Writing Excuses 9.7: Last Pass Revisions with Eric James Stone
Key points: First, middle, and last revisions are different. You may change your mindset from fixing things to adding things. Be careful not to break things. There is a difference between adding scenes because there is a hole and adding them because wouldn’t it be nice if… Some corrections in spot fixes also require looking at the whole book and adjusting. Making things consistent, foreshadowing, setting up things all require revisions. Keeping a “bug” list can be helpful, or at least notes in square brackets of things to fix. Making structural changes or not shifts in different revision passes. Look to smooth things out, check pacing, and avoid repetition. Try a read aloud pass. Use readers to identify problems. Use the last pass to ensure consistency, look for dangling, repetition, and lack of foreshadowing. Remember, it’s your process!
[Mary] Season nine, episode seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Last Pass Revisions.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan this week will be played by the Intergalactic Senate.
[Strange muttering, screams, and an X-wing fighter on overload.]
[Brandon] We’re also joined by Eric James Stone. Say hi, Eric.
[Eric] Hi Eric.
[Brandon] I knew you were going to do that. Do you have anything out recently in any magazines and things you can promote for us?
[Eric] Well, let’s see. I have a story out a couple of months ago in Daily Science Fiction called By the Hands of Juan Peron. http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/other-worlds-sf/eric-james-stone/by-the-hands-of-juan-peron
[Brandon] Okay. Isn’t Daily SF free?
[Eric] It’s free. You can find it on… The story on the website.
[Brandon] That would be eligible for Hugo awards and Nebula awards coming up.
[Eric] Yes it would.
[Brandon] Excellent. So…
[Mary] There’s nothing fancy about the nomination for that since it’s strictly print.
[Brandon] Yes. So. Last pass revisions. I just finished the last draft of Words of Radiance which is the book I’ve been working on for 18 months now. So…
[Brandon] Doing the last revision in a long revision process made me realize that there are different things I do when I’m doing my final revision or my last few revisions as opposed to when I approach my first revisions. So I thought it might be fun to do a podcast where we kind of compare the revision process and look at how we approach it differently. When you’ve already revised a book or a story 12 times or six times or whatever it is you do, when you’re getting ready for that last one, how do you motivate yourself, what does it feel like, what do you do differently?
[Howard] At risk of likening writing fiction to writing code, your revision process is a little bit like gold mastering a major upgrade to Facebook and my revision process is a little bit like changing the font on hello world.
[Brandon] Oh, Howard, you’re a gem. That’s awesome. Let me… Let’s just talk about a few of the things that I noticed while I was doing this last revision. One of which is I am not frightened at all by the prospect of adding new scenes in a last revision. Which, if you would have asked me before I got into this, I would have said, “The last revision, you never add anything new.” The last revision I’m actually most… In like the middle revisions, those are the hard ones for me personally to add a new scene, because I’m like in this mindset of like I need to get this done. I don’t want to be adding things, I want to be fixing things. But the end revision, I’m like, “It needs another one? All right.” I’ve already added enough to this… To a book by that point that I just am willing to just go in… But the scenes I add are much shorter than the ones I add in the earlier parts of the revision process.
[Howard] Well, there’s… At that point in your revision process, there’s a level of polish and a level of cohesion on everything else, that what you put in, it would be very clear what level it needs to come up to and where it needs to fit. So…
[Brandon] Well, more than that, you have to be careful not to break anything.
[Howard] Exactly. Exactly.
[Brandon] Like when I’m adding new scenes near the end, it’s because I say, “There is a hole here.” Not because “Wouldn’t it be nice if…”
[Mary] Yeah. I think that one of the reasons that happens, or at least for me, is because in a revision one before that, like in the copy edits or in the line edits or something, I will have addressed something. But because I’m doing that in a spot fix, I haven’t seen how it fits in the entire thing. When I’m doing my last pass revision, that’s the last chance I have to look at the book as a seamless whole. That is exactly when I’m like, “Oh, this thing that I fixed earlier has thrown this a little bit out of whack. I need to…”
[Brandon] Yeah. I think you just nailed it. I couldn’t have explained it that way, but as you said it, I’m like, “Yes! That’s exactly…” Like [in beginning?] the very last scene I added, it’s because I spot fixed in an earlier draft. Reading through this whole thing again, I realized, “Oh. Where I spot fixed adding in this character in a few places, now there’s a hole that this… We don’t see this character’s perspective on these big events that happened near the end, because we’ve seen them as a thread now, and if I don’t add this in, we don’t have the balance of this thread.”
[Eric] Now, when I was working on revising Unforgettable, I added a lot to the beginning, and then I had to go through and make everything consistent with that. Then I also added some stuff to the end and I had to go and properly set up everything that was going to happen at the end. The middle is actually very much the same in a lot of ways, but… Except for the little revisions that are needed to make it fit with the new scenes at the beginning and end.
