WriYe: Let’s Talk Revision

So I skipped February’s blog topic because I didn’t think I had anything really to contribute (it was about writing ‘hacks’). However, this month the topic is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – The R’s of Revision” and if there’s anything I have opinions about in writing, it’s revision.

I have had a pet peeve for years of people saying revision when they mean editing. I have tried to get less grumpy about it because we are all entitled to use whatever words we want. One persons editing might well be another persons revision – I shouldn’t judge. Yet it’s one of those things that annoys me anyway.

So what is revision?

Well my definition is that it’s about the fabric of the story, not about making it pretty. It’s not about the words, as much about the story as a whole. I can’t recall where I heard the expression but it’s something I always think about – “there’s no point in polishing a turd”. Why spend ages making a scene sparkle if it needs to be cut? It just makes it harder to do the cliche of ‘killing your darlings’.

Revision is about plot, character arc – the structure of the story. It’s about looking at the scenes and asking whether they are really scenes, asking if they are the right POV, if they are in the right setting. It’s the big picture stuff.

So what does this have to do with the “R’s” of revision?

I’m getting to that.

Let’s start with “Reduce”.

My initial reaction to the word “Reduce” was to laugh. One of my many writing weaknesses is that I’m not good at description. My first drafts need to be expanded – not reduced BUT that doesn’t mean words don’t need to be cut. I have another horrible habit of being too in my characters heads – they think rather than talk. So a lot of that internal monologue needs to be rewritten in a more active way, condensed or cut altogether. That is a form of reduction. So yeah in editing reduction is an important part of balance. It’s about pacing, about engaging the reader, about painting the scene in a compelling way.

However! You’ll notice that this here ^^ doesn’t fall under my definition of revision – it’s editing. It’s what happens when the story is sound and the actual words themselves need to be made readable. Remember – revision is making the story sound, not pretty.

So does that mean there is no reduction in revision? I was going to say no but then I thought about it and realised potentially yes. When I first started developing my Military Science Fantasy/Portal Fantasy/genre classifications are hard I had my big “tentpole” moments, and I struggled to come up with enough to fill the in between. I had decided to make it a 6 book series, and it did cross my mind a time or two that maybe I should have made it less. That perhaps I was attempting to stretch it too far. Now… let’s not mention how many years later, I’ve found a lot more depth to the story. Reducing it to less would make it rushed. It needs to be 6 books or longer.

Now I think I do still fall down on the side of the debate that expansion is preferable to reduction. There are always more aspects to the story that could be told, a greater depth, endless potential. I am reminded of my Camelot retelling which I planned to be a 20k novella, ended up with a very rushed 50k and I am now thinking should be a 4+ full length book series. BUT that’s me and I’m not going to be objective about my own work. Somebody could look at my outlines and think “you could cut half of this and the story would be better for it” (which is a thought I had when I looked at another writers outline recently). Sometimes what we think matters and has weight in terms of scenes, just doesn’t and could be achieved in a more efficient way.

Now “Reuse”.

I was confused when I first read that because I thought ‘isn’t reuse and recycle the same thing?’ and then I realised I was thinking too literally. This year I decided to reboot an old series. I had written the first two and a half books (of six) but I wasn’t happy with it. I still loved the concept but I knew it needed a lot of work structurally, and to firm up the character arcs, theme etc. I’m now into Act 3 of the rewrite, and it is a complete rewrite – apart from the odd parts where it’s not.

Very few sentences/paragraphs are lifted wholesale from the original draft but there are some. They aren’t necessarily in the same scenes, or in the same places of the draft. In a couple of cases they aren’t even the same POV character expressing the sentiment. However, they were reused, and it is reuse because it is the same – no changes. That is the difference in the definition between reuse and recycle. They are very close but reuse is actually reusing the same thing, whereas recycle is more about the core idea/concept.

So to conclude with “reuse” first. It has quite a narrow use in revision because either it happens in a very limited way (as described above), or we’ve reached the editing stage again, and therefore a lot of the redraft is ‘reused’ as the foundation is solid it’s just the execution which needs tweaking.

“Recycle” (the last of the R’s) is by far the most exciting.

When they say “kill your darlings” this is what is intended – the vault, the archive, whatever you want to call it. Now the most common example I have read of this phenomenon – the cliche if you like is this. You don’t get to keep that character that stole the scene from the MC in this book – but you can make them the MC of their own story later on. Is that all there is to recycling? Culling something from one draft, to use in another story later? Well, this is a post about revision so it would follow but I think there’s more.

