Here’s How To Finish Your Revision, You Filthy Animal
CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE SHAT OUT A BOOK.
You clenched up your middle and wrinkled your brow — then, from one of your creative holes poured this narrative slurry of words and ideas, this malformed gremlin egg of unhatched potential. On every page, characters flop and flail, they say stuff, they do stuff, and it all hangs together with rubbery tendon and braids of discolored flesh. You wrote a book. Nice job. Yes, high-five and fist-bump and go get a cupcake.
*swats cupcake out of your hand*
I DIDN’T SAY EAT THE CUPCAKE
I SAID GO GET THE CUPCAKE
YOU DON’T DESERVE A CUPCAKE YOU MONSTER
GOD YOU NEVER LISTEN
What? Did you think you were done? You’re not done. The book isn’t done. You can’t just dump a bunch of shit in a pot and call it soup. It’s gotta cook. You gotta taste it. You have to add some spices, you need to skim the fat, you must adjust the flavor as you go. You’re not done. What you clumsily slapped together is just a first draft. Or worse, it’s just a pile of mush, a zero-point-two-five draft.
You’ve got to edit that thing.
You’ve got to get that fucker in shape.
You wanna edit your book?
Here’s how you edit that book. (Translation: here’s how I edit that book, you do what you like, everybody’s different, you’re a beautiful glittery snowflake and I’m a beautiful glittery snowflake. Also, I know I’ve done editing posts before, but I thought one that approached it with fresh eyes — how I edit now, versus my thoughts on it years ago — would give me some clarity, and maybe you, as well. But really me. Who cares about you?)
(Also, please enjoy this Kubler-Ross Model Of Grief Associated With Editing And Rewriting)
1. Yeah, No, It’s Gonna Be Hard. Editing is harder than writing. Writing is just this freewheeling thing you do — you just go PLONKY PLICKY PLONK with your fingers on the keyboards and words squirt out. You write in a straight direction without care. It’s like riding a horse in a video game, you just get on and start moving and there’s no consequences and it’s all just pixels right now. Sweet, sweet consequence-free pixels. Yippee-ki-yay, ki-yah! But editing is like riding a horse in real goddamn life. Now, it fucking matters. You do it right or you break your pelvis on a rock or get stuck to a cactus, ass-first. It’s ride or die time. I learned that from Vin Diesel and he’s never wrong.
2. Look At It, Then Stop Looking At It. The first thing I do is I look at it. I don’t even look that long. I read my notes, I look over any other notes that have come in from my agent or from an editor or from that magical beans-eating hobo I entrusted with my manuscript. And then I experience existential despair. Because I fucked up. I failed. But that’s okay, and I have to remember that it’s okay. Because the first draft is always the fail draft. And I know this, and I’m comfortable with this in theory, but not always in practice. I need time to hyperventilate a little. I need time to realize that the beautiful machine I thought I created is basically just a cardboard box of dongles and wires from 1997 like you’d find in the back of an old-ass Radio Shack. The first draft is a ‘fuck you’ draft. And who is the first draft saying fuck you to? Me. Me when I’m about to revise that salty, surly sonofabooger. Shit goddamnit shit.
3. Now, Touch It, Just A Little. Poke that wriggling goblin. Go on. It’s time. It’s time to poke it, to open up the manuscript, just prod the squishy mess to see —
4. You Know What? Stop Touching It. OH GOD GROSS, NO, NOPE, NYET, NUH-UH. You know what? It’s too soon. It’s just too damn soon. I thought it was time. It was not time. Nope. Going to keep this Band-Aid on a little longer. The wounds are still fresh! The injury, still festering. I am not ready for the chirurgeon’s saw. *breathes into a bag*
5. It’s About Fermentation. Here is a truth about editing that I did not realize for a long time. Too long, really. Writing takes a lot of time up front where you’re not actually writing. Writing requires a long, mental brine-bath. Ideas have to steep and marinate and percolate. Your book isn’t a hamburger. It’s kim-chi, motherfucker. It’s weeks in jars, maybe months, maybe years buried underground where it can ferment. And yet, despite this, I failed to realize that editing is the same way. (And sadly, publisher schedules don’t really line up in a way to allow this reality.) Editing needs time. You need time to think — and re-think — your book. Assess and reassess. You need time to break it down in your head, pulverizing it to its constituent parts. You need time to not only find out what’s wrong, but what’s right. At the beginning, at the fore of your edit, clarity isn’t there. (It’s why great editors are essential, as they can reduce the “cooking time,” so to speak. Shitty editors will either offer no help or worse, will only add turbidity to the water, delaying clarity further.) The second draft needs time just like the first does. You have to walk away. You have to think and think and think. Think while walking, think while showering, think while sitting in a tub of your own writer tears. Think. Obsess! All before you touch a damn thing.
