Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Perfect Revising Day

Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing. I love having written."

First drafts are often agonizing for me. After six months or more of torture, self-doubt and occasional, fleeting moments of elation, I count myself lucky if the words "The End" appear at some point in my manuscript.

My perfect writing day actually involves a lot of reading. Revising is where I really hit my stride, where I dig my hands in and feel the story take shape. To do that, I need to be inspired, and nothing inspires me like reading other people's terrific prose. Reading a good book makes me want to jump in and join the great writing conversation. It dares me to challenge myself, and it makes me yearn for something better in my own words. And when I'm chomping at the bit to get back to my own work, that's when I know I'm ready to revise, and that's when my writing tends to soar; when I take the most risks and feel my scenes coalesce.

As Jessica Young mentioned in her post on Monday, having an entire day, without any distractions, is key to the process. For my perfect writing day, I'm not online. I'm not even at the computer. I'm probably sitting outside or in a quiet room by myself, with notebook, printed manuscript, novels I love, and research books scattered around me.

I start with a nice breakfast (and yes, the requisite mug of coffee). Then I spend an hour or two reading a few chapters of a favorite book or a classic. This puts me in the right frame of mind to create, and makes me eager to improve my current project.

Next I go through any research materials I'm using and pull out the phrases I'll need to add to my manuscript. After that it's time for a lunch break (probably salad, bread, cheese, ice tea, dessert). Post-lunch, I tackle my own work with the red pen of No Mercy. I scribble all over the margins, draw X's through superfluous scenes, rearrange descriptions and add any research items from the list I put together earlier.

For dinner it's nice to get out of the house, maybe walk to my destination and take a bit of a break (read: wine). During a three-day writing retreat in 2010, my friends and I spent the post-dinner period reading brief passages aloud from our work. It was lovely to get feedback and share what we'd accomplished.

In fact, the only time I've actually enjoyed a "perfect writing day" as described above was during a retreat. Otherwise I'm lucky to get a half-day on the weekends, and an hour before work during weekdays. But that's okay, too -- I like letting my writing settle and percolate over long stretches, because when it's running through my mind for weeks and months at a time, that's when the best ideas usually come to me. It's not about a perfect writing day, it's about trusting that the day-to-day efforts will pay off, that putting the story on simmer for a few months will result in something worthwhile bubbling to the surface.

Sarah Skilton grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated with a TV/Radio degree from Ithaca College in upstate New York before moving to sunny Los Angeles, where she's worked as a production assistant, a TV extra, a film reviewer, and a script analyst. She has also studied Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do, both of which came in handy while writing her martial arts-themed debut YA novel, BRUISED, due out Spring 2013 from Amulet Books. She's represented by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary. Check out her blog, Twitter, and Facebook page.


  1. "Three-day writing retreat" sounds heavenly. "With friends," even more so. I may be inspired to plan my own retreat!

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Sarah. I rarely get a 'perfect' writing day, but like you say, it's about trusting that what you do each day, whether it's a lot or a little – and all the thinking you do in between – will pay off and add up to the sum of something greater than its parts.

    Plus I find that when I *do* have a whole day to write, I often get less done because I get so distracted by Twitter and email and blogs! Trying to fit my writing in around work and all the other things I have to do focusses my mind, somehow.

  3. Your perfect writing day sounds wonderful. I love days where I can just think and research and brainstorm. Sometimes I forget that's it OK to just stare at the wall and daydream. I get caught up wanting to hit my word count targets, that I forget it's important too to just let the story simmer and percolate. I think that's really where the magic happens.

  4. That day does sound heavenly. I agree about being inspired by others' works and "chomping at the bit" to get to my own. I have several stories on "simmer" at all times, and sometimes it's a matter of which one's calling the loudest.

    Maybe it's time to stage a Lucky 13s retreat (virtual or in-person)!

  5. I love this entry, Sarah. What struck me most is how well breaks are built into your perfect writing day. I think those are key for seeing things fresh.

    And as a lucky co-conspirator on that 2010 writing retreat, I have to say: I haven't had that kind of uninterrupted time since! It was wonderful.