So this past week I received my first editorial letter from my wonderful editor at Scholastic, Jody Corbett. I've learned a great deal about revisions over the last few months and I thought I'd share my experiences. Working with Jody is different from doing edits on my own, or even with the help of a critique partner, and I've come to realize that the revisions process is far more complex than I initially expected.
I read through Jody's letter as soon as it appeared in my inbox, and my defensive inner-writer immediately kicked in. I think all authors can relate to this...when someone points out errors in our work, we have the tendency to become resentful and angry. I usually allow myself an hour to whine and complain before giving feedback a second read-through. With Jody's letter, my second look revealed dozens of issues and inconsistencies I had missed when I wrote The Hamsa's Song (by the way, we're coming up with a new title). The changes were overwhelming, but after four or five days of mulling I'm ready to dive in and make this book the best it can be.
I think the important thing to remember with revisions is to look at the big picture. When I receive feedback, my initial reaction is to make a list of all the thing that aren't working in my manuscript. Then I go through and fix them one by one. Although this is a good idea in principle, revising is about looking at the manuscript as a whole, and analyzing why a scene isn't working in relation to the rest of the story. For instance, let's say you have a scene in which your main character receives a key piece of information from a secondary source. Your critique partner tells you that the secondary source gives up the information too easily...maybe the main character could spend a little more time trying to convince this source to tell them what they need to know?
As humans we are inherently lazy, and my first inclination would be to simply go through and add some extra dialogue to draw out the tension in this scene. But my work with an editor has shown me how important it is to look at a scene within the context of the entire novel. Some questions to ask yourself:
~Why is this scene necessary? What does it do to further plot/character development?
~How else can I accomplish this? Is there a way to convey the same information though an entirely different scene?
~Make a list of scenes that could perform the same function as the scene already in the story.
~Examine the scene within the context of subplot. Which characters are involved, and how does this thread of the story relate to the overall theme/arc? Is this subplot integral to my manuscript? If so, are there ways I can alter it?
Jody's editorial letter has helped me look at my manuscript from an entirely different perspective. I have some distance (I haven't worked on this particular book in months), and her comments not only directed me to fix areas that needed work, they also provided the motivation to re-imagine my entire story. Sure, I could go about fixing individual problems, but is there a way to change the basic plot structure in order to deal with these issues in a more natural way? If there's one thing I've learned about revisions from my editor, it's that the editorial feedback you receive is often only the tip of the iceberg (to use an awful writerly cliche). There are probably more changes to be made, and brainstorming sessions with your editor (or critique partner) can really help you identify problems you might've missed. Always remember that editing should be a collaborative process. Jody gives me her notes, but she doesn't expect me to make every one of the changes she suggests, and if we disagree we'll talk things out in an effort to come up with a solution.
I'm going to end this post with a quote from Heather Dixon, author of the newly released Entwined (Harper Collins, 2011). We share the same agent and I recently heard her speak at the WIFYR conference. She said, "Don't revise, rewrite." Editing isn't about going down a list and checking things off...it's about looking at the big picture, and trying to figure out how a structural change to your manuscript can help eliminate smaller problems. The process is creative rather than logical. I am so grateful for my editor (her letter gave me hundreds of great ideas for The Hamsa's Song), and I feel I've learned a lot about the fluidity of story structure and how important it is to not be afraid of making big changes.
To all of you who are revising, good luck! I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments :).