Ah, summertime. The endless daylight, the mojito menus, the garden salads picked straight from the garden, and—as frosting on the star-spangled cake this year—I received my editorial letter from the wonderful Emily Bestler and have been revising for the last two months.
Okay, I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about revision and critique. I didn’t always love it and can still remember those undergrad workshop experiences when I spouted any number of defenses against good, honest criticism.
Their opinions were obviously wrong.
They weren’t my target audience.
Or the old standby…
They just didn’t ‘get’ my story.
It’s easy and lazy to reject critique and guess what? Lazy writers don’t get better. Luckily, I’ve grown enough over the last few decades to understand the transformative power of this process, and here’s the secret: the only difference between an amateur and a professional writer is revision.
Getting critique is an amazing gift. It means someone likes your book. They like it so much, in fact, they’ve devoted hours of their invaluable time to helping you make the book even better. They’ve spotted the problems you can no longer see because, unfortunately, proximity breeds blindness.
In my case, after spending several years with the murder mystery, my perspective on the book was dreamlike at best. I had old drafts rumbling around in my head, the accumulation of every character’s scenes smothering me whenever I re-read one of their lines, and evolving timelines I couldn’t keep straight without a spreadsheet. Is this the reveal? Have we learned this already? I’d better read the last hundred pages to make sure.
So you can imagine the relief of receiving Emily’s letter, like a window had been thrown open in a stale room. The voice of reason had arrived. She examined everything from the larger plot lines and time setting down to the smallest descriptions.
Thighs can’t be uncertain, she said after reading a scene in which I’d described a nervous character.
And instead of being embarrassed about my blunder or trying to defend the ridiculous adjective, all I thought was, Yes! Hallelujah! Thighs, good and solid thighs, you just exist. You simply are.
So in the spirit of absolute thighs, here’s a peek at some of my revision practices.
After finishing the first draft, I sit back and think about where I’ve arrived. The book’s conclusion should bring me to a place that gives the journey meaning. I ponder theme and subtext in relation to that journey. (Yes, I ponder.) The most important question I have to answer is—disregarding plot and characters—what is this story really about? Once I know that, I grab a red pen and take a deep breath. Ready?
It’s time to murder my darlings.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice is the first commandment of revision and the hardest for any writer to adopt. My first draft may have taken months or even years to write and I’ve poured my soul into it. How can I start hacking away at it like diseased shrubbery? But hack I must.
In this particular book I’m married to a total of eighteen sentences. Eighteen sentences that I will defend to the point of a Kung Fu death match if anyone threatens their existence. The other 99,500 words are completely negotiable. Having said that, I’ll give you a taste of my negotiation process.
- I recognize the scene/chapter/paragraph needs work.
- I break up the existing content, delete a few lines and guard at least half of it from oblivion, then I add new transitions, themes, content, whatever it was that I decided had been lacking.
- I read through the new section with its Frankenstein makeover and think it’s…okay.
- I go to sleep.
- I wake up the next morning and delete the entire steaming pile of crap and write a cohesive scene that accomplishes what I need for that section.
It’s not the most efficient method, but that’s how I work, especially when I don’t have any immediate insight on how to fix the problem. Essentially, I make the wound worse to force a surgery.
I also tend to save prior drafts so if I ever decide a deleted description of the Egyptian sunset has become absolutely necessary to the trajectory of the story, I can grab it from an earlier version. Although now that we’ve all witnessed the Go Set a Watchman controversy, I’m rethinking my policy on draft retention.
Once I’ve done all I can possibly think of to wrangle the book into shape, I’m ready for some first readers. Obviously I don’t want a prospective agent or editor to be the first person to read the book. (See blindness, above.) I’m selective about who I ask. An early reader should be that perfect balance of enthusiasm, insight, and honesty. I sent the murder mystery to two trusted friends, one a writer with flawless taste, and the other a lifelong mystery reader who knows more about the genre than I ever will. Then I forgot about it for a while. I took nature hikes with the kids. Binge-watched Daredevil on Netflix. Ran a half marathon for St. Jude and limped around for the next week and a half. By the time I’d heard back from my readers I’d regained enough perspective to take their comments to heart and dove back in for another bloodbath.
Does revision fix everything? No, of course not. My work still contains plenty of flaws, but every draft brings me one step closer to the ideal. And even if I only correct one thing, at least that’s one less thing I’ll be shaking my head about when I finally crack the cover of the published book.
So let’s keep walking, thighs. There’s no uncertainty here.