Issue # 54
November/December 2009

Lazette Gifford, Editor

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The Unexpected Bonus of Revision

By J.A. Marlow
Copyright © 2009 by J.A. Marlow, All Rights Reserved

The revising and polishing of a novel can be as harrowing as writing the first draft. The hemming and hawing is over. It’s time to make the tough decisions and make the final choices on what direction the novel needs to take. Plot elements and characters need to be cut and added, refined, redefined, fine-tuned and made to live!

This is a process that can take a lot of time, thought and effort, depending on how much needs to be changed and/or adjusted. The process moves the story from a pile of smoldering goo into something elegant, polished, and hopefully a story that a reader can’t put down. It’s the process of moving the story into something salable and something that the author can be proud of.

The entire process can also tear down the author, bring on feelings of despair and inadequacy and can cause them to throw a draft into the back of a dark drawer for years. Some writers avoid this by writing only the first draft and then moving immediately to a new project.

But, there is an added benefit to the process of revision many forget. It all comes back around to the rough draft, that pile of unmentionables that makes all perfectionists and internal editors cringe and groan in pure pain.

Hemingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” There are many other authors who have made similar quotes. The rough draft is where we work out what the story is really about, and it isn’t meant to be pretty, fashionable, or even coherent. Definitely not perfect. They are far from perfect.

And that's okay.

Typically I write sparse first drafts. The first drafts are about the big events, the clues, the main character developments, and finding an ending. Exact descriptions, emotions, gestures, and thoughts come in the revision.

“Books and stories aren’t written—they are rewritten.” - Barnaby Conrad

Starting in December of 2008 I brought out the Nanowrimo 2007 novel and worked on it through May of 2009. Polishing, rewriting, editing, adding to and deleting. It grew from 50k to 91k and turned out to be a book I was extremely proud to present as an example of what I could produce. It sure didn’t start out that way, but it ended up as something lovely.

Fast forward to July of 2009. A group, inspired by the November Nanowrimo, have set up July Novel Writing Month (link: The idea is the same: write 50000 words in 31 days. I had a book I needed to completely rewrite from scratch, so I jumped in.

And an amazing thing happened.

This book had a lot of new material to write for it. In essence, passages of a ‘first draft’. Only these passages didn’t look anything like the writing from November 2007 or 2008. This draft had descriptions, emotions, gestures, and thoughts included in the first draft right from the start. The scenes made sense and had inherent conflict from start to finish. The dialog flowed. The action sequences made sense. The motives and locations were full and rich.

All since last November?

The only difference had been the massive revision done between December of 2008 and May 1, 2009. Seeing and picking apart the prose, fixing, adding, and working the words until they shined. Forcing the characters to prove why they were there. Critically studying and working with each aspect of the story.

The writing muscle had been exercised and strengthened, and I learned a valuable lesson. Revision isn’t only about turning a rough draft into a finished manuscript, it’s also about teaching yourself the craft of writing. What is learned flows over into all aspects of writing, including the ugly first drafts.

Each stage of writing is valuable to learn from. Those that only write first drafts and then move onto the next sparkly idea are denying themselves an extremely valuable learning tool. Let your mind pick up on the tools it needs to use. What goes in will come out. You, also, might find an unexpected dividend in better first drafts.


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Editor: Lazette Gifford

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