ORGANIC: denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole.
(Another has to do with expensive produce. But I digress.)
The more writing and editing I do, the more strongly I feel that the art of revision must be organic. It’s not enough to have a checklist of things to change or fix or add or tweak (although that list is hugely important) and simply cherry-pick* where in the manuscript to make with the revising. Any changes you make have to flow naturally into the story in such a way that they reshape the tale without making it obvious that there were any changes at all. It’s taking the concept of “seamless” one step further. It kicks up a revision into a true transformation. It’s the difference between “good enough” and “damn good.”
Should be easy, right? After all, we’ve written at least one book already. Cruising in First Draft Land isn’t as simple as avoiding plot holes and then flooring it until we zoom over the finish line; it takes skill as well as effort. After sweating (and screaming) over a draft, how hard can a revision really be?
Ask any author who’s on the receiving end of an editorial letter. That’s ten pages. Single spaced.
The revision process can be frustrating. It can be infuriating. It can be exhausting. But if you decide to make it an organic revision, all of your work will absolutely pay off, because you will have written a significantly stronger story.
When TO BEAR AN IRON KEY sold to Month9Books, I was thrilled. I love the story, especially the relationship between the protagonists, Bromwyn and Rusty, and I couldn’t be happier that the book found the right home. But even when it sold, there was something about the narrative style that nagged at me. It was a small thing, and it could be easily excused as a stylistic choice, but still, it nagged. I wasn’t sure what to do about it until after I had my revision meeting with my editor. She didn’t mention the narrative style; instead, her focus was on three other (bigger) aspects of the book. But what hit me as we talked was that by fixing one of those aspects, I also could fix the narrative style problem. I got excited when I realized how it would all come together. (There might have been some happy dancing.) By thinking about one issue, I was able to see how it related to another, which allowed me to effectively tackle both issues together. Wahoo! Not just revising, but multitasking!
As I revised the book, I not only tackled the areas my editor (and I) planned on tackling. I opened myself up to my inner editor. (Not my inner critic, who I usually silence with a boatload of chocolate.**) Did I answer all the big questions? Did I tell a complete story? Did I finally, FINALLY decide whether there would be a “Town Square” or a “Village Circle” in the center of the town? For that matter, if it was a village, did I get rid of all the stray “townspeople” and replace them with “villagers”? Did I do right by the characters? Did I plant seeds for the next book? And did I end the story in such a way that I grinned when I read the last lines?
Having your inner editor speak to you, in very loud Red Pen, is a vital part of the organic revision. I firmly believe that we know in the back of our brains how the final story is supposed to look; it’s just our front brains that take some convincing. The back brain is our internal editor, trying to nudge the front brain — which is holding the pen (or the fingers over the keyboard) — in the right direction.When I was revising KEY, the Red Pen in my brain kept coming back to this one minor plot point that felt terribly convenient (read: forced), but I didn’t know what to do about it. As I worked on the new penultimate chapter (yes, revision can mean adding new chapters. Or sections. Cough), I had a wacky thought: what if I just took that plot point out completely? (What I actually wrote on a post-it note was “REMOVE THE WISH???”) Could that work? Yep. Totally could. It meant going all the way back to chapter 4 and making changes there, and then doing yet another close read to make sure I removed all remaining pieces of that plot point. Painstaking work. And very much worth it. Listen to the voice of the Red Pen!
As you start your organic revision, here are some things to keep in mind:
Have you given yourself a working deadline? Oh, sure, your editor will happily give you a deadline. But if you’re working on a revision before you’ve sold your story — and really, why wouldn’t you want to put forward the most polished work you possibly could? — don’t leave the deadline a moving target. Set a firm date. Circle it on your calendar. Commit to it. It’s amazing what real deadlines can do for our productivity.
What’s been nagging you about the story? Start reading your story, with a highlighter in hand. Any time something trips you up, for whatever reason — even if you don’t know the reason — highlight that word or passage. Whatever you’ve highlighted is something to mull over. When you’re done with your reread, you should have at least a few items highlighted. Now the trick is figuring out what about those things tripped you up. Was it an unintentional POV change? A tense slip? A stray name that changed by mistake? A plot thread that you thought you’d unraveled before? You may not know exactly what is causing the nagging, but that’s okay. Really. I promise. Because now it’s time to walk away. (See the next point!)
Have you spent time away from the story? It’s very possible to be too close to your own work. We’ve all been there (or will be there): when the thought of looking at your story one more time makes you want to throw your laptop out the window. Walk away. Look at birds. Or flowers. Or gorge on Netflix. Get your brain out of your book for a while. This will let you look at it again with fresh eyes. And then you’ll be ready for your highlighting, or for figuring out why you highlighted those specific items…and what to do about them.
Do you have a checklist of specific things to change? After you’ve gone through your entire story, and have a whole bunch of things highlighted, and have taken some notes on things to do about those highlights, you may have a spiffy list of Things To Change. Be sure to add to this list any changes your editor or agent or crit partner have recommended — and see if there are any places where changes converge. And as you tackle each item, be sure to cross it off your list! I love crossing things off. Makes me feel accomplished!
Do you have post-it notes, a notebook, a pen, etc., to write down ideas as they come? Yes, I know, you have a checklist of Things To Change, so why do you also need post-it notes? You’d be amazed how many seemingly random ideas can come to you during the revision process — and when they come, you’re going to want to get them down. If you’re in bed, just about to fall asleep, and you get a brilliant idea, DO NOT ASSUME YOU’LL REMEMBER THE BRILLIANT IDEA IN THE MORNING. YOU WON’T. GET UP AND WRITE IT DOWN. (Consider that a public service announcement.)
Are you willing to try something new? So now you have a checklist and a bunch of post-it notes with crazy ideas. Are you ready to give these ideas a shot? Go with your gut and DO IT. Don’t worry about it working. Don’t worry about where the story is going. Pick one of the ideas (the one that the Red Pen is saying the loudest) and run with it. But for the love of all things chocolate, first hit SAVE AS in your document. Seriously. I can’t stress that enough. During the revision process, SAVE AS is your bestest of best friends. Forevah.
Have you made all of your changes throughout the story and not just in one section? Oh, this one’s a doozy. See my example above about making sure I didn’t have any stray Town Squares once everything became Village Circles, or random townsfolk when they needed to be villagers. Sure, you can do a word search. But it’s really going to mean going through your entire manuscript, again, to make sure you got everything. It’s challenging, yes. But if you want your revision to really shine, make the effort. You can do it! I believe in you!
Have you given the revision a clean read? When you do, does anything nag at you? Yeah, all the way back to the beginning. Ideally, once you’re done with the revision, you should be able to give the story a clean read without stopping due to getting tripped up, or having something nag at you. (Bathroom breaks don’t count.) Yes, this is the Lather, Rinse, Repeat portion of the organic revision. But think of how healthy and shiny your revision will be when you’re done!
What would a post about revisions be without a checklist? Here’s the above in a spiffy numeric format:
- Set a firm deadline to finish your revision.
- Read the manuscript and highlight anything that stops you in the text.
- Put Down The Manuscript! Walk away to clear your head.
- Make a checklist of items to change in the manuscript.
- Write down your revision ideas as they occur (even the crazy ideas).
- Try out new ideas (even the crazy ideas) in a “save as” version of your manuscript.
- Consistently apply your changes throughout the manuscript.
- Read the revision and see if any part of the text stops you (if so, see step 2).
The revision process for TO BEAR AN IRON KEY was a powerful time for me. Sure, I went to bed too late and woke up to early, and I kept visualizing scenes from the book when I should have been sleeping or driving. But I truly believe this revision helped me become a stronger writer. I hope these tips are helpful during your own organic revision process.
* Yes, Cherries are also a card-carrying member of the Organic Dirty Dozen. See what I did there?
** Or a sledgehammer