Friday, July 8, 2011

Be Wise. Revise.

by Scott Rhoades

Finally, after months and months of work, you're about to write your book's final chapter. This is an exciting moment. You've always dreamed of writing a novel, and in a few hours you'll be able to say you have. In the rush of much-deserved emotion and pride, it's easy to get ahead of yourself and start querying.

Three words: Don't do it.

Be proud. Be excited. Dream of success. But whatever you do, don't short circuit that success before you've had a chance to plug it in.

Many writers (points at self with both hands) get so excited about completing that first novel that they start querying the book before it's ready. This is a bad idea.

Many more writers know better and spend a couple of weeks intensely rereading and revising, and then they query. Still too early. Still a bad idea.

I've read that you should plan to spend as much time revising as you did writing. I've also read that you should plan to spend at least two or three times as long revising as you did writing. That's difficult advice to take. You love your book, and you don't want to wait to fulfill your dream of seeing it in print. Besides, the writing is the fun part. For many writers, the joy is in the creativity. Revising is drudgery. Writing is play. Revising is work.

But querying too early guarantees rejection. Not only are those too-early rejections discouraging, they also cut off potential markets that might be available to you if you wait until your book is truly ready. Most agents and editors won't look at something for a second time. That means, if you query too early, even an agent who loves that type of book becomes unavailable to you after rejecting you.

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that your book is so good that you can get away with querying early, and revising once an agent or editor can point out the weak spots. But this industry is full of people who think we are the exception. A little secret: almost nobody is an exception. Even the very few writers who make millions have to revise--or pay somebody to do it for them.

Don't think of revision as work. Revision is where craft comes in. It's where you graduate from writer to Writer. It's where you go from sketch to painting.

Here are a few tips:

1. Put the manuscript away for a while.

If you revise immediately after finishing the last chapter, you're still too close to the work. You're still in the heat of the moment. Revising requires distance. You won't find mistakes when you're excited about what you wrote. You won't spot certain types of flaws while you are still so close to the work that you're actually reading what you think you wrote instead of the actual words on the page. Confusing passages or scenes will be clear because you know what you meant. Time and distance makes it easier to read as an editor instead of as the writer. I've heard people say to stick the manuscript in a drawer for a month, or a year, or whatever works for that writer. I know that stuff I haven't looked at for a long time practically throws its flaws at me when I pick it up again, and the longer it's been, the better I can revise. What do you do during the rest time? Start another book. Learn how to write a query. Research agents. Develop a marketing plan. Pay attention to your family. Read. Take an editing class.

2. Read in reverse.

A key element of revision is strengthening nouns and verbs, eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, and making sure every word is strong. That's hard to do when you get caught up in your own story and get excited by your writing. So start at the end of a scene and go backwards, scanning the words instead of reading the sentences. Don't worry about context. Just mark potentially weak words. You can go back and check them later to decide whether to keep them or change them.

3. Look for one thing at a time.

Look for adverbs. Adjectives. Weak nouns and verbs. Dull, purposeless dialogue. Repeated words. But don't look for all of them all at once. Trying to do a single comprehensive edit, especially in the early stages of revising, guarantees that you'll miss stuff, and that you'll get caught up in the story. Remember, distance is key. Don't read for anything except that one thing you're looking for. Use different colors to mark each type of potential problem.

4. Print it out.

It's so easy to edit your manuscript in your word processor. That's one of the great things about technology. Plus, paper costs money (not to mention printer ink costs--what's up with that?) and creates garbage. But you can thoroughly mark up a printout. More importantly, just the fact that the page looks different will help you find things you don't see in the writing tool you're used to looking at. If you really don't want to print it, at least paste scenes or chapters or troublesome passages into your email or Google Docs or some other thing that makes it look different.

5. Read it aloud.

Nothing helps you find awkward bits like reading aloud. Those of you in writing groups know that, no matter how much you polish your chapter before taking it to group, as soon as you start reading you find junk you thought you'd fixed, or that you would have fixed if you had noticed it. Never send out anything--sample chapters, a query, a synopsis--until you've read it out loud. Another thing that helps is using one of the free software programs that will read it to you. Listening to a dull emotionless computer voice helps you spot problems that are easily covered by a dramatic reading.

Every writer can add to this list (and I hope some of you do). There are also many books that will provide much more detail than I can in a single (albeit over-lengthy) blog post. Here are three books that I find useful:

  • Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman
  • Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik
You could also do much worse than to read back through the excellent advice that has been posted on this blog. It's a treasure trove of good editing advice. And it's free.

One last personal note: Happy birthday, Granddad. I miss you.


Taffy said...

Excellent advice, Scott! I have two manuscripts waiting for me to edit again. One of them called to me the other day. I may be editing sooner than I think.

Julie Daines said...

Very excellent advice indeed.

Taffy said...

Scott, wanna do a guest post for my blog sometime on revising?

Scott said...

Sure, Taffy. Let's chat when I'm back in town.