Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.47: Q&A on Revision

And now for your questions about revision. Or rather, questions from the WXR attendees, who were aboard the Independence of the Seas with us (the answers to these questions are secreted away in the audio file…):

  • During revision, when do you think it’s acceptable to throw the whole thing out?
  • How do you fit the whole structure in your head?
  • What do you find you most often need to add?
  • What do you do when your revisions have made things worse?
  • How do you avoid over-writing during the revision process?
  • When revising, how many passes do you make, and what order are they in?
  • Do you take the sounds of words into account when writing and revising?

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered in a concrete bunker somewhere in the midwest by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Read your piece aloud. The whole thing. Yes, THE WHOLE THING. Take notes while you do so.

Thing of the week: Blindsight, by Peter Watts, narrated by T. Ryder Smith.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: During revision, when do you think it’s acceptable to throw the whole story out?
A: Don’t submit something you don’t like, but do save the file. Give it to beta readers.
Q: How do you fit the whole structure in your head?
A: You don’t. Use a spreadsheet, an outline. Try a rolling synopsis! How about navigating by landmarks?
Q: What do you most often need to revise or add? Description, senses, blocking, dialogue, timing, format, etc.
A: Punchlines. Blocking and trimming. Clarity. Word choice. And all of that.
Q: What do you do when you suspect your revision passes are actually making certain things worse?
A: Snapshot and rollback. Take a break. Articulate what is wrong before trying to fix it.
Q: How long do you typically wait between finishing a first draft and revising?
A: As long as possible, which often is not as long as I would like. A month to two months. After the beta readers — about a month. The day after the script is written.
Q: How do you avoid overwriting while doing revisions?
A: Watch for the purple prose first paragraph! Get into the character’s POV. Read it aloud.
Q: When revising, do you do a pass through for theme, then character arcs, etc., and then a line edit? What comes first?
A: Goal-based, deal with the big known changes first, then smaller ones. Structure, then fine tune. Revise as I go. Figure out what kind of story it is, then do that editing pass first.
Q: What you think about taking the sound of words and sentences into account with your story? Do you think sound is not fundamentally part of the prose?
A: Sound is fundamental to prose. Readings and cadence are key. Writing conveys spoken language. Read it out loud!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Revision.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And this is our wonderful Writing Excuses cruise crowd.
[Whoo! Applause!]

[Brandon] They have submitted to us questions which we are going to ask ourselves. Starting with one from Alexandria. During revision, when do you think it’s acceptable to throw the whole story out?
[Dan] Wow. Ouch.
[Howard] When you’re feeling the worst about yourself, just set fire to it and quit?
[Brandon] Wow. Okay.
[Dan] If you’re going that far, just destroy your laptop altogether.
[Mary] I find putting it in the washing machine works really well for that.
[Dan] With some gravel.
[Mary] The answer is that there is going to be a point in any story when you feel like… When you don’t like it. You shouldn’t submit something that you don’t like. Do not delete the file!
[Dan] Ever!
[Mary] Just put it in a folder. Yes. Ever. Just put it in a folder that’s called trunk or scraps or whatever you want to call it.
[Howard] Boneyard.
[Mary] Boneyard. I hate this. Whatever it is. But put it there and leave it alone and someday you’ll think, “Oh. I was working on a story…” And pull it back out and this time you might like it.
[Brandon] Here’s the thing. If you finished it, so you’re in the revision portion, I think you should give it to beta readers or alpha readers.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] I think if you’ve gotten that far, it’s time to let people that you trust read it. If they all are kind of having the same opinion, however, like, “Wow, this is just so much effort to fix… Maybe. But you gotta remember, I’ve said this before on the podcast, I hate revisions. I was the person who would never revise that book, and would instead write another one because I kept saying, “I can do better in a new book.” I didn’t get published for many years because I was doing that instead of sitting down and revising and taking a book and making it better the way I should. If you’re done, you really should revise it at least a few times to force yourself to practice it.
[Howard] The exception that I would make to that rule, and I agree with Brandon  99.9%, is that if you discover a change that will make the book better that is exactly like rewriting the whole thing… For instance, the discovery that, “Oh, if I change this from first person to third person limited, I will suddenly have the tools I need to tell this part of the story better.” Your beta readers have told you this, you’ve arrived at this conclusion. It may very well be time to set the project aside and move on rather than rewriting the whole thing. On the other hand, if you’ve got that instruction set in front of you, you know what needs to be done and it’s that big, girding up and being the writer who can tackle that project is something that you can feel really good about.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary] True fact. I have a book coming out in 2017, Stagecraft, which was originally slotted for the end of 2015. We discovered a problem with it that requires a full rewrite to fix a voice issue. So I went to my editor and said, “I would like more time,” and that’s why it’s coming out in 2017.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Mary] So even sometimes something that has been sold, you wind up doing this with.
[Dan] The… I say this a lot, but the truest and most frustrating answer to pretty much any writing question is practice it and you’ll get good at it. That’s what it takes to learn when can I… When do I need to stop and fix this, when do I need to just put this aside, when do I need to move on? You’ll come to figure that out more easily as you do it.