I’m not sure if this is a shameful confession or not but it’s an honest one. I also think it’s more widespread than most people think. We are all influenced by everything we experience. Sparks of inspiration have to come from somewhere. Now maybe that was a couple you saw bickering in IKEA, or a cool looking dude on the train – or maybe it was from a movie you watched, or a book you read etc. It’s not wrong to be inspired. To see something and wonder “what if?” and go hmm, and break it down to it’s absolute core, and make it your own. So yes the confession – a lot of my original ideas have their seeds in fanfic.

Some of these fanfics I have actually written. They would need a lot of revision – ha! see, I got it in here – to develop into something that stands on it’s own, but the possibility is there.

But what about the fanfics I haven’t written? The ones that I just toss around in my brain, or have scribbled a premise? That doesn’t fall directly under revision, and yet at the same time it does, because what is revision if not about story structure, character arcs, theme – the building blocks of story.

Ideas can be revised just as much as an actual draft. It’s looking at the idea and working out why it compels me, working out what parts of it are important and what parts could be changed or improved. Age, gender, sexuality, setting, time period, genre – everything is potentially on the table to be altered, so long as I know what needs to be kept. It’s asking the question “what made you want to write the story in the first place?” and keeping that answer on a sticky where I can always see it, and make sure I don’t slip and start on something else – unless of course that is a better idea. In which case the original idea goes back in the vault to be recycled into something else at a later date.

I love the concept of “recycle” when it comes to stories because truly no idea is ever wasted. It can go in the vault/archive and be a building block of a different story down the road.

Now I would be remiss in pointing out the ‘editing’ part which is that words are not so easily recycled. With “kill your darlings” when you have just that perfect turn of phrase, it’s natural to want to use it somewhere. I have tried to start a novel with the line “So this is how it ends” half a dozen times because I just like it, but I’ve never made it work (I’m also sure it’s been done to death). That doesn’t mean some lines can’t be reused in a different project (this is again where reuse and recycle blur).

The problem with drafting and revision is it can be heartbreaking. It takes weeks/months to draft a novel. To then analyse it with revision, realise that the building blocks are flawed, and have to replot, rewrite and consequently scrap all those weeks/months worth of words does hurt. They were a learning experience (the old “can’t fix a blank page”) but it burns, the ‘wasted’ effort, and the ‘lost’ time. If only I had planned the story better to begin with, maybe I would have realised and not written all those words I now can’t use etc. etc. However, as much as it hurts, those words did serve their purpose as part of the journey to discovering the right way to tell the story. Attempting to salvage them, and force them into another project (aka recycle them) feels like a round peg, square hole situation. It’s not going to end well as it will likely make the projects ultimately weaker. I don’t really feel that words should be recycled. I have tossed hundreds of thousands over the years. It does suck but that’s the gig.

Revision is a gigantic topic which I guess is why the blog topic tried to limit the scope with the “R’s”. I certainly could have said far more about it. I know some people find it overwhelming and they don’t know where to start. I don’t have that problem. Revision is actually my favourite part of the writing process (I also like planning). I like how systematic it is. There is a clear process and I can see the results.

It can be disheartening to see how much past!me went wrong, and I do often despair that I will ever get my stories into a state I can be proud to share. However, revision is still profoundly satisfying. It’s the problem solving I guess. I mean I like to analyse stories I consume (write meta posts) and revision probably taps into the same part of the brain. I like working out where I went wrong and then brainstorming how to do better.

Putting the analysis into practice and actually writing the redraft is far harder. Ultimately very worth it though. Writing has that as a benefit over art. The same project can be reworked over and over, and you can compare the original draft with a later one and see the improvements. Art isn’t like that unless you do a redraw of an older piece. Each art project is separate, you have to do your best with it, and then move on and apply any lessons learned to the next one.

I firmly believe that revision is the most necessary and enlightening part of writing. Continuing to write without ever revising is like being stuck, and thus maybe repeating the same mistakes over and over. Revision is a path to learning, so that every draft and every story can be better than the last (in theory anyway).

Given that I hold the distinction between revision and editing, I’m not sure if that really does make me an “editing unicorn” as Loky called me once (because I like it, and don’t just do it under sufferance). However, maybe, I don’t know. But yes, revision is vitally important and I thoroughly recommend it be done to every project.