I love and hate the revising process as much as the next guy. Unless the next guy is a professional editor and then he’s got more to talk about. As self-published authors, many of us have to take the revising stage into our own hands. We use beta readers, breaks to clear our heads, reading for specific reasons, and the ‘final’ revision where you realize you made everything worse. Every typo is like a dodged bullet and the knowledge that there might be more in your book causes you to go over it one . . . more . . . time.
Let’s face it. This is the stage that breaks people or traps them. I’ve met aspiring authors that stopped because their book was never right. Others have proudly declared that they’re on their thirty-fifth revision. I start to wonder if they’re just scared to put the book out and the warm security of revising gives them an excuse to hold book. After all, it’s a dangerous stage whether you go it alone or get advice from others. You can find yourself making changes simply for the sake of changes. I’ve done it. That printed page where I have nothing written on it. No missing commas, no typos, no mistakes. It drives me so mad that I start finding things to change, which is a sign that I have to stop. If you find yourself repeatedly changing things because they ‘sound better’ then you might be stuck in the revision stage. A few switches are one thing, but changing the same line 15 times means you’re nitpicking or the entire line is junk. Half the time, you’ll find that the problem isn’t the writing, but you. Use your beta readers for stuff like this and make sure they know not to play nice. Also, don’t get beta readers that will tell you to do one thing then get annoyed when you do it. That gets frustrating.
Now, the amount you scrap does depend on your pre-writing planning. I do thorough character write-ups, story blurbs, and outlines. I have a very clear picture in my head of where things are going to go before I hit my first draft. That’s just the insanity that is me. Other people don’t do that and go straight for the first draft with wild abandon. Is one way right and one way wrong? Of course . . . not. An author has to do what is comfortable or the work will suffer. I love planning as much as the actual writing and I know authors who tease me about my meticulous plotting. In the end, all of us hit the revising stage at some point and I’ve found that by doing heavy planning, I don’t have to toss out anything larger than two or three paragraphs. I should admit that this is how books 2 and 3 went. The story of Beginning of a Hero is later in this post. Again, this is just me and I’m sure there are non-outlining authors that find themselves in the same situation that I do.
Now, what happens when you reach the second book? How about the second or the tenth? Will you have to revise 20-30 times for every book?
I’ve been thinking about this and even sent a message over Facebook to an established author with this question. As of this writing, I haven’t heard back. For the curious, it was R.A. Salvatore, hero to many fantasy readers and villain to many Star Wars fans.
I spent May 2012-January 2013, revising my first three books and getting them to the same style and level. I did this with a hand-written revision followed by a computer revision and only took a break to transfer all of my ideas into Windemere on the weekends. By the end of the marathon, I felt pumped and decided to take the momentum into writing the fourth book. Immediately, I noticed a change in how I wrote my first draft. I caught many missing commas quickly and added action during dialogue before I reached my first revision. My use of present tense was a lot tighter this time around. Eventually, I finished the book and took a break before starting the initial revision. There weren’t any major overhauls compared to the first three. Some plot holes to fill, mixed up information (Luke switched eye color at one point), and the usual typos. I didn’t have any scenes that needed to be added or removed. It was bizarre because I had been so used to seeing more pencil marks than printer marks on the papers. Truthfully, I thought I did something horribly wrong and re-read it. Nothing changed.
What does this mean? Take whatever you want from this, but I think this goes back to the grand advice of ‘keep writing’. Not only does it solidify your title as an author, but your skill and style will evolve the more you use it. Imagination and writing are like muscles that need to be used and tempered to help them grow. We’ll never get to the point where the first draft is the greatest with no need for changes. Nobody ever does because mistakes happen. Even the final edition of the masters can have a typo.
So, the key might be to learn from your own revisions. Don’t look at the mistakes as blemishes on your grand work, but as lessons learned and a step toward improvement. You keep missing commas then read up on it. You keep misspelling the same word then practice typing that word until you get it down. Many times we have to be our own teachers even when editors and beta readers step into the mix. Every suggestion isn’t gold that must be absorbed, but can at least be examined to see if it fits. It’s a confusing process that one has to keep their head in or they might make a mistake. For example, you might misunderstand a suggestion and rewrite the entire book. That happened with Beginning of a Hero when I listened to people, who I assumed knew better than me. They definitely knew more about writing, but they didn’t know much about me. So, the book looked like something foreign and I could barely read it without thinking someone else wrote it. It was missing something. That’s a point that can be rather disheartening and make you think you should have been a dentist or a pothole filler or a politician. Thankfully, everything can be fixed as long as you take the time. I still don’t know exactly what was missing, but it went back to normal eventually.
Keep writing, keep revising, keep evolving.