Thursday, June 23, 2016

So, I didn't get it right the first time

I should have written this blog post when I was fin deep in revisions!

I realized I'd given very abstract (i.e. not all that useful) guidance on how long to let something lie fallow.

Here are my updated and revised points:
1. Revise in chunks, rather than the whole novel. If that means chapters, great. If it's just pages, fine.

2. Revise from the starting point to the stopping point in one pass. Don't break for lunch midway; don't check Facebook for updates from the Duchess of Yowl.  It's REALLY important to have all that material fresh in your head as you work.

3. Repeat 2 as needed using the alt reading tools (like printing out pages, changing fonts, reading aloud etc.)   
How much time to leave between repeats?
At first you'll only need an hour. When revisions get fewer, you need more time. 

When are you done revising and ready to let it sit? When you're not fixing things any more.
Fixing is not tinkering. Fixing is revising "Siamese Cat" to "shape shifter with a yowl to die for". Tinkering is "should I put a comma here, or a hyphen?"

Once you're just tinkering, it's time to let it sit.
The longer the piece, the longer it sits.

I let an entire proposal sit at least overnight while I'm revising. It really helps to write something else while you're letting the bloody thing sit (blog posts! Facebook posts! contest entries!) 

I let it sit for three-four days when I think I'm done.

And if I'd let that original blog post sit just two days longer, I could have avoided this whole "I didn't get it quite right the first time" thing. (Yes, this post update sat overnight.)


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A hair over 300 words, your post sat overnight. My columns are 600 to 650. Overnight is good, two nights - better.
There are times though when passion overrides sensibility, when getting it right is like the taste of turkey on Thanksgiving and the sound of fireworks on the fourth of July. Cautionary tales warn of undercooked fowl and short fuses. It can be difficult to watch the pot but let it cook until it's juicy and not overdone.

Cindy C said...

I love that you don't just tell us what to do, but are a great role model for showing us what to do.

I've been on vacation the last week and now have 3 full days of conference ( for work, not writing), so I've used this as a break from my revisions. Next Monday I'm back to it for what I hope will be 3 weeks of focused revision. Your advice to revise from starting point to stopping point all in one go is great--that's what I'll be working on doing next week!

And since I haven't been able to comment lately, or read all the comments, just wanted to say I appreciated the WIR more than usual on Sunday. Reading it did make me feel as if I got all caught up.

Sam Hawke said...

Great advice as always, oh Queen!

SiSi, I was also away (in tropical paradise, so no complaints) and also very much appreciated the WIR. It's nice to know what you were all doing and debating throughout the week when I've missed it.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

So important. Fresh eyes reveal so much in the text no matter what it is your writing- a book, a blog, an article about 365 ways to torture writers with kale, or a comment, I am making this comment with weary eyes and not nearly enough coffee. Been writing since 4 AM. I bet it shows.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've printed out THE LAST SONG and have my post-its and pens at the ready (and wow, the printer at work I used made "hot off the presses" more than a saying), so this is a very, very timely post. As I hole punched the thing (on the worst 3 hole puncher in the world), I read snippets here and there, and thought "man, I really still like this". So that's good. Now to chop out a bunch of it, put it other places, and write a bunch more.

People in my writing workshop have asked me when I considered a story to be "done", once the drafts have been written, and editing and revising has happened. And the "tinkering" benchmark is it for me. If I'm just doing commas and hyphens, it's time to let it sit, and/or go to one of my readers, with questions like "does this make sense?" and "does this need more at any point?". If all THEY do is commas and hyphens, it's time to get sent out.

My readers do not always have time for my novels, however. But there may be a writing group in the works for me other than the workshop I run at the library, so fingers crossed!

Kitty said...

Tinkering has turned out to be the important phase for me. When I keep going back to a word or a phrase, something that seems fine and yet it pesters me like a gnat at bedtime, then I know I've overlooked something. Sometimes the something is nothing and sometimes it isn't.

Colin Smith said...

Here's what I'm curious to know. There are writers out there (not me) who only ever produce one draft because they edit as they go. I've heard them say that their writing day begins with looking over the previous day's work to correct mistakes, and craft it into good prose. They then begin the new stuff. My question: Do they not re-read the entire manuscript when it's done? Do they type "The End", do some work on the section they just wrote, and then send it to their agent/editor? I know I couldn't do that. I'd want one last read through to be sure everything is in place.

As it is, my methodology is to write the thing as it comes out (with some editing--it's hard to resist, but I don't get hung up on edits at this point), then go back and work through the text, paragraph by paragraph, shaping, sculpting, etc. Then I'll rest it for a while, and read through again, making further changes, until I think it's ready for my First Reader.

