(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
Being good at revising creative writing—whether it’s a play or a novel or short story or a poem—involves a particular mindset that’s part analytical, part mystical, and part totally bonkers insane. If writing is a grind, revising what you’ve written is the grind-within-the-grind. Unless your every word is rings true and golden in your rough draft (and it won’t, unless you’re maybe a Biblical prophet filled with God’s fiery Word) you’re going to need to rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And then drink some coffee and rewrite some more.
I evaluate creative writing students, and the odds that they’re still be writing in ten years, by how much effort they expend in revision. I like the work horses. The grinders. I like the students who show a natural love for the extensive puzzle that is revision and a willingness to patiently engage in it without letting their ego or a sense of impatience blind them. The ones who don’t just love the pleasurable sexy heat of creation, but who take the time and effort to properly raise the kid, too.
That’s the kind of parent that sticks around.
Let’s return to my statement that revision is part analytical, part mystical, and part bonkers crazy and break the three categories down one by one.
As you’ve gone through the rough draft process of a story or a novel you’ve been focused on creation. You’ve sat down many, many times over a period of several months or years and filled blank pages with words. You’ve created a world where none had existed before, created new characters and settings where a short while before had been nothing but a blank space, a vacuum only you knew had to be filled. You’ve been daydreaming. Imagining. You’ve been pushing the creative side of your brain, the right side, as hard as you possibly can.
But now you’ve got the rough draft of your story or novel completed and it’s time for that important second draft, when your story is still fresh and malleable and you can step back and see what you’ve got to work with. It’s time for you to do some left brain thinking, time to analyze the text for a variety of errors and correct those errors one by one. Does the plot satisfy? Are the characters suited to the story? Does the dialogue scan as natural and interesting or does it feel canned and dull? Should that be its or it’s?
I’ve seen the idea of putting a freshly completed rough draft of novel on the shelf for a month or longer frequently recommended in articles and interviews. I’ve tried it but can’t really say it made much of difference to me. The idea of shelving a novel speaks to the idea of giving your brain time to shift from creative to analytical, from right to left thinking, and allowing you to approach it with a certain freshness upon revision. In my own writing, however, I’ve found the line between creative and analytical not so clearly defined. Even when I’m generating fresh new material I repeatedly fall back on my analytical brain, which I’ve crosswired over time to scan for stuff like character development and scene pacing and logical incongruities. I’m also frequently applying my creative brain to the process of revision, which involves not only findings errors and flawed passages but rewriting them (basically solving them as if they’re word problems) in a creative manner. I’ve found that approaching both a rough draft and the revision process in a dualistic creative-analytical and analytical-creative way not only saves time in the long run and leads to fewer revisions but it also keeps the laborious, time consuming process of revision itself as a fresh as possible (which is useful when I’m spending about 5-10% of my desk time writing new material and 90-95% of it in revision).
I do most of my research (the amount of which is dependent on the type of novel I’m writing. And the Hills Opened Up, my Western-horror novel, involved a lot of 1890’s copper mining/mining camp research) as I write the first and second drafts, allowing the research to filter into the story as I move along and find inspiration in the details I’ve learned. As soon as I’ve finished the rough draft of a novel I pour myself a drink, take a deep breath, and start digging into the second draft. I do the second draft on the computer but print out the manuscript for the third draft. I believe some magic occurs when you print out a manuscript that is unavailable during a computer revision (but I do one computer revision first because the rough draft is so raw and given to change I’d basically be blotting out three hundred pages with ink). I think the medium of print, of paper in hand, allows the eye to see things and discover associations in it that it would otherwise miss. Every author should have a home printer no matter how many laptops, iPads, PCs, cellphones, and whatever other fancy thing they may use for writing. Especially beginning authors, whose eyes aren’t yet as trained to pick out the flaws in their own work and prone to moving on too quickly to the next shiny new project.
