Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ruts in Revision and How to Get Past Them

                I’ve got a lot of rough drafts, people. Doing NaNoWriMo since I was twelve, plus all my non-NaNo projects… I’ve accumulated a lot of rough drafts. And my hope-of-all-hopes is that more than a few of them – especially the newer novels – will eventually find their way to publication.

                But you know what I don’t have a lot of?

                Completed manuscripts. Polished drafts. Complete re-writes. Second drafts in general. I have a serious problem with sticking to one story, and while it’s generally recommended to give yourself time between your rough draft and the plunge into revision, there comes a time when one must begin.

                And begin I have. A paragraph here, a paragraph there. After dutifully reading through the rough drafts and making notes of what needs to be fixed, I begin with rampant enthusiasm, working in a new document with the old draft up as a reference point.

                I’ve done this innumerable times, and it always ended the same way. With three pages (best case scenario) that are strikingly similar to their predecessors.

                Recently, I’ve come to a realization.

                I cannot do a major rewrite of a book if I have the old version in front of me.

                When exactly did I realize this?

                The day I opened a new word document and began to rewrite my novel straight from my head, without looking at the first draft.

                I know my stories, guys. I suck at remembering real life names, faces, and phone numbers (including my own, on that last front) but years after writing the first draft of my current WIP(s), I can still recite the majority of the characters’ names, backgrounds, relations to other characters, crucial actions in the novel, and more. I can whip a summary of a whole series off the top of my head, even if it’s incoherent to anyone but me. I still spontaneously make connections between song lyrics and stories I haven’t worked on in years.

                So, it wasn’t exactly hard to pick things up, even while ignoring the rough draft and all the dozens of pages of notes I made (*cough* hundreds *cough* It’s a long, detailed series *cough*).

                The process is working for me so far; I’m farther along in the rewrite than any of my other attempts, and what I’m writing is – while still imperfect – different than what I remember from my draft.

                I’ve also begun this tactic with one of my other novels, which currently opens in a very odd way – one of the hazards of writing a novel where the inciting incident takes place four years before the main story. The first chapter has killed me, again and again. It drags, and there are unnecessary paragraphs, and possibly a bit of info-dumping.

                Once again, I haven’t looked at my rough draft or my notes, and I’d like to think the first chapter has really, really improved since.

                Why do I think this approach works?

                It Tosses the Crutches -- When you have your rough draft in front of you, it’s very easy to latch onto your pet phrases, your charming paragraphs, or simply the “This is adequate” stuff you wrote the first time around. Writing from your head, the temptation is mostly gone. I’ll admit there are still a few remembered lines trying to creep their way into things. But without the words there in front of me, it’s infinitely easier to axe them when needed.

                It Dumps the Excess – The rough draft of my current WIP was 120,000 words long. It was padded with so many infodumps, and unnecessary scenes, and pointless inner reflections of my Main Character. Working off of my memory means (hopefully) only the most important things from the old draft are carried through. If I don’t remember those six paragraphs on what food my posse of characters were eating, chances are they won’t be missed in the final book. I’ll go back and read both drafts when I’m done, and if I forgot something absolutely essential, I’ll fix it then.

                It Reclaims Your Blank Canvas – Sometimes a blank page can be intimidating. But it can also be liberating, and promising, and exciting, when you think of all the places that blank page could take you. Compared to that former sense of wonder, constantly referring to an old draft can feel like a lot more work than when you’re just beginning something. To me, it can be discouraging. Starting from almost-scratch (but hopefully with a strong idea of your characters, and where your story is going) can be a way to reclaim that wonder. Starting blank is a chance to discover new things about your story. It’s a chance to let your novel surprise you again.

                Obviously, this method won’t work for later drafts. We can’t rewrite our books from scratch every time and hope that at some point we pump out a finished manuscript. But at this point, I believe this is exactly the strategy I need to get beyond my rough drafts and work to polish something, and really improve it instead of spitting out the same old junk I started with.

                How do you handle revision? Is moving beyond your first draft as tough for you as it’s been for me? Got any tips for writers who find themselves caught in the rut of ‘revising’ a draft that looks exactly like the first one?


  1. This is a great post! It's very interesting to see a different perspective/approach to revising. I started writing my first book in 7th grade(college freshman now), but I only have that one MS complete, and I'm in the process of the line-edit type polishing.(Commitment…I haz it.) I've already completely rewritten it(went down from 140k to 117k!), and edited it once(went down from 117k to 111k!). My line-edits include spot rewriting, to replace telling with showing, so the word count is getting larger again, but I don't think it'll top 115k by much, since I'm also cutting unnecessary things. And 115k is a nice, round number I can live with. ^_^

    As for rewrites…I actually hate starting with a blank page. I had each chapter in a separate document to help me figure out what bullet points needed to happen in each(& my chapters are each over 5k, so it wasn't a ridiculous number of documents or anything), so I threw in like three or five returns at the top, then began writing my new material. There was just something comforting about being able to see words down there, like I was just redoing a little bit, then a bit more, then more(I'd already edited the crap version twice, b/c I didn't think it was that bad, so I was familiar with this spot-replacement idea).

    I would delete the things I'd replaced as I went, and the farther I went, the more disparate the two became, so I was barely reading my old stuff, just reminding myself what key things needed to happen next, and keeping the text there so my subconscious didn't panic at the blank screen. =) I was also adding a character POV(my favorite, based-on-Zuko character, heehee), so it was quite fun, and I'm really not sure how in the world I got my original MS up to 140k with only three perspectives. O_o

    As for the rut of revising—I think the main problem for me was that initial realization that it was too bad to just tweak. The problems were too deep to get a new paint job and call it good, but I was in denial for a good year and a half. After I'd fully accepted that, I could begin rewrites with fervor, with excitement for how much BETTER it would be. And boy, is it worth it! I loves it so much now. ^_^

    1. *has immediate desire to know more about this Zuko-based character* XD

      That is interesting, that our approaches are so different. I'll probably transfer into something more like your approach when I'm revising later drafts.

      I know what you mean about a rough draft needing more than just a new paint job. -_- The first draft of my WIP was pretty bad, and now-- well, maybe it's still bad. But it's significanatly LESS bad than it was. ;)

    2. I thought you might feel that way… ^_~*

      And…significantly less bad…that's good, right? Maybe not GREAT, but good. Huuh? Huuuuh? =)

      P.S. I deleted the comment below b/c I forgot about this newfangled 'reply' feature. XD

    3. It's good, lol. ^^ I'm stalling a bit at around fifty pages, but it's still good that I've gotten as far as I have.

      And, I keep almost forgetting too. XD

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  3. Silent. It is me. I am ALIVE!

    Silent: "And you are...?"

    Me: Awkward silence.

    Let's just assume you haven't forgotten me, k? Much less awkward.

    Your blog post is amazing! I'm the same way. I open my old story on word, open a new page, and take out the manuscript that has all my notes on it. And then I rewrite. No matter how hard I try, it ends up veering in the direction that's already been DONE, you know?

    And I've considered writing from scratch, because, as you said, we KNOW our stories, don't need the references but I keep thinking "But that line was so witty, I simply MUST have it in my story." Meh. Tossing the crutches, eh?

    Can't wait to get back to writing!

    1. Tanya~~~~! *v* Great to hear from you again! I was just wondering what happened to your comments the other day. ;)

      That's EXACTLY what I mean. Clinging on to lines that would be really, really good-- if they didn't all combine into something really, really bad. XD

      Good luck! ^^