Thank you for your thoughts and insights, Janet. There is much wisdom here.

Colin Smith said...

Here's something else I'm curious to know: how many published writers continue to use Beta Readers? Or once they have a few books under their belt, do writers feel like their agent/editor team is sufficient? I have heard more than one bestselling author say that the only other person who sees their manuscript before it goes to their agent or editor is their spouse. And sometimes not even their spouse!

Any insights anyone...?

Kae Ridwyn said...

"When revisions get fewer, you need more time." This makes sense - although it hadn't occurred to me. Obviously, I'm not at this stage yet.
I'm with SiS in thanking you for not just telling us, but showing.
And Colin, there's no way I could do that either. Perhaps I just don't trust myself enough. Perhaps it's because I honestly believe that good writing is revised writing. And speaking of...
*opens up WIP to keep revising*
Happy writing day, everyone!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I have a question similar to Colin's. I am writing a new book so I am back in a workshop again. Once I am published (I am trying on some confidence here to see how it fits), is it ok to keep doing early drafts in a workshop setting?

This is the sff online workshop that I think several other Reiders participate in from time to time. I really find this kind of workshop a great way to get feedback as I go so I don't completely flame out. It is a fabulous tool, and I would like to keep using it going forward.

Donnaeve said...

This is a really, really timely topic for me as well.

Yesterday I submitted my project to my agent. I will from this point on be consumed by scrubbing things - blinds, tubs, toilets, floors, woodwork, car, birdbath, dog, whatever, until I hear back.

I wish I'd had the time to let it sit longer. I made three passes over it - more like two and half, and then I let it go b/c it's getting into the short rows for giving him enough time to read, and me enough time to edit before we hit a hard deadline. (Sept 15th)

Colin, you had a couple questions and here's how I write, which, of course, is simply my way of working. I edit as I go along. I do just what you mention - I write and edit as I write, perfecting sentences to the best of my ability at that time. The next day, I re-read what I wrote the day before, edit it, and then write new stuff. Daily goal - at least 1,000 new words (w/editing) while also editing the work from day before.

I didn't let anyone read this book. No beta's, no CP's. Worked in a silo. Which is also why I'll be running the hamster wheel of worry. The worry is about comparisons. Nothing I can do about it except what I do. Scrub, clean, worry, lather, rinse, repeat.

DLM said...

I have a short story which, according to Word's handy-dandy Properties stats, I started in January of 2013. It was a good idea, but per usual with my shorts (another good idea dates back perhaps as much as ten years, also unfinished), it had no ending. Within this piece, a lot of good writing has sat about, being plucked at sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes just as desultory tinkering along a read that feels good but frustrates because I don't know what to do with it.

A verb, senator!

Yesterday, I realized I needed to change a name. And, along the way, I realized some other things. The poking around, it is not desultory. I suddenly have this idea I need to submit the thing. Somewhere.

So it seems letting the thing lie around for ten months or so is the right time for this piece. For the older one ... maybe ten years?

Donna, I sit in awe of your ability to work solo. I crumbled completely without betas.

Colin Smith said...

Here's Diane's link:

Donna: You allude to something I suspect with regard to post-publication Beta Readers--published writers may not have time to submit their work for Beta feedback. Pre-published, we have the luxury of NOT working to deadlines, and being able to solicit help and advice without an agent breathing down our neck and tapping on her watch. Once you sign a contract, however, such luxuries go out the window. That's my understanding, anyway.

julieweathers said...

I'm still waking up. I overslept. That will teach me to fiddle with the alarm and then lie awake all night thinking about the story. Plus, I am pre-caffeinated, so I have no idea if this will make any sense.

My methods, which mean nothing to anyone except me. I revise something while I'm working on it if it's bugging me. If there's something about it that doesn't seem right and it nags at me to the point I'm thinking about it instead of new work. I know at that point I need to fix something before I move on.

Usually the boys in the back have it right and I had something wrong that affects the rest of the story going forward.

Otherwise, I worry about revisions when

a. I'm trying to work out how to go forward

b. I'm done

I'll try to revise a section at a time. Sometimes that's a chapter. Sometimes it's just to the end of a difficult scene, like an emotional or action scene. I have to have a stopping point.

No distractions.

3. Janet absolutely nailed this one and it's so important. You have to print it out, read it aloud. Read it with color as my middle son used to say. Then, finally, have it read to me with Ivana for me. This phase is after my beta readers have gone over it with a fine tooth comb and broken my heart several times.

Beta readers. We exchange scenes/chapters once a month and then when a book is done will have beta readers read the whole again. In the middle we might post scenes on Books and Writers.