[Brandon] It’s interesting, Howard, that you should mention coding and things like that. Because in this latest draft… Words of Radiance is 400,000 words long. That’s a very large book. I’m working on it at the same time, because of time crunches, with my assistant, Peter, who is a fantastic copy editor and he’s a continuity editor. What we’re doing is, we’re doing this… We actually started using SkyDrive which is Microsoft’s version of Dropbox which allows you to have multiple people working on a document at once. So I would be revising and he would be going through and adding in notes where continuity is broken and things like this. The big kind of different thing we did this time is, we actually started up a kind of bug document. Like I’ve been into see coders right before the release. They have a list of bugs and they’re trying to clear them off the list. Peter made a list of bugs for me in a separate document. During my last revision, I was trying to clear items off that list as quickly as possible or as efficiently as possible. In order to make sure all of the bugs that we found are taken care of. Which felt very much like that process.
[Howard] Okay. Here’s my smug moment. I used that metaphor because I know that you are mortal and you can’t hold a 40,000 word manuscript in your head. So… You’ve got… I know that you have Peter helping. You have a team who helps you in these things. While I didn’t know what the process was, I knew there had to be a process that looked a lot like one person identifying bugs, another person going in and fixing them.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s really what it is. We’ve actually kind of set this all up and from now on, I’ll start a book, I’ll start a bug document quote unquote that when Peter is reading or Isaac is reading and they notice something, they can make a new entry in here and say you may want to… You may need to fix this.
[Mary] Yeah. I don’t have assistants, but I make essentially a bug document for myself, which is that when I’m reading through, I will make these notes in square brackets in the manuscript as I noticed them. Sometimes I’ll go back and put it up where I need to do the thing. But it’s often just like, “You have a smoking gun here that you never use. You should take it off the mantle.”
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week this week. We are going to have Mary do our book of the week, which is a Joe Abercrombie novel.
[Mary] Yes. So this is book two in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law. The book’s called Before They Are Hanged. I talked about the first book in the series and have started the second one. It continues to be just beautifully, beautifully narrated by Steven Pacey. We do have to give you a content warning because these are… He’s… Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is Lord GrimDark for a reason. These are not gentle books. But they are very, very good and beautifully, beautifully narrated.
[Brandon] Well, and his… Joe’s brilliance… A lot of people like his dark humor. Mixed in with the scenes of just absolute depravity and brutality, you have a really interesting sense of humor to the fiction that contrasts it. But… Yeah.
[Mary] He’s also really good at the characters that you should have no sympathy for, but he lets you into their brain space enough that you’re like, “Awww. I feel so warm and fuzzy towards this torturer who’s really a terrible, terrible person with no redeeming qualities.”
[Brandon] Well. How can they read about this terrible, terrible person with no redeeming qualities?
[Howard] Go out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30-day free trial membership and download a copy of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie… Who’s the narrator? Steven Pacey?
[Mary] Steven Pacey. Who is, again I say, brilliant and I will listen to anything he narrates.
[Howard] So listen to some Lord GrimDark at its grim darkest.
[Brandon] I… Going through this book, Words of Radiance again, and revising it, another thing that I noticed, my middle revisions, particularly my early revisions, I’m looking to make structural changes. When I start into the book, I’m like, “All right. I’m going to gut this book if I need to.” There are characters I may need to rip out. I’m almost… I don’t like revision, I hate revision, but I’m almost eager to do this to the book to prove to myself that I can. Later, in the last revisions, I am looking to avoid structural changes like the plague. I will do anything… Ask my assistants, I will do anything to fix the problem in a way that doesn’t require major revisions.
[Howard] Well, because a major revision will introduce bugs elsewhere.
[Brandon] Yes. So I get very sensitive to I don’t want to change this. This is in the book, I like how it works, I’m going to find something that makes it work rather than ripping it out or replacing it with something else.
[Mary] Yeah. I go back and forth on that. Sometimes I… It depends on the problem. I try to get all of these done before I get to that stage of the revision. Like for me, a lot of that work happens while I’m in… While I’m still in outline. In my middle passes is where I do tend to do the structural changes. Then late passes… Like the last revision for me is what I call my language pass. But for me, it’s very much about trying to smooth things out, make sure that my pacing flow is doing what I want it to do, and sometimes it’s even things like making sure that I don’t have repeated words. My very last pass revision is a read aloud.
[Brandon] My last pass on this one was actually more like that. Usually that’s been my third pass. We didn’t have time for it this time there. I actually kind of like it better here at the end. I did my 10% cut, and I was looking for continuity. These were my two…
[Mary] You cut things?
[Brandon] Oh, I always cut things. I cut 10% out of every book that I write.
[Mary] That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, these books could be 10% longer.
[Brandon] They could be 10% longer, indeed.
[Mary] That’s like an entire novel that you cut.
[Brandon] Yeah, I cut 40,000 words from Words of Radiance.
