How I Write: Step 5 – The First Revision

It’s been a while since my last post, but that’s because several short stories and at least one whole book have wedged themselves into my calendar, and as a result, the specific book I was basing this series on was shuffled around more than I typically allow. That said, it’s time to get back to it. By now you’ve Done the Bird’s Eye View, possibly drawn up an Outline, sliced things up into Scenes, Written a Rough Draft, and maybe even done some On-The-Fly Rewrite. Now it’s time to do the first real revision.

The Hardware

Not too much new here. I like to keep a “tear out the pages” style pad around. Any of the memo pads I’ve described in earlier steps will do fine.

The Software

At this stage, I’m still in Scrivener, but you’ll be in your word processing program of choice.

The Content

If you’ve been following along, your story will be littered with little, easy-to-find notes regarding how you want the story to go. The first thing you’ll want to do is do a global search and put all those notes in one place, with some indication of what position they belong in the story. Sometimes I paraphrase or clarify as I go, but mostly I just copy them from where they are in the story and plunk them down in a universal “time to fix this” location. For Scrivener, this means I split the screen into two horizonal panes and keep the notes in the top one and the current chapter of the revision in the bottom. I also do not delete them from the body of the story until they’ve been addressed or I’ve changed my mind about them. That way you have a second indicator of precisely where you felt it should be place, or at least where you thought of it.

A few words on specifics here. If you’re using Scrivener, there are a ton of ways to keep notes. If you open “Inspector” (accessible via the little blue “I” in the top right corner), you’ll have a section for Document notes (for only this section) and Project Notes (For Everything). I used to plop all my notes in there, dividing them up into global and specific changes respectively. Lately I’ve abandoned that to the single, universal notes document. Basically, I kept losing specific changes I wanted to make, missing that I’d not fixed a specific one because I happened to have the Project version of the notes pane open and vice versa. Your experience may vary, but I prefer a separate document that I can keep open.

When you’ve collected all the changes you had in mind, it’s a good idea to read through them to see which ones you’ll need to be mindful of early on. “Go back and make sure this happened” is the sort of note that comes long after you were supposed to have addressed it, so maybe move it up in the order. You can also take this time to delete notes that either conflict or that were bad ideas. This is also the best stage to make a list of the scenes you think need to be added and maybe trace some ideas out for them, if you haven’t already.

After prioritizing and pruning the collection of notes, there are two ways you can choose to progress. One way is simply to step through the notes one by one and make the changes. This works well for specific, one or two sentence changes. It’s less suited for notes that require subtle adjustments across the whole story. The alternate method is to read through the whole story, checking back frequently to cross off changes as they are made. I prefer the latter method because, as you’ll soon see, you’ll have to go through and read the whole thing anyway.

Let’s assume you’ve chosen to go with the “read and apply changes as you go” approach. This is a combined proofread and revision. As you go, there are a few things you’ll want to watch out for.

Typos:

You don’t have to be comprehensive in catching your typos here. That’s what the final pass and editor are for. However, since this is the last step before someone else will be reading your story, it’s a good idea to get it to something approaching an intelligible state. You’ll also want to rework sentences that don’t hit the ear right and try to filter out the usual dings and dents that show up in a rough draft.

Pace:

Now that the story is a complete unit, you finally get to see if the pacing you set up in your scene and outline steps was well done. In my case, there is always some disconnect between how long I intended certain sections to go and how long they actually went. This could mean that what you intended to be a short information scene as become a huge exposition scene. Or it could mean that the sprawling fight scene you expected turned out to be just a few sentences. Either way, you might end up with a story with too many lapses in the action for your taste, or too much action and not enough time to breathe and let the characters be characters.

I am not the sort of author who deletes whole scenes or trims huge chunks. Maybe someday, when I’m better at writing, I will be. Right now, it always feels like I wrote that for a reason, and thus can’t lose it without making dozens of adjustments everywhere else to accommodate the edit. Thus, my solution is normally to split scenes that run too long into multiple parts. I can then either write a new scene from a different story thread in between the two halves (most frequent solution) or shift a later or earlier scene into the split (much rarer).

If you determine the only thing you can do is cut a scene, I suggest making a folder or document for deleted scenes rather than outright deleting them. You can borrow good lines or at least keep track of plot developments that way.

Timeline:

This one is a huge problem for me, and one that only becomes more problematic if you’re doing a lot of scene splitting and scene shifting. You need to keep track of the passage of time. What I do is, at the bottom of my notes document, keep a running tally of how much time has passed since the inciting event in the story. Every time you get to a passage of time phrase, tack it onto the tally. You might also want to include with that where each of your characters physically are and what they are doing, if you’ve bot multiple threads that will need lining up. If nothing else, this will make it more difficult for you to entirely forget a plot thread or character… which may or may not have happened to me many times in the past.

Frequently doing this timeline audit will reveal to you that things don’t flow right. A character didn’t have time to travel, or something of that sort. The fix is the same as problems with pace. Find a way to insert an even elsewhere. Either to speed things up or to slow things down, such that the story falls back into alignment. This is also where “for a few days” and other non-specific passages of time can be your friend, though many stories don’t have the flexibility for that sort of fudge factor.

Gaps:

You’ll need to write the scenes you feel need writing. Probably the best way to do this is to wait until you’ve completed the readthrough and thus identified every scene that needs writing, so you can write them all at once. What I do is write the scenes as I get up to them, which means I may have multiple mini writing sessions, but I’ll also still have the same brain context from the preceding scene. Do what you feel works best.

Once you’ve gotten all the way to the end you may want to go back and read it a second time. Feel free if you like, but in my experience, you’ll be better served with waiting a bit, during which your beta readers can get their crack at it. We’ll cover that in the next section.

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