Set it aside and let it lie fallow. work on something else to clear my mind. When I come back to it there are going to be parts I realize I don't like and want to rework and parts I really like.

Rinse and repeat.

At that point I've done about all I can do.

If, however, the beta readers have noticed I have major plot holes. I'm back to square one. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Unknown said...

Excellent advice, Janet! Thank you. Especially the part about not checking Facebook. I set the timer on my phone for pure writing/revising time during which I am not allowed to check social media.

Theresa said...

Very timely advice, since I'm all about revising--much of it very extensive. I think and work in chapters.

Donnaeve said...

Colin, exactly.

I also tend to think maybe Beta's or CP's might tell me to change something my agent or editor would say to leave alone, or suggest I change in a different way. It's enough that I went from 121k to 98k with my own editing. One can't help but wonder if something cut should've stayed. Guessing games!

Diane - hee! Except...I'm lying about the floor in crumbles this morning - in between the cleaning frenzy.

julieweathers said...

Q&A session

I'll be name dropping so you'll have to forgive me.

Colin, Hemingway began his day by re-reading what he had written the day before to prime the pump so to speak. I'm not sure how many passes he made, but he edited meticulously. You can look at pictures of his pages and see that. Anyone who thinks he didn't work at his craft to make it look simple is a fool.

Diana Gabaldon fiddles with her sentences endlessly as she writes. She doesn't move on until she's satisfied with it. She's also a chunk writer. She sees a scene and writes it, not really knowing where it's going to fit in, but somehow the scenes all start finding a place as the story comes together. As they do, she may have to fine tune them and weave the pieces into the rest of the narrative.

Sometimes she posts rough drafts of passages on Books and Writers to demonstrate how to do something when a writer asks a question. She'll answer the question and then post the excerpt and dissect it to show how something is done. You can see how the crafting works. You can also see how even though she edits as she goes, there's still more polishing at the end sometimes. Usually, it's pretty darned close to what the editor gets.

Most published authors still have beta readers. Patrick Rothfuss mentions his readers in his acknowledgments. Many authors do.

What authors do according to Diana Gabaldon. The empty square brackets she refers to is where she just brackets something she intends to fill in later, but doesn't want to stop and look up while she's writing. It really is an effective way to keep the flow going.

One of my crit partners writes like Diana in that she fiddles constantly as she writes. She writes linearly, though. It's gorgeous writing and doesn't give us much to do as beta readers, except try to keep up with her and make sure there aren't any reader questions.

Susan Bonifant said...

Janet's points about pace and organization are good ones. My challenge in revising has always been not to become overwhelmed by how one major change will affect goings-on down the road.

I've now made it part of my "set up" in drafting to create a block by block spreadsheet, each block representing a chapter, with three or four lines per block to describe what's going on.

I keep it simple, an at-a-glance sort of thing, and it has really helped in avoiding that runaway "what-if and what-then" thinking we can fall into.

Claire said...

There's also the reality that once you have an established relationship with an agent, and/or a two-book deal with the publisher, you know they're at least going to read the full thing with an expectation that it's publishable. So there isn't that same need to have your MS be as close to perfect as humanly possible - the agent has more invested in you this time, their finger won't be hovering over the 'Form Reject' key with quite the same fervour :)

Donnaeve said...

Susan (I love this bolding of names to make sure folks see it)

This: "My challenge in revising has always been not to become overwhelmed by how one major change will affect goings-on down the road."

Yes! I wanted to make what seemed like a medium sort of change in the project I just submitted, and then I started thinking of the domino effect - but then I'll have to change this, and this and this. No time.

Claire Yes to your comment too!

Sherry Howard said...

I've heard there's a name for people like me: polished drafter. My writing spends so much time in my head before pen meets paper that I don't do a lot of editing. (I'm referring to short pieces that have actually been published.) This is not a good thing. I wish I could write more quickly and then edit more. It's something I'm working on; it's not a productive way to write.

I think critique partners and beta readers are so crucial to the early stages of writing, but that eventually you learn from your mistakes and the need must surely be less. At least, I hope so.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Bolding names is at least helpful for those who only have time to skim the comments. This way they quickly see when they are being addressed and can respond if necessary. That's why I started doing it. :)

Colin Smith said...

ProTip: For those who don't know, the bold tags are < b > and < / b > (without the spaces). Put those on either side of the text you want to bold.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Hyphens DO NOT take the place of commas, ever. You're thinking of an en-dash. An en-dash separates two sentence parts – that's why you put a space both before and after the dash. A hyphen connects two words (no space.) They are not interchangeable.

