Revising and Editing Novels: How to Keep Our Heads Straight

So, as you may or may not know, I am deep into research and revisions for my novel, Things That Were Lost. (Pardon me while I engage in a short but wild display of joy over this. (It may humor you to know that, for reasons of honesty, I felt compelled to get up and do a little jig, in order to preserve the integrity of our relationship. So perhaps I will need to control the kinds of things I type from now on.))

The reason for the dance, of course, is that a novel is—it turns out—really really long, which if I had known that when I started maybe I would have gone into a career as, I don’t know, a haiku artist or greeting card author or something.  In today’s post, I’ll share my revision process for a book-length work once I have a basic draft in front of me.

First, I have four documents open at all times:

  1. The actual novel—in this case, Things That Were Lost
  2. A “Slush Pile”—a place where I can paste any sections or ideas that I am cutting but might want to use later, in this or another story
  3. An “Ancillary Text”—basically, a list of facts I need to keep straight: characters, their idiosyncrasies, and their backstories; main character’s class schedule (she spends a fair amount of time at school); timeline of events; etc.
  4. A “Research” document—unnecessary for many books, but integral to this one, since information about crows (from both mythic and scientific sources) features in this book

As I read, I constantly copy text back and forth among all these documents, checking periodically to keep my story consistent. For example, just last week, I discovered that my main character had Geometry 2nd period…until later, when it had magically become a Chemistry class!

But what about getting derailed? As Anne Lamott has famously said in her book Bird by Bird, “Get it down first. Get it right second.” I’m adding, “Or third. Or fourth, or, really, any number of your choice as long as it’s not first.” As I read my own writing, the temptation is to start obsessing over every little error I discover or confusion I experience, until I have lost the major reason we revise: to see and strengthen the big picture. Some of this little stuff is best left to editing, a step where the minute details come into sharp focus.

Of course, it’s not like I can turn off the editor part of my brain, saying, “Self! Today we’re revising, so none of your nit-picking! Fall in line!”

Instead, I rely heavily on COMMENTS, which you’ll be able to create if you click on REVIEW on the toolbar. (Unless you’re a Mac user, in which case, you are probably way more evolved than I am anyway and have already either a) translated this post into binary, or b) created a digital abstract painting of it.)

Actual comments I currently have in my novel:

  • Revise almost all linking verbs to contractions. These are teens!
  • This implies that Geometry is the last class of the day. Is this legit all throughout?
  • Make sure this is right. Maybe it’s CP? Research and make sure I have it right.
  • Look up how spelled online
  • I like this line but I’m not sure it belongs here
  • It looks like all the stuff I typed in google docs has straight quotes. I think I will need to fix every one by hand…blah
  • Get some feedback about the super short chapters. I think I should combine them, but I’m not sure.
  • Decide how I’m going to spell her name—it’s like 3 different ways here!

 

“Okay, I’m a believer, sweet Revision Goddess!” you might say (or, as likely, not). Regardless of whether or not you decide to use comments as a revision tool, it’s important to ask: as I read and revise, how do I decide what to fix in that moment, as opposed to capture in a comment for later? My only real rule is, if it will take me out of the story, I write a comment. If I can revise it now, while still keeping focused on the big picture, then I do so.

After all my years of teaching writing, I have moved well away from the stance that “all writers revise by…” because it’s just not true. This is my process; it feels natural and effective for me. My readers and I would love to hear if you have a different method.

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep revising, unless I need to make a change that annoys me; that I’ll put in a comment and save for a future me.

 

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