I usually tend to go back and forth between computer and printed revisions and end on a printed revision as a sort of light dusting/line editing affair well suited to the coffee shop environment and an expansive, reflective state of mind. The trickiest part of writing is being as generous and giving to yourself in the creation stage as you are sharp-eyed and unforgiving to yourself in the subsequent drafts. Revising a manuscript can often feel like going to the gym on a cold winter day and requires the same level of self-motivation, especially when you’ve sat with the manuscript for a long time and both of you are totally sick of each other. In The War of Art Steven Pressfield speaks of Resistance with a capitol R as a sort of devilish inertia that affects all artists trying to create anything new. Never have I faced as much Resistance as in the revision process as when I’ve had to really dig into a character’s personality and motivation, tunneling down into the often boring and unglamorous muck of deep imagining to return again with some idea or fact that I can use to make the character finally click.
Analyzing a work forged in the happy and tortuous hours of creation is dirty work and a sense of detachment (which will help even more when your works receives criticism down the road) will serve you well.
As you’d expect the mystical part of revising a work of fiction is a lot harder to define and wrestle with. You can tell when a manuscript begins to scan more cleanly and the dialogue appears increasingly trim and there’s a smoother progression of plot and pacing—Scene A takes us logically to scene B and Scene B takes us logically to Scene C—but making the practical nuts and bolts of a story work is not enough to make the story work as a work of art that resonates with a reader.
The mystical side of fiction is what sets the artist apart from the layman who is consulting his Idiot’s Guide and his expensive writing software and already has a marketing plan in place before he’s written one paragraph of his would-be bestseller. The mystical side is the gate-keeper of truly powerful fiction and all the scheming in the world won’t grant you access to its treasures. You need to sit with your story and meditate upon it and care about it in a deeply, irrational way (hey, it’s like a cat!) and gradually, through a kind of labor that doesn’t necessarily appear to be like work in an external way, you’ll get lucky and strike gold.
As you revise, you’re not only making certain your story works as a story with crisp characters and clean prose—you want to give it a certain lift that allows it to rise above the page and glow in the reader’s mind. You want to edit with an analytical mind but allow periods of reverie to overtake you; let your dreams and emotions sift in through the cracks of the revision process and you’ll find your new draft will surprise you in the shining manner it concludes, a lofty pinnacle you’ve ascended without rational intent.
I’ve recently submitted a novel to my agent that weighs in at 270 pages but took roughly 1,100 pages to create. It’s one novel built on the charred foundation of two previous much longer novels. The amount of work it’s taken to arrive at it—this Novel #15—was fucking bonkers crazy, no doubt about it, and caused me no end of headaches and moments of existential despair. Hard soul-searching moments where I wondered if my writing skillz had finally departed after too much Internet, TV, and booze.
But I like it now.
I like it a lot.
The first first draft of Novel #15, which I’ll call 15.1, was a sprawling third-person narrative revolving around five members of the same family with a backbone of a second narrative set in the past that tied in to the present narrative (got all that? Ah, you already sense trouble looming, don’t you?). It clocked in at 433 pages (or 107,152 words). It was well-written and had some interesting scenes (after fifteen books your line-to-line prose is hopefully solid, if anything) but I couldn’t shake the fact that it didn’t quite click. It was too literary, too dull, or…something. I didn’t know, exactly, I only knew it didn’t ring out like I’d hoped. As in a horror movie, I had a bad feeling about this.
So I shelved it for a while and some other stuff (Non-Writing mostly). Then I came back to it a month later, reread it and…
I still didn’t love it.
So what did I do?
I shelved it, yo. Permanently. I didn’t even send it to my agent for a second opinion. I just knew. I just knew it didn’t rock my face off and thus would most certainly not rock his face off. I also realized it wasn’t the prose or some smaller element of plot. It was the whole kit and caboodle…
Or was it?
I picked over 15.1’s bones and found elements that still burned hot like the white coals of a fading bonfire. I still liked the sections set in the past and how they formed a skeleton for the present narrative. I also still really like the setting, a small foothills town called Hawthorn that had risen out of a true wilderness.
