Many novelists agree that first drafts of books are, objectively, crap. You might start with a well-plotted outline including descriptions of each scene. Or you might start with a beginning, an ending, a cast, and a vague idea of what happens in the middle. Or maybe you just sit down and start writing. Whatever the method, the process of taking this literary clay and forming it into a cohesive story that entertains/inspires/terrifies/etc. is called revision.
It’s the messy behind-the-scenes stuff that readers don’t see, but today is different! Today I will share an illustrated example of my revision process for book five in my fantasy/mythology series.
Be still my heart.
Nice snarking, Lily, but I think revision is fun! It’s a chance to look at a work-in-progress with fresh eyes and ask myself if it says what I intended it to say. There’s plot, of course- -the action of the story- -and characters who undergo some kind of change as the action unfolds. A more subtle layer is theme, the esoteric “What is the story about?”
Isn’t it about the plot and the characters?
Not exactly, 9. Theme is something that ties the plot and characters together in an overall meaning, a macro concept like good triumphs over evil or love conquers all or justice.
My new book seems to be primarily about women facing double standards. It wasn’t deliberate, it evolved during the writing process. The working title is Justice in Big-G City and many of the female characters experience some form of justice, directly or indirectly.
So I guess that’s a good thing?
It is for them, anyway!
But back to revision- –
Good, I was nearly awake.
Today I will share my revision process for the third draft. I have long asserted that writing is an activity that utilizes every skill and experience and relationship you’ve ever had. At this phase I am drawing on my accounting background and analyzing the manuscript with an accounting tool, an Excel spreadsheet.
I enter information about each scene, including point of view (POV) character and plot thread, with a brief description of the scene and possibly what happens next. Once the data is entered I can sort it by whatever variables I used. The picture above is my sort for POV character. This helps me figure out who the lead characters really are (not always the ones I’d envisioned at the start). I also develop a sense of whether the character’s story arc (how they changed during the story) is complete.
So for me this is a more effective way to approach these questions than having to hold all 300 pages in my head and hope I don’t miss anything crucial.
The next step is boiling down the spreadsheet information to actionable notes. Character by character I document their state at the beginning and end of the story, and what plot thread(s) carried them there. In a sentence or two I summarize how events changed them (or not, which is equally enlightening). This information is useful not only for revising book five but is a springboard to figure out if and/or how characters belong in book six.
This process gives me a character arc analysis and a lot of information to draw on for the next book. Knowing where characters are coming from helps keep motivational and emotional continuity as they move through the series.
Much as I’d like to think I’ve included everything necessary in the current draft I did stumble across a serious omission that bridges books five and six. That’s what the blue-highlighted exclamation points are about:
For this particular set of revision notes, I’ve used orange to circle characters or groups of characters that are referred to in book five but are not POV characters. Their presence may be more directly required in the next volume. Anticipated major characters in book six are highlighted in yellow; pink is used for emotions and motivations.
This makes me think of art class.
At which we showed little talent. But again, writing is a great place to use everything you know. And revision really is like fooling around with clay. Shape it while trying not to overwork it, make sure it functions as it’s supposed to, give it a distinct and cohesive design.
Revision- -my kind of fun!