The Revision Process

(Originally published at The Lucky 13s.)

This week on the Lucky 13s blog, we’re talking about revision—a topic I’ve become awfully familiar with over the past few months. I’m just finishing up a round of revisions to my middle grade pirate fantasy novel, Magic Marks the Spot, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to show you what revision looks like from a writer’s perspective.

From a non-writer’s perspective, I imagine revision must look sort of alarming. Over the past few months, I have not paid much attention to what I think of as “normal person behavior”: eating at regular times, cleaning the house, cleaning myself, getting dressed, brushing my hair, talking to other human beings, etc. Instead, I have been staring into space and then saying to my husband, “You know, the admiral really does love his daughter in his own warped way, even if she is a pirate.”

And thank goodness, my husband nods and agrees with me, because he knows that revision has eaten my brain, and he is hopeful that despite this, I will someday be able to carry on a conversation that’s not about my book. (Ha!)

From my perspective, though, my revision process is (mostly) orderly and (almost completely) sane. It starts when I receive a letter from my brilliant editor at HarperCollins, letting me know what she loves about the book already and what still needs to be changed. I read that letter many, many times; I take notes on it; I figure out how I’ll address each of my editor’s concerns—and then I put the letter away.

Next, I print out a copy of the existing manuscript. I like to get this done at the FedEx Office down the street. It’s a little pricey, but I get it spiral-bound so it feels more like a real book, which helps me get a better idea of how the manuscript will read in its final form. I take a few days to read through it, taking notes with my red pen along the way. I mark places my editor has questions about, places where I have questions of my own, and places that I particularly love (because it’s always nice to come across an encouraging smiley face on a rough day of revising). Sometimes my comments are marginally helpful: “Add the scene about Philomena and the fish sticks here.” Sometimes they are less so: “Change this!!!” Sometimes I just draw a big red X over an entire paragraph, or page, or scene.

Once the hard copy of the manuscript is all marked up, I start to make changes. When I’m working on a big revision like the one I’m wrapping up now, I actually prefer to type the whole book from scratch, rather than editing an existing version or copying and pasting. When I copy and paste, my brain feels like it’s making a big patchwork quilt, and while the individual squares may be pretty, they don’t really fit together seamlessly. When I type everything onto a new, fresh page, editing as I go, old and new scenes come together more easily. I feel less like a quilter and more like a writer. Which is good, because I know nothing about quilting.

Some writers like to tackle the smaller edits first and then work on the major changes; some do it the other way around. I, however, work chronologically: I start at page 1 and go straight ahead until I reach the end, making each change when I get to it. I set a goal for myself; for this revision, it was 5 pages a day. Sometimes these 5 pages are ridiculously easy because all I have to do is tweak a few words here and there. Sometimes these 5 pages are a completely new scene that takes hours to write. Usually, though, my 5 pages are a mix of small tweaks and medium-sized changes that look simple but aren’t. (It turns out that adding a character to a scene is slightly more complicated than saying, “Oh, and Charlie was there, too.”)

Once I’ve finally reached the end of the draft, I go back through the manuscript and tidy up loose ends. In this current revision, I made a decision about one of my characters but changed my mind about him halfway through; now I have to go back to Chapter 1 and rewrite a few paragraphs to make the character consistent. Then I’ll print the whole thing out again and read through it once more with my red pen, just to see how the whole book flows in its newly revised form. I’ll also dig out my editorial letter again and make sure I’ve addressed each of my editor’s concerns.

And finally, when the book is safely in my editor’s hands once more, I will take a few minutes to brush my hair.