidence in? (Step one: remove made-up words like de-shittify).

This is where revisions come in. No one gets their book right on the first try, but it can be hard to see the way forward after emerging bleary-eyed from the Fog of First Drafts. So, to help you out a bit, I've created a handy dandy Revisions Checklist!

[] Make a list of things that are bugging you about your book

Sometimes, even as you're writing a book, you know there are things you're going to want to change later. Placeholder dialogue. Awkward transitions. Skeletal descriptions. I know an author who admits that her first drafts are little more than detailed outlines, and who goes back and fleshes out entire scenes, dialogues, descriptions, etc immediately after finishing Draft 1 (she's a pantser, so she's doing in her first draft what a lot of plotters do when outlining).

Sometimes, in the frenzy to just get that damn thing written, you'll cut corners. And that's perfectly fine! Just keep a list (or mark with comments) spots that you know you're going to want to fix up later.

If you didn't do this while writing (which is understandable, since it can break up your flow), then do it right after you finish the first draft. Give the whole thing a quick once-over and mark down which bits bug you.

[]  Incorporate the easy changes

Just a little trim here and there :-)
Sometimes, the things that bug you about your own book are relatively easy fixes, like "I don't like the dialogue between these two characters when they first meet" or "this action scene probably happens too quickly/easily." Sometimes, they're more complicated, like "I'm not sure if my villain's motivations make sense" or "I'm not sure if this sequence of events makes sense."

The things that bug you about your own book will be somewhere on a scale from "Oh, that's just a matter of find/replace, no problem" to "Dammit, that thing doesn't work and therefore this whole book needs to be rewritten!" Where any given problem falls on that scale can be measured in how many curse words spin through your head when you think about it (ranging from "*shrug* no need to curse, that one's easy" to your entire arsenal of F-bombs and assorted forms).

Go ahead and incorporate the little things, the quick fixes. But resist the temptation to start ripping your book apart at the seams to make the bigger edits right away. You're still in the First Draft Fog, so it can be hard to tell the good ideas from the bad, the changes that make sense from the changes that are just different. Write down your Big Picture Changes so you don't forget them, but don't worry about it just yet.

[]  Step away from the book
Let it goooooooo...
Different people have different reactions to having a Shiny New Manuscript in hand. Some are convinced the whole thing is perfect-perfect-perfect and others are sure that the whole thing is worthless and can't be saved. Most fall somewhere in the middle (or flicker between the two, depending on mood and caffeine intake). Those on either extreme are probably wrong.

In order to revise well, you need perspective, and the only thing that can give you perspective is time. Your manuscript is never going to be perfect, so at a certain point, just put the damn thing down and leave it alone for a spell.

[] Enlist beta readers

Hopefully, your beta reader will be as focused as this cat
One of the best ways to get yourself to stop futzing is to make it so that the manuscript is out of your hands. Plus, feedback is crucial to making a manuscript good. It's easy to get caught up in your own story, and what you write isn't always what gets read (something that might make perfect sense to you might confuse a reader who is Not You, or a dialogue you find funny might seem merely awkward to Other Person).

This is where beta readers come in! Beta readers don't have to be professional editors or anything... all you're looking for at this point is a fellow human being to read your book and give their gut reaction. So this could be your mom, your friend, your local critique group... anyone! If you don't already have a critique group or partner, or personal contacts willing to give your book a go, offer up a beta swap--you beta read my book, I'll beta read yours. Put the call out on social media or an author forum--you'll likely find plenty of fellow writers willing to trade perspective for perspective. Try to find a beta reader in your own genre if possible, since they'll have more of a sense of what you're going for. For instance, asking a women's fiction writer who has a hard time relating to speculative fiction to beta read your out-of-this-world science fantasy novel probably isn't a good idea. Neither is asking an epic adventure-loving science fantasy author to beta read a quiet, literary women's fiction novel.

Once the book is in your beta reader's (or readers') hands, DO NOT TOUCH. Resist the urge to change one thing, then email your beta going, "Actually, read this version. No wait... Fixed one thing. Use this version. No wait..."

It's hard to say how many beta readers is a good number. If you have a really great critique partner, maybe one is all you need. If you're a member of a local writers group, you could have literally dozens of eyes on your manuscript. In any case, it's not a numbers game.

If you have Big Picture things that are bugging you about your book, ask your betas to focus on those and see what they think.

[] Read over the comments, but don't incorporate them immediately

What receiving feedback can feel like
Receiving feedback can feel overwhelming, especially if you have numerous beta readers (not all of whom agree). And it can often feel like a huge wave of criticism-criticism-criticism burying you and your book into the crushing depths.

