Friday, August 5, 2011

Guess the Author (Or Rewrite 'Til Death)

I came upon a bargain-priced, hardcover novel the other day by an author as famous as they come. No, I’m not going to tell you the name because I felt ridiculous after realizing the author had passed away and the book I bought was found as a complete manuscript and published posthumously. How could I have not known any of this? I’m sure you all did, and you are free to guess the author and book. In fact, if you do, I’ll send it to you.


The book was obviously not the author’s best work, but what lessons it had to teach! It was a privilege to see how a master of popular fiction plays with a silly story to see what can be done with it. First, the plot held together well—there were holes but nothing that couldn’t be fixed in a rewrite. There were tangents (fascinating ones, goofy ones, disgusting ones) never to be taken up again—they needed to go or be developed. Most characters were still in cardboard cutout phase but they had enough to keep them interesting—even fascinating in some cases. Most just needed a bit more.

I’m sure the author's ghost would let out a shuddering graveyard moan if it knew this hidden manuscript was now published worldwide. It wasn’t my favorite story by a long shot but I wish I could write a draft that well! Because it just needed a little more. Just a little. Sigh. I hope it’s being re-written on the other side so I can see the final product someday.

With that, the Cabinet is going to take a look at revisions. I personally love revising, it’s where the magic happens for me. I like to have my basic characters, logic, tensions and my main events all laid out in the first draft. Then in rewriting I get to play within my framework. In fact, once I get going, it’s pretty hard to get me to stop, or so say my publisher and critique buddies.

Here are thoughts from other cabinet members.


1. Every writer rewrites. Every writer. (True, I don't actually know all the writers ever, but allow me a little hyperbole.) It is not a failure. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being a writer. So say to yourself, "I am a writer" and do it.

2. You cannot rewrite until you write. Seems obvious, and yet I have to remind myself of it every time I start a new project. Because I always seem to think that this time my writing will come out perfect and if I just put enough thought (for thought--read delay) into my work first, I will only have to write it once. It's never worked yet.

So I say to myself, "I am a writer" and I do it

Suzanne: I'm a big believer in taking a little time off before launching into a revision. It doesn't have to be long, it just has to be long enough! While you're waiting for readers to get back to you, try reading fiction yourself. I personally really like fiction that's aimed at my target audience (in my case, middle graders) but that has a different voice and style from mine. This can help me bring a different perspective to the revision. As for the actual rewrites, focus on what the heart of your novel is, and make sure every scene strengthens that core. Go for bigger, deeper, better. Don't settle for good enough when you haven't wowed yourself yet!

Pat: Before I start revising a manuscript, I create a hardcopy flow sheet (which I fill in as I revise).

I fold a lined piece of paper into four columns. In the first column I put the chapter or scene number (this depends on if I have short chapters or ones packed with scenes). Next to that I put the chapter’s word count. In the following column I put the date and time span which the chapter covers. After that comes the weather, temperature and often the phase of the moon or how sunny it is. The last column is where I put a quick description of the chapter (I try to think of this in terms of pov/characters//goal/conflict/disaster).

Here’s an example from the story I’m working on right now:

Chap 8--879-words/June 26, 10-11pm/ Cool & moonlit/ Ralph rescues Istvan, but is seriously wounded

The mere process of stopping after each chapter and filling out the sheet increases my awareness and raises the probability that I’ll spot any continuity issues in the following chapter. It’s also helpful when I need to recall which chapter something happened in. Knowing each chapter's word count is great when dealing with a pace issues or when deciding where to add new scenes.

Using computer programs to plot works wonderfully, but I like creating a hardcopy flow sheet for this because I can pin it over my computer screen and refer to it in the blink of an eye.

Becca: Revising is definitely not my favorite part of writing, and it's something I still struggle with. I used to think I'd get better at revising with each book, and maybe I do, but it's still not fun. If I had my choice, I'd take rough drafting over revising any day! But if there's one thing I've learned over the course of editing three (going on four) books, it's this: start big and work small.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers did an object lesson that involved filling a jar with rocks. Some of the rocks were large, and many were pebbles. When she put the pebbles into the jar first, and then tried to cram in the big rocks, a few inevitably wouldn't fit. However, when she placed the large rocks in the jar first, and then poured the pebbles in, letting them spill between the crevices and spaces between the larger rocks, they all fit inside the jar.

It was a simple object lesson that taught me a powerful lesson—one I still think about today. When revising, I start with the larger, more global problems. Sometimes the problem is plot. Often it's character related. Maybe it's a sequencing issue. Once I solve the bigger problems, it becomes much easier to focus on the smaller things, like word choice, character names, describing a particular room, etc.

Happy revisions!

Ginger (again): So with that, it’s easy to see that everyone rewrites a bit differently. But as writers, we all rewrite. And rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Because without revision your book may be close, but it will almost definitely need a little bit more. Just a little.

Don’t let yourself be the author that never gets published because you didn’t put in that one last rewrite. We would all much rather be the author who can sell a book from the grave on the credit of our previous success.

(This post was last rewritten on 8/5/11 9:51 pm )


  1. Ginger, one of my favorite books on revision is REVISING FICTION A HAND BOOK FOR WRITERS by David Madden. Your introduction reminded me of it because Madden's book uses examples from early drafts of famous novels and compares them to the finished version. Hmmm. This might be a good time to pull it out and skim through it again.

  2. Awesome! I'll have to get that one.

  3. Love that Escher sketch you chose! And it kinda illustrates Becca's point about going big, than small, since that's how it looks like he drew it. Just my own extrapolation, of course, but it makes sense!

  4. Have linked to your blog with an award!

  5. Thanks, JRo! That's awesome. And I'm glad you liked the sketch, Suzanne. Way to make it fit with the post ;)