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If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going: A Post About Revision

It's hard to approach a book revision. As many writers know, the difference between a queried book that’s rejected and one that gets an agent offer is often revision*. It doesn't matter if you're a new or a seasoned author--if you have a completed first draft or you're in the midst of a novel revision, this post is for you! The revision process I learned over six years of trial-and-error can help writers at any stage. Here’s what I learned:

The Nine Circles of Hell!

Or Revision, Dante Style.

If you’re familiar with Dante’s Inferno, you’ll know why this list goes from 9-1. It’s a countdown to limbo—where most authors live for eternity.

Ninth Circle: Treachery! Or the Chainsaw Draft

The Ninth Circle is the desolate iced-over horror of the treacherous words and characters who made their way in but now must be CUT OUT. Embrace the cutting: there’s a ton of stuff we write that should be under-the-water—from character sketches to little scenes we love but don’t really serve the plot. Often, we write out what we (as the author) need to know about characters, but what we write doesn’t serve the story. Finishing the first draft means you’re closer to knowing the story, and once you know what the stakes are, what the characters want, what they have to give up to get those things—then cut away anything that doesn’t serve that end. Often this is whole characters. Maybe you use a chainsaw on those treacherous characters and pages, maybe it’s a butcher knife, maybe a scalpel. Or all three in three different drafts! Whatever the analogy—cut, cut, cut! Cut out the treacherous!

Eighth Circle: Fraud! Or Find the True Story

The eighth circle is full of con artists and hustlers. Your story, in this draft, will try to hustle you into thinking it's done. That’s a filthy lie, you fraudulent draft! But how do you know what to add to make the story true, and not false? The best advice I’ve gotten on plot is to make a plot board. It’s labor-intensive, but I’ve found it really works (it’s from Cheryl Klein’s book on writing for children, Second Sight). The short version (and certainly less nuanced) is to take each scene, and for each scene get a post-it. Big ones, maybe. Put on each post-it: characters (who), what is happening, when it takes place, what the characters want, what action happens, and what changes for them. I shorten this to: who, what, when, want, action, change. It looks like this (from Wider than the Sky):

Who: Sabine and Blythe

What/when: after getting dropped off from school project

Want: Sabine wants to have Blythe’s approval; Blythe wants Sabine to focus on them, not on her crush

Action: they argue about how to approach the Charlie situation

Change: Sabine knows Blythe is on to her and doesn’t approve; Blythe knows Sabine is more involved with Kai than she thought—they decide to move forward on their plan together to reunite.

Seventh Circle: Violence! Or Everything is a Mess Help Me

This circle is a HOT MESS. It has three rings, it’s full of insanity, murderers, and other things not worth mentioning ever! It’s what I call… Everything is a Mess Help Me Draft, where what we once thought was ready for our critique group or betas (remember the eighth circle?) has been deemed horrible and should be burned in hot sand. What I find is helpful when I hit the seventh circle of hell is to focus on JUST ONE THING. Like: DIALOGUE. Finding out what the dialogue in each scene should be can help to figure out the plot holes that keep appearing and get rid of those nasty harpies that are trying to eat your liver.

One way to think about dialogue is to ask yourself: what does each character want in each scene? How are those wants at odds with one another? How does it get resolved? Each character needs to have their own agenda in a scene—even if it’s a reactive agenda (get out of trouble, for instance). So—this is really one draft with two goals: first respect and understand each character’s POV in the scene and how they work to serve their own ends. Then work on the dialogue to make it reflect whatever mood your scene has and the type of language your characters use. One way to differentiate character language is to make a key for each character: words they gravitate toward, words they never use, their favorite expressions or slang, et cetera.

Sixth Circle: Heresy! Or Finding the Real Voice

So, the sixth circle is populated with heretics—as a reminder, since we don’t live in 1500, a heretic is someone who believes something unpopular—or read: incorrect. This draft is about helping your characters sound and feel like they are true, and real, and have an established character that sticks to their nature, even when that means they make bad/wrong decisions. How to nail the voice of your character/s? Start with DESCRIPTION.

When you describe anything, you want that description to give us insight into your character. So, if we have a character who is a photographer, then they might see everything as if it’s through a lens, and describe things in photography terminology (or make art like my friend Shannon VanGyzen's). Make the story work harder for you by thinking of every moment you describe something as an opportunity to tell the reader more about your character and thereby, discover things about your character. Give them a very specific feeling to their world view and to their voice. Voice is different from description, but they’re intertwined. Consider using a dialogue key for each character, with a list of their go-to expressions and words, and voice will come more easily. When you need to work on voice, go back to the dialogue key, do a character interview, and remember to describe the world through their eyes—not your own. This works even if you’re using third person. No heretics here!

Fifth Circle: Anger! Or The Opening Still Stinks!

