Wrap-up Season 2011: Revising The Novel

In June, I finished a novel in eight days. My intent was to spend the rest of June revising it and then to send it out in July or August. It seemed silly to write a novel in eight days and then spend months and months revising it. So, the day after I finished, I duly went right back to the beginning and started cleaning things up (making the beginning agree with the end; adding in some necessary scenery; correcting awkward sections, etc). I did that, intermittently, for most of the rest of June and then put the novel aside. I planned on making one more pass-through for style and then another one to copy-edit and then I’d be completely done.

Even that seemed like way too much work, actually, so I decided that I was just going to make a copy-editing pass-through and then send it out. I figured that novels really stand or fall based on their totality, and that a little stylistic roughness wasn’t going to hurt the novel.

Then, in July, a friend of mine visited and asked to read the novel. She’s a huge reader of YA and someone who I could trust to be both discerning and sympathetic, so I deviated from my normal practice (of never letting any of my friends read my unpublished work). When she finished it, she said the requisite number of nice things, but when I talked to her a bit more, it seemed like she felt that the beginning was pretty weak.

That’s what I’d been afraid of. Something about the beginning was really nagging at me. I decided that even if the rest of the book wasn’t going to get much more editing (except to ferret out typos), I should at least polish up the beginning a little. By this time, I was taking a writing class taught by Nick Mamatas (at the Berkeley Writer’s Salon) and I asked him to look at the first three chapters. Actually, I primarily wanted him to look at them so he could tell me what genre label I should market my novel under (you put the novel’s genre front and center in your query letters, usually), but he also gave me some really good advice on how I could structure the beginning.

The day after I got comments, I had an epiphany while I was in bed. I realized that one major character could be eliminated entirely, and that doing so would substantially improve the first third of the novel. This epiphany both energized and exhausted me. There was no question that I was going to do it, but at the same time, I didn’t really want to do it right then.

When the class ended, I spent a few weeks revising the stories I’d written, and then I tackled the novel. First I wrote a synopsis of the first nine chapters of the novel (so I’d know what I was deleting), then I pulled up my last draft of it (the one from the end of June), and selected the first third (about 22,000 words from a 75,000 word novel) and deleted them.

I spent about ten days (from October 7th to 16th) rewriting the first nine chapters. It came out really well, and I was quite satisfied with it. During the rest of October (in addition to other writing projects), I went through the rest of the novel and made sure it agreed with the new beginning (and made all the other major changes I needed to make).

After that, I was possessed by a kind of madness. I’d put in too much time. It wasn’t an eight day novel anymore. Now it had to be as good as I could make it. So I decided to make a pass for style. A few hours into this pass, something weird activated in my mind, and I started cutting words like crazy. On a paragraph and scene level there was not much that was extraneous. Nor did I cut very many entire sentences. Instead, I just rewrote sentences to make them shorter. At the end of the day, I’d worked for about four hours to cut 600 words. It was mesmerizing.

For the next twelve days or so, I followed that pattern. During four hours, I’d go through about eight or nine pages (twice). The first time, I did really micro-level cuts. The second time, I’d see if there was any obvious chunks of fat that I’d been blinded to. That’s when I cut out whole paragraphs and sentences (I know, it seems like I should’ve done sentence-level second, but that’s not the way it worked out).  At the end of four hours, I’d usually have cut an entire page of the novel.

Halfway through this cutting-room march, I got kind of worried that maybe I was eviscerating the tone of the novel and making everything sound very clipped and stilted and featureless. I tried reading and reading the sections I’d cut yesterday, but I couldn’t perceive the distance. However, I’d gone too far and made too many cuts. I’d also been making numerous tiny substantive changes along with the cutting, and there was no way to separate out the substantive from the stylistic. I was stuck with the cutting, unless I wanted to roll back entirely to a previous version. And the novel couldn’t be half stripped-down and half verbose. That’d be absurd. Instead, I continued grimly onward. It was kind of scary, but very satisfying. By the end of this pass, the novel was down more than 7,000 words from its previous draft (down to about 67,000 words).

That was in mid-November. After taking a week or so to recover, I engaged in the most incredibly, dreadfully boring part of the whole endeavor. I downloaded a program that reads out text (NaturalReader) and had it read the novel to me while I followed along. I found a typo on maybe every other page (much less than I thought there’d be). This part took more than a week. It was utterly miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever been as terribly bored by any other writing-related task.

And then the novel was done. A few days ago I wrote a draft query and sent out a novel query, just so I could say that the novel had been submitted this year (though I still intend to revise my query a little bit).

In summary, my revision included:

  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to clean up the rough edges from the eight-day novel-writing binge and make everything cohere and actually look like a real, completed novel
  • 3 weeks – One passthrough to totally rewrite the beginning and then make the rest of the novel agree with the new beginning, as well as fixing continuity problems and other niggling little things
  • 2 weeks – One passthrough to  cut 10% of the novel’s word-count, fix any remaining stylistic problems, and take a final look at all the substantive issues
  • 1 week – One passthrough for copy-editing.


2 Comments on “Wrap-up Season 2011: Revising The Novel

  1. it’s so fascinating to get a glimpse of another writer’s process. i almost had a heart attack when you said you deleted the first nine chapters of your book. the only way i can ever face the necessity of clipping that much is if i do it in tiny tiny segments very begrudgingly. i’d rather sit for days untangling the knot then just cut it off. i’m too much of a narcissist when it comes to my own writing. it’s like, i couldn’t possibly delete that: I WROTE IT.

    • Haha, yeah, it was a big step for me, too. Usually I just pick at things sentence by sentence. I’ll go through the draft three times before I even delete a scene. But novel revision was starting to seem like this really huge iceberg that was bearing down on me, and I felt like I needed drastic action in order to reduce the task down to some kind of manageable size.

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