Notes from the Revision Cave–February
This year for newsletter subscribers, I’m sharing about my process as I work on my next middle-grade mystery. I’ll repost here on my blog a few weeks after they appear in the newsletter, but if you want to follow my writing process closer to real-time, or you don’t want to miss out on my monthly Book Love giveaways, or you want to be the first to hear Book Scavenger updates and other bookish fun, then make sure to subscribe. I’ll be sending out a new one with the latest soon!
One of the tricky things with a revision, at least for me, is letting go of my attachments to what I wrote before. When I read my most recent draft, I’m not only seeing the story on the page but also the story behind the page. I see the chapter I rewrote ten times trying to get it just right, the joke that cracked up my writing group, the scene inspired by a funny thing my husband said. It’s hard to strip away the personal meaning and only consider how something is functioning in the story. But you as the reader do not have access to what is personally meaningful to me. You only have access to what is on the page. So, everything on the page needs to serve you, not my memories.
As I’m thinking about this, I’m realizing it’s not unlike looking at a disorganized closet. You might have the vision for how you want it to look. You might even know the problem is you have too many sweaters. But when you sit down with your stuff, the decisions of what should stay and what should go, and the order everything should be put in, aren’t always easy. This sweater is so soft and comfy, but also incredibly unflattering. You paid too much money for that sweater so you’d feel guilty if you parted with it, even though you never wear it because it’s itchy. The too-small sweater was a gift from a loved one, so letting go of it feels like letting go of them. Even when you’ve pared it down to your essentials, there can still be questions of order. Do you fold them? Hang them? Sort them by color, or sleeve length, or season, or casual/dressy? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to these questions. And that’s how it is with writing a novel, too. You are in charge, and you get to make the decisions. But what happens when you’re frozen by indecision?
Running with the closet metaphor, I’ve heard a number of organizing experts stress the importance of pulling all your clothes out of the closet and going through them one-by-one in a different setting. This is essentially the approach I currently take with my revisions. I started doing this out of necessity when I was writing The Unbreakable Code on a tight deadline. I felt so overwhelmed looking at all the stuff I was trying to cram in the closet. Eventually, I stopped working within the old draft, and instead wrote a summary of the new version of the story that was mainly in my head. From there I opened a new document and typed a rough outline of what happened. And that’s what I worked from, the new outline, not the old draft.
This has been my approach with my current book too. I focus on a chunk of chapters at a time, usually up until a turning point in the story. With the first chunk, I make a very basic outline of what happens. If it involves a scene that was in the old draft, then I open up the old file, find the scene, and copy-and-paste it into the new file. Then I start from the beginning, writing new material where nothing existed before and revising what did exist so it fits in with the new version. Sometimes I realize something else from the old draft can be adapted to work somewhere, and I’ll go back to the old file and copy and paste again. Sometimes the only thing that stays from an old scene is the dialogue, or a few lines of description. Sometimes the entire scene works essentially as it was written. Doing it this way helps me keep my focus forward, and fixed on the book I want to create, not the draft I already wrote.
Every writer is unique and what works for one person might not work well for someone else. And what works for one book might not work for the next. This is my approach right now, but it might not be my approach for the next book. That’s one of the best things about doing creative work—the rules are flexible. We can play with our process and change it up as we go along.