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Lessons From a Revision

Jesper Sehested via Flickr Creative Commons

Which do you enjoy more . . . revising or writing (first-drafting)? Just like the universal plotter vs. pantser question, this is one of the most enduring discussions among writers I know. Maybe you’re in one camp more than the other? Or maybe you’re somewhere in between.

Until recently, and without hesitation, I’d have answered I was squarely on Team Writing. But lately I’ve been thinking differently about revision. Not that it’s an either-or versus writing, but that there’s a closer link between revising and writing—a different way of looking at the relationship. But not in the obvious way—of making a given manuscript better—but as a writing tool. As a way to enrich the writing process, to reinvigorate your approach to writing.

Let me explain. I used to love the thrill of the blank page, of getting lost in a new story. That was before I hit the slump of all writing slumps, which I’ve written about here [1] and here [2]. I’d lost the real passion for my writing projects, and I was never able to get anywhere near that magical “writing zone.”

Go Team Revision!

As part of my attempt to get my writing back on track, I turned to revising a novel I wrote four years ago. My thought was that I already had a completed body of work, and by starting with that, I could avoid what had become a fear of the blank page. A fear of writing. It didn’t hurt that I believed the novel was worthy of revision—I’d gotten good feedback from an agent in the form of an R & R (Revise & Resubmit)—which she ultimately passed on. But I did have her extensive notes.

Neil Gaiman said [3], “. . . Put [the story] in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.”

That’s what I did. At the beginning the process was frustrating. I had some of the same problems I felt with writing new material—I was afraid I just couldn’t do it. I knew that the second half of the book was the most problematic with both plot issues and a weak character arc, but I wasn’t quite sure how to fix the problems. I consulted an editor. She allowed me to see the story through her eyes, and that helped, but what really swayed me into Team Revise was that I’d been away from the story for a long time. I was able to read it more as a reader with less emotional resistance to making changes—I was able to be more objective—and for the past three months I’ve been deep in those revisions.

A lot changed on the way to “THE END 2.0.” For instance . . . the end of the story. It didn’t change completely, but it changed enough to offer the main character more transformation and growth. In addition, some secondary characters took on larger roles, some smaller, one disappeared altogether. I added more description and breathing room; I took out unnecessary description and narrative where less was needed. I added a lot more emphasis on the main character’s responsibility for her own growth vs. reliance on other characters for her story development.

All these changes added over forty-thousand new words—in short, I was writing again.

Read Like a Reader

Maybe you’re where I was—stuck with your writing—maybe you don’t feel ready or capable of starting something new. Maybe, like me, you have an existing WIP that offers tens of thousands of words to work with, and revision is a good solution for that manuscript because it has some legs. And, maybe (like me) one of your fears is starting from zero.

If you can relate, you might want to give my revision method a try. “All” you need is:

I’d like to say voilà—make the changes—but we both know it’s not that simple. It will be hard work. But if you’re feeling as afraid as I was, it will be well worth the effort.

Because . . . I accomplished what I set out to do. I finished the revision. I wrote again—those forty-thousand words—additions to scenes, new scenes, even chapters. More importantly, one day as I reread what I’d worked on the day before, I didn’t remember writing any of it! In that moment, I realized I’d re-entered the writing zone—something I’d not experienced for close to a year.

Still, there’s no solid happily ever after. This is more of an ambiguous (but hopeful) ending. I’m not steadily on track with my next WIP, I also believe that with the same determination and hard work I employed to complete the revision, I can rejoin the writing team again. I look forward to the empty page.

Are you Team Writing or Team Revision (or somewhere in between)? Have you ever used a revision (or some other method) to get your writing back on track?

About Julia Munroe Martin [4]

Julia Munroe Martin [5] (@jmunroemartin [6]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.