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Recently we covered writing exercises, which are helpful for plunging into your first draft. But what about when it’s time to revise? It can be a letdown when you look back on that manuscript you wrote in a rush of inspiration and discover it’s riddled with plot-holes and meandering subplots. You may be tempted to delete the damn thing and start fresh! But whittling away at the loose ends and discovering the beauty underneath can be quite fun once you get over the initial overwhelm. Kris Loomis’s book, Surviving Revision, is the best resource for revising fiction I have discovered so far. Her book is most relevant if you’re revising a novel, but you could apply many of the tips to short-story revision as well.
Why you might be struggling
Many guides on revision are either vague and unhelpful or actually turn out to be guides on editing (grammar, mechanics, etc.), which is quite different than revision. Unlike editing, revision covers large-scale changes involving plot, structure, and characterization. It’s considerably more complex than editing, which is probably why few people have successfully tackled the subject. That’s also why Loomis felt compelled to write this book.
Surviving Revision is not so much a how-to manual as it is a chronicle of an author’s journey as she undergoes the revision process for her excellent sci-fi novel, The Sinking of Bethany Ann Crane. Loomis’s approach, to me, is actually more valuable because it allows us an intimate behind-the-scenes look at all the stages of the process, including the frustrations and victories along the way.
The journey begins after Loomis has finished the first draft of her novel. After the initial celebration, she realizes she still has a long road ahead of her. She decides to enroll in a course specifically devoting to revising fiction.
The instructor has an interesting approach in that before changing a single word of the manuscript, students have to re-read their manuscript and identify all the problems with plots and characters. Only after brainstorming possible solutions to these problems — separate from your manuscript — do you actually begin revising the manuscript.
As you know, I’m a huge fan of systems and constraints, so I loved this approach! It also makes a lot of sense because as I’m learned from experience, sometimes you spend hours revising and then realize you want to go in a completely different direction.
Although reading Surviving Revision isn’t the same as taking the course, I learned a lot through the process of osmosis as I followed along on her journey.
Here were the most valuable takeaways for me:
1) “Conflict doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or hostile. It can be subtle and benign like a gentle breeze kissing the back of your neck right before the hurricane blows in.” There’s no need to toss a fight into a scene just for the sake of having conflict.
2) “No matter how many holes there are in your manuscript, if you can find ‘em, you can fill ‘em.” Personally, I’ve found mind-mapping to be an excellent tool for keeping track of plot holes.
3) Sometimes it’s good to step away from the computer and take notes with pen and paper or just let scenes percolate in your head.
4) All your characters, even the minor characters, need to be well-rounded and have a backstory (even if it’s only in your head) and a rich inner life. You have to move outside of your story to develop these characters because otherwise, you’re just going to be thinking about how they serve the plot on a purely functional level. That’s why you have to set your manuscript aside and give the characters some time to grow and breathe. Again, I like using mind-mapping for this purpose, recording detailed descriptions and motives for each character and linking them to other characters.
5) Every setting needs to have a purpose. Looking back, I realize so many locations in my current work-in-progress were arbitrary. I really need to take full advantage of the settings and the unique sensory details as well as symbolic significance they can provide.
My favorite part about reading the book was following along with another writer’s experiences as she underwent the revision process – the good, the bad, and the ugly—and knowing that I wasn’t alone. Revising a novel can be challenging, but reading this book reminded me that I just have to chip away at it, one step at a time.