Colin Smith said...

Hey there, John! Either I've missed you, or you haven't been around the comments for a while. How are you? Stirring up trouble, I see. People can be quite passionate about en-dashes and em-dashes, and whether you should put spaces on either side. Let the games begin... ;)

Anonymous said...

After making the mistake of revising my first novel nonstop for about 5 years, I now need to let drafts of my manuscript sit for several months before I go in to tackle them again. I need the objectivity! This has the downside of it being a long time before anything is fully finished, but I have learned to be patient :)

Joseph S. said...

I guess I do a sloppier version of what Janet Reid suggests, except for the no breaks part. Since I’ve not had a novel published I’m reluctant to offer any direction. But I have had legal books published and my natural habits are the same for each.

I can hold my concentration for two or three hours. I reach a wall where it all ends. If I reach that point I stop.

I work on one or two chapters at a time—in the original draft and in the major revision.

I am blessed and cursed by being a slow and incompetent typist. What I write long hand in two hours will take me eight to ten hours to type, for example. A good part of the typing is editing as I go along.

On my revisions, I print a copy of the revised chapter and have another go at it.

My handwriting is terrible so I must type within a day of writing or I cannot decipher my hen scratching.

Sporadically I’ll return to a chapter or flash through what I’ve ‘finished’ and tinker not only with commas but with word choices, prickly sentences, and sometimes with really cool stuff that on second or third read gets deleted.

John Davis Frain said...


I'd like to introduce you to Mavis Beacon. (Hey, celebs are constantly dropping by Janet's blog, Mavis might be lurking.) Anybody taking that long to type (2 hours of handwriting = 8 to 10 hours of typing! Ouch.) needs a quick course that'll speed up the task.

Back on topic of the post, I thought the original post nailed things pretty well. I quit counting how many revisions I did to my WIP when I had to take my shoes and socks off.

But the most amazing thing: Looking back at earlier things I wrote even just a couple years ago. Wow, revising and honing your craft truly makes a difference.

Kate Larkindale said...

As someone coming to the end of a rather arduous revision, this post couldn't come at a better time! And to answer a question, even though I have an agent who made suggestions for the direction of the revision, I still have beta readers and crit partners I trust and I wouldn't send the MS back to my agent without a thumbs up from them… I'm still waiting to get to that point.

julieweathers said...

Barbara Rogan does a slightly different approach to revisions. She's a terribly organized writer. She starts each chapter with a list of goals, character development, exposition, plot advancement, subplot, theme, etc. She fiddles a lot as she writes. She'll go back and add something to a previous chapter if needed. Read the whole thing over. Then she reads all the scenes with one character and makes sure that character's arc completes throughout the story etc. She'll read over again to focus on language.

I really admire that much organization. At the same time, it makes me twitch.

Colin Smith said...


heLlo, Mavis Neacon [crap, where's the white-out? Backspace? What's that? Oh... I see.] Beacon heer. Yoy must try oyt my tuyping tutoer. It'll help yout typye fastera nd mote accurately.


Scott G said...

Is there such a thing as over-revising? If there is, I think I have a tendency to do it.

For example, in my current manuscript I wrote a first draft, then went back and cut, edited and revised until I had it in shape enough to give to beta readers. I did no work on it while the beta readers did their thing. Then I got it back and addressed some issues they pointed out to me. Lo and behold I have a second draft.

Great right?

Well, I let it sit for a while. Didn't think about it, didn't double-click on the file to open it on my screen, didn't change one word. A few months later, I'm thinking I should be ready to put the polish on and end up with a third draft that's ready to go places. So, with renewed energy and a fresh perspective, I open the manuscript and get to work.

Here's where I start rethinking and over-analyzing too much, because now I have nothing but a jumbled mess. I keep cutting, editing and revising to try and fix this stupid thing, but I still end up with a jumbled mess. The more I work on it, the more the frustration keeps building to the point I want to punch my computer screen. Maybe I shouldn't have let it sit so long.

Don't know if I'll end up scrapping or saving this manuscript, but what I should probably do is read through all the archives of this blog to learn how to write more goodly.

DeadSpiderEye said...

My problem with revisions is that institutions they keep me in, we're only allowed one bog roll a week. So I have to get things rihgt first time, while at the same time avoiding bran.

Colin Smith said...


Bog Roll = Toilet Paper


Craig F said...

This is a good place to start or to try to squash bad habits. As in real life it takes all kinds of edits to make all writers happy. Editing is a very personal thing. Even if you edit while you write(?) you should do this when you are finished.

