Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The fine line between revising and rewriting

I've been going hard core on revisions for a few months now. It's exhausting. I'm not talking about fixing the grammar and the sentence structure (no, don't worry, I'm saving that really exciting part for the end). I'm talking about sitting down and ripping my plot apart and making huge, wholesale changes. Really, if we're being honest, I'm talking about a rewrite.

We often think about revisions in the small scale, making sure we have the right word or punctuation. But "revision" literally means "visioning the story over again," looking at the big picture, the overall plot and character growth, making sure that my vision for this story is actually what's on paper, and "visioning" it over again if it's not.

But for me at least, taking something as large and unwieldy as a book and looking at the whole at once is damned difficult. I get caught up in the little things, in the wording and the grammar, because that is much easier to wrap my head around.

So here's some things I've picked up on in the last few months for "re-visioning" your whole book:

1. print the whole thing out and try to read it in one sitting. Start to finish. Without a pencil or a highlighter or anything. Just read. I found this amazingly difficult. I kept seeing little things I wanted to change, and was afraid I'd forget, and so wanted to write them down or mark them . . . RESIST! The point here is to get that big picture sense of the plot and characters, and every itty-bitty change you mark distracts from the big picture.

1a. Once you finish, write down every question that pops into your head. "What about . . .?" and "Whatever happened to . . .?" If there are holes in the plot, they'll bubble up, and you can bet the same questions will be bubbling up in your reader's mind

2. Take all the POV scenes from one character and put them together. This is a tip I picked up from a professor, and it's brilliant. Take one character, pull out all of their scenes, and line them up. Huge pieces of the plot will be missing but that's okay. What you should be able to see, without the clutter of all the other characters, is this character's journey and change. Does it make sense? Is the motivation for their change there? Has the character grown by the end, and are they still recognizable as the same character from the beginning?

3. Break out the legal pad, or whatever you use to make notes on. The most important thing I've done, I think, is to sit down and outline my plot step-by-step, on paper, by hand. When you're looking at a list of events, rather than a narrative, it's very easy to follow the cause-and-effect of each point in the list. And if anything seems disjointed, or not the obvious effect of the point directly above it, you'll see it.

4. And finally, don't do what I've been doing and just start re-writing each scene from scratch. Somehow, I keep finding myself doing that.

So what tips do you have for looking at a book as a whole? Do you use note cards? Legal pads? Do you read the whole thing? How do you handle big, wholesale revisions? Do you get sucked into the same trap I do of either fixing the grammar over and over, or just re-writing from scratch? How do you keep sane when revising the same book for months on end?


quantum said...

At the risk of repeating myself, I would say that the best way to look at the book as a whole is to get a computer to read it to you. To save time you can make it into an mp3 file and listen while commuting to work, or make notes as you listen.

The computer voice will not 'interpret' the story like a human reader might and will pick up on spelling/grammar, both of which should be useful for a writer.

You do need a voice that you like though and it will need a few pronunciation edits. But it’s well worth the effort IMHO, and will serve you for a lifetime.

My favourite voice is Amy from Ivona. I can give you my custom dictionary for use with TextAloud, together with a few tips for handling homonyms if you should go this route.

Helli, When is the reading public (especially me!) going to see your master piece? I see you as a woman of action and few words (Heh Heh Heh). Just lacking a little follow through. *smile*

Why not emulate Donna and self publish on Amazon, then we customers can judge its merits .... a bit like being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome!

I think the romance community will devour you .... in a nice sense! LOL

quantum said...

Oh dear, I seem to have confused Helli with Haleigh. Awfully sorry Haleigh .... please ignore the rude bits! *embarrased blush*

Haleigh said...

haha, no problem! The names are close!

I do love the idea of hearing your book read back to you, especially without the emotional intonation, as you mention, to help you spot errors. Great for hearing it how a reader might hear it in their head, without all the extra we have in our own heads as the writer!

TerriOsburn said...

I'll join Q an repeat myself as well. I could not write without my storyboard. I think many authors create the board once the rough draft is done, but I use it from the very beginning. The post its go up and they move and some come down and many change.

When the revision stage starts, the first thing I do is recreate the board from scratch, changing the post its to color coordinate with POVs. I do this because I'm a visual person and I need to "see" the entire story with once glance.

I can think through the story, what I have and what I need, by looking at that board. It's a total Godsend.

Now stop rewriting from scratch! I don't know how you can do that. Tweak what's there, yes. But those first words were there for a reason. IMO, rewriting the same book over and over just means you never actually revise anything.

Haleigh said...

IMO, rewriting the same book over and over just means you never actually revise anything.

Yep! That's exactly what's happening.

Maybe I need to try the story board again. I've got one, but I keep only doing the first third of the book, getting distracted (or running out of space/post-its), and then just fiddling with the first third.

Hmm, maybe if I start at the end!!! Put up the post-its for the final scenes first, and then build it up to the top!

You're giving me ideas, Ter!

MsHellion said...

I've heard over and over again about reading the book start to finish and NOT correcting as you go. But reading for big picture problems. And I'm with you--it's HARD. It's hard for me to read a couple pages to get my bearings just to start writing again and not want to correct a dozen things.

