Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why, Yes, I Am a Butcher, and You Can Be One, Too (or Thoughts on Revising)

Since I just finished a somewhat productive butchering session on my current WIP, I thought today would be a great time to share some of my thoughts on revising.

Thought #1: Don't be afraid to get your hands bloody (er, dirty, I mean).

When I first started writing, I never spent much time rewriting. Instead, I was a Reworder. You know what I'm talking about. Sure, I moved sentences (and even paragraphs) around, but I was more concerned about grammar than I was the overarching story or the characterization (or pretty much anything else, come to think of it).

But I've learned a few things in the last, oh, decade or so that I've been writing. And I've learned that a quick polish won't always cure your story problems. Don't be afraid to really dig in and REWRITE. The rewording can come later.

Thought #2: There isn't a right or wrong way to slaughter your darling (um, I mean, revise your story).

I happen to love printing out a copy of my book and revising on paper. There's something about the words on paper that does something for my brain (and I dearly love colored pens, which hardly ever get to come out and play anymore). I don't do it for every revision, but I do try to have a hard copy to reference when I'm working on a manuscript.

And sometimes I like to work on an entire chapter and get it polished before moving on to the next chapter. Other times I choose one major point (such as changing a character's personality) and focus only on that while ignoring any other changes I might need to make.

The point is, it doesn't matter how you revise, as long as you find the way that works best for you. Go ahead and research ways other writers revise, but don't think that there is only one way to do it right. There isn't. Trust me on this.

Thought #3: Be prepared for the pile of remains.

Yes, you will cut things from your story. And, yes, they may be your favorite parts. Wait, don't hyperventilate on me! Take a minute and breathe.

Just breathe.

You still with me? Good. Now, remember, cutting things from your story is a GOOD thing. I promise. In my opinion, your job as a writer is to make a story flow so easily that nothing pulls the reader out of it. And nine times out of ten, those favorite parts of yours may sparkle and shine a little too much. They draw attention to themselves. They make people stop and savor the beauty of the sentence. And unless your entire book is literary in nature, this might not be the effect you were going for. Besides, unless your readers are looking for a literary book, they may be blinded and trip over those shiny parts, and you certainly don't want people stumbling through your book.

On the other hand, you will cut parts that are utter poo. And that's a good thing, too. A REALLY GOOD thing, actually.

Thought #4: Save those remains, since they might be useful later.

There are many ways to do this, but here's my method: when I start a major revision, I save a new copy of my manuscript. All revision changes are then made on the new copy, and my original version is left intact. I can't tell you how many times I've patted myself on the back for keeping an old copy of the manuscript so I can go back to an older version that worked better than a newer one. (In case you were wondering, I work in one Word file for each manuscript. I know plenty of people out there who like to work in scenes or chapters, but I like having everything in one place. I should also mention that my books are very short [20k or so], so this may not work if I ever write something really really long.)

In addition, you might find that an old scene that didn't fit your story might just be the spark for an entirely new novel. Or all those sparkly sentences can be put to good use three novels down the road when one of your characters is an old sage who just happens to make absolutely no sense to anybody but himself. So save those remains and hopefully someday you'll recycle them into a whole new story you can butcher.

Thought #5: Enjoy yourself.

Yes, butchering a story is a lot of work. But it can be fun to see the story emerge from your reeking pile of...I mean, your manuscript. So enjoy yourself. And if you aren't, you're probably in the wrong business. There are plenty of other ways you could spend your days.

It's not a complete list, but those are the thoughts I had today. But since I know there are many more great ideas floating around out there, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. As always, I love hearing from my readers. Thanks for reading!


  1. I write in two files also. The original, and the revision. I like to put those babies side by side after revisions are through just to compare. Talk about a slaughterhouse; my first drafts are just MANIC and BAD...lol

  2. I can't imagine how anyone could have worse first drafts than I do. Half the time the plot's not there, the characters live in a bubble, and the dialogue is off just enough that you are certain the book is really about a bunch of serial killers trying to disguise themselves as 12yo college professors. Yeah, THAT bad. LOL.

    Thanks for commenting, Aimee! I'm happy to find another One-Filer like me!

  3. I always use hard copies for editing / revising, I go blind if I try to do it all on screen and end up with a mess of typos.

  4. That is very true, Cate. Some days I spend waaay too much time at the computer, and it can't be good for my health.

    Thanks for commenting.