Over the last year and half, I have had the great privilege of helping a dedicated and gifted writer develop a memoir, write it, and most recently, revise it. Emma’s actions around the revision process have been so stellar that I wanted to capture them and share them here to inspire anyone who is working at this stage of the writing process – or working towards it.
I get a lot of people asking me how to approach the finished manuscript revision process, and these are 5 keys:
1. Be patient.
So many writers rush through the revision process, and that is a massive mistake. It’s tempting to get to the end and think, “I’m DONE” and get antsy and lose focus. Emma did not do this; she has been enormously patient. She has worked long and hard on her book, and she was staring at a deadline that most of the rest of us can’t even begin to contemplate: her new husband, who is a sailor, will be competing next month in the Olympics in Brazil. She wanted to finish her book, and prepare the proposal materials, and send it out to agents before that date so she could be wholly present at the competition. It didn’t happen.
The demands of the revision simply took longer than she expected them to. Her beta readers took longer to get back to her, they had more concerns than she expected, and the pre-Olympic competition circuit proved to be more of a distraction than she had imagined. (Turns out it’s hard to write on a boat or a dock or when ten sailors are sleeping on the living room floor of your airbnb apartment….For a glimpse into Emma’s world-travelling writing lifestyle, check out this post I wrote last year.)
Instead of cramming for her self-imposed deadline, Emma decided to honor the revision process and her story, and do whatever it takes to get it right. She also decided to honor her husband’s efforts, which meant that she decided she would not aim to start pitching until he is finished with the biggest competition of his life.
The upshot is that she will not pitch until it is ready, which means that she will not pitch until after the Olympics, in the fall. “If I’ve spent all this time and effort on it, why not go the extra mile?” she said.
2. Consider the whole.
The point of doing a revision on a full manuscript is that you have the chance to step back and consider the whole thing as a complete entity. Before you have a full rough draft you don’t HAVE a complete entity, and the whole always looks different than its parts. ALWAYS. When you read the whole thing through, you can see the whole sweep of the story, and where it has weaknesses, and repetition, and where it goes on too long.
Considering the whole also allows you to look at chapter transitions – the critical beginnings and endings that do so much to lock in narrative drive. In one instance, Emma and I spent 30 minutes on the last line of one chapter that just wasn’t resonating. We parsed out the nuances of how to get it right and the work she did on that line ended up reverberating through the whole chapter in a way that will deepen it and strengthen it. She may only end up changing a handful of sentences, but they will make an enormous difference to a part of the story that was one of the weakest.
We knew it was one of the weakest because Emma had a killer spreadsheet that was a mini outline of each scene in each chapter, with a page count in one column, and a “things to consider” in another column. It was color-coded. It was epic. And there were a lot of red flags on that chapter… (Now that I am writing this, I am realizing it would have been awesome to share that spreadsheet with you but sadly Emma is in transit and can’t give me permission so I will try to do that another time.)
Note that I am NOT a fan of using this kind of spreadsheet BEFORE you write, or to guide your writing. It tends not to work very well at that point in the process because it doesn’t allow for the writing to deepen and grow and ping back and forth from front to back and back to front, which writing must do. But it works exceptionally well when you have a finished manuscript and you want to analyze it.
3. Be open.
Once you have looked at the whole manuscript and made all the changes that are obvious to you, you can invite beta readers into the process to see how your book fares in the real world with real readers. The point of beta readers is to measure your vision against the reality of what’s on the page. Did you get it right? Does it work? How does it hit your ideal reader? Where are the gaps and mistakes?
In other words, the whole point is to be open to the possibility that you didn’t get it right. If you are just looking for people to say, “Good job,” that is not the right mindset – and those are not the right readers.
You want people to be brutally honest.
Emma had six people reading her work – which is a LOT to juggle. She had a second killer spreadsheet detailing their responses to each chapter, and analyzing which of them lined up with each other, and lined up with her sense of the story.
She had l-o-n-g back-and-forth exchanges with her beta readers, on email and via phone, trying to understand their reactions, and trying to weigh what she wanted to do.
She ended up finding some fairly big things that needed to be changed – a reality which leads us directly to the next key to revising:
4. Be brave.
Looking at the whole means that you don’t just make the small changes. You don’t just re-arrange the deck chairs. You may rebuild the whole deck. You may build a totally different boat.
Emma ended up making two significant changes to her text. The first was a re-structuring of the entire opening of the book. She literally started in a completely different place, and this caused significant changes in seven different chapters. They were yanked around, sliced in half, axed, ground to bits…. This was not small stuff and took a great deal of courage and trust – in herself and in the process.
Why did she decide to do this?
Too many of her beta readers said that they didn’t REALLY get into the story until about Chapter 4. We decided this was unacceptable – and also fixable. So the dilemma was how to get the gist of what was happening in Chapter 4 onto the page from second one, and then fold in the material from Chapters 1-4 as backstory throughout the rest of the book, or cut it. It was a daunting task.
The second big change was the re-positioning of an important flashback from one point in the story to another point much later in the story. The flashback in question had at one stage been the opening of the story – it was a seminal scene from her childhood. Emma moved it almost to the end of the book. In its new position, it reinforces a big lesson she learns in her story, and it adds deep resonance. It worked beautifully.
The result of these two brave changes was magnificent. The book now yanks the reader in right from the start, and packs an emotional wallop at the end.
Why couldn't we see these things before? Why did it take so much extra work to get it right? That’s just the nature of the creative beast.
5. Trust the creative process.
It is rarely linear, straightforward or predictable, and that can sometimes make it seem squirrely. Those of us who creative things, however, or work with people who do, know that there is an underlying truth to the creative process that you can depend on. I think Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, says it powerfully:
“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
It is not often instant, and it is not always easy.
Emma, for example, first began writing her book in 2010. She first submitted it to agents in 2012. She got nothing but rejections. She came into a course I was teaching at UCLA in 2015, and started all over again from scratch. She then worked for a year and half to get the book where it needed to be. “I’m so glad no one published that first draft,” she now says, “This is the book I wanted to write.”
It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to bring a book to fruition – and so much of the best of that work happens in the revision process. Don’t cheat yourself by trying to speed through the process or hurry it along. Trust the process, and trust yourself, and you, too, will write the book you want to write.