Revisions made easy (Part one)

Haha, that title’s kind of a joke right there.

I’m not one for the writing posts. I’m not a teacher, I don’t have an MFA, and there are a billion-and-one posts all over the web about how to strengthen your writing.

But there’s not a lot out there about revising, especially for beginner writers. There’s a lot of reference to it. Everyone always talks about doing it. Second drafts, fifteenth drafts, whatever. Some people edit as they go, some people do it at the end, some people don’t edit at all, there’s no right answer.

Editing is not revising. Let’s get that out of the way right there. I think of editing as fixing typos, correcting grammar, things like that. I think of editing as copy-editing.

Revising is taking the structure of your story and making it better.

Rule 1) Stop counting your drafts

Seriously. Who cares? Who cares if you’re on your first draft or your tenth? Do you? Really? If you feel like you made it perfect on your third draft, maybe you’re feeling pretty awesome about it when you hear about someone on their sixth draft. Well, maybe that person on their sixth draft is rolling their eyes and calling you a n00b. Seriously, stop counting. Or if you want to count, stop taking that number seriously. It means nothing.

And if you’re not counting now, and you think you should be? You shouldn’t.

Rule 2) The delete key is your friend.

The first manuscript I queried was 125,000 words long.

I hope you choked on a cup of coffee or something when you read that sentence, because I’m sure agents were laughing hysterically when my query came through. And here’s the kicker: I remember vehemently telling my husband that I really needed all those words to tell the story! I needed them! It was just a long story with a lot of characters! Agents would see my genius!

Yeah, right.

If you ever find yourself saying something like this, “Chapter five is when it really gets good…” then you need to acquaint yourself with your delete key.

The mistake I made in my first manuscript is that I was in love with my characters. I’m not embarrassed to say that. I loved them. I kept thinking up new fun scenes to have them interact, and I kept writing them. I left all those scenes in the story. First they battle the bad vampire! Then they have a knife fight! Oh, and this guy can save his girlfriend from a holdup at the restaurant where they’re having coffee! Oh, and now they can have a sword fight!

Yes, I had a plot, but you couldn’t find it behind all those scenes.

Right now I’m on my fourth manuscript. It’s done, off to my agent, ready to go on submission. Two weeks ago, I’d sent it off to her after revising the hell out of it. I cut like ten pages, and I think I even said in my email, “I’ve cut as much as I can.”

She sent it back to me, fourteen pages shorter. FOURTEEN PAGES. That’s not one page, folks. That’s not four. FOURTEEN. And it’s not like she chopped a whole chapter. That’s fourteen pages worth of sentences pulled from the entire manuscript. I opened the file, saw all the deletion balloons on the column, and I thought I was going to cry.

Really, I thought I was going to cry. These were my words. My babies. I couldn’t cut fourteen pages.

But then I realized something: the other FOUR HUNDRED pages were just fine. They were my babies, too.

(In case you’re wondering, I agreed with almost every deletion, and didn’t put them back in. My agent is brilliant. The only thing I kept was a short scene between two characters that I felt was necessary to the story.)

Here’s my analogy to deleting: imagine you’re a size ten woman. It’s a perfectly respectable size. You look nice, no one calls you fat. You can wear dresses out, you get compliments. No one is hounding you to lose weight. There’s nothing wrong with being a size ten.

But say you hit the gym for three months. You start eating lean. Suddenly you’re a size four, and you look SMOKING HOT.

There was nothing wrong with the ten. But we’d all agree we’d love to be that four.

Let’s play with some examples. Here’s an unrevised paragraph from A Wicked Little Rhythm, the manuscript that landed me an agent:

Their first destination was a dance club, and Sarah had already forgotten the name. The door was painted a glossy black, and situated in the middle of a bare brick wall. There was no sign, but there was a pulsing beat that moved the sidewalk where they stood in line to show their IDs.

Now, reading that over, it’s not bad, but it’s nothing special, either. Here’s how I’d revise it:

Their first destination was a dance club, and Sarah had already forgotten the name. A glossy black door sat in the middle of a bare brick wall. No sign, just a pulsing beat moving the sidewalk where they stood in line to show ID.

Same concept, tighter writing. And fewer words!

Another prime spot for the delete key is bantering dialogue. If you have characters go back and forth for six lines, you can probably make your point in four. I love dialogue, and it drives my entire story. But dialogue that goes on too long is tiring to read, and it loses its smartness. Keep it sharp, snappy, active.

Also watch your dialogue tags. If you have an action following your dialogue, you can lose all the tags. I catch these in my own writing all the time.

Finally, lose actions we (the reader) expect. I read a great piece of advice the other day: only write what the reader won’t assume. If you have someone walking down the street talking about going to meet her husband for lunch at his law firm on the 20th floor, you don’t have to show her walking into the lobby, pressing the button for the elevator, riding in the quiet car for two minutes…see, you’re already bored, aren’t you? You can skip right from the dialogue on the street to the scene at the law firm. Readers will make the jump.

Some examples of the above:

Okay: “Thanks for the lift,” he said, as he unbuckled his seatbelt, slid out of the car, and stepped onto the curb.

Better: “Thanks for the lift.” He slid out of the car and stepped onto the curb.

Best: “Thanks for the lift.” He slid out of the car.

Rule 3) There’s nothing wrong with your adverbs.

The problem is your verbs.

Ha! Thought I was going to give you an easy one, didn’t I? Here’s the thing people miss when they whine about adverbs: there’s nothing wrong with them. Sometimes they are necessary. But the problem is never the adverb. It’s the verb it’s modifying.

If you say someone “sat gingerly,” instead, say, “she perched.”

If you say someone “spoke loudly,” instead, say, “she yelled.”

If you say someone “walked quietly,” instead, say, “she tiptoed.”

Any time you find yourself slapping down an adverb, look at the verb you’re modifying. Chances are, there’s a better one.

Rule 4) I don’t care what you see, hear, or feel.

This is one of my biggest faults, and I’m forever pulling these out of my manuscript. I found one in my ready-for-submission MS today. It’s like finding another gray hair. Pull it out! This is also a big sign of telling vs. showing.

Here’s what I mean:

Sarah felt the edge of the swordsman’s blade nip at her neck.

AUGH. It’s killing me to type that.

Here’s how it should be:

The edge of the swordsman’s blade nipped at her neck.

Here, we’re solving two problems. First, we’re getting a new subject (always desirable — if you take a step back from your manuscript, you’d be surprised how many sentences start with HE or SHE), and second, we’re getting a more active sentence. Any time you say, “She heard,” or “He felt,” or “She saw,” you’re distancing the reader from the character.

It doesn’t feel like it should be that way. You think you’re writing about feelings and you’re giving your reader keen insight into your character. But saying, “He saw the sun rise over the bay,” is TELLING, and saying, “The sun rose over the bay,” is SHOWING.

There’s your difference.

I hope this is helpful! This is my first ever “writing” post, and I’m all kinds of nervous about putting it out there, but one of my critique partners keeps encouraging me to do it. (Hey, Alison! *fist bump*) Please feel free to ask questions (if you have any) in comments. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it.

Tomorrow: Passive voice, Dialogue tags revisited, Action scenes that move

(Unless you guys kill me in comments. :-P)

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8 thoughts on “Revisions made easy (Part one)

  1. Personally, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. This post was written for me! Rules 3 and 4 are my favorites, because they’re issues I’m dealing with right now.

    I’m afraid of Rule 2. I keep wanting to say, “But I need those first few chapters!” and “If I took them out, how would people get to know my character?” Which tells me I may have too much back story. (But I really don’t think so. Really.)

    Thank you so much for posting this.

  2. omg Brigid you’re brilliant. I’m going to come back and consult this page when I revise Antebellum in December. You’ve vocalized some things I’ve felt but never nailed down, and consequently never installed as a rule for writing. Thanks!!!

  3. Guys, thank you so much! I’m so glad you got something out of it!

    Suzi, don’t be afraid. I think what finally kicked my ass into cutting words was when Tamar (my agent) first called. She wanted significant revisions before offering representation. One of those revisions was cutting 100 pages — plus she wanted me to add a scene and flesh out a relationship between two characters. There were two scenes I combined into one, but everywhere else, I trimmed, trimmed, trimmed.

    And when those hundred pages were gone — I didn’t miss them. It was the most incredible feeling. I still wonder just what was in those hundred pages that I thought was so important — because the story wasn’t lacking anything.

    I bet you’d be surprised how much you can cut from a few pages of narrative without losing the meat of your story. Good luck!

  4. So many people advise getting rid of adverbs, but this is the first time anyone’s provided a method for removal that makes sense. Thanks, Brigid! Now rather than look upon my adverbs with despair, I’ll see them as shining beacons, pointing the way toward verbs in serious need of smiting.

  5. Thanks so much, guys! Nate, I’m glad you found the adverb part helpful. Someone told me that a few years ago, and it totally opened my eyes. I’m glad someone else had the same eureka moment!!

  6. Brigiiiiid, I’m procrastinating, and here seemed a good place to do it. Uh… your writing advice is… umm… Can I keep you? Pretty please? Oh goodness the bit about verbs? PRICELESS. And the feeling. Seriously, teacher or not… you make this stuff seem so… easy. I love love LOVED this. THANK YOU ♥♥♥

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