When you are a new writer you are naïve. You think once you put the final word on the page, your manuscript is complete. But really, once “The End” is written, the real work has just begun. Revisions and edits are key to making any manuscript golden. It’s in this process we learn where the true story is, and how to bring it to the forefront. By “killing our darlings,” and cutting extra words, we make a manuscript tighter and much more enjoyable to read. But as with anything in writing, those edits/revisions are painful, and it’s hard to know what to cut and what to keep.
Today, I’ve asked writer Amy Reichert to share her revision process. Her manuscript, THE CAKE EFFECT, has gone through many revisions and edits. And as she explains, those cuts have been tough. But even though the changes have been painful, she admits they have made her work stronger – so strong, she recently signed with agent, Rachel Ekstrom. Amy’s story is proof that although revisions take time, and at times can be brutal, the process can reap great benefits.
Write, Learn, Revise, Rinse, Repeat
By Amy Reichert
The best and worst thing about writing is you can always improve.
I can always find new problems to fix, or new techniques to try. I’m a revision enthusiast. Nora Roberts said, “I can’t fix a blank page.” I love that. No author, ever, has written the perfect book on the first try. Maybe an author revises each sentence as she writes, maybe she spews forth an entire book than goes back and rewrites, or maybe she has a method somewhere in between. But either way, words never meet the page perfectly. Writers must revise. Full stop. End of story. Learn to love it.
Without embracing revision, I wouldn’t have gotten an agent (Hi Rachel!), and I’d never be the tiny bit closer to publishing that I am now.
At the beginning of 2012, the draft of The Cake Effect I thought was ready — that my husband, my mom and several well-read friends had read, that I’d polished until I thought it gleamed — sucked. It was a case of I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had written those first few drafts by instinct. While my plot was solid, the writing had so many newbie mistakes, including classics like telling instead of showing, too much backstory, and way too much unnecessary detail (no one cared why the news stand guy had three clocks – you never see him again).
But how did I get from that level of suckiness to an agent-ready manuscript? Revision, learn, revision, learn, revision, learn. And some more revision. I don’t have a creative writing background, so the art of story-telling was something I winged, pulling from my experience as a reader and academic writer. Well folks, let me tell you, intuition only gets you so far.
I, fortunately, had wonderful author and good friend, Ann Garvin (http://www.annwertzgarvin.com) to help me in my hour of need. I met her at a pitch workshop in New York and she agreed to read a few chapters. Ann, bless her blunt heart, gave it to me straight. I had the voice, I had the story, but my writing needed a lot of work. She gave me a few resources to study and some needed encouragement. A switch flipped in my head and I understood what I lacked. I lacked a foundation in creative writing.
Now, let me be very clear here. You DO NOT need to get a degree or even take classes in creative writing. But just like any profession from a plumber to an attorney, you do need to learn and you do need to study. And also like any other profession, you should always strive to learn more and improve your work. There are many fantastic books, magazines, and websites with oodles of useful information.
So, I started with a subscription to Writer’s Digest and bought On Writing by Stephen King. I bookmarked several websites and focused my energies on the issues Ann commented on, like basic plot development, superfluous details, and exposition. I read up on these topics, then tackled my manuscript. I rewrote over half of it and tweaked the other half. I would take little rules and follow them religiously — like not having backstory before page 100, avoiding the passive voice, and using simple dialogue tags. These aren’t hard and fast rules, and there are very good reasons to break them, but they helped me tell my story better.
After this major revision, The Cake Effect was much improved. The characters had more life, the story started faster, and readers weren’t distracted by unnecessary details. It still needed a lot of work, but now I knew how to improve.
I finally met some fellow authors who would beta read for me, and I was fortunate to get a revise and resubmit from an agent. The feedback she gave me brought my manuscript to the next level. I had a few new chapters, some relationships were clarified, and some scenes had heightened tension. Again, I had learned some new writing skills and implemented them in my manuscript.
So, if I were to summarize my revision process, it would be that I learn something new about writing then apply it.
As a result, I’ve done many, many, many drafts, and I’ll probably do a few more. But I also realize these new skills I’m acquiring will mean fewer drafts on future novels. Just like practicing a sport or an instrument, muscle memory will take over and I’ll automatically show not tell, use more active words, and avoid clichés.
So, here are a few nuggets of wisdom about revision in list form – cause everyone loves a list.
FIND BETAS YOU CAN TRUST
Betas are not the friends you have coffee with or your mom. Most likely they are other writers, people who will ask you to read their manuscripts and give them feedback. This relationship is a two-way street, people. I’ve learned more from reading other people’s manuscripts than writing my own. It helps you hone the muscles that send up the “something isn’t working here” flag. You want people who will help bring your novel to the next level, who will point out the plot flaws and character problems, and gently explain how you overuse commas.
BE WILLING TO CUT
Your manuscript contains no sacred cows. Repeat that until you believe it. I don’t care how much you love a turn of phrase or a plot point. If it doesn’t work, cut it. I have a file where I save all my lost treasures. It is all about the big picture.
BE OPEN TO IDEAS
People are going to share ideas with you, and believe it or not, some will be good. Use these ideas to make your manuscript better. Just because you didn’t think of it, doesn’t mean you can’t mold it to your purposes. That’s why there are acknowledgment pages in books.
LEARN TO ACCEPT CRITICISM
The road to publication is paved with criticism and rejection, so toughen up, buttercup. You need to be willing to hear the truth. I know, you want to hear how great your book is and that nothing needs to change and it’s perfect as it is. But if someone tells you that, he is either lying or not a good beta reader – don’t use him again. A book can always be improved. Always. (OK, there might be exceptions to this, but chances are, you aren’t one of them).
ALWAYS TRY TO IMPROVE
You need to learn, be it by studying other writers (yay! that means you get to read), reading articles and books, or taking a class. There is always more to learn about the art of writing. Never stop. Ever.