[Brandon] How do you fit the whole structure in your head? From Austin.
[Dan] Why would you want to fit the whole structure in your head? That’s what spreadsheets are for.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Yeah. I outline because I don’t…
[Brandon] Yup. I don’t either.
[Mary] I know that… I wish we had a discovery writer appeared to talk about that.
[Brandon] What? Discovery writer? Dan’s a discovery writer.
[Dan] I am a discovery writer, but I am not a discovery outliner…. That… That doesn’t make any sense at all.
[Dan] What I have realized as recently as a few weeks ago is that I treat outlining as a first draft. A very loose first draft. Which is why I outline very extensively. Really, what I’m doing is I’m writing the first draft without any of the prose in it. Then when it’s time to actually write the prose, that’s the second draft, in which I’m mostly just discovery writing, remembering… Checking in on that early outline, which is often in a spreadsheet, just to make sure that I haven’t driven off the side of the road.
[Howard] It’s not something that is useful for me to show, because it changes so much as I am working, but I have a process that I like to call the rolling synopsis, which is where I will reverse engineer the outline and synopsize the stuff that I’ve already written and then make some notes to myself about things that I want to cover later. Then I dive back into the project and keep writing. Then as things have updated on the web… This is for Schlock Mercenary. I will go back into the rolling synopsis and update it. By doing that, I’m taking this huge story that doesn’t fit in my head and compressing it into a synopsis that will fit on two pages. Which is still too big for my head, because it’s a small head, but at least I can reread it and figure out what’s going on.
[Dan] Let me give you a more… Maybe more helpful answer than my last one. Is that the way I use my outline while writing is not to follow it slavishly, but it’s kind of the concept of navigating by landmark. I know I need to get to that mountain over there, and I can write my way to it as long as I keep that mountain in mind. So I don’t need to know the entire path… The entire structure of the novel. But I do need to know which themes should I maybe come back to more often than not. Which emotional beats. Where do I want this character to end up, and how have I decided that that will be… The emotional things that need to happen in order for this decision to be made. If I keep just a couple of things in mind, a couple of big landmarks, then I can get where I need to go.

[Brandon] All right. Bill asks, “What do you most often need to revise or add? Description, senses, blocking, dialogue, timing, format, etc.”
[Howard] Punchlines.
[Brandon] I would say for me, it’s blocking and trimming. Those are my two things.
[Mary] I’m… Like all of it?
[Brandon] Yeah. There’s a [degree of?] all of that.
[Howard] Punchlines. I spend… I would say that 50% of my writing time when I’m working on Schlock Mercenary is spent refining the text that goes into the last panel.
[Mary] Actually, I think it’s mostly… It’s clarity things, because I tend to underwrite, trusting my reader and then watch them go, “What in the world?” Then I have to go back and add stuff.
[Dan] Probably word choice for me. I’m very particular about my word choice, which is, like I said, why I argue with copy editors a lot.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. We actually have an audience member who’s going to pitch a book of the week to you all. It’s Blindsight by Peter Watts.
[Dan] This is Brad. He is one of our many wonderful attendees on the cruise. He’s going to tell you about Blindsight.
[Brad] All right. So Blindsight is about a group of trans-humans investigating an alien spaceship at the edge of the solar system. It’s told from the POV of a professional autistic man. It’s weird in the best way. There are some big and terrifying ideas about the nature of the brain and human consciousness that just wouldn’t get out of my head for days. It’s also the only hard sci-fi novel I’ve ever read that has actually bona fide vampires in it.
[Dan] Very cool. That’s read by T. Ryder Smith. Written by Peter Watts.
[Howard] You can pick up a copy at after starting a free trial which allows you to download Blindsight for free.