6. Look At That Other Asshole. Another reason you need time? You need to emotionally decouple from the manuscript. You need time to disentangle your feelings about the first draft. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: you need to get to the stage where it looks like some other asshole wrote the book. Once it feels like it’s not yours is the best time to edit it.
7. Notes Will Save You. Before I touch the draft, I open up Word, and I spew my jabber into the document. This is fairly stream-of-consciousness at first, though as I go, the notes tend to tighten up and become less me yelling at myself about this dumb book and more directives to fix it, which is key. It’s really just me talking through the book. If my agent or editor are involved at this point, I’ll clean up the notes, take some questions or thoughts, and bounce these ideas off them. It’s a good way to take whatever’s going on in the old skull-cave and get it out into the open, where I can see it, deal with it, fuck with it.
8. You’re Not Alone. Writing a first draft is a sojourn. It’s you against the elements. You’re Liam Neeson fighting wolves in the snow with his Liam Neesonness. But the second draft — hey, you don’t have to go at it alone. It’s one of my favorite parts of editing and revising — you get to bring other voices into it. You get to be challenged. Creative agitation is a necessary component of polishing your work and compressing that coal into — well, if not a diamond, then at least a fuel source to burn hot and burn bright. Light brings clarity.
9. Other People Are Not Automatically Wrong, And They’re Not Automatically Right. Here’s the one complicating factor over inviting other voices to participate in your work: your book is your precious and like Gollum you want to bludgeon anyone who dares try to steal your ring, or frankly, even that fish you’ve been gumming on for the last hour, you freak. Recognize that anyone offering notes or thoughts is not automatically wrong. And yet, they’re also not automatically right. You have to take their notes and do the same thing as with the rest of the draft: you have to sit on them like a bird on an egg. You have to think about them. Assess and reassess. Let your heart, head or gut have its say. Maybe the egg hatches. Maybe you eat it.
10. Identify The Big Breaks. Don’t worry about a copy-edit yet. That comes later — often, last. Don’t sit there and dwell on the persnickety shit. I mean, you can, if it makes you feel better — but right now, your revision needs to be focused on the developmental stuff. The content. It doesn’t matter if a painting on the wall is askew if that wall needs to come down. Find out where the story fails in the biggest, most dramatic ways. Those are your priority. And one of the ways to hack into that is to ask yourself some questions —
11. Does Everything Make Sense? Does it? Does it, really? The most visible, if not the most important, failure of a story is when it just doesn’t make sense. Some plot component sticks out like a dildo duct-taped to a pig’s head. We’ve all seen movies or read books where things just don’t… line up. “Wait, how did he get from Cleveland to the Moonbase in the same time it took Esmerelda to eat a sandwich?” Things feel forced or clumsy or unclear. Those are big (and often, easy to fix) problems. Find them. Fix them. Don’t excuse them.
12. Do The Characters All Have Agency? In the past, I have defined character agency as this: It is a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions. With that definition in mind, re-read your story with an eye toward — is the plot external? Do the characters have agency? Do they have problems and goals and quests? Are these problems and goals and quests defining the plot, or is the plot defining them? (Note: it should be the first one.) Find the places too where you force the characters to act on behalf of the plot rather than themselves. Meaning, they’re dancing to a beat that’s not their own — you as the writer are so in love with some plot point you’re jamming them into it sideways in the hopes they’ll fit. They won’t. Give them the power. You want a storytelling mantra? I got your mantra right here: Characters are not architecture — they are architects.
13. Does It All Flow Toward The Theme? Your book has a theme. (Note: if you haven’t figured that out yet, well, now’s a good time.) It’s making an argument. It has ideas. It has a point-of-view — not just the characters, but the whole damn book. All should flow toward that theme and the questions it answers.
14. Repeat After Me: Nothing Is Fundamentally Broken. During editing, just as during writing, you will occasionally feel hopeless. You will flail. You will gesticulate in the void. Gibbering and wailing. It’s normal. We all get there. You will feel at times like, THIS IS BAD THIS BOOK IS DUMB IT IS IRREVOCABLY BROKEN AND I SHOULD JUST GO AND LEARN A TRADE SKILL LIKE FORGING BLADES OR CURRYING HORSES WHICH HEY BY THE WAY IS ABOUT GROOMING THE HORSE NOT COOKING IT IN A CURRY SAUCE, OOPS, GUESS I MESSED THAT UP, TOO, SORRY, HORSE. But during editing it is vital to realize: a lot may be broken, but everything can be fixed. It may take a lot of rejiggering and jangling and wangling. It may take some writing and rewriting. But you can do it. It’ll just take time.
15. A Schedule May Not Work. I have in the past advocated having a schedule when editing, just as you have a schedule when writing. It works, ennnh, sometimes? You can schedule writing fairly easily — “I will write 2,000 words a day like a good little writer,” and then you do it, and eventually you’re done, ta-da, have a cupcake. (*slaps cupcake out of your hand*) But editing does not so keenly fit into a regimen. It’s not enough to say, “I will edit five pages a day,” because though writing is formed of words and pages, editing is formed of problems. And the problems are of varying sizes. The best schedule I can tell you is this: set aside X number of hours a day to tackle the work until it’s done. That’s it. It’s not about words or pages, it’s just about fixing problems one by one, big and small. Find your process. Maybe it’s about re-outlining the work. Maybe it’s about just picking away at it. Maybe it’s a whole damn rewrite. You gotta do you. Find your tools and your method of repair and get to work.
16. Post-It Notes Are Your Pal. I like to take a couple Post-It notes and write on them some things I need to keep in mind — overarching problems that the book has. DAVE IS TOO MUCH OF A JERK. THE SEQUENCE WITH THE OCTOPUS NEEDS TO MAKE SENSE IN THE CONTEXT OF THE REST OF THE BOOK. THE THEME IS THAT BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD BEARS. Whatever. I write them down, I keep them hanging around — often dangling from the bottom of my monitor like a beard made of information — and as I edit, I return focus to them again and again just to see if everything is lining up to fix those problems.
16. Gain Power Over It, Like An Exorcist. The first change is the hardest. I don’t know why that is. I come to edit a book and I feel unsteady, unconfident — often the same way that I feel when starting a book fresh. I feel just born. Raw, abraded, burned by light. And the solution with your first draft is to write your first sentence, paragraph, then page. Once that happens, it’s like uncorking the bottle and letting the demons out. Editing works the same. You need to regain your power. You need your groove back. Make one change. Doesn’t need to be a big one, but make the damn change. Maybe it’s a little copy-edit, or you change one scene of dialogue, or whatever it is you do. Just get your fingerprints on it. It’s like one of those stupid puzzles where the pieces are all jumbled and it’s confusing and fuck that puzzle. But then you move one tile, and it’s like, well, this still sucks, but sure, sure, I’ll move a second tile, and next thing you know, you’re doing it. Of course, this is a terrible metaphor because I’m pretty sure I never finished a single one of those dumb puzzles and that they all ended up in the bin.
17. Min-Max That Monster. I sometimes treat editing like a game of chess against an invisible opponent. (Ironically, my opponent is the dumbass who wrote the first draft, so I’m just playing against an earlier version of myself.) And I always try to figure out how to solve a problem with the fewest moves possible. How can I fix an error with minimal changes? It’s not always possible to keep it small, but it’s amazing how once in a while you get a big problem that you can fix with just a few clever Bonsai cuts — or the addition of some dialogue or a scene. You can play this game too with other stories — you watch a movie, see what’s wrong, then ask yourself how would you fix those problems with the fewest moves available?
18. Seek Pieces That Don’t Echo. I’ve come to realize that a story isn’t a string of connected bits all lined up in a row. It’s not a sequence of events. It’s a series of echoes. Characters do things and say things and it creates consequences. Elements and objects appear, and they have weight and meaning inside the story. There are causes and there are effects. Each piece is a rock thrown into the water and the story is about the ripples — and how ripples reach the shore. What I mean is, when I write now I look for parts of the story that don’t echo. They have no ripples. This helps me more than the idea of kill your darlings, because honestly that was always a complicated chestnut. Here, it’s cleaner to say, what parts of your story don’t make ripples? What bits fail to reverberate? These pieces exist on their own. They don’t add to the music. It’s like the idea of Chekhov’s Gun — the gun that appears in the first act should go off by the third. This isn’t about a gun, not really. It’s about inserting an element that echoes throughout. Every pig needs a snout and a tail. Every element needs to sing for its supper.
19. Cut A Section Just To See — Or Add One, Instead. SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO BE BATMAN ASKING SUPERMAN IF HE BLEEDS. … wait, don’t do that, that’s dumb. What I mean is, if you’re reading your book, and you’re struggling with a section like you’re wrestling with a python, the answer might just be: cut it. Seriously, kill it. Save it! Put it aside, don’t send it into oblivion. But remove it and then read it again. Sit on that change, and see if the story is fundamentally changed by its loss. It may be improved. The opposite holds true, though, too: sometimes you haven’t added enough. Sometimes you’re wrestling with a section and you realize that you need a bridging component, or an additional scene to add context. That’s okay, too. It’s why I’m troubled by advice that says you should automatically cut like, 25% of your draft — no, no, no. Every story is different. And every writer has different deficiencies. Fix your story, not some mythical ideal of one.
20. Kill The Boring Parts. My advice for writing is the same for editing: skip the boring parts. This is easier to do in editing, actually, because when you’ve made it seem like some other asshole wrote this thing, you will be more keenly attuned to what drags on like a dead hippo pulled through the mud by an old tractor. Find the parts where your eyes glaze over. Are those parts necessary? No. Kill them. If that part is necessary, rewrite so it’s not dull as a stump.
21. Reality: Sometimes Your Second Draft Is Worse Than The First. Sometimes you’ll “fix” the draft only to have broken it further. This is a reality. It’s okay. We all take wrong turns. But you’ll need to do a third draft to unfuck the fucking you did. Sorry?
22. Reality: Sometimes Your Fixes Are Quick And Brutal. I am wont to say that writing is great because really you get as many do-overs and take-backs as you want. Life is often a one-draft proposition — but writing is as many as you need. Nnnyeah, except for the pro writer, who has fucking deadlines. You can wiggle around them a little, but deadlines are deadlines and eventually you have to stop writing and turn in a thing, and then again you have to stop revising and turn in the thing again. You have a stop date. Which means sometimes your fixes are inelegant bludgeoning attacks. And sometimes, those work better than you think. Go with it. Get it done. Sometimes you’re Mozart, sometimes you’re the Ramones. Sometimes it’s scalpel-cuts, sometimes you drop a washing machine on its head. Sorry?
23. Reality: You Might Have To Do It Again And Again. It took me five years to write my first published novel, Blackbirds. And it took a lot of drafts. I don’t even know how many. The early drafts look almost nothing like the final. Seriously, in one draft she ends up in Maine and gets a job and Ashley Gaynes is a guy working at a factory with her and — I mean, it goes off the fucking rails again and again, and I didn’t know how to fix it until one day I learned how to outline a novel and write a screenplay. Our journeys are weird, what can I say? Every book needs as many drafts as it needs. Some are aces out of the gate and just need a tickle and a polish. Others take five years of bashing your head against a wall until epiphany. Sorry?
24. Reality: It Won’t Edit Itself. It really won’t. Stare at it. Scowl at it. Yell at it all you like, it’s still not getting editing its owndamnself. You gotta get into those guts, get your hands bloody. The work is the work, hard as it is to do. Sorry?
25. Reality: This Is The Most Important Part. The art is in the arrangement. Editing is about that arrangement. There exist writers who don’t believe in second drafts, who don’t believe in editing, and these precious poodles are not people I understand. You are a stage magician and every stage magician practices the trick. They revise it. Just as a comedian practices and revises the routine — it might be good on the outset, but you want to sharpen, you want to tweak the timing, the emphasis, the word choice. That’s your book. It’s a big trick. A giant riddle or joke. It needs your hand. Editing and revising is more important than writing. Your subsequent drafts are more important than your first. That first draft is for you. The other drafts are for everyone else. So make them count. Do the work. This is the job.
P.S. you can do this
P.P.S. don’t panic
P.P.S.S. okay you can panic a little I won’t tell
P.P.S.S.S. *puts cupcake into your hand just to swat it to the ground*
* * *
“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Out now where books are sold.