Behind the Scenes: Part 6 – Revision

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure), Part 3 (Setting), Part 4 (Characters) and Part 5 (Writing).

As Ernest Hemingway famously said, with characteristic brusqueness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make, in my opinion, is thinking that all the hard work is done once that first draft is on paper.  I’ve heard of publishers bemoaning the growth of NaNoWriMo (which I wrote about in Part 5) because every December and January they receive a raft of poorly edited first drafts in their unsolicited manuscripts pile. Not that finishing a first draft isn’t a huge and satisfying achievement – it certainly is – but the truth remains that probably only 20 per cent of the work of getting a book to a publishable standard involves the initial writing of the story, and the rest is revision, revision, revision.

I found James Scott Bell’s ‘Revision and Self-Editing’ incredibly helpful during my revision process.

Different authors have different approaches to revision, but pretty much all of them agree with Hemingway when it comes to first drafts. In his part-memoir-part-manual, On Writing, Stephen King says that he feels the first draft is something to be done “with the door closed”, because it’s often emotionally taxing, deeply personal and not something you can do if you’re viewing every word you write with a critic’s eye.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
– Stephen King, On Writing

For King, the second draft is the time to “open the door” and start really thinking about your audience. This is where the craft comes into it – in the first draft, you’re a storyteller getting the tale out whichever way you can; in the second (and later) drafts you’re a master craftsman, testing each word and phrase to make sure it belongs and that it’s earned its place. Personally, I was stuck in the first phase for probably the better part of 20 years – I had lots of inspiration and could spin a good yarn, but I hadn’t developed the self-discipline and willingness to hone my craft that is absolutely necessary to move from amateur writer to published author. (This craft-honing doesn’t necessarily have to be done through formal education, like a writing class or MFA degree, though I’ve found mentoring from other writers has been a huge help – there are lots of great books out there on the practicalities of writing, which I’ll discuss in another post. Most importantly, just read, and read, and read – especially in the genre in which you want to write.)

King’s revision method is similar to my own. As I mentioned in my previous post, I bashed the first draft of Greythorne out over two months – but the editing took a further nine months after that. Ideally, I like to leave a fair chunk of time between my drafts – at least a month, preferably six weeks – so that I’ve forgotten the intricacies of the story and can come back to it with fresh eyes. In Greythorne‘s case, this period was much shorter between drafts one and two – around three weeks – as I was scheduled to go to a summer writing retreat in January where I intended to do the first-round edits.

After I came back I spent another six weeks or so revising and rewriting – around 15,000 words got cut and rewritten at this point. I then gave the second draft to 10 ‘beta readers’ (basically people whose judgement I trust) and asked them to give me feedback by the end of March. In April I went on a four-day writing retreat and made a big dent in the second-round edits, which were based on feedback from my readers. Some pretty big changes occurred to the story at this point, including the final twist and the ending, which a couple of readers had very honestly pointed out wasn’t really working. Funnily enough, their suggestions were actually a lot closer to my original notes – I’m not sure how the story had drifted away, but they do that sometimes – and once I made these major changes, a lot of the smaller problems I’d been having (like plot holes and twisted logic) fixed themselves. This process taught me that good beta readers are absolutely worth their weight in gold. I picked people who I knew would be honest with me and whose opinions I trusted. Some were writers, but others were teachers or other professionals, or just people who really liked to read and were able to articulate why they felt something was good or bad. This last point is really important – someone who just says “I liked it, it was really good,” is useless as a beta reader, because that won’t help you improve at all. Choose people who read like critics and know how to give constructive criticism.

It was while I was doing the second-round edits at a writing retreat that I learned the importance of beginnings, and that they’re not always where you think they are. I was giving a reading from the manuscript, and for reasons of time decided to start at the beginning of Chapter 2. The listeners all said afterwards that they couldn’t tell that this wasn’t the actual start, and they didn’t feel anything had been lost. I’d read somewhere that most writers start their books too early (in an action/backstory sense), and that in fact a good trick is to write it from where you think it should start, then come back and cut the first one (or two, or sometimes even three) chapters and you’ll have the proper beginning. It’s not necessarily true for everyone, but it certainly worked for Greythorne. The opening scene as it now stands was originally the beginning of Chapter 2, and all the information from Chapter 1 has been folded in as backstory throughout.

Some of my characters also changed during the revision process. Nell and the Professor became deeper and more complex, as I discussed in Part 4, and some of the minor characters had their roles shift, becoming more- or less-emphasised, or in one case were written out entirely (this last was Matron from the Brookvale Girls Home where Nell grew up – she was initially a relatively prominent figure, but as things changed she lost her utility and now she is only referred to in passing and is not seen at all by the reader directly).

Between drafts two and three I rewrote another 15-20,000 words, and finally it was starting to get in reasonable shape. I decided to do one final revision before I started shopping it out to publishers – I paid a professional editor to do a manuscript appraisal, which is essentially a structural edit plus a copy edit. She came back with some really good advice (I’ve written before about how invaluable a good copy-editor is) and on the basis of her suggestions I made a few more tweaks. So, finally, nine months and four drafts after I ‘finished’ Greythorne, it was finally ready to be taken out into the world.

How do you like to revise your work? Do you have any particular tips or tricks for editing?

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