[Brandon] All right. Next question. What do you do when you suspect your revision passes are actually making certain things worse?
[Mary] Ha ha.
[Brandon] From Mitch.
[Mary] Sorry. I laugh because that’s a very painful and familiar subject. This is why I keep drafts of my drafts of my drafts. Every time I’m making a major change. Now I use Scrivener and I can… Every time I’m making a major change, I take a snapshot. That way I can roll back or go grab something if I screwed it up. When I was just using Word, I would do version numbers. So I’d have this is Shades of Milk and Honey Point two, point 2.5, .7, Shades of Milk and Honey .3, Shades of Milk and Honey .7, Shades of Milk and Honey .19…
[Howard] It’s the same principle that I was trained on back when I was working in the software industry, which is that you maintain code libraries in which there is a change log and there is a rolling current version of the code. But you always have the stuff you’ve done before, because there comes that point when suddenly it doesn’t compile and it doesn’t run and it’s throwing errors that you’ve never seen before. Your beta readers are saying things that you just don’t understand, and you realize, “Oh, I really did break it. I need to go back.”
[Brandon] See, I’m going to give a slightly different answer to this. If you feel that you’re just making things worse, or more often with me, I hit a point where I feel like I’m just making them different, I’m taking too many sidesteps… That’s when I need distance from the project. It doesn’t mean I’m done. Sometimes it does. Most of the time, it means it is time to write something new and send this out for beta reads for six months. Or give it to my editor and see what they say. At that point, that distance helps me approach it with a new fresh perspective.
[Mary] The other thing that I’ll do, because I have that happen to. But the other thing is… Sometimes the feeling that you’re making something worse is just your self-doubt. Which can be crippling and make you stop. So if you cannot identify the problem… Like I’ll do the thing where I keep changing words in a sentence, trying to… And I know there’s something wrong with the sentence. So if I can… Instead of just trying, well maybe this word will make it better? Well maybe that word will make it better? I’ll sit there and say, “Can I articulate what is wrong with this sentence?” If I can, then I can usually articulate how to fix it. If I can’t, then it’s probably just self-doubt, or sometimes I just need to cut the whole sentence. But that’s… The key thing is try to identify what the problem is before you sit there and flail at it, trying to fix something that just feels wrong.

[Brandon] Erin actually asks a question that’s very similar to this, which is, how long do you typically wait between finishing a first draft and revising. Like… I’m curious.
[Dan] As long as I can, which is usually not as long as I would like to. The schedule that I have myself on is often a month at the most before I have to get back into another revision. Sometimes I’ll get two months.
[Mary] I revise immediately because I usually know what is wrong. Then I hand it to beta readers, and step away from it, and don’t look at it again while they’ve got it. So usually about a month.
[Brandon] Usually I do one pass to fix all the big broken stuff that I know, because I just change things as I’m going. Then I do one pass as my first polish. Then I give myself as much distance as I can, like Dan said.
[Howard] Schlock Mercenary script revisions typically take place the day after the script was originally written. That’s the day that I then start drawing. So I try to never draw on something I just wrote, because it obviously sucks, because it hasn’t had enough time to bake. But I do not have enough time to wait for it to bake for a long time, so I get a day.

[Brandon] So this is a really good question here. How do you avoid overwriting while doing revisions? Zach asks this. I can see hitting a first paragraph, in fact, I used to do this a lot as a new writer. You’re like, “My first paragraph really needs to pop out. Let’s go in and add my descriptions. Let’s go ahead and make this thing vivid.” Then I get this purple prose paragraph that I’ve been trying to hard. In fact, a lot of students, I will tell them, “Oh, your prose gets really good after the first paragraph.” The first paragraph, they’re trying so hard that it just… It drips.
[Mary] I get as deep into the character’s POV as I can. Because that will shape the prose. That typically will keep me from overwriting, because we don’t usually speak… I mean, there are people who speak in purple prose. But that’s a very specific character choice. So if I can get into the character’s head, that usually… Not always, but usually will keep me from having description in there that’s just pretty to be pretty.
[Howard] I can’t always prevent myself from overwriting. But any time I read over written stuff aloud, all the red flags go up and I realize I broke it, I overdid it, I need to go back.
[Dan] I do that as well. If I suspect something is overwritten, I will read it aloud and listen to the cadence my own voice falls into. If I start to sound like a bad Shakespearean actor, it’s probably really pitiful.
[Dan] If I start to sound like I’m selling a used car, it’s probably really cheesy.