[Brandon] As I was going along. None of it… There wasn’t a single scene lost.
[Howard] Okay. My novella for Privateer Press, Extraordinary Zoology, was less than 40,000 words long. The middle edit on that… The original pitch for the story was not a novella, it was three novelettes. Three 10,000 word installments, it was going to be a serial. I had outlined it as a serial. I had written it as a serial. Then late in the game, they said, “You know what? That publication model’s not going to work for us, so just concatenate it, it will all be one story.” I remember looking at it and thinking if it’s all one story, then beginning, middle, end, beginning, middle, end, beginning, middle, end in three acts that are all about the same length doesn’t feel right. I…
[Howard] Let’s see if I can take it apart and put it all back together. So I went up to my elbows in the code as it were, ripping scenes apart, ripping points of view apart, and realized this project is not worth that to me. I need to… I need to admit defeat on this and make a three act where the three acts are each the same length. I need to make that work. So I went from what I thought was going to be a middle pass which is a huge rewrite into a very late pass in which when I passed it off to the editors, the editors recognized, “Oh, yeah, this is kind of a weird format, but I like it.” Because it felt like… Yeah, it felt like a concatenated serial, but they were okay with it. Yeah, that whole story is as long as what you cut from Words of Radiance.
[Mary] So should we talk about why you… I mean, like the things that you should be looking for? Because we’ve talked a lot about how we do it individually, but…
[Brandon] Right. That’s a good question. What should they be looking for? The problem with this, I feel, is that it is process, it is individual process.
[Howard] What do you look for, Eric?
[Eric] Well… My… I tend to basically write in… I can’t turn my internal editor off when I’m writing. I have… I’ve tried to do that and I just can’t.
[Mary] I don’t think one should, but…
[Eric] So my first drafts tend to come out pretty clean in terms of the actual writing. But then I’ll run it by various readers to find out what isn’t working for them. So then what I’m doing is fixing the problems other people have identified, and sometimes they’re small things and sometimes… With one story that I wrote in 2008 that I finally got around to revising just recently, the readers said that a trial scene in there which I kind of thought was the heart of it, using my legal expertise to write a science fiction story. They said that scene just wasn’t working. I cut it out and realized, “Oh, yeah. That makes it half as long, but it’s actually a stronger story that way.” So, yeah, basically having people identify what’s wrong with the story, and then going in and fixing it is how I operate.
[Mary] Yeah. So your bug list. Yeah, I… I mean, for me the last pass is really the last chance that I have to make sure that everything is hanging together. So I’m looking for things that I’ve left dangling, I’m looking for things that are in there twice because sometimes in fixing something, I will have moved a scene. So I’m looking for dangling, I’m looking for repetition, and I’m looking for things that… Where I’ve left something out. Which is… There’s the dangling, which is I didn’t tie this up, and then there’s the “Oh, I added in…” I added in a gondola chase and I didn’t actually have them talk about the fact that there’s going to be a gondola chase.
[Brandon] Right. Right. The foreshadowing. Proper foreshadowing.
[Mary] Yeah. Usually, it’s just…
[Brandon] That’s a good one to mention because one of the things I do in my later revisions is I tweak my foreshadowing. Because by then, alphas and betas have read the book and having the beta readers and knowing what they spotted early and what they didn’t, really helps me dial forward or back that foreshadowing. Very important thing for the last draft because it’s not something I can do until I have a body of readers having looked at the book and see their reactions.
[Howard] Mary, your read aloud process… I remember when you said that, the first time I was introduced to the idea, my first thought was, “Oh, goodness, that will take a long time. What a horrible process. That doesn’t speed this revision up at all.” Then I tried it and realized that one of the things that I am fondest of, which is wordsmithing so that… There are words that you really only get to use once in a book.
[Mary] You become very aware of those.
[Howard] You become very, very aware of those. One of the characters in Extraordinary Zoology, Prof. Pendrake, is erudite and loquacious and uses the big words and I realized that I needed to go through his… I needed to go through his vocabulary and give him lots of big words, each of them only one time. I didn’t catch that until I started reading his stuff aloud.
[Mary] Yeah. My editor just flagged in Valor and Vanity that I have a piece of body language that I do three times in the book. It’s basically Jane and Vincent are standing next to each other and he steps away and she feels that the… She feels his absence as cold. That I have three variations of that. I’m like, “Yeah, you know, that’s a really nice image and I only get to use that once.” So it’s that kind of detail. If you use the art analogy, then this is your final polish. This is where you get to… You bring out the fine sandpaper.
[Brandon] Well, this has been a wonderful episode. I am going to go ahead and give us a writing prompt. I don’t know why this occurred to me, but it seems like it might be a good writing prompt because of that. All of the caffeine in the world is suddenly turned into another substance. How does that affect the world?
[Mary] Howard is very sad.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses.
[Howard] Depends on the substance.
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses, now go write.