Sunday, July 23, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter

Revision is not something that comes naturally to me. I had written four manuscripts before I finally cracked what it means to really revise a novel, rather than check for typos and move a few scenes around. It took me years to figure out how to get down to the bones of my story, identify weak spots, incorporate CP feedback, and figure out how to strengthen the parts of my story structure that were failing. For a long time I'd draft a book, mess around with it for awhile, and then hit this point where I knew there was still stuff wrong with it because it wasn't getting agent interest, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

If any of the above describes you, dear writer, take heart! Over the next little while, I'm going to do a series of blog posts breaking down how I revise, going in-depth on each point. Every author has their own revision process, and mine may not be yours—but hopefully these posts will provide a jumping-off point to give you a better feel for what a revision process can look like.

Today's post deals with my very first revision step: I write my own edit letter.

For a lot of people, the first step in revision is to print or upload a complete draft of their story and then read it and make notes. I will be up-front and say that while this used to be my first step always, it's not anymore. I've learned that a) I have a finite number of times I can read my book in rapid succession without losing my ability to spot problems, and b) I'm not very good at picking up on the big-picture structural changes my book needs when I'm reading through it. On a read-through, I have a tendency to get hung up on smaller things, and miss the crucial big-picture ones. Therefore, while there are definitely rounds of revision that start with me reading my book through cover to cover, I tend to use them both randomly and judiciously. If I have recently read it, or otherwise feel like I'm doing a decent job of holding the story in my head, or feel like a read-through would be more valuable after I've applied the changes, then I hold off.

My true first step—really a pre-revision step—is that I almost always let my book sit for awhile and send it to CPs before I dive into revision. The exception is when I've made big changes to the plot while drafting and the draft wouldn't even make sense to a CP; for instance, with Where the Watermelons Grow, I was 3/4 through drafting before I decided I was bored of writing a straight contemporary story and wanted to add magic bees. Because the plot changed dramatically at that 3/4 point, I went back through and added the magical element from the beginning before I sent it off to critique partners.

But after I've finished drafting, let the book rest a little, and gotten feedback from CPs, my agent, or my editor (depending on which round of revision I'm on), my first step is always writing myself an edit letter.

Once you have an agent or an editor (often, even once you've got some good CPs), you will start receiving edit letters to help guide your revisions. Most agents and editors don't use Track Changes or other in-text comments to give feedback on big-picture issues that need to be changed; instead, they write an edit letter, a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the things they feel need to be changed or strengthened as you revise.

I get easily overwhelmed by the revision process and always need to spend a few days making a solid revision plan before I dive in; I'm totally not capable of holding everything in my head. As such, the first thing I do is write myself what essentially amounts to an edit letter—to myself, from myself. It's usually not as in-depth as edit letters I get from my agent, editor, or CPs, because I can use shorthand and still know what I mean later on. But it's essential for me to have a to-do list before I start revising, especially if I'm trying to collate feedback from multiple CPs, or if I've had ideas I want to change in addition to what my agent or editor asked for, or if my agent or editor pointed out a weakness in my story and I then brainstormed a new way to solve it.

I begin by combing through all the feedback I've received so far and writing it down, along with any ideas I've had independently. Sometimes this looks like a checklist; sometimes it looks more like a paragraph-by-paragraph freewrite of my story's problems. Unless it's a very, very light line edit, I usually will organize the revision items by size—big changes (changes that affect whole story threads, whole characters, or the structure of the plot itself) and small changes (things that generally only affect one scene, or require only a line or two of difference throughout the book). If I have a lot of items on my list, I'll even split them into big, medium, and small.

Here's an example of the first edit letter I wrote myself for one of my current works in progress:

This was a fairly light revision pass; sometimes I end up with a lot more points on that list. (Though the font size here is small so that it can all fit into one screenshot, so there really were more items than there might seem to be at first glance.)

Starting like this lets me organize my thoughts, collate feedback from different sources, and keep track of what I've done and what I have yet to do, since I will usually "check off" items on my list (usually by italicizing them) as I go. It also lets me draw attention to thinks I think I might forget, or things that will take a lot of work or finesse; these I usually bold. Mostly, starting like this helps me to work up the courage to dive into the revision pool—something that's always really intimidating to me when I'm preparing to start a big revision!

In my next post, I'll discuss mapping my book to figure out where the weak spots lie!

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