Without question, the most important part of my writing process is revision. As I’ve written here before, my first drafts are wild, unstructured things. This is largely because I do not even look back at I have written until I am finished the entire draft. I will course correct as I go along–changing a characters personality of the arc of the story–knowing that it will render what I’ve already done obsolete. And yet I continue onward, scribbling notes for myself about what I need to go back to. Insightful things like “make Paul nicer.” Shorthand that reminds me of a shift I’ve made.
Working in this unfettered fashion, makes my first drafts really fun to write. It also makes that first revision a NIGHTMARE. I wouldn’t mess with my system, because it works for me. But it has limitation I have come to accept. And that, of course, is the key to all writing. To find something that works for you.
Someone once told me that they would consider what I’m talking about to actually be part of the first draft writing process–because it is so intensive–and not revision at all. Perhaps so. I think calling it revision makes me feel better, like I’m farther along in the process before I begin to rip things apart.
Because that’s the thing about writing books: half of it is about tricking yourself into believing it’s possible.
When I begin revising, I look first at story and character. Asking myself why, over and over again. Why is this person saying this? Why is this scene here in the book? Why would this thing happen in this story? And you’ll need to have an answer to each and every one of those questions. An answer that feels genuine and real–not one that you don’t even believe yourself. Because if you don’t believe the “why’s” your reader never will.
That doesn’t mean you’ll always have all the answers, all at once. And it does not mean you should be hitting the delete key on vast swaths of text the second you come up empty handed. There have been many times I’ve had a scene or a line of dialogue that I didn’t realize the utility of until the end of my revision–when suddenly that weak spot becomes absolutely critical, the lynchpin in the story.
Again–as with so much in writing–you have to trust your gut. And always save a substantial revision as a new version. That way, if you end up realizing why you actually put something in the novel–that you were actually a crazy genius for doing so–after you’ve already deleted it, you can go back to an earlier version and rescue it.
Personally, I would leave aside questions of sentence structure and language until after you’ve fixed all your major character and story questions. Otherwise, you might become too attached to a beautiful turn of phrase or a lovely scene–a “little darling” as it were–to accept that it had no place in the book you’ve actually written.
People often ask how you know when you’re really done with a book–when the revision is complete. I know when I’ve gotten to the point where I can read a hard copy and feel compelled to make very few marks on any page–or when I start changing parts of the book back to the way they were before–that’s when I know it’s finally time to stop.
Oh yes, and celebrate.