I am pleased to host another writer on the blog today. David Wiley is a published fantasy author and has some great advice on what revision is and how to do it. Check out his post below and check out my post about how to write fight scenes on his blog. Happy writing!
It is finished at last. The manuscript you have been slaving over for months or years is finally done and you have written the words “The End” in big, bold letters. The hard part of writing a novel is behind you, right?
According to the opinions of most writers, the answer to that would be a resounding “No!”
Getting from page one, chapter one to the end of your manuscript is a huge milestone. After all, the book is not a complete book until you make it to that finish line. But nobody writes perfect first drafts. In fact, as Anne Lamott remarks in her book Bird by Bird, most writers will find that they write shitty first drafts. And that is okay if you do, too. I humbly confess that I wrote a shitty first draft of my first manuscript. It came in at just under 36,000 words and was filled with inconsistencies and incomplete ideas. Thankfully, the first draft was not my final draft.
When I used to hear the word revision, my mind would go back to the high school years when I would get back a paper with notes in red ink inserted in the margins and in the spaces between the lines. I would imagine missing commas, run-on sentences, forgotten apostrophes in words like “its”, and many other details that were overlooked during the writing process.
But I wasn’t thinking about revision when I was thinking of those things. I was thinking of editing. What is the difference between these two?
- Sentence-level corrections dealing with spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc.
- Targeting mistakes in a paper and fixes them.
- Polishing an already-revised paper before sending it off for queries or publication.
- Dealing with the entire body of work: looking at strengths and weaknesses, organization and flow, consistency, voice, point of view, etc.
- Likely to involve major changes, such as moving chapters around, cutting complete passages, adding new chapters or information, rewriting weak or confusing parts of the story, expanding upon ideas, etc.
- Taking a good manuscript and making it better, such as through trimming out the excess or fleshing out the bare spots.
When you compare the two processes, one stands out as being more impactful, making meaningful changes to the manuscript. Many people hate editing and I can hardly fault them for that. But I have grown to appreciate the beauty that can be uncovered and refined through the revision process.
As an example of how the revision process can function, here is a short passage from my working novel. I have done two revisions since writing the first draft and am preparing to dive in for a third, and final, batch of revisions this summer. By looking at the differences between the first and third draft of this passage should show how the revision process can take a good idea or scene and make it even better.
“Maybe you forged these tracks to get me out here,” Ava said. She stared at Edgar, a cold glimmer in her eyes. Edgar looked away, fidgeting under her stare. He looked up to confess when a deep grumble in the distance made them both pause. Ava raised a hand, signaling for silence as she turned toward the noise. The grumble repeated a few moments later, answered by a higher-pitched whistling noise. Ava slipped a knife from her belt, handing it to Edgar before unsheathing her sword. She motioned for him to follow, stealthily moving toward the noises.
They ducked behind a large rock when they were close, listening for a change in the sounds. Hearing nothing, Ava peeked around the edge. “Goblins,” she whispered to Edgar when she pulled back, “three of them are asleep in the clearing. They must be a scouting party.”
“I bet they are checking out the village, to see if we’re undefended now that father is gone. We can’t let them report back or we’ll have the whole horde swarming down on us.”
“But there are three of them and only two of us.”
“There is one on the left, just around the rock. You take him and I will get the other two.”
“I’ve never killed a monster before,” Edgar whispered back, concerned. “What if I miss and it claws my eyes out or rips my heart from my chest?”
“It is sleeping. It’ll be dead before it knows we’re attacking. My father will be surprised when he gets home and sees three goblin heads.”
In this first draft, Ava and her friend Edgar stumble upon some sleeping goblins. This occurs in chapter two, after Ava’s father gives her a sword and asks her to protect the village. Ava takes the job seriously, patrolling atop a stone tower until Edgar tricks her to come and look at some tracks to see if they were monster tracks. This leads them into the encounter where a bold Ava is eager to kill her first monsters and show off their heads as trophies.
Their merriment was cut short by a deep grumble. It sounded distant but the noise was so out of place in the area that it made them both pause. Ava raised a hand, signaling for silence while turning toward the sound. The grumble repeated a few moments later, answered by a higher-pitched whistling sound. Ava slipped a knife from her belt, handing it to Edgar before unsheathing another knife for herself. She was thankful that her father had given these to her on her birthday this year, finally believing that she was old enough to learn to use them to defend herself. She motioned for Edgar to follow as she crept toward the noises.
As they neared the source of the sound they crept along and ducked behind a large rock. They stood still for a moment, not breathing as they listened for a change in the noise. Ava’s strategy would have to change if whatever it was knew they were here. She stood in silence, motionless, eyes closed, taking in the pattern of the sounds. Hearing nothing out of the ordinary, Ava peeked around the edge. “Goblins,” she whispered to Edgar, “two of them are asleep in the clearing. They must be a scouting party.”
“I bet they are checking out the village, to see if we’re undefended now that father and his men are gone. We can’t let them report back or we’ll have the whole horde swarming down on us before dawn breaks.”
“But how are we supposed to keep them from telling the other goblins?”
“We’ll have to kidnap them,” Ava said.
“But we don’t have any rope,” Edgar observed.
Ava considered their options given their current situation. They couldn’t capture the goblins because they had no way to bind them. If they went back to tell the elders the goblins might be gone before they returned. That was, of course, assuming that the elders would even believe them enough to come with them. That was by no means a guarantee since Ava and Edgar had a reputation for playing games involving imaginary monsters. She considered what her father would do in this situation while faced with two sleeping monsters. “I guess we’ll just have to kill them,” Ava said, hoping her voice didn’t carry any of the fear and uncertainty she felt welling up inside her.
“I’ve never killed a monster before,” Edgar whispered back. “What if I miss and it claws my eyes out or rips my heart from my chest?”
“It is sleeping. It’ll be dead before it knows we’re attacking. We have no choice, Edgar. The elders need to be warned but they will never believe us without proof.”
“But they are alive, Ava,” Edgar said. She could see he was wrestling with the morality of the task just as she had a few moments before. Ava knew she had to act fearless, to be firm in her conviction if they were to protect the village. Any sign of weakness and the goblins would escape to raise the alarm. If that happened then everyone in the village could be in danger. She understood, difficult as it was, that they needed to do this in order to save more lives.
“So are silvertails, but that don’t stop us from catching and cooking them for food. This isn’t much different. You take the left one and I’ll take out the one on the right.” Edgar numbly nodded his agreement and the matter was settled.
In the most recent version, things have completely changed. The encounter takes place in the first chapter rather than the second, occurring while Ava and Edgar are playing at Monster Hunter with wooden swords. Ava transitions from eager killer of monsters to someone who grapples with the morality of what they are about to do, eventually making the decision fitting of a huntress. There are still some things in the scene that could use revision, such as more showing instead of telling, but as a whole the action, the timing, and the dialogue (internal and external) are set up fairly well.
Understanding and embracing the revision process has helped me grow as a writer. I no longer dread the task of revisiting a finished story or manuscript, as I have been able to see how each revised draft has improved the writing. Have you found success in revising your writing?
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David Wiley is an author of science fiction and fantasy stories, choosing to write the stories that he would love to read.
His short fiction has previously been published in Firewords Quarterly, Mystic Signals and a King Arthur anthology by Uffda Press. He also has a short story forthcoming on Sci Phi Journal. David resides in central Iowa with his wife and their cats and spends his time reading, writing, and playing board games.