Congrats—you finished the first draft. Yet you’ve only begun. You know you need to revise. So, you reread and cut, add, edit, restructure, and do it again and again. At some point, after several revisions, the act can become deadening and you need fresh eyes.
In writing my novel, Into That Good Night, I often recalled an anecdote told by Raymond Carver about Tolstoy revising Anna Karenina eight times and right up to the galleys. Eight drafts became my magic number. Of course, that’s nothing compared to Carver himself, who wrote in “no less than ten or twelve drafts.” How does one refine a story that many times?
Likely you’ve heard that revision means “to see again.” This is why we workshop: to have access to other points of view. The extent of a revision depends on returning to the work with eyes that see beyond our x-draft self. Thankfully this doesn’t require going through as dramatic a transformation between drafts as your characters. When struggling to see again, simply change the context in which you read using these five revision techniques.
1) Read Aloud to Other People
Kudos if you already read your work aloud for rhythm and musicality. I urge you to go further.
Read to some gracious individual or agree to do public readings or open mics. Do so and suddenly, the story is out of your head and you’ll find yourself paranoid aware of how they envision the story. Reading a draft to an audience is an empathetic act that allows you to imagine the story as your listener might.
As you read, highlight cringeworthy bits to edit/revise later. Push through the awkwardness and keep reading. Your listener knows this is a first draft and that you are human. The work will be better in the future if you stay receptive to the good and bad.
2) Read Parallel
Read books related to your work in terms of style, form, and/or content. Remember, novels aren’t plot vehicles, but conversations around a theme, expressed through style, character, plot, etc. Each layer will have gaps in early drafts because we’re human. A great book will reveal its many layers and remind you of scenes where a layer or two has been neglected.
Loss of character motivation led scenes to die in my early drafts. The plot rolled, yet I wasn’t feeling anything. I heeded that red flag, but was clueless how to vitalize flat scenes. Turning to my favorite novels, particularly 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, made the solution obvious.
“On the fourth day after her death, the Santa Teresa police chief, Pedro Negrete, went in person to Cerro Estrella […] and examined the place where the dead woman had been found. Then he left the low slopes and began to climb to the top of the Cerro. Among the volcanic rocks were supermarket bags full of trash. He remembered that his son, who was studying in Phoenix, had once told him that plastic bags took hundreds, maybe thousands of years to disintegrate. Not these, he thought, noting the rapid pace of decomposition here. At the top some children went running and vanished down the hill, toward Colonia Estrella. It began to get dark. To the west he saw houses with zinc and cardboard roofs, the streets winding through an anarchic sprawl. To the east he saw the highway that led to the mountains and the desert, the lights of the trucks, the first stars, real stars, stars that crept in with the night from the far side of the mountains. To the north he didn’t see anything, just a vast monotonous plain, as if life ended beyond Santa Teresa, despite what he hoped and believed.”
In rereading such scenes, I was reminded that great stories aren’t mere catalogs of events, but records of existential experience. I had forgotten to give my characters enough room to muse and wander and dream—to be real. Wake up calls like these and more are possible when reading parallel.
3) Write the Query/Summary
Articulate what your book is about in the form of an agent query or two-page summary. Condense the project to help you better conceive of the overall narrative flow. Like reading in public, considering your work’s appeal to others should provoke questions that guide you in revision. What are the most interesting aspects of my protagonist/plot/structure? How will others receive the un/conventionality? What can I add/remove to transcend cliché?
Oddly, my first draft of Into That Good Night started in the point of view of another character. Only a third of the way through did the hapless Doug Horolez stumble into the role of the protagonist. Writing the two-page summary, I had to ask, “Who’s story is this?” Yes, the book was about a group, but the truth is I hadn’t believed enough in Doug. All the while, my beta readers were having a rough time getting oriented in the story. After writing the summary, I knew why. I committed to Doug then and revised with him at the start. This revision technique exposed my fear that a character known for his epic lack of personality couldn’t open a novel. The result was the evocation of tragic humor and sympathy as readers watch Doug struggle to be more than what he is, establishing the crux of the book from the start.
4) Let the Story Incubate
Ignore the pressure to be wildly published this very moment. It’s a trap. By sending off manuscripts prematurely, you’re more likely to leave your darlings washed up dead on the rocks of the publications you most adore.
Remember when you looked back at that old relationship and said, “What was I thinking?!” What you witnessed was the glorious difference between an old you and you, made possible by time and space. You need to take time off. You need to. You want to write one draft and send it off because it’s absolutely brilliant. And it is. But it could be more brilliant if you give yourself time to see beyond yourself.
Giving readers your manuscript for comments is a great way to force you to put a draft aside. Meanwhile, work on other writing projects. Write a six-page letter to your dear X. Plan a murder mystery dinner party. Do anything but despair or become delusional about the state of the manuscript.
5) Share with Experts
Quite wonderfully, writers largely adhere to the practice of depicting the world as it seems, AKA verisimilitude. Even in fiction, we attempt to render people, places, and things outside our lived experience in good faith. We know that if our representations clash with readers’ expectations, the work will ring false and kick readers out of the dream of the narrative.
Even with the best of intentions, you’re going to render something poorly when working outside your lived experience. Since we can’t live all lives, share your manuscript with folks who know what it’s like to do/be/make/love/hate/etc. X. Research can sometimes fill that gap, but not always. Ask a human for help and broaden your understanding of a subject to lend your work greater authenticity in revision.
Revision is a process of discovery. Listen to your doubts. Don’t force them aside. Don’t cave to them and give up, either. Hear them and be receptive to answers or maybe to more problems and then answers. Churn out another draft using one of these revision techniques and find the joy in intricately crafting a story. When it’s locked in print forever, you will be glad you did.