There are a few writers who can plop out a book ready to publish in one try. I know of two. The rest of us should have a list like this to run through a week after something is done. At least until you get up one morning and are facing a deadline but then you have an editor to send it to.

Make a copy of this and stick in an obvious spot. Modify it as your own style begins to take hold. Yes you self editing people also need to do this because you do need to see it as a whole when you are done with it.

(?): I edit when I write because on occasion I change things I have already written to make things flow better or to set up a subplot I hadn't previously thought of. Sometimes lots of early things change.

John Davis Frain said...

Scott G & Others,

I wouldn't get so frustrated with having multiple revisions. That strikes me as part of the process, especially for a debut novel. I wonder how different (read: better!) your current version is when compared to the original?

Every time you make another revision, especially when you're revising after beta readers have leafed through, you're improving as a writer. Your product is getting better.

Think about WD-40. Great product. You know how it got its name? It was the inventor's 40th attempt to create the product. (I hope that's not apocryphal or it'll totally ruin my point!)

Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep getting better!

Beth Carpenter said...

I like the read over yesterday's writing and revise system. I tried the full-speed ahead, no editing system, and while I got a lot of words on the page, it felt a little like driving on ice; I was always on the verge of crashing.

Editing as I go doesn't mean the MS is ready when I'm finished. It's more like that first coat of varnish on a woodworking project. There's still more polishing to come. Sometimes something in Chapter 7 means I need to change the nuance in Chapter 3. Or I read over the whole story and realize I haven't emphasized an important facet of a character's personality, so I need to go back and sprinkle in some examples. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I have real problems any time someone says you "have to" do things a certain way. With writing or anything else. It's just not true. What it means is that person has to do things a certain way. And really, good for them for knowing it. Just keep in mind, it might work for you, it might not. I'm glad this post doesn't cross that line between guidance and imperative.

Janet, in the first sentence, did you mean "shouldn't" have?

Scott G, I hate to offer "advice" when I haven't seen the problem, but it sounds really familiar to the way I used to struggle (HA, I still do), so maybe it's a structure issue? If so, Alex Sokoloff's site is full of advice about story structure. Really, it's an excellent resource. This is the main page, where she has her blog (you'll see she recently did a story breakdown of JAWS). But look also at the tab titled Story Structure. I think we all know this stuff instinctively, as readers, but it has been an enormous help to me to be able to define it and do it on purpose.

AJ Blythe said...

Don't have time to read the comments (although Colin's Translation Service post makes me desperately want to!), so apologies if someone has said this...

I recently got a brilliant piece of advice on editing. For at least one edit, start from the end and work backwards. The reason is something to do with the way our brain processes things. I'm probably going to get the explanation a bit wrong, but it's something to do with your brain knowing what's coming when you read forwards, but when you start with the last chapter, than the 2nd last etc, your brain processes them as pieces. You pick up more doing it this way (at least I do, although that might say more about me than anything!).

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I might have told you this story before, but for different reasons.

One Friday a friend who was an editor for an Aussie SFF magazine asked me if I had a story that would fit their theme--deadline Monday

I didn't when she asked me, but tThat night I had the seeds of an idea. I slept on it.

Saturday I wrote up the first draft. Then I slept on it.

Sunday I gave it an editing pass. Then I slept on it.

Monday morning I gave it one more editing pass and send it to her. They loved it and bought it.

Even with a 72 hour turnaround time, I still allowed time for the story to settle, to breathe and I allowed myself sleep to reset my brain chemistry.

I completely believe a good night's sleep is a vital tool in the Author's box o' tools. It certainly benefitted me as a musician.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

As for my novel methodology, I pre-write them. That is, I daydream about a scene and nuzzle it about my gray cells and play it back and forth in my head and get it just right there before I commit it to paper.

The value of this method is that I can work on a novel when I'm not at a computer (say, in the car or the shower), then when I am indulged in my writing time, I can maximise its benefit. Writing time is *writing* time, not thinking time.

Occasionally I'll handwrite notes, but when it comes to the text, it's straight from the brain, thru the fingers, to the computer.

Oh yes, I'm an outliner. I'll draft the outline of the plot--beginning to end--then I break it into scenes and lay that out in yWriter. Then I do my daydreaming and writing. I've found this method efficient in that I can see the bigger picture much better.

Janet Reid said...

@kdjames: You asked: Janet, in the first sentence, did you mean "shouldn't" have?

I should have written the first post when I was knee deep in revisions because I would have written it correctly then, instead of needing this post now.

Anonymous said...

Ahh. Gotcha. I was projecting, being deep in revisions myself and unable to write (or read, apparently) anything else coherently. Which does little to explain why I persist in writing comments over here. O_O