Monday, April 25, 2011

What Revising Looks Like

I hope you will indulge me by enduring another writing process post. Hopefully this stuff will be helpful to my fellow writers who read this, but it's also important to me to document how this troubled manuscript that I've been calling the Bartender Book evolved from idea to very rough draft, to relatively polished draft, to well, hopefully eventually publication.

I got the revision notes on the Bartender Book from my agent two weeks ago. You may recall this post in which I was terrified about receiving them. It turned out (as it usually does) that there was not really anything to be afraid of. I knew the book was too long and she would ask me to do my best to trim the fat. I knew that as usual I was struggling with too much back story (this is happens to me because I like to get to know my characters so well), especially at the front and I have to figure out how to trim or at least move around and better distribute that. Lastly, she wanted me to better illustrate the motivations and emotions of one of my two main characters. That was the hardest part. Zoe is eighteen. She's dealing with a lot of leftover baggage from her teenage years and childhood and learning that hard lesson that I learned at 18 where life post-high school does not work out as you expect it. So her emotions are really complex. She loves her mother and her friends but at the same time she is frustrated by the stagnation she sees in them. She also takes out her feelings about her own failures on them. I could ramble on quite a bit. I did ramble on quite a bit to my agent and my critique partners trying to figure out all of the complex emotions that Zoe is dealing with and figure out how to get them down on the page.

So the beginning of revisions was stewing. Just letting myself think about the characters again and try to understand them on a deeper level. But then I felt like I wasn't really doing anything active and I wanted too. I am a big fan of highlighters. When I got my first revision letter from my editor on I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, she had a few major points about things that I needed to address throughout the manuscript so I printed the whole thing out and did an elaborate color coded highlighting system.

Back then I worked a job where I could print out my 370 page novel for free. Now I don't. And I do hate killing trees, but sometimes I really need to see the pages in front of me instead of the screen. Jeri Smith-Ready to the rescue! I've been mentioning Jeri a lot lately because she's been a huge mentor to me and has done a lot of brainstorming with me on this book, but last summer when I was in the early phases with it, we hung out at PAYA and she was doing a lot of crazy revising work. She told me some of her highlighting tricks for revising and also mentioned something that my sometimes technologically oblivious self did not know. You can print 4 pages on one page. The print is kind of teeny, but fortunately I have no problem seeing small things up close (far away is another issue), so I decided I would print out the first 150 pages (or first two acts of the book) where most of my back story issues were and highlight the back story so I could see visually where I'd gone on too much of a tear and needed to cut or break things up.

This 4 page to 1 page thing is my most awesome discovery ever. For some reason it really helps me see the book. It's much easier to see how long a scene or chapter or moment goes on and how things are balanced. I liked it so much that I printed out the whole book that way and in the last two acts in addition to highlighting back story, I also started making cuts and line edits on the page. I figure this will be good to do because it means that before my agent sees the book again I will have been through the manuscript thoroughly at least 3 times. Once on the initial read through of the print out, once as I'm typing in my edits and once when I go through the tedious and usually 3 day long affair of reading the entire book aloud to make sure it is perfect.

So this is what my notes on the latter half of the book look like. Not as much back story here so no huge chunks highlighted like earlier in the book, but there is definitely some editing going on.
Of course, so far only Acts 3 and 4 have gotten this thorough read-through treatment because with the first 2 acts I was basically just skimming for back story and making a few notes to myself. That's the section of the book that needs more work, so it also needs more stewing time. A week ago I was back at the beginning and started trying to tackle chapter one. I had some idea of what I was doing, but it was basically a full dissection of the chapter to cut down some of the back story, rearrange the scenes a bit, make sure the back story was broken up by enough forward motion and enough of those complicated Zoe emotions were getting on the page. I spent two days cutting and pasting and juggling on my computer screen. Making enough progress to get excited and then hitting a wall. I know this is going to be the biggest hurdle of the book, but since there was a time I thought I was going to quit this book altogether and I got through, I felt I had to do it.

So Thursday I sat down with my printed pages again. I stared. I made notes. I stared some more. Then I thought I need to see what things look like moved around. So I busted out the scissors. This was what my dining room floor looked like:

I hit another wall, but I just sat there staring at it anyway. Eventually I started to see a few different ways I could work things, so I did more cutting and note making. I explored each possibility until I hit a wall. It was kind of like Choose Your Own Adventure. Then I finally found a path that I managed to string everything that I wanted to get in together loosely. You'll see here. The stuff on the left is my first chapter (the stuff to the left is other notes and other chapters). As you see there are a few places off the side where I tried something, but then I finally hit my stride and there is a trail of notes and cut up manuscript down the middle.

Of course, as usual, I hit on this at the eleventh hour, right before I had to go to work and then the weekend was filled with friends from out of town and more work and my husband's birthday, so I am just getting back to it today, but I left this out on my office floor so that if I get stuck, I can go back and explore one of my other paths.

I'm hoping to get the brunt of the major work on Acts 1 and 2 done this week (though I do have a short week because I'm traveling out of town for a school visit). Then the week after that I will type up the handwritten edits. Perhaps by that point I will have notes from a couple of my critique partners to do a further edit, which I hope to incorporate the week of May 8th along with my whole read aloud thing. This will mean that all together I will spend about a month on revisions. I could go faster but after the mad dash to finish the book, I'm trying to pace myself and still have a life. Plus this is a part of the process that really can't be rushed.

I'm pleased that my agent didn't have a ton of notes and hoping that if I do well enough on this revision it may be ready to shop. Who knows. But if that is what happens, I'll be thrilled and it will go to show that putting in long hours on getting a polished draft done and figuring out the bulk of the plot problems and other issues earlier was time well spent.

Okay, here goes. Hopefully that crazy cut and paste job will bring me results today!


Annika said...

Yay! You've made awesome progress!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thansk! It doesn't feel like much yet since I haven't even mastered the first chapter. But it will get there!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your process! I also have to see work printed out and I love the 4 pages on 1 idea. Genius!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Glad I could help Adrianne!