I've been successful at creating a couple first drafts of manuscripts, terrible at actual revision. *LOL* I think it's my next biggest writing hurdle to learn (other than confidence which is an ongoing thing).

I don't know if I have trouble with rewriting the whole scene, per se, but I do have a problem with tweaking a scene until I take all the fun and freshness out of it. In love with words to the point I take all the joy out of the scene in reading it. Ugh. Then I have to end up rewriting it because no one wants to read the joyless one. But it's what you said--focusing on the microcosm rather than the macrocosm.

MsHellion said...

And I totally don't even know if I used those science words in the right way in my last sentence. Eesh.

MsHellion said...

I am cracking up that Q confused me with Hal (very easy to do, the pronunciation is practically the same in my head)--and then made a blushy joke about me being eaten up. Ha! Have to tell the Deerhunter--maybe he'll be a little jealous I have a sexy British professor making naughty suggestions to me. He already makes snide remarks about my crush on Alan Rickman. *LOL*

Don't worry, Q--I'm plugging along on my manuscript--and perhaps I'll take Hal's advice here and do a revision rather than a rewrite (which is more what I was doing) for my GOGU story--AFTER I have written this one. One mountain at a time and there's a deadline on this manuscript!

Haleigh said...

Hellie - it kills me to read without correcting too. I've actually had to leave the house, walk away from all pens and highlighters, go outside and sit down, and read it there. It's the only thing that keeps me from scrounging around for a pen to just jot down "this one, great idea, that will fix EVERYTHING" (cause clearly, it won't!)

And I also do the same thing where I've rewritten it so many times it's boring and old, rather than fresh, so I figure no one else will like it either, forgetting that it would still be fresh to *them*

Marnee Bailey said...

On my last story, I used a lot of Susan Dennard's techniques. (Found here.... )

I started by looking for big picture problems, places where the plot was jacked up, then characterization stuff and then on down to grammar/word choice. So big to little.

But I don't really believe that anything makes revisions easier. What I find is that until now it's taken SOOO long to write a rough that by the time I revise, I'm burnt out. I just want to see the back of the damn book. This time I want to power out a rough and then take more time to revise.

MsHellion said...

I agree--I want to get better at writing where I'm powering out the first drafts so I can get to the real work of writing: revision. Practice, practice, practice.

Haleigh said...

But doesn't it kill you to keep writing forward when you KNOW there are problems behind you?? It does for me!

I'm in the same boat, though. I've been working on this book for years, and I am sick of it. Power through . . . power through . . .

Haleigh said...

Awesome link, Marn! I like her little pyramid of plot problems on top, then character, then setting, then tension . . . I think I can use this, even though I'm knee-deep in it at the moment. I'm trying to go chronologically and do plot/character/tension at the same time, and it's not quite working as efficiently as I need it to work.

This is going to help!!

MsHellion said...

Oh, it kills me. But I have so many half-piece failures where I just quit writing on something because I took too long with it and kept changing how I'd write it--well, that's no good either. It's a perfectionist problem. There is no perfect way to write a book. There is only writing it.

I have to keep reminding myself (minutely) that perfection is not the goal. Perfection isn't the answer...nor is it attainable...and nor does anyone want it. My left brain keeps shouting that it IS possible, if I'd quit being lazy, but it's not. Writing is yoga; perfection is doing the very best you can today and knowing your work is perfect because it's the very best you brought to the mat. You were in the moment.

Marnee Bailey said...

Hal, I thought it was useful from the reader's standpoint. As a reader, if the plot/character/big picture stuff didn't work, having eloquent word choice and phrasing was pointless. Sort of put it in perspective for me. And I couldn't do it all at the same time either. It felt a little like trying to tidy up in a hurricane.

MsHellion said...

It felt a little like trying to tidy up in a hurricane.

I feel this should be on a t-shirt or something...

TerriOsburn said...

I have been stuck in a giant math problem and missing all the fun! (Thank the abacus I figured that one out. It was killing me!)

I can't move ahead if I know for sure the current/last scene is absolutely not working. I can't explain it. It's a feeling. Like last night. I know how I ended the scene written the night before wasn't write and would require me to write a scene I never intended to write. So I couldn't move forward.

Instead I went back and changed how that other scene ended. Then I was right back on track, moved on to the scene I always intended to write, and the words flowed onto the page.

This is the problem with trying to figure out "how" to write. Much of it is gut instinct and I no way claim that I have it figured out. I just know it when I feel it. Make sense?

In other words, I have nothing that can help you. LOL! Though I love Marn's explanation that a pretty turn a phrase won't make a bit of difference if the plot is off. So true!

MsHellion said...

I think we all do that, Terr--or I do. I certainly flounder and won't go forward if I don't like how the last chapter ended. (Anne Gracie writes like you describe and you can't say it doesn't work for her. It works for her beautifully; and it takes about a year for her to write a book but it's worth the wait.)

When I think of revision, I think you're putting up a house and you're putting up the bare bones structure that holds up the house--but the revision is like when you put in the fiberglass and drywall. You're filling in the plot to show how structurally sound it is. When we first write our story--we think the bare bones should be apparent and show how right the story is--but we're missing, well, walls and filling to make the house sound. Sorta kinda.

