Revisions: my current interminable process

You know how sometimes you hear an author say, “Oh, I worked on this book for ten years.” And you read the book and it’s marvelous and so you laugh and the author laughs and everyone is happy.

But no one interviews the author in the middle of that process, when their quippy quote would be, “I am a stinky writer and I’ve been working on this novel for, like, ever and I don’t think I’ll probably ever finish.”

I love writing! It’s so fun! And I’m forever grateful for revising. I love how it takes the pressure off of the writing, because you know you get a chance to fix it.

But right now I’m in the middle of that who-knows-how-long period of “working on this novel” and I haven’t given up but it’s like a doubt sundae with insecurity sauce and failure sprinkles on top. I wrote the first draft of this book, a middle grade novel, in 2012. I revised it a bunch. I loved it! The characters would have conversations in my head and great pieces of plotting would fall from the sky and I don’t know about you, but I love being in that zone, where everywhere I go the story wraps itself around me like a blanket and I get new ideas and scenes and dialog.

It went out on submission and was roundly rejected. And rightly so.

It’s this funny thing that happens with writing, where you can carom spectacularly between “I’m so proud of this book!” and “everything is wrong with this book!” in the course of a year, a month, a day, an hour.

I knew there were problems with the book, but I couldn’t figure out what they were.

Like the magic act that life is, I won a full-manuscript edit from Deborah Halverson. She waved her magic wand all the heck over this book and made it clear what the problems were. I was so inspired to get back to work! (Side note: it’s always worthwhile to have a pile of trusted people read your work. If you don’t think it is, why not? Because it is.)

And then I got sidetracked (Snappsy was published! I had to revise a new book! I had to write another new book! ). I kept making stabs at the middle grade revision, and it was like running through a cocktail party at top speed trying to grab enough appetizers to make a full meal. Frantic, not very satisfying, and only catching glimpses of the good stuff.

When I finally did get a few months to devote to the revision, it was hard to get into it. I knew it would take more than one pass (there are a lot of different layers that need revising, this first major one focused on rearranging the events and character arcs). It was a slog. I never felt particularly “into” it. There was no foggy blanket of story surrounding me when I went for a walk. The characters were on vacation. Their dialog was barely a whisper. I do like the story, but this revision was hard and dull and work.

I spent a lot of time asking writer friends questions like “what do you do if you get discouraged?” and “what do you do if you only revise a paragraph a day?” and “is it okay to feel blahhhhhh?”

Last week I finished the pass. It was a huge relief to get through this step, which has taken me months and months and months. I’m nowhere near done. This is my current word count:

69,567. That is — WOW — way way too many words. (Want to know how many words your book should have? You should consult Jennifer Laughran’s “Word Count Dracula” post.) But I had gotten through every single chapter. I rearranged, I rewrote. There are some chapters that say nothing more than “F and L need to talk” or “scene where M gets mad” (which means that word count is going to go up before it goes down). But I got through. It felt round and grey and not very interesting, but I got through.

I made a plan.

One thing I like to do when I’m writing and revising is read craft books and articles about writing. Not because I don’t know what I’m doing, but because reading about writing reminds me of what I need to do. And I usually stumble on exactly what I need to figure out what to do next.

(If you’re curious about my go-to writing craft books, there is a list of them in the middle of this blog post.)

This morning I read articles about character development in this month’s issue of Writer’s Digest and, for the first time in, frankly, years, I was hit with some largish bolts of inspiration about ways to fix this book. I scribbled some notes, and finally have some real clarity about how to revise this book so that it’s new and different and better, rather than just looking like I took the old manuscript and stabbed it with a pointy rock.

Because you know how I said it was round and grey and not very interesting? I want it to be pointy and jagged and I want you to look at it and think, “Wow, what is that cool thing?” Sometimes on the way to revising to get to that point, the only thing you can do is jab at it with other pointy things. And you still have the smooth boring rock. If you keep jabbing, though, you’ll chip away until you get to the lovely pointy story underneath.

And today, finally, a big chunk of boring flaked off.

The message here is that revision is hard, and sometimes you feel like you’re writing in circles, and sometimes you want to give up but know you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t do your best to finish.

I’m still in the middle. I hope I finish this thing. I am just SO VERY RELIEVED that now I have hope that I can make it lovely and pointy.

Bonus photo: some excited scribbles from this morning.

Comments (4)

  1. Cindy Williams Schrauben June 1, 2017 at 1:46 am

    Great post, Julie. Thanks for helping us to see that we all fall in to these valleys and that it is not only okay, but necessary.

  2. Tina Barbour June 1, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    Great post, Julie. I usually love the revision process, but sometimes I get overwhelmed (even with picture book manuscripts) and can’t see my way through to a fix.

    • Julie June 1, 2017 at 3:28 pm

      I’m also currently working on a picture book that has been the most difficult revision process of my writing career. Harder than this middle grade, even. But I will say that it gets better with every round, even though the process has been long and incredibly painful. Honestly the thing that works best for me is going for a walk. I almost always get some answers out in the woods.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *