Thursday, September 1, 2011

Revision - It's the Little Things

Are you ever overwhelmed at the start of a revision? When you look at the mountain of notes/critiques/edits piled to your side and wonder how you'll ever manage it? I've mentioned before that it often feels like I have my MS on the operating table, parts spread all over the place while I'm doing a revision. 

Obviously it's important to be methodical here and organize yourself in whatever way works best for you. In my case it's usually doing a single pass for each major component, e.g., character, pacing, world, etc. But sometimes even within those categories, it can feel intimidating. 

The thing I want to point out here is that it doesn't always take a major rewrite to do the trick. Of course, if it's what's called for that's fine. But sometimes just reworking one sentence - even a single word - can do wonders. I'm reminded of Mark Twain's quote: "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Words are our medium as artists. The order, the punctuation and the choice of the word itself can have an enormous impact on what we actually convey to the reader. Now I'm not suggesting you drive yourself insane over every word, but I AM suggesting that you look at what you want and need to say and see if you can identify any spot(s) in your MS that you are unclear and try to rework that part. 

Confused? Let's try an example. We haven't used a vampire in a while, so...

Mary sat up in bed and looked around the room. She'd sensed movement. Moonlight spilled across the floor, revealing a branch that scraped against the open window while the curtains billowed in the summer breeze like restless ghosts. Satisfied that it had only been a dream, she settled back to find herself in the cold, hard arms of the monster. 

But what if I wanted to make Mary's panic more evident. Do I have to rewrite the scene? I don't think so. I think the problem is the lack of urgency in the first sentence. So let's try this...

Mary sprung upright, wrestling the covers away from her sweat soaked skin. Her eyes darted left then right, searching for the source of the disturbance. She'd sensed movement. Moonlight spilled across the floor, revealing a branch that scraped against the open window while the curtains billowed in the summer breeze like restless ghosts. Satisfied that it had only been a dream, she settled back to find herself in the cold, hard arms of the monster. 

Are there other problems? Yeah, probably. I did just make it up! But, I think I solved the problem I'd intended in this pass. What do you think?

Sometimes it's less about rewriting and more about identifying the part/sentence/line that doesn't work and understanding why.
photo credit


  1. Sometimes if a scene isn't creating the effect we want it does come down to the word choice and execution! Usually by the time I end a first draft - I know some of the major rewrites and have left notes in the sidebar in Scrivener. It's when I don't know what to do that I feel overwhelmed.

  2. I agree, especially when we're dealing with subtext and emotion. Sometimes just the right word at just the right place can make all the difference in the world (in tension, in momentum, in emotion).

    And yes, I feel overwhelmed with revisions sometimes, but only before I start. Once I plunge in, taking it word by word, I'm fine.

  3. I've been dealing with a lot of that lately in my current revision. Trying to stay away from verbs like "walk" and "sit" when I could use more descriptive, mood-provoking ones.

    Love the restless ghosts!

  4. Great example and perfect fix! I learned a lot from that, thank you. For my most recent revision, I found that I was over-explaining. Deleting summary sentences did the trick.

  5. Laura and Susan - I agree that it's much easier both when you already know what you're going to do to tackle it and when you've already jumped in.

    Kristen - It all depends on what you want to convey! You're right.

    MG - I'm so glad it was helpful for you! Over-explaining is a common occurrence. But revision is for things like that, so you're doing great. Recognizing the problem is half the battle.

  6. Our medium as artists, I love that, beautifully said! Loved the rewrite about Mary's panic! It made me want to read more!

  7. Great post. I'm working on revisions myself and keeping focused ALL THE TIME on EVERY WORD is a challenge. Thanks for the insight,

  8. What a great example! Now I want to read that story you just made up :D

    This is one of my *many* issues. I see something wrong, and feel inclined to ditch the whole thing. Instead, I need to just massage the sentences a little or add small details.

  9. I think you are right! Bigtime rewrites usually have to do with structure/pacing problems, but once you've got that ironed out, most of it boils down to scrutinzing the words so, so carefully.

  10. Heather - Ha ha! Thank you.

    Stephanie - hope it was helpful.

    Julie - You'll do great! I know because you always do.

    Margo - :D

  11. This is so true. I've found it's not so much the writing that matters, but the rewriting.

    This year I have revised two manuscripts and have really seen them grow and develop in the revisions stage.

    In one revision - for 1916ish - I revised from 3rd person past tense to first person present tense. It did my head in. At the beginning, I was at the bottom of Everest, looking all the way up. It seemed impossible. (Like the picture in the background of your blog!)

    But then, loads of people had done this before me. I paced myself, knew it had to be done, collapsed a few times and became dizzy. But in the end I got there and the manuscript is so much better for it.

    On the downside, I'm no fitter, in the physical sense. Hmmmm. Must be all the chocolate :-D

  12. Wise advice. I think small tweaks should get their moment in the sun before diving into an entire reconstruction. They can surprise us with their effectiveness.

  13. Great example, Lisa. And it's funny because I was talking about this just the other day. Frequently, it seems to me that the problems may critique partners/agents/editors/readers fret over the most are sometimes the simplest to correct once the exact problem is identified. And often, it is simply the choice of a few key words. EVERY word matters!

  14. Ebony - chocolate is imperative for a writer's health. It would be dangerous to give it up. *nods emphatically*

    Leslie - It can be surprising!

    Susan - Sometimes it's hard to see when it's your work, but I agree! Identifying the problem is the biggest hurdle.

  15. Timely post: I'm looking at a mountain of revision notes at the moment. Thanks for reminding me that most will in fact be small changes. :-)

    (just a quick note to let you know I've passed you the 7x7 link award - in case you 'do' awards) ;-)