Revision is the art of taking critical feedback and turning it into better writing. I didn't feel comfortable with revisions until at least...gosh, maybe five manuscripts into my writing journey, and it really held me back from growing creatively. I hope some of my observations are helpful to you.
I run a critique partner matchmaking service. As such, I get exposed to hundreds of writers. One thing the successful ones have in common: they can accept critical feedback and make related revisions.
I want to give a list of revisions issues I see writers face that have held them back from meeting their potential. Spoiler alert--I've done almost all of these myself in varying degrees of awfulness.
- Unwillingness to outline, brainstorm, or use prewriting tools
- Unwillingness to learn industry standard word counts and as a result create work that is much too long or short
- Argumentativeness with critique partners and beta readers, bullying their readers into changing their opinions
- Inability to delve into the deeper, structural issues reflected in reader feedback, making only surface-level changes
- Lack of research and professional learning, which leads to less skill in interpreting critical feedback
- Crippling self-doubt and self-recrimination when confronted with criticism
- Inability to learn lessons while writing one book and apply those lessons to the next book
- Inability to self-examine and change their creative process as needed
- Unwillingness to recognize other people as experts and insistence on retaining that title at all times, thus discrediting reader feedback
Here's the problem, once you've overcome all those obstacles: If four people read your book, you'll get four different sets of prescriptive notes. The question becomes: How do you know which notes to take and which to discard? Well, I can offer you this: I lived in Texas for four years, and I heard a pastor say the following: "If two people call you a jackass, it's time to get a saddle." If two different qualified people say the same thing about your manuscript, it's time to address that issue.
If you have an anchor such as a beat sheet or another outlining tool, you can use that against the notes you're getting to get at the heart of what's bothering the reader. For example, your reader might complain that the main character is boring in the first five chapters. But if you look at your beat sheet, you might realize that you failed to hit certain key beats that drive the story forward. So the issue IS that the reader is getting bored, but the real fix is plot here, not character.
Revision is the art of listening. It's questioning, digging deeper into someone's thoughts, squelching pride and agony as you realize how much work you'll have to undo. It's the art of investigation, into your reader's thoughts and into your own process. Are you focusing too much on plot and not enough on character development so that every reader complains about not "connecting" to your main character? This is a hard truth, and it's one I've had to face.
Now go write stuff, and delete stuff, and buy your critique partners a drink. They deserve it! Anyone willing to brave a writer's stubbornness is worthy of sainthood.
Ah, the synopsis. All authors love writing these joyous little gems of prose. For those who don't find them as enjoyable or intuitive, here's a handy step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis at the professional level:
Step 1: Don't. Can you get out of this in any possible way? Can you get someone else to write it for you? It's fine if that someone is not a writer; the synopsis can't possibly come out any worse than the one you would have written. See if you can outsource the synopsis to a child or a monkey with a typewriter. They'll do a better job than you.
Step 2: If you must write the synopsis (no kids or monkeys handy), accomplish everything else in your life first. Clean the bathroom, mop the floors, take your dog to the groomer, trim your toenails. Have you been wanting to follow up on that one random insurance question that will force you to sit on hold for fifteen hours? Now is a good time to do that.
Step 3: Once you've accomplished everything else in your life that needed doing, you'll be tired. It's time to sleep. You can worry about the synopsis tomorrow.
Step 4: Ignore the synopsis.
Step 5: Deadline is approaching. You only have one day to write the synopsis. No worries, you still have plenty of time. Why don't you start outlining that book you thought of as you were falling asleep a few months ago? Now is a good time for that.
Step 6: You have fourteen minutes until your deadline. It's time to write your synopsis.
Step 7: Do a really terrible job. It will teach the recipient a valuable lesson and hopefully they will no longer submit writers to this torture.
Step 8: Well done. You're a professional writer. Why do people complain about synopses so much, you wonder. They're not that bad after all.
Because I do Critique Partner matchmaking, I meet a lot of people who are in the beginning or beginning-ish stages of their journey toward publication. That doesn't always mean someone is a 'new' writer; I was this writer after ten years. It just means someone is learning the procedure of creating work that will lead them toward a goal of publication. This means using accepted plot structure, focusing on character arcs, creating a brand for yourself with a genre in mind, etc. etc. etc.
