(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Mastering the Revision Process
Panel members: Patricia Briggs, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Andrea Howe, Christie Meierz, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: Learn revision techniques for both novels and short stories.
PB: There was one well-known writer who said that he only revised to editorial demand. But most people are not that good of a writer. There’s no such thing as a manuscript that can’t be better with at least one revision. How do you approach the revision process?
CM: I power through when I’m writing and then revise immediately after I’m finished.
PS: I’m an organic writer. I revise while I’m writing to work it out. As for rewriting the opening–write and don’t go back. I start revising right away, but I need to read the last chapter again to remind myself what the characters did.
DPF: What I used to do is that when I realized something needed to be revised, I looped back and revised. But this was not productive. So now I write straight through and then go back and revise linearly. Writing is in the revision. It’s only in the revision that you craft it.
AH: Never stop learning throughout your career.
PB: You always hope that every book is better than the one before. The story comes alive in the revision process. You write a lot of crap along the way, but you need to turn off the editor. The editor pulls the logic thread. Andrea, can you tell when you’re editing that someone is an outliner or a pantser?
AH: No. You can’t tell just from looking because outliners often change things.
PB: I’m a pantser.
PS: I’m also a pantser.
DPF: I used to outline but when I start my books now, I don’t know how it ends.
CM: I’m a pantser.
PB: So most of us are pantsers. But for anyone pantsing, there are often weird scenes that crop up with plot threads that don’t do anything. With an outline, there are patterns. With revision, you can polish these things out.
PS: For those scenes, do you go in another direction or wait it out?
PB: I usually have a running book in my head. As a pantser, you write things that you have to take out later.
DPF: One of my books didn’t come to me until one day it came out and I wrote 50,000 words in twelve days. But then when I was tweaking it, there was a thread that pulled everything out. So I had to add an additional 60,000 words. It was a domino effect. What changed in the beginning caused a change in the rest of the book.
PB: Have you had revisions you didn’t like?
CM: In one revision, I had to stitch together four pieces together to make one. But in the end, it was much better.
DPF & PS: Revisions are always better.
AH: Yes. I’ve seen revisions that made it worse. I had asked one author for a revision on one thing, but they changed something completely different and made it worse.
CM: In one of my stories, I had a conversation between an empath and a whale. In the original, the editor liked it but asked for some changes. In the revised version, my husband didn’t like it.
PB: The editorial comments that make you mad are usually the ones that you need.
DPF: I once had a scene where my editor said I needed to fix it, but I couldn’t change anything. So I needed to figure out what the problem was. Finally, I figured out it was the pacing, so I killed the slow moments. Readers will identify the symptoms so you have to figure out the problem.
PB: How do you identify the problem if you can’t figure it out?
AH: I put it aside for a couple of days and come back to it. Or I sit down with the writer and ask what they’re trying to accomplish.
DPF: I look for things like out-of-character moments and pacing and track back from that scene to where it started. Is it likely or unlikely and does it make sense? How do the characters react and is it appropriate? Sometimes I try different stuff.
PS: I put stuff aside for a while. Ask, is the story clear? Think about it from the reader’s standpoint. Get fresh readers. Are the characters reacting?
CM: I put it aside. And ask my first readers.
PB: Trusted readers will tell you what’s wrong. Even if you think what you write is perfect, it isn’t. I sometimes have scenes to remind myself to do something. I write these scenes because I don’t know what to do next, but I need to take out these scenes later.
PS: Sometimes I have scenes that slow down. So I put in another person for conflict.
DPF: When in doubt, throw in a dead body. If I don’t know what to do, I open a different file to think it out.
PS: I put asides in brackets.
PB: Or in all caps.
CM: I put them in different font colors.
AH: But in the final manuscript you should find those things and take it out.
PB: Laura Anne Gilman had a book which had a ring which told who was fertile together. It was a happily ever after ring. There was an inscription in the ring, but in the text it read, “[insert here]“. That’s bad when it happens.
DPF: Or brilliant.
PB: Do you notice from writers the same mistakes?
AH: Misuse of punctuation.
PB: That makes sense. It’s the last thing you pay attention to. Are there tricks for revisions? There’s reading things aloud.
CM: Put it in different formats.
PB: Go into the reader brain.
PS: I like to print it out to revise and read it backwards. I recommend The 10% Solution by Ken Rand for self-editing.
DPF: I read aloud and read backwards. For content editing, I outline the book after I write it to find gaps in plot and motivation. Outline on a whiteboard or large butcher paper.
AH: I get my clients to tell me the problems that they can’t see, like words that they gloss over. Then I find and replace with highlight.
PS: It’s easy to pass the obvious. Once I was given a conference program to proof and I skipped over a misspelling in my own name.
Q: I’ve heard that in revising, there’s a lot of rewriting. Like rewriting ten times. How can you speed that up?
PB: Experience. Ten times is unusual. Usually it’s because it’s dragging or you need to change a viewpoint.
Q: Do you revise in a new document or in the same document?
DPF: For me, every chapter has its own file. Then I put each of those into a whole file after I revise each chapter. That way when I need to fix it, the original is still safe.
PS: I now do it in one whole file.
CM: I date my saves.
DPF: Don’t print. Revise and copy.
Q: What writing programs do you use?
CM, PS, DPF & AH: Microsoft Word.
PB: Word Perfect.
Q: So when you have a piece of writing, when do you let your peers read it? When do you know it’s ready?
AH: When the deadline hits. Otherwise you could revise forever. It’s never going to be perfect.
CM: Sometimes I give myself deadlines. Or when it feels right.
DPF: When it’s good enough without embarrassing myself. Then I give it to the editor to get feedback.
PS: Make it as good as you can make it with the time available.
PB: It’s ready when the deadline hits.