[Brandon] Daniel asks, when revising, do you do a pass through for theme, then character arcs, etc., and then a line edit? What comes first? With me, it’s always goal based. Like we talked about several weeks ago, where I said I create this document or this list of things I want to change. I’m like I fix these problems. Then I move to easier problems. Then I move to easier problems and finally I’m polishing. So it’s not really a look for theme, unless I think theme is broken. Then theme is one of my things on my list of things to revise. Well, the theme is broken, look for places to fix this.
[Mary] I don’t usually think about theme in particular. I mean, there are ideas that I’m interested in that I’m playing with. But I usually let reviewers worry about theme. So I look at structure issues. So I do big structure issues first, and then… I guess I count character as part of a structure issue. I do my fine tune pass kind of last.
[Dan] I… I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, that I am one of those writers that does a lot of revision as I go. So I am… As I’m writing one chapter, I am revising the one immediately before it. Really, that is where I take care of things like theme. Which again, is not kind of the junior high concept of explain what the author was thinking when he wrote this, but things like there’s a lot of class struggle in this book. If I change this sentence, just a little, it will highlight that a little better.
[Mary] Okay.
[Dan] Little things like that.
[Howard] Watching the extended features for The Fellowship of the Ring and looking at the decisions that they had to make to edit like 18 hours of really good footage down to the original film. There came a point at which Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh said, “You know what? This is Frodo’s story. Let’s treat this as Frodo’s story and make an editing pass, just telling this as Frodo’s story.” In watching that, I kind of got chills because I realized, “Oh, my gosh. That’s the tool I need.” Sometimes I need to make that editing pass. It might be theme, it might be character arc, it might be plot, it might be the reveal. But once I figure out what this story is, what kind of a story I’m telling, often that’s the first editing pass I need to make to fix things.

[Brandon] All right. Well, I have actually one last question, but I saved it for the end because I know that it goes right into Mary’s homework for us. Because one of the Michael’s, who wrote his name that way, asks, “What you think about taking the sound of words and sentences into account with your story? Do you think sound is not fundamentally part of the prose?”
[Mary] Sound is fundamentally part of the prose.
[Dan] There you go! Absolutely, especially in an era when so many people listen to audiobooks. I do readings aloud all the time at events and stuff. I have to think about how it’s going to sound. I have to think about… Even the cadence of where am I going to put the “He said” in the sentence, because I want it to sound good when read out loud.

[Brandon] So, Mary, how does this turn into a writing exercise?
[Mary] All right. So, the thing you should remember is that writing was developed to convey the spoken language. So this is absolutely tied in. What I want you to do is I want you to read your piece aloud. Yes. Even if it’s a novel. Because you’ve spent an entire year working on this, in theory. You’ve been doing this week by week. Taking three days to read it, out loud, 3 to 4 days… And I’m a professional audiobook narrator, I know how long it takes to read a book out loud.
[Brandon] Mine might take a little longer.
[Mary] Brandon’s take nine days to read out loud. But still, proportionately speaking, that’s not very much time compared to how long you spent doing it. The thing about reading out loud is that it forces you to interact with the words in a different way. It forces you to hear the way that… You’ll find redundancies, repetitions, you’ll be reading aloud and you go, “Gosh. This is really… This section goes on really long.” Because you can’t skim. That’s the big thing. You cannot skim when you’re reading aloud. If you can find someone who is willing to let you read it aloud to them, that is even better. Because when you are reading for someone, your telling them a story, and it forces you to interact with your story in a different way. So your homework assignment is to read the thing out loud.
[Brandon] All right. We are almost done with the season. One month left. You are out of excuses. Now go write.