Since I’ve just run through an intensive two-week editing and revision sprint to get my superhero book off to Harper Voyager, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about revisions. Regardless of whether you are sending your work out to a publisher or preparing to self-publish your book, you need to have an editing system. You’ve probably learned a lot about story structure and how a good book reads by virtue of years of reading. You may have a natural feel for it. (I think I do.) But you can also learn a lot about solid story structure.
There are numerous books available telling you various ways to go about revising (my favorites are Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King), but the best way is the way that works for you. For me, the best way is a combination of using Scrivener and sticky notes.
This particular book, UNEXPECTED HERO, turned into what I hope to be the worst editing experience of my life. After working on this book in several drafts over seven years (ugh, that pains me even to say it), I hope I never ever EVER have such a difficult time editing again. It started easily enough with one draft and a clear vision. That vision wasn’t shared by my agent, and I did a page-one rewrite using her notes. In the end, she didn’t like that version either and the book was never sent to publishers. (I learned a lot from that experience alone, and I am grateful that she and I remained friends.)
Now I had two complete books (not drafts) with the same characters, similar plots, and a different time frame. That meant that I couldn’t use them both as the first two books in the series. I had to choose. Problem was, my agent made some good points about things that I improved in the second book, but other elements I liked better from the first book. I decided the best choice was to roll up my sleeves and completely rewrite the book again, taking the best elements and putting them together for the best possible story.
This was not easy.
In fact, it was so difficult, and I had so many other things going on in life – like grad school – that I didn’t finish the third draft. What I did “complete” (for lack of a better word) was creating a document I called “UH Prototype” in my “Hero” Scrivener file. I cut and pasted the scenes from the previous versions along with new scenes I’d written into a Frankenstein document. The final story would look something like this one in terms of story, but most of the scenes needed to be rewritten to some extent. (My heroine had been married for three years in the first version, was unmarried in the second version, and starts out as a newlywed in the final version.)
Then a month or so ago, I heard about Harper Voyager’s open submission window and thought this could be a great opportunity for UNEXPECTED HERO. So I printed out the UH Prototype file and found a printed copy of the last completed “draft” and read them through, making notes. I’d thought I was at least three-quarters of the way through the final draft, but as I read the printouts, I found I was closer to half done. And I only had two weeks to get the book in.
In grad school, I worked on a few of the scenes for school assignments, and even then the overwhelming number of words to get through was difficult to handle. At that point, I had the insight to number my revisions like software. The original book became Hero 1.1. The version based on my agent’s notes became version 1.2. The new version was Hero 1.3, but in the course of many confusing ideas on how to fix it, it also became 1.4 and 1.5. (The first two were original, complete “books” ready to go, and separate from each other. But after that everything else was a draft of the third version of book one.) I also started a file called Hero 2.1 with notes on the new villain taken from Hero 1.1; that will become book two in the series.
Three weeks ago, when I took time off to do nothing but finish this book, everything I needed was in the Scrivener file, and I was getting confused trying to edit such large (90,000 words) documents. So I needed more than what Scrivener was doing. (I now create each scene as a separate document in Scrivener so I can easily move them around if necessary, and compile them into one document when I’m done by pressing a button. Love it!) So I pulled out my box of sticky notes and wrote a one-sentence description of each scene in the order I currently had it, and lined them up (first on the glass of a framed picture at the timeshare – LOL!, then on my white board at home).
Between years of reading, learning story structure in my screenwriting program, and learning how to be an editor in one of my grad school classes, I had a feel for where the story was going wrong. But I needed to be able to visualize the whole thing in one glance. And I needed to move the scenes around and see if it worked better this way or that way. The one-sentence sticky notes allowed me to finalize the structure as I worked through the story. I’d get to a point in the actual writing/editing, and think, but wait… I’d go back to my sticky notes and realize a piece was missing – she had to tell him before they could argue about it. Or I’d be getting along toward the end when I realized she’d told the superhero but not his alter ego, so I had to write in a way that either the alter ego had to pretend he didn’t know or he had to make a mistake and let it slip that he did.
In a strange, wonderfully sick writerly way, I actually had a lot of fun!
Again, at about the three-quarters point, I was getting lost as to “when” I was. Was the story going too slow or too fast? Was I missing any major obvious events? So I pulled up a calendar that had the date the book started on the day of the week I wanted it to start, and I started writing on the bottom of my stickies – Monday the 18th, Tuesday the 19th, etc. Two scenes had to be reversed because one had to happen at lunch time and the other at dinner time. And somewhere around here I had the ah-ha moment for how I would end the book simply based on the date that the story ended.
It was a difficult process but for some reason it wasn’t as painful this time. Maybe because I’ve been rehashing this story in my mind for seven years. In fact, several times I spent an hour or more looking for a scene I was sure I wrote only to come to the conclusion that I must’ve just developed it with striking clarity in my head! One scene I did eventually find in my grad school homework. (Whew!) In any case, I know this is the best version of this book by far, and exactly what I meant to write. Some of the scenes even surprised me with how good they became. LOL! Definitely my best work to date.
So if you’re trying to figure out how to edit a monster, try some or all of the things I used:
- printouts and a pen,
- Scrivener or multiple open Word documents,
- a calendar,
- sticky notes,
- and a white board or wall.
You can tame the monster, but it may take looking at your story in several different ways at the same time.
Good luck! You can do it!