How I Learned to Love Revision by Amy Henry
I’ve been writing virtually all my life. And for just about as long, I loathed doing revisions.
When elementary teachers told us to revise our work, they meant correct the spelling and punctuation errors, and copy the whole thing over in your neatest hand. While proofing a manuscript is necessary work, it’s groaningly boring. And it’s not revising. It took teaching writing to little kids for me to learn to love revision.
When my first-graders tackled writing short stories for classroom publication, I was determined to give them what I never got: practical strategies for revising that wouldn’t feel like drudgework. Taking my cue from high tech, I told the kids we were going to do Cut-and-Paste. Not on computers, which we didn’t have in our 2002 classroom, but on the same skip-line paper they’d used for their rough drafts.
We got down on the floor and scissored those stories into their components—lines and words. We dumped redundant and confusing parts in the recycle bin, pasted in what the child wished to keep, and added new material with red markers. By deleting, rearranging, and adding, we solved problems of clarity, flow, and arc. It was like a challenging puzzle that when you finally got it right, resulted in a much stronger story. The kids loved it—and so did I.
Last year, I sent off a historical thriller to a handful of agents. One of them responded with two pages of detailed feedback. She had a problem with my villain, Paul. He was too much a cipher, his motivations and end-goal too murky for too long. In revisiting the book, I saw the agent had nailed it. Wanting to draw the reader on, I had overdone the job of making him mysterious. To the point of opacity.
I didn’t need to rewrite the entire book. I just needed to identify which pieces of Paul’s story illuminated him for the reader, which pieces obscured, and what was still missing, then supply it. To do this, I separated his chapters out from the rest, dumped the artful but confusing dialogue, created an arc for him where we learn more of what he wants in each of his chapters, and added a steady reveal of past events that prompt his ultimate villainy. I found the work both challenging and intriguing, like a good brain teaser.
Probably the biggest leap in any novel is the revision between drafts #1 and #2. It’s often said that in our first draft, we are telling ourselves the story. In getting to know our characters and exploring the many possible scenes they could share, we’re bound to write all kinds of nonsense including scenes that may be quite strong, but don’t belong in this story. One way to decide is to write a single summarizing sentence for each scene, then lay them out in order. Is there an unbroken trajectory from the first chapter to the last, or do people take detours that have readers scratching their head or itching with impatience to get back to the actual story? Again, think puzzle pieces. Remove the scenes that don’t fit the arc or are redundant, taking care to note any pertinent details that will need to be reworked into the scenes you decide are germane.
The historical thriller I mentioned was initially too long. I knew I needed to cut it by a good 20 percent—a harrowing thought at first—so I invented a game: Look-for-3-where-1-will-do. Three words where one will do. Three sentences. Three scenes. I wound up exceeding my goal, cutting the novel by 98 pages with no visible hemorrhaging. Word to the wise: Make an edit copy of your MS before you start revising, so you’ll feel free to play with the pieces, knowing you can always reclaim the original material.
I’ve mentioned a few of the common targets for revision. There are many others. My focus here is to encourage you to tackle revision as you would go about solving any brainteaser. Define the problem, brainstorm for solutions, play with the pieces. Above all, have fun.
Amy Henry is a writer of fiction long and short, as well as the author of numerous magazine, newspaper, and online articles from which she has earned something resembling a living. She lives in Massachusetts with her übersupportive husband and two wayward cats. When not writing fiction, she blogs about “the human condition” on her website. You can read her latest post at: https://amyhenrybooks.com/
LINKS to good reads on the specifics of revision:
https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/eight- steps-revising- novel/