Revision for Pantsers
by S. Jae-Jones
I recently finished a fairly major revision on my contracted novel that nearly killed me.
How did it almost kill me?
I wrote 32,000 words in 7 days in order to get it turned in on time. (I essentially rewrote the entire last act of the book from scratch.) Why did I throw out the last third of my book?
Because it made it better.
Here's the thing about revision: I hate it. I am Team First Draft; I like the process of discovery and the blank page. For me, not knowing how a book will turn out is the most exciting thing of all. It may be because I'm a Panster (or a Gardener, as G.R.R.M. says), or it may be because I'm just like that in general. As an artist, I tended to prefer my sketch work to my more finished pieces; as a musician, I would learn a piece just well enough to play competently (but with great expression!).
My actual editorial letter was fairly light: about four pages, which essentially boiled down to 1. trim words from the first act and up the pacing, and 2. make the ending stronger and more emotionally resonant.
So why I did throw out all those words?
Because I was being weighed down by the baggage of the old draft.
As a member of Team First Draft, I find writing new words easier than fixing old ones. It's really more of a mental trick than a writing one, but I know some of our readers have been asking for revision help, and I thought I would offer my revision process thoughts from the perspective of someone who is, ah, less systematic than everyone else, i.e. a disorganized mess. (The irony here is that I'm pretty systematic in nearly every other aspect of my life, including editing.)
Revising by hand, because I am Old School.
Let me backtrack for a moment here. When I was an editor, the first editorial letter I wrote generally addressed large, structural questions. What I called the Story Questions (which I've discussed many times in writing for PubCrawl). The first edit is generally the biggest and most encompassing because what you are doing is shoring up the foundations of the novel. Editorial letters for the structural edit are deceptively "light" because it's not specifics that need addressing; it's the larger picture.
The larger picture is both the easiest and hardest thing to fix, at least it is for me. It's the easiest because it's often one thing that "clicks" into place and makes everything better, and it's the hardest because of the amount of WORK required. Because one small change might affect every single interaction a character has throughout the entire book. Just as a small tremor on one side of an ocean can cause a tsunami on the other, these little changes can sometimes add up to A GIANT KILLER WAVE THAT WASHES AWAY THE LAST ACT OF YOUR BOOK.
The thing about being a Pantser is that you don't necessarily have the larger picture in mind when you're drafting. Or rather, you do, but it's buried deep in your subconscious, so you're not necessarily thinking about it when you're writing. A Pantser is what I call an Inside-Out writer; someone who "starts small" and builds into a whole. To continue with the Gardener metaphor started by G. R. R. M., a Pantser plants one seed, then another seed, then another seed, and before you know it, you have an entire of forest of words.
By necessity, an editor is an Outside-In thinker. Someone who looks at the picture as a whole, then drills down to the smaller levels. I think Plotters are also Outside-In thinkers: they begin with the foundations, and add layers. G. R. R. M. calls Plotters Architects, people with blueprints. The entire revision process is really an Outside-In process, and for Inside-Out writers, it can be awfully hard to wrap your mind around it.
Case in point: me. As an editor, I can certainly think Outside-In; I like building information systems and finding ways to break large concepts into easily digestible components. But as a writer, I simply can't work that way. When I am writing, I can only look at the scene I'm working on; if I think about how that scene fits into my novel as a whole, my brain breaks.
So how to fix this problem? I "write my book again from scratch", but this time, as an Outside-In thinker. In other words, I take my novel and break it down into an outline, i.e. reverse-outlining. I don't outline fiction the way I used to outline my non-fiction: starting with I. Theme, and breaking it into A. Subtheme, B. Subtheme, etc. Instead, I write what I call the "long, shitty synopsis": Once upon a time, there was a girl with music in her soul who lost her sister to the goblins. Essentially, I tell myself the story all over again with my editor's comments in mind, and then I write it again with all new words. (It's like first-drafting! I like first-drafting!)
Granted, I don't ACTUALLY write an entirely new book during revisions; in fact, I'd say 85% of the time, I keep the words I've already written. I sometimes even re-type them to trick myself into thinking I'm writing new words. For me, so much of writing is about momentum, the feeling of forward motion, and the thought of slowing down and FIXING what I've written (out of order!) hinders more than helps.
What about you? Do any of our readers have as much difficulty with revision as I do? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
Further revision resources:
Our own Sooz wrote a fantastic guide to revising on her website, complete with character, plot, and world building worksheets, which you should all check out.
Our own Jodi Meadows also wrote posts on revision, here, here, and here.