Literary masterpieces are whittled from crappy first drafts.
The question arises from the murky and harrowed depths of revision: how many times is enough? It depends and however many is needed are all standard answers, but that doesn’t really help, does it? Nor does, You’ll know when it’s time carry any weight whatsoever for the writer with depleted sleep and frazzled mindset.
When asked how he created the sculpture of David, Michelangelo reportedly remarked he would “just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” Elmore Leonard spoke of revision when he said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Caught between revising so much that the freshness that once existed has now staled, to a sloppy offering sent out to the ridicule of the masses, writers wonder, at what point does The End really mean the current project is completed. (A hint: it’s not even close to the first time you type, The End).
For me, the completion is different for each short story or novel; there are, however, certain processes I follow and particular sign posts I search to tell me when my “child” is to be released to the world, or at least a part of the world larger than my desktop.
The first draft will be lousy—can we take that as a given? Good, we can move on.
Once I have finished the first draft, I print out a hard copy. At this point, I have gone through the piece at least once on the computer to correct the obvious typos and spelling errors; when in the throes of first draft, I pay attention to little but shifting my thoughts to fingertips to the document blaring white on my computer screen.
This first revision follows the initial read-through after having let the manuscript cool over the last month or so in order to distance myself as writer to become the reader.
This printed copy will be the map that will evolve into the final draft, and to make room for the field of forthcoming corrections, I set up the document either 1 ½ spacing or double spaced, and I use a pencil for all annotations. (Many writers attack revisions only on the computer, but I’ve found that using a printed copy catches mistakes I read-over and miss on the screen).
There are three phases to each revision cycle, each phase encompassing a specific purpose and goal because, quite frankly, the crappy piece of writing just printed has too many problems—structural and otherwise—to be dealt with in a single way.
The first revision process is Structural. Think of it as an overview of the piece, as if you are in a plane looking down on the world and the part your characters play. During this process, I look specifically at characterization content, flow, plot consistency, and readability.
The second part is Scene correction where I fly lower over the story, say just above the treetops, breaking down each scene’s purpose and answer to the question, “What do I want this scene to reveal in terms of characterization and forward plot movement?”
The third is the Line-by-Line, Word-by-word edit. Many writers jump right into this, landing on the ground right off, and are thereby so focused on each sentence they miss the wider ranging plot errors or shallow characterizations.
My wife and I have owned and operated several small businesses (I have managed others), and when looking at a job or task to be completed—whether it be growing the business or adding another level of efficiency—it was always mandatory to look at the “Big Picture” first, then tackle the details.
It is no different when writing a story and critical when writing a novel—using these three different phases of revision will make correcting the manuscript easier and more manageable. That is not to say you will go through these three steps just once during revision; no, doing each of these three parts is one revision cycle. At times during later revision cycles, these phases may overlap.
How many times will you have to read your novel during the revision process? The number of times will be different for each person, but during the entire revision process from first draft to Final, be prepared to read your story a half dozen times or more. Of course, each story has their own unique problems so it’s impossible to give an exact number. The number of revision cycles needed will be determined by how well each phase is handled. Accosting the first revision phase (Structural) will be the topic of the next blog post, Revision Again and Again — Part I.
See you on the next page,