My analogy isn't as awesome as Marn's hurricane.

TerriOsburn said...

I don't have a year!

My rough has to have the drywall and even the windows. Revisions for me is more the furnishing and decorating. Accessorizing and even the landscaping. But the walls are there and solid in the rough draft. Or that's my goal anyway. Can't say it always works.

MsHellion said...

Yes, well, that's what I thought too, Terri. But I'm discovering I'm wrong. For your sake, I hope you're not wrong.

Janga said...

I'm going to try the pov step with my older mss. I think that might help me see some problems I sense but can't seem to identify.

I'm finding it difficult to find writing time again. I promised myself to turn down the free lance stuff and concentrate on fiction. And I did turn down half a dozen assignments, but then I was offered a big one that pays well and Christmas is only a few months away and . . . I have tried writing at night, but when I write in academic mode all day, it's a major struggle to switch gears and work on the novel in the evening. Maybe revising older stuff will be easier. At any rate, I'm going to try the pov process tonight. Thanks, Haleigh.

P. Kirby said...

Terri. FWIW, windows must go in before the drywall.

*Runs away.*

TerriOsburn said...

Really? I had no idea. LOL! Thanks for the tip!

P. Kirby said...

*Skulks back.*

My problem (among many) of late ISN'T the need to go back and fiddle with minor edits. It's that the internal editor starts telling me that there must be something wrong with the story, and I slide into this critical loop where I get self-conscious about my writing and lose my voice. Very annoying.

The fan fic experiment has been kind of helpful with because it's a very public WIP. Because it's not a paid project, I'm not worried about it being perfect and I'm totally in touch with my voice. (Minor problem. Since it now has a few readers, I feel the self-consciousness creeping in).

But I've started to transfer some of that energy back into my original WIP.

Anyway, I really like the "read the story from on POV character's scenes" approach. Definitely will try that!

P. Kirby said...

Drywall is after exterior weatherproofing, including windows and also after the electrical and plumbing rough-in. Because you have to get inside the walls before you cover them up.

TerriOsburn said...

I knew the wiring and plumbing thing. Just didn't know the windows thing.

I do like the one complete POV read but my brain said, "That sounds like a lot of work." Meaning, printing those scenes and getting them all together. But I don't have a printer at home so that's probably why. Guess I could stick them all in one documents in Word.

TerriOsburn said...

You need to muzzle that internal editor, Pat. Surely you have some tool around your workshop that will shut her up.

P. Kirby said...

A tool, right. Like a shotgun. Stoopid internal editor.

haleigh said...

Just got the little one down for his nap so I can rejoin the party!

I love the hurricane analogy. That is what it feels like!

I'm the kind of writer who spends a whole lot of time putting up the windows and drywall during the rough draft, because I want to be like Terri (well, mostly because I want an almost-there manuscript by the time I get to the end).

But at this point, it's like I'm staring at a house made with vinyl siding, realizing I should have put up brick. And realizing that if I'd put up all the studs and beams before I'd started slapping on vinyl, I wouldn't be in this mess, because I would have seen that it needed brick long ago.

How's that for stretching out an analogy?

haleigh said...

Janga, I'm glad it's an idea that resonated with you! I do academic writing for the day-job as well, and I struggle with switching in the evening as well. I set my alarm for 5:15 so I can get in an hour or two of fiction writing in the morning, but apparently I have an even worse struggle with my alarm clock :)

haleigh said...

Pat, I'm glad the energy is coming full circle so you can put it in your WIP, and that you liked the POV idea. (and yeah, Ter, it's a whole lot of work).

I used to do fanfiction and loved the experience. I know what you mean, though, about an expanding readership giving the inner critic more room to play. Got a chainsaw in that garage? That would shut her up!

TerriOsburn said...

But what if the bones under that vinyl are perfectly good and just need an extra nail here and there. No sense in tearing down the house to change a light bulb!

Okay, I might have run that metaphor right off the rails.

haleigh said...

Hehe. I think that's about where I am. The bones of the house are fine, but I've got to pull of the vinyl siding and replace it. The general structure is there, but a good 30% of the scenes need fully changed (i.e., a scene where they find dead bodies now has to become a car chase - I can carry over the dialog, but that's about it)

P. Kirby said...

Chainsaw. Giggle. Nice and messy. Here, inner critic, come here. I've got something nice for you. Buzzzzzzzzzzz!

(i.e., a scene where they find dead bodies now has to become a car chase - I can carry over the dialog, but that's about it)

I think the worst part about revision is finding all the little bits later in the novel that reference the now changed scene. I.e., where your characters are still talking/thinking about the dead body scene. I've even encountered stuff like that after the thing's been accepted by a publisher. Argh. Why the hell is that still there?

haleigh said...

Oh, there are always those strangling threads! Those need a chainsaw too!

TerriOsburn said...

That happened to me when I made some changes on MTB before it went out on submission. I added one scene and changed the first scene a little. Then that change affected this scene which switched up that scene and it was like a domino effect. LOL!