Oh, revision. The thing we writers always dread, and the thing I look forward to the most. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I think revising is a boat load of fun, and I’m going to try to break that down in this post. We’re also going to talk about what revision actually is, my process with it, and I’m probably going to weep about my magical teenage boys at some point because they’re my best example of revision. So, uh, yeah, let’s get to it!
I am currently in the middle of revision! I finished the third book in the sister witches trilogy in the first week of June, and after taking a small break, I dove back into the story. I will say, it was definitely really weird to go from the end of the third book, where everyone is a badass, to the beginning of the first book, where no one is really sure they’re friends yet. But I’m having the time of my life right now! And I know that’s weird because no one in their right mind likes revision, but it feels sort of like a puzzle to me, and I always end up having a ton of fun.
We’ll talk about a couple different stops in the editing process throughout this post, and what better way to start then, well, the start?
Your book is done! You’ve finally finished writing the thing you’ve slaved away at for weeks/months/years, and it’s DONE. It’s the most exciting feeling in the world. Even if it’s a complete mess, everything that you intended to say has been said, and you can finally sit back and bask in the glory of a finished novel.
But, uh, it is still a mess, right? Look, no one is ever going to write a perfect first draft. It took JRR Tolkien his entire life to write The Silmarillion, and he still died before he could finish it. GRRM has been writing the A Song of Ice and Fire series since before I was born, and, at this rate, we’ll all be dead before it’s completed. I write books in four months, but it’s years before they’re in any kind of shape to go somewhere. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
So, you’ve got a finished book, and you’re starting to think about editing. Much like writing and outlining, there is no right or wrong way to do this. Okay, well, I guess if you just didn’t edit, that would be the wrong way, but that aside, revision is different for everyone. The way I do it is probably going to be vastly different from the way other people do it. It might be similar in some respects, but it’s all really a crapshoot. Much like writing, you kind of figure out along the way what works best for you. And, for me, this process has taken literal years to come around to what works, and I’m still adding to it.
The very first thing I do after finishing a novel is reread it at a basic level. Truthfully, I do this continuously while writing, not just in one fell swoop at the end, but it can be applied both ways. I don’t work well when I haven’t reread what I’ve previously written, so I usually write about three-five chapters and then go back to reread them. These are purely grammar-based. I have a huge problem with pronouns, and since all of my characters are queer, they often share pronouns, and no one has any idea who is doing what in my novels. Thus, one of the main things I do is switch out pronouns for names, cut up sentences that are too long, and just make sure it makes sense. Not that the story makes sense, necessarily, but that you can muddle your way through and understand the basics of what’s going on.
This is a really basic first read-through, but it’s important to do this! Or it’s not, I don’t know. I know there are others out there that leave grammar edits for the last possible step, but that would make me crazy, so I do them right away. I like having a mostly clean draft when I finish up everything and am ready to dive into it for the second round.
I feel like I should jump in really quick to talk about critique partners. Perhaps the only thing on this list that I’m going to say is necessary for everyone in general is a critique partner. You cannot edit your novel to its best state on your own. It’s just not going to happen. No matter how many times you read it, you’re too close to it to be able to look at it in an objective way like someone else can. Critique partners are going to make or break your success as an author. If you want to get published, you need a critique partner. That said, I also don’t believe in just throwing your newly finished draft at your critique parter. They deserve a little love, too, so there is one more read-through I do before handing it off.
The “What the Hell” Read-Through
I don’t actually call this the what the hell read-through, but I think I’m going to moving forward because it’s pretty damn accurate. This is when I try to figure out if the story makes sense in a broader sense. Not just grammatically, but do the characters work together? Is everything described well enough? Are my stretches of dialogue padded with enough prose to keep information flowing? Is it good? Well, that’s the hardest question of all, but I’ve found that if you can laugh at your own funny moments, you’re doing okay. I think I’m hilarious, and whether or not that’s actually true, I get great enjoyment out of my own books. I laugh at them all the time! And really, if I’m laughing at my funny scenes, that means someone else is going to laugh at them, too. This works for all emotions, too. I cried so much during the finale of this trilogy, and that means someone else is probably going to cry at it, too.
But this what the hell read-through is not quite the heavy lifting, but it’s getting there. I don’t do a ton of rewriting at this stage, but I will fluff out things that I just breezed past before, I’ll add in chapters/scenes that I knew needed to be there, but just didn’t feel like doing, and I’ll just generally polish the draft up as much as possible. Sure, I could probably read this two or three more times and do even more work to it, but I like to hand it off to my critique partner while it’s still fresh off the presses. I’ve written the first draft, edited it into a place where I know I need outside help, and I’m ready to boogie.
You might be wondering–okay, but Mary, you still haven’t really explained why you like revising. Well, I love my characters. I write books that I want to read. I get really excited about them. Sometimes, I just read them for literally no other purpose than reading. I have reread my own books more than I’ve read literally anything else in the world. I wrote exactly what I wanted to see in a book, and revision is just an excuse to revisit it all over again. And my favorite part of revision? It’s when my critique partner hands the novel back to me.