Here's the thing, though: Most readers only point out the stuff that bugs them. When they're reading stuff that works for them, they're into the story and don't notice the pages flipping. When something bugs them, they'll flag it and say "hey, you might want to fix this bit that doesn't make sense." So just because you see piles and piles of comments doesn't mean there's nothing good about the book. In fact, everything not commented on is probably just fine.

Read over the comments, but don't incorporate them right away. Because once again, you need perspective, and being on the receiving end of a barrage of comments will send you into Criticisms Shock (which is similar to the First Draft Fog, but not as fun). Your gut reaction will range from "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND MY VISION, YOU FOOL!" to "Holy crap, you're right, and my book is completely unsalvageable!" You will likely go through the phases of grief... Denial (no, there's nothing wrong with my book!), Anger (how dare you say there's something wrong with my book!), Bargaining (but if I just explained it to you, you'd see it my way!), Depression (ugh, my book is awful and nothing can fix it), and then, finally, Acceptance (okay, you may have a point).

[] Consolidate the comments into a list

Depending on who your beta readers are, they might have a million suggestions for how to fix the issues they identified, or they might just say "this isn't working for me." Either way, only you can be the judge of the best way to incorporate their comments. Sometimes, the beta reader will be right to flag something, but their suggestion for how to fix it doesn't feel right. And then it's up to you to find a way that fixes the problem and works for your book.

Consolidate these comments--as well as the Big Picture items that were bugging you when you finished your first draft--into a list. This is the part where you decide what comments to take and what comments to disregard (Sometimes, if you fix one part of a manuscript, then a reader's comment on a later part won't be relevant. Or your betas will disagree, and it's up to you to decide which one, if either, to listen to). And this will help you keep track of all the stuff you want to do and see how the changes work in relation to each other (and make sure that one change doesn't contradict another).

Think of it as a To Do list for your manuscript.
Jotting down all those Things To Do

[] Start with the small stuff

Start by revising the things that are easy to fix--the nitpicky details your betas flagged (typos, small inconsistencies, etc). That'll help ease you into the revising groove. Jump around and get these things done first--and cross them off your list.
Just a few more trims...
[] Tackle the big picture stuff in chronological order

Now, you're ready to take on the heavy lifting. This is the part where you rearrange entire chapters, add or subtract characters, modify worldbuilding, etc. These Big Picture items are best done in chronological order, since what you change toward the beginning will probably affect the way a later scene turns out.

Keep in mind that sometimes, a comment that seems like it'll take a huge rewrite can be solved more easily than it seems (for instance, a few sentences of back story and/or internal dialogue can clear up a character's motivations, rather than you having to rewrite the entire character)

Mine that SFD for the gems!
[] Step away from the revised book

At this point, you have a whole new draft, which may feel like a whole new book that's worlds away from what you started with. And it probably feels a bit like you've got a Frankenbook on your hands--that is, a creature made up of bits and piece of other creatures that somehow developed a life of its own. All that chopping and sewing has probably put you in the Revisions Daze, which can be even more confusing than both the First Draft Fog and Criticisms Shock because you'll probably have bits of both lingering in your system in addition to this new stupor (rereading your own words can sometimes send you back into the First Draft Fog even after you've been away from the manuscript the first time, and Criticisms Shock can be triggered anew when you come across a particularly sticky issue you have to address).

So step away again. Give yourself a bit of time and distance from this new draft.

Hopefully your new draft will feel more like this...
...than like this

[] Read through the whole book

Come back and look at the new draft with fresh eyes. You'll probably notice a few vestiges from the old draft hanging out... a mention of a character you cut, a line of dialogue that mades no sense with the new scene, etc. Maybe a few nitpicky spots that could use some smoothing out. This is the part where you fix those little things, but otherwise, you're golden! For now, at least...

There's no way to tell when a book is DONE done (really, it never is). But at this point, if you've edited the book to your satisfaction and incorporated outsider feedback, you're probably well on your way.

May you feel this satisfied reading over your revised draft


Brenda St John Brown said...

This is SO helpful as I am set to begin revisions tomorrow after beta reader feedback! Also the stages of grief is SUCH an apt comparison!!

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Awesome post. I write SFD and then I go through them and the problems just jump out at me. I love revision. I hate drafting.

Jonathan Schramm said...

Super helpful, Mary! I don't know if I'm this organized but it's definitely nice to see what your process is. I need to totally restructure my book so I'm feeling a little overwhelmed-- but your fun checklist made the whole process seem less daunting. Thanks!

Mary Fan said...

Thanks! :-D

Mary Fan said...

Weirdly enough, so do I!

Mary Fan said...

You got it! Good luck with revisions!

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