Monday, May 21, 2012

My Number One Tip from the Revision Trenches

From the end of March to early May of this year, I was deep in the midst of my first round of revisions for my upcoming YA WWI-era ghost tale, In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Earlier this month, I shared some of the ways I immersed myself in my historical era during revisions, but right now I'm going to give you one of my most important tips for revising a novel:

SAVE EVERY MAJOR DRAFT!

I'm not talking about backing up your work, which is clearly a must. I mean save every draft before you embark upon a major revision. If you use critique partners, save the drafts you sent to each reader before you start ripping the book apart and incorporating their suggestions. Clearly label that draft as Version_Bob_Read, or whatever their name might be. You never know when you might want to fetch deleted descriptions, scenes, and dialogue.  

To demonstrate, here are all the changes In the Shadow of Blackbirds has endured ever since I started writing the novel back in the fall of 2009.

1. I sent the book to my first critique partner, Kim.
Manuscript length: ~91,600 words
Major problem(s) with the book: The mystery part of the plot wasn't working.
Saved file as: version_Kim_read

2. I sent the revised book to my next partners, Francesca and Ara.
Manuscript length: ~92,100 words
Major problem(s) with the book: The mystery now worked, but my ghost scenes weren't intense enough; I received warnings about possibly needing to delete three long flashback chapters.
Saved file as: version_Francesca/Ara_read

3. I sent the newly revised book to my agent, Barbara Poelle. 
Manuscript length: ~92,600 words
Major problem(s) with the book: Huge chunk of flashback scenes needed to be cut; character relationships needed strengthening; eventually we decided to delete a major character who acted as the third member of a love triangle that no longer exists in the plot.
Saved file as: version_barbara_read

4. Barbara submitted the extremely revised book to publishers. Maggie Lehrman of Amulet Books/Abrams bought the novel in the fall of 2011.
Manuscript length: ~59,800 words [Notice how short  the book got after all the deletions.]
Major problem(s) with the book: Character relationships needed to be further strengthened; world building needed work; some aspects that had been deleted in previous incarnations of the book needed to be brought back via short flashbacks, letters, etc.

5. I returned the edited book to my editor May 8, 2012.
Manuscript length: ~85,800 words
Major problem(s) with the book: I'm still waiting on my next stage of revisions; fingers crossed the remaining problems are now only minor.

Moral of this story: I'm so relieved I saved all those former drafts so I could retrieve conversations, descriptions, etc., that I wanted to weave back into the story. The overuse of flashbacks and my extraneous character still needed to go, but I frequently fetched phrases and dialogue I had previously chopped.

Sometimes we writers need to cut passages and phrases we absolutely love from our manuscripts, but those moments of writing glory shouldn't disappear forever. You never know when you might need to borrow your own words for a later stage of revisions or even a future writing project, so please heed my advice:

SAVE EVERY MAJOR DRAFT! 
_____________________________________ 

Cat Winters was born and raised just a short drive down the freeway from Disneyland, which probably explains her obsession with haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a young adult WWI-era ghost tale, is coming Spring 2013 from Amulet Books. She lives outside of Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.

Cat's haunts: CatWinters.com, Twitter, and Facebook. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is now on Goodreads.

16 comments:

  1. I can feel your pain, Cat! :) I'm right there, right now. Have been asked to cut a scene that I absolutely loved. But when you trust your editors and writer buddies, the pain is less, well, painful. Usually.

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    1. Good luck with the removal of that scene, Liz! Keep it saved somewhere in case you need to borrow any part of it in the future.

      I realize I should have mentioned that even when the above suggestions seemed daunting, all the cuts and additions I've made for this book have ended up feeling like the right choices. The story is so much stronger than before, and I'm really looking forward to sharing it with my former readers and the world in general.

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  2. Great advice, Cat! I always hang on to all my drafts, and they come in really handy, even if it's just for the odd sentence here and there.

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    1. You're completely right, Emma: sometimes it's only one simple sentence that needs to be retrieved, but it can be just the right sentence for the new draft. I'm glad you're a draft hoarder, too. :)

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  3. Great advice, Cat! I also save individual scenes I delete, because they're easier to find ("Susie_Childhood_Flashback," e.g.). Don't ever throw anything away! The beauty of it all is that now that it's on the computer, all those pages aren't taking up room in my filing cabinet.

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    1. I've done that with individual scenes, as well. A great idea!

      I definitely agree that it's much easier to hold onto past drafts these days when you can store countless manuscripts on tiny disks instead of stacking bulky manuscripts around the house.

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  4. I like your version-naming system better than mine--I think I'll switch. Amazing how much the story's changed! Can't wait to see the final!

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    1. The name method really helps. I find it easy to remember who suggested what major changes, so it's easy to find the specific drafts.

      Thank you again for your help with the book! I can't wait to show you the final version.

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  5. I always get so confused with all my saved drafts. I started using the title followed by the word "the one" afterward for the draft that I was working on. And at one point I ended up with three of "the one!" I am obviously not as organized as you, Cat!!

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    1. I like that you called it "the one." Very romantic. ;)

      For this book, I always revised a file called Blackbirds, and I had a shortcut to the file from my desktop. Then, when I was ready to store a specific draft, I added the critique partner's name or the date and backed it up on a flash drive. It's the first time I've saved the different versions of a manuscript so diligently, but I'm glad I did.

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  6. I need a better systems for filing my drafts. Great post Cat, thank you!!!

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    1. You're welcome, Lydia. I hope that helps some. :)

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  7. Great Advice! thank you. Thanks to you I have avoided future hair tangling heartaches :)

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    1. You're more than welcome. I'm extremely happy to hear I'm helping you avoid hair-tangling heartaches!

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  8. I agree! There have been a few times I've gone back and lifted conversations wholesale from earlier drafts. Plus, I'm a packrat :-)

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    1. It's definitely a packrat method of editing...but, because it's all being saved electronically, your house won't get any messier because of it. ;)

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