So I took these beloved elements and retained my favorite character (Harper, the Webb’s teenage daughter) and set to rewriting the whole story from scratch. I kept the revolving five points of view engine for the present action and came up with four all-new characters to go along with Harper Webb and I gave them all interesting conflicts that would play off the novel’s newly redefined (and sharpened) theme: the idea of being haunted by something, either literally or metaphorically.
You see, I realized novel 15.1 had failed to properly resolve the elevator pitch question—I couldn’t really describe it succinctly when my friends asked me about it. It never had a true angle—it was so “literary” and sprawling it had gotten away from me completely. A six month/433 page detour, okay, but one I would not be taking again! No sir, fuck you very much! This time I had this theme of everyone being haunted by something and I’d come up a multitude of characters (or angles, if you will) of investigating it. Huzzah! I had shit locked down tight this time.
So I wrote and wrote and drank and wrote. Several additional months later I had a 388 page (103,337 word) manuscript I felt a whole hell of a lot more certain about, with some new characters and plot points that I really dug. I gave it a couple of impatient revisions and sent it off to my agent. Three weeks later (during which I wrote nothing I’ll be honest) Jonathan got back to me with an email that asked if I was free to talk that day.
This was never a good sign.
So I called him and we chatted and he was nice and polite as always but I knew it was a no-go right away. He loved the setting and sections set in the past but the book was too sprawling and unfocused and most of the weird shit that happened in it was never explained (a big habit of mine—I think unsolved questions are a lot less interesting than solved ones). Most of all, he said he didn’t know who to cheer for.
I’d muddied the water with too many near-protagonists and not one clear protagonist.
My mind started working in overdrive while we were still talking on the phone. I had too much invested in this project, too many words. I couldn’t just let the whole thing die. I thought about what my agent said and searched for my angle. I told him maybe I’d been trying to go too “literary” this whole time and he said something like wait a minute, you know this is a horror story, right?
A horror story. Right. That made sense. Yes, it had all the trappings of a horror story but I’d never consciously proceeded as if it were—I’d been too lost in the multi-genre fog, I suppose, or scared off by genre shaming.
So if this was a horror story, who could shine as the protagonist? Who was the most interesting character?
The teenage girl I’d saved from 15.1.
This story not only wanted to be a horror story, in this cool wilderness setting, it wanted to be YA horror.
The penny finally dropped in my word-addled brain. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work on 15.3. I kept the plot lean and mean and focused on Harper and her antagonist, a boy her own age who’d unearthed a most unusual skull. I changed the file name of 15.2 to “Fodder” and took whatever I found useful from it and inserted it in the new draft. I was aware of the genre I was working in and I knew the novel’s theme and I knew the setting so well I could have been born there and I knew Harper’s family inside and out. The rough draft of 15.3, which I called the “Harper Draft”, took me seven weeks and went as smoothly as anything I’ve ever written. I’d written my way through the desert and come out the other side.
As I write this I’ve sent 15.3 off to my agent and I am waiting to hear from him. I’m not too worried, though, even if he doesn’t like it.
I can always revise.
 Though if shelving a manuscript works for you then by all means go for it.
 Beginning writers tend to skew toward two extremes, finding themselves either paralyzed with self-doubt as they set out to write or allowing a sense of hubris to override their ability to properly criticize their own work during the revision stage.
 I was once staying in a hostel in San Diego and reading Don Quixote while killing some time. Some hostel dude I didn’t know came walking up a stairway and saw me reading. He shouted, “Hey, maybe the next book you read will be mine!” and I knew instantly he was destined for disappointment.
 More than once I’ve spent a year working on a novel my agent knew nothing about only for him to tell me he wouldn’t be able to sell it, not even with significant revisions. These were dark days, my friends. Dark days.
 This time I came up with a basic outline and went through it, point by point, over the phone with my agent. I wasn’t writing a third round from scratch without him being more or less aware of where I was headed. No surprises this time, buddy.