I've compiled a list of advice and resources for people at this stage in their journey. I'm not saying this is the ONLY way to do it; I'm just giving a general overview of some things you can do at this juncture to help you forward your goals of a.) polishing your manuscript and b.) signing with an agent.
So you wrote a book or ten. Maybe you queried agents with disappointing results. Now what?
- Keep the following cradled in your anxiety-filled writer's brain: The success of this one book does not make or break you. Publication is a long, winding road. You have many more stories in you than this. What makes you a writer? The fact that you are here, doing this work.
- During the following steps, do not even glance at your manuscript.
- Stop querying for now. You'll be sad later when you can't send a better draft out because you've already queried the known universe.
- Develop relationships with at least 3 critique partners. Use my online form as well as the #CPMatch and #pitchwars hashtags to search. Make sure to find people in your genre who are at a similar writing level. You cannot work with an agent without this. Your agent will ask you to have drafts read by CPs quite often. A lack of CPs will hurt your writing process more than almost anything else. A good CP is someone to help with brainstorming as well as revisions, and you have to reciprocate.
- Study the following books: Anatomy of Story and Save the Cat. Don't skip this step!
- Disclaimer: Some people hate Save the Cat because they find it overly prescriptive or they hate this particular system of outlining. If you have a different book that focuses on plot structure, characterization, theme, genre, etc., then use that. And let me know! I'm always looking for new books. But something like Stephen King's On Writing is not prescriptive enough IMO for this particular exercise.
- Once you have notes from CPs and have read these books, take a look at your MS. You'll notice that the things bothering your CPs go back to things talked about in the books, and you'll know how to fix them! It's a great feeling.
- Draft a new query letter. Use the fresh arterial blood of a virgin under the light of a full moon. (Just kidding, but get it read by your CPs a few times.) Do your research! Read agent blogs about query letters. Learn about agent pet peeves. Read successful queries. Stalk agents' websites. When you query someone, make sure to personalize the letter. I could go on about this all day. DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. Check out what agents are saying on the #tenqueries and #askagent hashtags. You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. There are a lot of things agents hate, loathe, and detest in queries. Don't do those things! After all this hard work, it would suck to shoot yourself in the foot.
- Send out new queries to agents looking for projects just like yours. Enter Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, Sun vs Snow, and whatever else. Send your book to small presses. Whatever you want to do, do it now. Give your book a chance to be picked up.
- You've done all you can do with this book. It's time to write a new one. The next one will be better, it will be more organized, and you will love it more than the last one.
- Drink, cry, and send your writing buddies direct messages filled with angst. Repeat this step as needed.
Hi all! I recently polled a bunch of people on Twitter, and here are the different tools writers are using:
This is the most popular tool outside of MS Word. It offers a lot of functionality, most popularly the ability to keep your scenes in chapter folders and move them around easily. Gone are the days of cutting and pasting scenes in Word! It also has a Research area where you can keep research notes, links, unused scenes, etc. without affecting your word count. Also, and maybe most importantly, Scrivener compiles manuscripts into a variety of different formats, including novel, screenplay, ebook, and more.
Insert crying emoji because this only works on PC.
Probably the most common tool in usage and the format in which you have to send your draft to agents, MS Word proficiency is a must for modern writers. I've had my agent ask me to turn on "track changes" in my manuscript for her for revisions, something I never really paid attention to learning...Shh don't tell her I had to Google it.
MS One Note:
I don't use this, but I've heard people rave about it. Its functionality reminds me of Evernote in that it's a compilation and collaboration tool, useful for gathering documents in different formats.
Some people talk about this like they're spreading the Gospel. You can use its camera to take pictures of your handwritten notes, which then become searchable through its interface. Perhaps it's my handwriting, but I have found this less reliable than I'd like. That said, it's worked for my husband much better and he has the handwriting of a 90YO stroke victim. I've heard writers rave about this tool, as it works very well across devices.
Who doesn't love you, Google Docs? Everyone loves you. You're simple, you work immaculately on any device, you're clean, your storage system is really comprehensible. Hey guess what, though, Google Docs? I can't get you into Standard Manuscript Format to save my freaking life! So I'm always having to save to MS Word at the end of the journey anyway. Here are some huge advantages that Google Docs has: Free, storage forever and ever, looks like you're working because everyone uses GDocs at work, and did I mention free? And works on any device?