I’m really fortunate to have the most amazing CP ever, Chelsea, who I just honestly feel lost without when I’m mid-draft and preemptively excited about how much better the draft is going to get. She always knows the exact right questions to ask and exact right things to point out, and my books are stronger because of her. I am so, so grateful for her insight and powerful motivation. Though I do a lot of editing before the novel gets to her, I can’t do it all. Like I said above, you’ve got to get an outside POV. And really, not only should this be another person, it should probably be a person you haven’t talked about the novel with extensively.
One of my friends, Erin, also reads my books, but she’s very present for the drafting process, and so literally nothing is a surprise to her. I don’t really tell Chelsea anything going in because I want to know if the twists and cliffhangers are going to work, and someone who only knows generally what your story is about is going to be able to give you that feedback.
I don’t print out my manuscript until I’ve gotten edits back from Chelsea. I’ll do all my edits before I hand it over to her entirely on my laptop, but I know that her edits are going to require some extensive revision on my part, so once I’ve got it back from her, I’ll print out the whole manuscript, double spaced so I have room to write, and get to work. I like to type my first draft and handwrite my revision. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it works really well for me to be able to see what I’m changing before I really decide to change it. And I know that people say you should keep your old drafts, and if I’m doing a huge overhaul, yeah, I’ll keep previous ones, but I edit right into my original draft when it comes to my CP edits. (I said at the beginning that I was going to scream about Pen boys because they’re who I’ve edited the most, but I’m in the middle of sister witches, so it’s just easier to talk about them. ANYWAY, I currently have three full drafts saved of Pen boys, and I’m not getting rid of any of them when I eventually rewrite the entire thing.)
Spoiler: your CP is almost always right.
CP revision is the best, though, because I just get to attack everything. My villain in the first sister witches is super flat. I’m not gonna beat around the bush at all, she’s got no character development, and that’s totally on me. That said, Chelsea gave me some really great ideas to easily beef up her character, and I added several hundred words to her first chapter in order to do just that based entirely on some small suggestions that Chelsea gave me. And it was so much fun! I knew that the villain needed work, but I was struggling with what work exactly, and having someone separate from the story saying, “Okay, this is where they’re lacking,” is just one of the most helpful things in the world.
A last, quick thing that I do during this revision: highlight any foreign language. Because this novel is based on Earth, many of my characters are BIPOC, and in order to make them realistic, they often speak a second language. It’s nothing crazy, and nothing that hinders you from understanding what’s going on, but I only have a working knowledge of French and am beginning a journey to becoming fluent in Portuguese, so I highlight everything else. Henley speaks Spanish, Theodore speaks Gaelic, Amara speaks Arabic, and more, so I highlight these sections to later compile together and research a sensitivity reader that’s fluent in the language and can help make sure I’m not totally mangling it.
Final feels so we’re never editing again, and that’s really not true at all, particularly because I probably do anywhere from 1-8 final read-throughs, depending on how I’m feeling with the story, but after all’s said and done–after I’ve edited it, my CP has edited it, and I’ve revised based on their edits–it’s time for a final read-through. This is fine tooth comb kind of revising. I’m checking everything. Consistency in characters–a lot of the time, I forget that the accent is supposed to be on the o of Henley’s last name and not the a–is more than just the way they look. Yes, if they have glasses, I’m 100% going to forgot that most of the time, and that’s a sticky note to look out for. (I once had a sticky note taped to my school desk that said Peter Parker wears glasses in your universe because I could not remember that ever.) But you also want to make sure that their behavior is consistent. If Henley’s a bad cook at the beginning of the first book, she definitely can’t help cook a meal while they’re stranded in a different country in the middle of the second one. If there’s dialogue that still needs a little sprucing, or if I’ve used the word “shadow” eighteen times in one paragraph, or if I’ve really just grown to hate the word liberally since I first wrote it. (True story, there are so many liberally instances in the first sister witches, and I don’t know what was wrong with me.)
Truly, this “final” read-through takes on many shapes and forms. For some, it’s having your critique partner read it again after you’ve revised. I’ve never quite gotten to that stage, though I’d like to, and I’m hoping to with sister witches. Usually, I just edit it into as much as I can do on my own after Chelsea’s read it, and then I start writing something else. Which is super aggravating for her, I’m sure, since she does all that work and then I run off into the sunset with a new novel, but I’m sticking to my guns with sister witches!
At the end of the day, all of this might seem like hullabaloo to you, and you don’t follow a process even a little close to this one. It’s impossible to outline something like writing or revision and say this is exactly how you do it to be successful, but this is, at least, what’s worked for me over the years.
I love revision. I know I’m in the minority here, and that most people think it’s the bane of their existence, but it’s a lot of fun for me. And maybe, if you’re staring at a Word doc in just utter despair, something above will help you figure out next steps. My process is still evolving, too, and I’m sure it’ll look totally different in a few years. Believe it or not, I never used to print out my manuscripts until a couple years ago, and now, I couldn’t imagine not having a physical copy to write on.