This morning, for the first day of summer 2013, I enjoyed my coffee on my Texas patio before diving back in to my day's work of revising my manuscript. I called my father to wish him a happy birthday and we exchanged news. And at the end of our conversation he said—as he has ended every conversation with me for the past few months—"Turn in the manuscript."
I suppose it appears to him that I am sitting on this draft. He read an early version in March, and—because he is my father—loved it. Yet just because a draft is complete doesn't mean that it is the best possible draft you can submit, whether to agents with a query letter, to your agent, or to your editor. Editing as you go ensures that you have fewer errors—that's true. But revisions are not line edits. To revise is to step back and see your work differently. Revision is to go deeper.
In the course of the past few months, I've learned some tips about my own process that might be helpful to any writer while tackling revisions. Of course, each writer has his or her own way of working, but I've found that by gathering every tool possible from other writers, I've been able to fine-tune what works for me and for this manuscript. I've learned that even though the first draft may take months or years, you're not doing yourself any favors by letting it loose in the world without taking the time to revise. Here are some tips:
1. Take things apart—and don't go easy. Break down chapters by sentence, paragraph and scene. Take out weak verbs and flimsy metaphors. Watch for overused phrases and words. Find and hone your theme. Writer Don Roof says, "I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it." I couldn't agree more. Grade each chapter as though your are your own writing professor. Sometimes this is the only way not to hurt your own feelings.
2. Ask yourself: Is this scene my very best work? Treat every scene in your manuscript as the most important one. Would you read this scene aloud at a book signing? Submit it to a contest? Seek publication as a short story? I found myself saying to myself, "Well, this one's not so great, but look at the next scene!" The problem with that logic is that agents, editors and readers aren't going to get past the weak scenes to find the 'good ones.' Make every scene the best it can be. I've completely rewritten several chapters—adding richness and detail, cleaning up dialog, creating symbolism—just because I asked myself that question and answered it honestly.
3. Take as much time as you need. Sometimes, time is your best editor. Think through the order of your action: Is the tension building? Are you ending each chapter with a reason for the reader to turn the page? Do you need to raise the stakes for your protagonist and push him to risk more? Answer these bigger questions with long walks and yoga. Maybe yard work or preparing a meal. Maybe you need to sit in the sand and stare at the ocean. Whatever works for you, just be sure that you take the thinking time that you need to figure out your best solutions. Then don't be afraid to make the improvements you need to make.
4. Rediscover your characters. Make sure they find their way through your manuscript. What is each character's goal, purpose, role and challenge? Are they interesting enough, compelling enough? I'm not of the school that they have to be "likeable" enough, but they must drive the action. Do they need more backstory, or less? Are they real and rich, or thin and stock? Give them quirks. Allow them to get angry and make mistakes. Above all—make sure they grow because of their choices and develop as the plot unfolds. No character should arrive at the end of a novel the same person they were going in; they've either gotten better or worse. Push them to become who you've created them to be.
5. Embrace change. Read your manuscript from start to finish. I suggest print it on paper and not read it from the screen. Make notes in the margins. Then allow your revisions to take you somewhere you don't expect. If the plot changes, don't suppress it—allow it to flow. Sometimes, you'll have to reign it back in, but sometimes it will take you somewhere glorious. Don't be afraid or too stubborn. Think of yourself as a storyteller—not just a writer. And allow that story to be the best one you can possibly tell.
6. If you can't trust yourself, work with a partner you trust instead. Critique partners need to be a unique combination of cheerleader and coach. Do they know how to push you to bring your best work to the forefront? If they are constantly full of praise, they're not the right reader for you. At the same time, if their criticism is vague, you won't know where to start. A good critique partner doesn't rewrite every sentence for you, but they can see holes in your plot, weaknesses in characters, and can provide ideas for pacing and tension. And be careful: don't overuse a critique partner to the degree that they are too close to your work to advise, too tired of it to help, or no longer able to take as much time as you feel you need. Remember: sometimes the only cook you need in your kitchen is yourself.
7. Give yourself deadlines, but also the permission to break them. Don't rush your own creative process. Keep it beautiful and remember that it is your art—no one else's. If you are under an editor's deadline, be fair and gracious if you need extensions, but also work to have realistic goals to begin with. Setting goals will keep you from abandoning your draft when it gets difficult. And it will get difficult.
8. Infuse it with love. If you're not writing something because you love it, perhaps you should rethink why you write. Do you love the process, the characters, the setting, the story? Make each sentence feel like a poem. Use beautiful language, but don't overdo it. Vary your sentence length to give it rhythm. And love it as though it's your favorite song—even though you might get sick of it, you can't help but sing it over and over.