Having just finished a first draft of my novel, the thing that’s most on my brain right now is revision, and the question of how much. I don’t have a great answer for that, but let’s look at a few things:
1. Revision is necessary. It is often said that the best works are those that are written in revision. Early on in my writing, I was against it, and had the mindset that what I wrote was beautiful and glorious and perfect! I’ve learned my lesson. Revision is a great way to really focus in on the language, to stop and dwell with a passage or phrase and make it truly what you want it to be. Revision is also necessary for large plot consistencies and making a character’s arc what it needs to be.
2. Revision can also cripple you. As someone who has been in one too many writing workshops, I know that there is a revision line. I’ve seen the revision line. It’s when an author revises a story into second guessing, into what they think a story should be according to someone else, into a place where they’ve lost sight of themselves and the finish line. It’s a bad place to be, and will cripple an author from ever feeling like they are finished enough to get the story out there.
3. Dumping out that first draft without stopping is a myth. Many writers will tell you to churn out that first draft, throw caution to the wind, and don’t stop typing until you get to the end. And then you can go back and work with it (can’t edit a blank page, now, can we?). It’s a myth, and can potentially hurt you. I did that once, churned out a draft, and halfway through it I began thinking how I would change it – but couldn’t stop now, right? I ended up finishing chapters I knew would be changed, and guess what? I never went back and edited anything in that book, because it had gotten out of hand.
4. Revise as you work. I did this for the novel I wrote this past year. As I wrote I would push through a couple chapters, and then go back and revise, push forward, revise, etc. What it did for me was incredibly helpful: It allowed me to streamline my story before I got too far ahead, and it allowed me to tweak and play with the narrative voice before I got too far ahead. I cut and rewrote whole chapters to set up my later chapters better, and it kept my sprawling page count down so that I ended up with the chapters and story I wanted at nearly the page count I wanted.
5. Striking the balance between revision and publishing. This is the spot I’m in now. How much time do I spend revising and working on this draft, and when do I send it out? I know there’s some revision to do, and I do want to spend some time with it, get some readers, maybe a manuscript consultation, etc. But I don’t plan to sit on it for too long. But will I shoot myself in the foot for not sitting on it? There are a few classes at local Grub Street about revising novel drafts, one being the Novel Incubator where you spend a year workshopping your novel. But do I need that? I certainly don’t want to wait a whole year more before moving on it.
6. Only you know your need for revision. Have you been writing for a while? Have you been in workshops, know your way around point of view, plot structure, characterization, and how to make a character change? You may not need as much revising as someone who is just starting out and have just banged out a 1,000 page first novel (me, a number of years ago!). Ultimately, no one can tell you how much you need to revise. That is your call, and yours alone.
Anything I’ve missed?