This level is full of teeth and battles. If you’ve ever sat in front of your computer and screamed “where does this story EVEN START?” welcome to the fifth circle, or what I think of as: my first pages still suck, and I can’t fix them so I should just go scream at cars driving too fast down my street.

Here’s a list of ways I make my opening pages count. (Another trick is to fix what Anne LaMott in Bird by Bird calls “throat-clearing,” where we write a couple chapters that could be backstory, and the real opening is in chapter two or three—not always the case but worth a thought.)

  • an opening should be a book-end to your final scene—this happens in movies too

  • an opening should include all the senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste)

  • an opening should place us concretely in the scene (where, when, how)

  • an opening should tell us what a character lacks, and give us reasons to want to root for them

  • an opening should tell us how old the characters are right away, and their race, etc usually, too

Fourth Circle: Greed! Or Everyone Wants Something From Me

The fourth circle is for grubby grabby hoarders—and they all want your book to be the book they want it to be. What am I speaking of? The CRITIQUE GROUP DRAFT. The fourth circle is filled with people fighting over valuables, so it makes sense here—I love/hate when my CG fights over how they want my book to be. But to begin at the beginning, your book, after the fifth circle, is likely ready to share with new eyes—a few betas (two is good) or your CG, however many folks that is. If you don’t have but want a CG, I have a post on how to look for and work with a great group. So how to deal with the feedback when it’s overwhelming?

Once I give my draft to my CG, and they give me feedback, I wait a week. Then I read through everything, and make a list of the changes I want to make. Then I go through, and make as many of the changes as I can make and still keep to the ideas of the book that I feel are necessary—its heart. Maggie Stiefvater once said that you have to be willing to change everything except one piece—the heart of the book. That’s true. Don’t get attached to your words. You can make more; I promise. And better ones.

Third Circle: Gluttony! Or Your Draft Has to Lose 2K Words

It’s what it sounds like: this level is for those who enjoy indulging—and we writers are an indulgent bunch. After we have feedback from CGs, often our MS get a little… chunky. It might inflate with all the fixes we made, all the additions to characters, the descriptions, the analogies, the beautiful scene where they watch the ocean for three hours… but I’m not suggesting you cut those. No, no. That’s the good stuff. As my editor at NPR once told me when trying to get my 2,000K words essay down to 800 words: there’s always a shorter way to say it. This draft is about TRIMMING DOWN by cutting places where you:

  • Said something twice the same way and can choose the best one

  • Used a passive introduction to a sentence and can lose three words by making it active

  • Used “I think” or “I feel” when the character can just think or feel

  • Over-explained anything

  • Over-used he/she/they said. Can you connect an action already in the sentence to the dialogue tag to cut out “said”? Be careful it’s still clear who is talking.

  • Used too many adjectives—make them count as in the Sixth Circle.

  • Used ANY adverbs (otherwise known as L-Y words)

Second Circle: Lust! Or The Kill Your Darlings Draft

The second circle is for those who let their pheromones control their decisions. That pun on page nine? It goes. The clever turn of phrase that your grandmother used to say and now a ten-year-old repeats? Cut it. This is the draft where you identify the words you put in your draft too often because you love them (“just” should not be in your MS 5,000 times) and CUT THEM OUT. I promise if you don't your editor will, and it will be more painful then.

First Circle: Limbo! Or Read It Again and Again and Again

Limbo is Hell Light. It’s for people who were never baptized, but they’re not naughty heretics or greedy vultures. But it’s also pretty dull. This is the Read It Again revision circle. I like to send my MS to my Kindle to read it in a different format, and I try to read it in one or two sittings to really stick with it. If you don’t know how to send-to-Kindle app, look at settings on kindle and it will have an email address. Send your MS to that email, and it will show up as a PDF in your Kindle. When you read through it, have a system for edits. Mine is:

Yellow highlight: REVISE / changes are noted with the notes feature (see photo for an e.g.)

Blue highlight: OMIT

Brown highlight: TYPO

Pink highlight: CONTINUITY / changes in notes

I then change the draft in Word, and then I wait a week, think about it, send it to another beta, make changes, read the draft aloud, send it to the Kindle in Comic Sans this time, and on and on and on. When I read through on my Kindle and find only a few issues, it’s ready to send to my agent.

And if my agent says she might be able to sell it: I GRADUATE FROM HELL!

Until I write another first draft, that is…

*A note on why agents reject or offer on manuscripts: There is never a perfect book—agents know this. But, agents expect books to be as close to ready to send to an editor and print as possible. Subs must follow a specific genre, they must be the approximate appropriate length for the genre, they must be formatted correctly, they must have a hook and a voice and maybe even a high concept. The industry is incredibly competitive, so even if you revise and revise, sometimes a book won’t gain an agent, or won’t sell. But write another book, revise, revise, revise, and then keep doing it. There’s no easy button.

Most writers who seem to be overnight successes have been working for ten years or more on their craft—or even thirty years or more. So, this is the only trick: When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going.

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