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Revision Hacks: Harnessing the Red Pen

Writing diaries

Once a month or so, my writing group gets together at Writer’s Ramble to share our individual experiences with the hope of inspiring other writers. This month’s topic focuses all on revision – specifically the tips and tricks we use to make the process less painful. I think every single person in my group has a different method, which is why it tickles me we’re sharing them all in one place. Even if you don’t find my Hacks helpful, you just might find your next revision epiphany in one of their posts. Just click the Writer’s Ramble link above and our world of revision will be at your fingertips…

Revision Hacks: Harnessing the Red Pen

Just as there are countless ways to write a book, so are there countless ways to revise it. There are so many different methods out there that it can be difficult for a writer to find the “best” ones. It’s all about trying as many as you can and developing your own hybrid technique for the ones that work best for you. I have had 3 major revision epiphanies within the last couple of years and I’d like to take a moment to share them with you. Who knows, maybe they will change your writing process dramatically, too. :-)

Hack #1: Prep-Work

I personally think good preparation takes out a big chunk of work in the revision process. I also think a major component of revision is cutting out the scenes that don’t either advance plot or develope character. To that end, it makes sense to have a good portion of your scenes mapped out before you begin writing. But how do you know how many scenes to plan for? Thanks to the LTUE writing conference I went to in February, I now have the answer, and it has been radically life-changing. John D. Brown and Larry Correia made it sound so simple that I almost feel stupid for not figuring it out for myself. Here’s their method:

1. Figure out how many words your novel’s genre usually requires (there are general standards in place that are pretty easy to find with a Google search).
2. Figure out the average length of your scenes (a great starting place is about 3000 words per scene).
3. Divide the genre standard by your average scene length:
65,000 ÷ 3000 = 21.6667 (approximately 22)

This means that my 65,000-words YA book should contain about 22 scenes.

Can you say EPIPHANY? I went home and played with this idea with a WIP that had at least 40 scenes, combined several of them and threw out others entirely, then brainstormed for about 10 minutes to get them into a working order (I wrote the name of each scene down on a flash card and rearrange them on the floor until I had something I liked – which is also a strategy that has worked well for me), and came away with the most concise plot structure of any book I’ve written so far. Now, I feel like it’s practically writing itself because I have such a strong guideline in place.

What’s cool about this approach is that takes away a bit of the intimidation factor. Instead of just writing endlessly until you feel like your book is finished, this structure gives you a finite number of scenes to fill. 22 scenes within which to tell a story is a lot less daunting to me than “however many scenes it takes.” There’s nothing saying you can’t either add or subtract from that number, but you’ll be able to make those decisions with more confidence because you’ll have a strong baseline.

Hack #2: Organizing

The other day I found myself in a disagreement with one of my scenes. No matter how many times I reworded it or changed what I said entirely, it just wasn’t sounding right. I had too many ideas in my head on how it could sound, but couldn’t figure out which ideas would work the best. So I typed them ALL into the document, got frustrated, and walked away. What’s worse, I picked up the latest Robin Hobb novel and was almost brought to tears over the injustice of how fricken beautiful her writing was and how easily it seemed to flow on paper… why can’t my stuff look like that? And why does it seem so much more difficult for me? After throwing a mini writer tantrum, I finally came to peace with the fact that, if I want my novels to be quality, I’m going to have to work at it until I figure out how to get it there my own way (which is, inevitably, the hard way).

So instead of tackling a writing project, I turned that scene into an organizing project:

1. I jotted down a few key things I wanted the scene to convey.
2. I highlighted key words from that list.
3. I went through the scene and highlighted only the passages that supported those keywords.
4. I cut everything else.

It gave me direction. It also gave me confidence that what was there was being kept for a definitive reason. The way I see it, there are two ways to implement this approach: write down everything you can think of first, like I’ve described above, then prioritize and organize it, OR you can start with identifying your keywords, brainstorm within each one of those, then go back and highlight the strongest bits. Either way, hopefully it will help give you clarity on the scene first or second time around. Of course, if the scene isn’t giving you trouble, then this method will probably make you overthink it. I recommend just using it for the ones that, for whatever reason, just aren’t flowing. Sometimes just being confident in what you want to say is all you need as a base to go back and make it sound pretty.

Hack #3: Change-it-up

I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to make major revisions within a word document. I lose my place constantly and it’s hard to see more than just a small portion of my work at once. Also, if I have any ideas on how I could reword things, I hesitate to type them in because it just makes everything more cluttered. So I print it out and write my new ideas and possible fixes right over where I think they should go. Handwritten vs. printed means it’s easy to see what your edits are while still allowing you to see how the work used to sound (does anybody else have a difficult time deleting stuff? I’m almost always afraid the new way of saying it will be worse than the old way, but if I change it in the document then I’ve lost record of the first version… might be just me though). Anyway, if I’m still not happy with it, I will grab a notebook and poor new thoughts into that.

This may not seem like a “Hack,” necessarily because I’m basically describing a typical revision process. The reason it’s a Hack for me is that I have found myself staring at the computer screen for hours, not sure how to fix something, but the minute I print it out or start to work on it in a different medium, progression suddenly starts moving forward again. Nowadays, the minute I can’t figure a solution on the computer, I immediately switch formats and have not had a “revision-block” since.

I hope you found some of these Hacks helpful. :-)

Are there any that you use that have totally changed your life? Let me know in the comments, and let’s turn this into a #WritingHackFest.

by Niki Hawkes