Thursday 16 December 2010

Revising a Manuscript

I raised the question a while back as to when you can draw the line with a book, and send it off to a publisher. But of course, there is a question that needs to be dealt with earlier – how much time and effort should I devote to revising?

The short answer, alas, is usually ‘a lot, and rather more than you would have hoped’. I readily confess that I need – always – to do a lot of revising. Take My Breath Away remains the book that I revised most heavily – cutting it from 150,000 words to 85,000 in the process. I still feel a bit faint when I remember that agonising process...

How to go about revising? Well, there is no all-encompassing answer – there are various possible approaches. I think it is easier to cut than to expand. If a story is wordy, it can be trimmed. But if it’s anorexic, it may require significant additional plotting and development, which is harder to achieve. I don’t worry too much if my initial writing is a bit wordy, but I do try to remedy this at re-write time.

There are other things to do, as well. Ensuring consistency of theme and mood is often important. So is eliminating inconsistencies of style, and repetitions. But I don’t, personally, find revision too boring (unlike proof checking, which is incredibly tedious). It offers a chance to make a book much better. And I am firmly of the view that a few relatively limited changes can often make a disproportionately significant difference to the quality of a book.

Authors who skimp on revision do so at their peril. Many years ago, I met a writer who announced she never revised. I felt this was a mistake. And it may not be a coincidence that she has more or less disappeared from sight since then. A pity, since she was a nice person and a good writer. But even a good book can be improved by revision.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for your insights on revisions. I agree with you completely that it's easier to trim a novel that's gotten too long than it is to add new plot developments, major characters and so forth.

One of the things that I find immeasurably helpful when I'm revising is the insights and perspectives I get from my first readers. I've been fortunate to have first readers who are honest, whether that includes praise or criticism. That candor has helped me many times, especially when it comes to glaring inconsistencies, boring or unnecessary characters or repetitiveness. Often I benefit from just having other eyes look at my work.

C. N. Nevets said...

Never understood writers who avoid revision. Not only does it make for a better product, but I sort of take pleasure in cutting and gouging and trimming and fixing. It's hard work, but it's fun stuff!

Dorte H said...

I am not sure I mind ´wordy´ when the story is written by a writer whose style I enjoy a lot. But I loathe reading 500 pages, thinking "oh, why didn´t the editor tell the writer to cut this and this and this away."

It happens quite a lot in thrillers; it is as if publishers accept more slovenly work when they are certain reviewers will call the book a pageturner.

Janet O'Kane said...

How reassuring it is to read that established authors still need to revise what they write! I'm halfway through revision of my first novel and although pleased with how it's turning out, I keep on wishing I'd got it 'right' first time. It will be a joy to reach the 'polishing' stage.

Anne Gallagher said...

I cut 40K off my first novel. I didn't want to, but it was needed. I still have more to go but after having let it sit awhile I think it will be worth it.

Nothing is worth it until it shiny sparkles. Doing dishes, laundry, raking leaves...why should you take that chance with a book.

aguja said...

Because I have mostly written poetry, which does need to be revised and cut so that just the words that are apt and precisely convey the thought are left in the poem, in my writing I usually need to expand. I make some cuts, but ... and this is where Margot's (and my) first readers are invaluable. They tell me when there is a 'skeleton' but the 'flesh' is still in my head!

Now, I try to search my brain for any last remnants that have evaded the page, because I am aware of this.

Revision is so important and, as you say, can 'make or break' any writing. AND proof reading gives me the satisfaction that all has been done to the best of my ability ... and that of my two volunteers!

I laughed at your comment Dort H - excellent! Yes, they are page turners when one is turning the pages to get to the action that is choked by too many words!

Unknown said...

Although I completely agree with the need for revision, the problem I have faced recently is thinking the manuscript is fabulous as I'm writing it, and then realising it is utter shite when it comes to revising it. :(

Paul Beech said...

Martin – As we know, there are wide variations in the way writers work, each developing methods that suit them individually, from plotting and research to the mechanics of putting words on the page. At one end of the spectrum we have those who work at a cracking pace, producing thousands of words a day then refining and developing the material through several drafts. At the other end, those who work slowly and carefully, producing only a few hundred words a day but with little revision then being required.

An example of the former is Kate Ellis. At her Cheadle event last month, she emphasised that the secret of writing was rewriting. She told us she wrote 2000-3000 words a day and her first drafts were terrible – “You could blackmail me with them and make a fortune!” Around Draft 4, she’d show the book to a friend who’d give honest feedback, pointing out weaknesses, characters acting out of character, etc. Draft 5 would go to her editor, who’d return a long list of suggested amendments. She’d usually do around seven drafts/major edits in all.

An example of the latter is Peter Lovesey. Interviewed by Annie Chernow in the July/August edition of Crimespree magazine, he said, “I have a dread of rewriting and have never worked in drafts. What I write each day is what will go to the printer.”

Kate and Peter are both accomplished crime writers producing hugely enjoyable novels. What matters is the quality of the finished product, however achieved. And, let’s face it, absolute perfection is wishful thinking, no matter how rigorous the revision. As John Connolly wrote in his blog comment of 22/11/10, “Part of the experience of writing is learning to live with the imperfect nature of the endeavour.”

Regards, Paul

Paul Beech said...

I see that in my comment above I made a couple of errors. The Peter Lovesey quote was from the July-August 2007 issue of Crimespree. And the John Connolly quote was from his blog post (not comment) of 22/11/10.

Sorry - must have been half-asleep!


Martin Edwards said...

A very interesting set of comments - thank you all. Paul, I never knew that is Peter's method, and I wouldn't have guessed. But I think Michael Gilbert, another writer I admire, took the same line.