Last week I completed the most recent round of revisions on my manuscript. This document was saved as hush 3.0. Everything about this process has been a new experience for me. First and foremost, this is the first time that I’ve written a third draft (and fourth and fifth and sixth, if you count all the versions of the first few chapters). My first full draft was completed in two months last summer. It had the size and shape of novel, but was breathless and clunky. Some writers, I understand, revise as they go so that their first complete draft is a bit more, well complete. I didn’t do that, and if I had tried I might not have finished it, at least in a timely enough manner to make that first deadline.
Then came draft two.
That draft was all about me learning how to edit and revise myself from scratch. Every class that I’ve ever taken has required me to revise and edit, yes, but nothing over 50 pages. It’s all short stories or early chapters (hence all of the versions of the first few chapters before last summer). Revising a longer work, especially your own, is far more difficult. You’re carrying the story over far more pages and to confirm events that happened earlier in the story to make sure that they work with changes that you’re making later on requires more than just flipping back three or four pages. The relevant passages may be two lines on page 13, a paragraph on page 60, eight lines spread across pages 167 and 168, and a line of dialogue that closes out chapter 37–all to make the events that happen in chapter 44 work. And the events that happen in chapter 44 were not in the previous draft, those events were slightly different.
Yeah, it can be a lot.
Add to this the fact that you know your story. You know how it unfolded before and also how it unfolded the time before that. You know this character back when his name wasn’t Bill and this other character back when he was a she. All of these things are folded into your current reading, which is to say, not reading, but scanning for mistakes. This in and of itself is a mistake, because you just missed an opportunity for character description there and those incidents that you know happened between Jack and Jill … well, you know them, but they aren’t clear to the audience, but you don’t realize that because it’s just so obvious, isn’t it?
It took me a long time to get going on that draft. My first intention was to attack it with my vicious red pen of justice while reading it as a new reader. Because, that’s what you hear that you’re supposed to do. That’s where that whole “leave the manuscript in a drawer for 6 months and a two full mating cycles of the South African Pigeon” thing that every writing teacher everywhere has told you. If only it were that easy. Because you wrote it, so you’ll never look at it as a first reader (and neither will any outside readers once they’ve read through it once). You anticipate the action that you know is coming, so you don’t know if you’re properly setting up that action. Does this section drag with too much information and exposition, or did you blast past it with too little?
I don’t have an always answer here.
I struggled and struggled and finally at the end of chapter seven I gave up my first plan of attack, doing a clean read before revising it on the computer. What I opted to do instead was take and work on those first seven chapters that I had already slashed at with my red pen. I copied the chapter from the last draft into a new draft (but only that chapter) and then made the revisions there. Then I went after the next chapter in the same fashion. By the time I got through the sections that were already scribbled up, I had momentum again, and in writing a novel momentum is important. From that point on I did my revisions the way that I outlined my first draft, I marked up the next few chapters so that I knew how far out my headlights would go and then I made sure that everything that my headlights were covering was properly revised, and then I moved on to the next section and to the next until draft two was complete.
My book has fifty chapters. That is a lot of ground to be aware of. My first draft came in at 107,000 words, draft two came in at 123,000 words and my most current draft is sitting at 127,000 words–and this is all with a fair amount of cutting.
Draft two into draft three had the benefit of another set of eyes on it (albeit on 300 of the 442 pages, but still that other pencil marking up the draft is very helpful) and with those notes I could suddenly see my story through someone else’s eyes. I chose to use a different color pen on my markings for this round of edits–my vicious red pen of justice (Sharpie pen) became a purple pen and on the same draft that my thesis advisor marked up, I went to town on. This round of edits went much quicker. I had her notes guiding me on pacing and forcing me to question decisions I had made in the text. Sometimes I cut, sometimes I clarified and sometimes it didn’t matter because the whole section was rewritten with new information because I discovered a better way of doing it. In the first third my main character went (in draft one) from being a former employee of the college newspaper to (in draft two) a current employee to (in draft three) a former employee who still does the occasional article because he has this big other thing that he is also doing. Notes were scribbled about secondary and tertiary characters like: bring this character in earlier or lose them, why do we need all these people, do we need these characters, bring this character into the action. As I proceeded with revisions I tweaked relationships slightly, I changed how characters first appeared (was it originally a surprise appearance on page 60, well now that character gets called on the telephone on page 12 … etc) and as I came to the final chapters I brought a character off the bench and into the action much sooner and as the revisions continued, I realized that the character had gotten himself into a position where they had to die. It was hard, but that character had chosen a much greater level of involvement and as a result put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time …
I know killing your darlings refers to sentences and language that you love, but has no place in your story … in this case, it was a character that I liked a lot. Shit happens. Fictional characters die.
Now, I’m working on a polish. The book shaped thing has a more coherent story and the last round of revisions has made it less shitty, so now I’m working on making sure that while I was tweaking the shit out of this book that I didn’t leave all sorts of rough edges from draft two in there. You know the stuff, a character is reading a book in draft two and drops it into their bag before they leave the house … well, that whole reading the book thing gets cut from your story and your story is better for it. The problem is, while you cut the reading of the book, the character is still tossing said book into their bag. Inexplicably now, because that book has just appeared from nowhere. Oops. I’m also cleaning sentences up. Now that I’ve hacked away at the thing with an axe and glued the bits that I want to keep back together with the new bits that I added, I need to sand away all the roughness and make sure it looks pretty and not like a horribly deformed thing grown in the lab of one of Tom Six’s mad scientists.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m 10% into my polish and I’ve got a week to finish it.
I’ll get there. I’m pretty good with deadlines.