It’s a truth universally acknowledged that writing is rewriting—but let’s not forget the other undeniable truth that follows: revising is also re-revising. Admittedly, some unicorns have the gift of being smooth, fast revisers and we HATE them (just kidding…). For some it can take one or two passes/months, and the book is somehow already looking pretty good! Inconceivable!
But for others, it may take more than one or two passes. It may take five or seven or thirteen times to get that book into semi-decent shape. It could take months, it could take years. YMMV. And in that time, there could be roadblocks in your process. Various beasts that may stop you on your path to revising, or make the already tedious road even harder.
Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimized by revision?
Never fear, for you are not alone. Ashley and Janella are here with personal tips, takes, and insights of both of the salty and unsalty variety!
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING TOO INTIMIDATED TO REVISE…
Picture this: you’ve finished drafting a book, and like all early drafts, it is Rough. First drafts were never meant to be pretty, after all. As you were drafting, you knew some characters needed tweaking. Some scenes needed fleshing out. Many plot holes needed patching up. The world needed more development. The structure needed–
All of what the book needs piles on top of you, until suddenly, you’re faced with a terrifyingly high Mountain of Problems. And as you’re standing at the bottom looking up, you don’t think you can overcome it. One step feels futile, for it’s one of many, many, many steps toward the impossible. The thought paralyzes you until you feel like you simply CAN’T revise.
Janella: This revision monster plagues me ALL. THE. TIME. As a pantser/someone who only knows the story up until a certain point, it definitely leaves a lot of room for problems and messes that just keep accumulating in the manuscript. From having to rewrite an entire character to having to rewrite THE ENTIRE BOOK, it’s…overwhelming, to say the least. Which is why establishing a game plan is crucial. Even though my writing soul is messy, I need some semblance of organization to see through the tangles of a story and set a course for the de-tangling—and my game plans usually come in the form of handwritten checklists for each revision pass. Fun fact: did you know that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your tasks/goals if you write them down? I wouldn’t have been able to get through my multiple overhauls and revisions without making numerous lists of What Must Be Done. Not only does it show me my game plan, but it also helps me track my progress with each little check mark in their small boxes. The more boxes I get to check mark, the more the Mountain of Problems decreases. And the more the intimidation slips away.
Ashley: I totally agree that a plan of attack is the way to combat the intimidation revision monster. When I feel overwhelmed by something, I break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, if my apartment is a mess, instead of focusing on everything I have to do, I focus on one. I tell myself all I have to do is the dishes. When that’s done, I tell myself all I have to do is make my bed. Then I focus on another task, then another, until all of them are done. For revisions, one way to do this is to work outside, in, or macro to micro. Start with the big stuff, like plot. Don’t worry about anything else until you’ve got that nailed down. Then go to character, then world-building. Some of what you do at the plot level might naturally lead into other things, and if you feel able, follow that thread, or just make a note. Another way to do it is to break the book down into chunks. Three acts, or seven parts, whatever works for you, and revise one at a time. Fifty pages is a lot less scary than three-hundred, and you’ll build momentum as you go.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING TOO STUCK/NOT MOTIVATED ENOUGH TO REVISE…
Okay, so you’re finally over that hump of intimidation. Next you’re plagued with even more external and internal struggles in the revision process. Fabulous.
Maybe you’ve identified all the problems, but the solutions aren’t quite as obvious. You know the middle is saggy, but you’re not sure how to pick up the pace, or that plot hole just keeps getting bigger the more you look at it, and you don’t know how to fill it.
Even if you’ve come up with solutions, maybe you’re not sure if they are the right solutions. You can’t pinpoint why, but they don’t feel right to you. You’re not excited to write them in, or it feels shaky, like new holes might open up beneath your feet.
As a result, it gets harder and HARDER to return to the story. To look at your words. To open your computer/journal. To do…anything that will keep you moving forward.
Ashley: When I feel stuck, I like to put on my playlist for the book–listening to the music I played again and again while I was drafting and brainstorming helps me sink into that world/those characters and get my mind in the right mode–and then I just think. While I’m on the subway, or at the gym, or making dinner, I try to puzzle through whatever issue has me standing still. Sometimes I write my thoughts in my notebook, straight stream of consciousness, until I find a solution that works.
Janella: Yes, music and returning to all the things that inspire me for a particular project always get the wheels turning for me! Sometimes it really is a matter of getting excited about the story again, which can be difficult if you’ve looked at a book again and again and AGAIN. And when it’s not a simple matter of regaining excitement and I’m just really stuck for reasons my muse won’t tell me, I actually take the difficult scene(s) out of the whole MS to give it its own separate doc, change up the background and font, and voila. The scene I was stuck on all of a sudden looks drastically different, and is somehow more manageable to move forward with now that it has its own breathing space. It’s like trying to hear the whole story from a crowded room of witnesses—most times, it’s easier to get a clearer picture when it’s one-on-one rather than talking to the whole crowd all at once. Sometime you just have to trick yourself out of your stuck-ness, and it’ll make you see things in a different way!
Ashley: When I’m not motivated, sometimes it’s a sign that I am stuck and haven’t realized there’s a problem with the new scene I came up with or the midpoint I thought I’d figured out. But sometimes, it’s fear that’s holding me hostage. Fear I’m going to get it wrong again, or fear that I’ll revise and it still won’t be good. So I take to my writing notebook, and I write about what I’m feeling. Why I’m not motivated, what I’m afraid of, etc. and try to write my way out of that fear.
Janella: Yes, fear is also a big part of my lack of motivation. Fear and self-doubt reign supreme when we’re already feeling unsure about EVERYTHING—from “Will this book get me an agent?” to “Will it get me a book deal?” to “Is this book even good?” until every question begins to pile up and stop you in place. Which perfectly leads into the next revision woe…
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING LIKE THE BOOK IS TOO BROKEN TO FIX…
You’ve listened to your playlist so much it haunts your dreams. You’ve taken a lot of baths and filled an entire notebook with brainstorming and journaling, and you’ve got some solutions you feel pretty good about. You start revising, and you’re feeling good…but then you hit a wall. It feels wrong. The changes you made fixed one set of problems, but now there’s a whole new set, and they look way bigger and scarier than before.
You could have even finished the revision, but now draft number two looks way more like draft number one than the shiny, pretty, polished book you had in your head the whole time.
Heck, maybe you even did all the listening and thinking and bath-taking you could, and now your skin is pruned for life and you smell nice, but you still didn’t find the solutions that felt right.
There are too many cracks, too many pieces, and not nearly enough glue. You’re better off giving up and throwing it all away, because no matter what you do, there’s no putting it back together. All the revising in the world will still leave you with a heap of mess that no one wants.
Ashley: This is a feeling I know SO WELL. I feel like burning everything to the ground. So the best thing for me? Put down the matches and the kerosene and walk away. Just leave it be. Put a blanket over the mess, and pretend it’s not there. Watch something on Netflix, or read a really good book, go out with friends or take a nap. I try to keep that pile out of sight, out of mind, maybe only for a day or two, maybe a week if I can afford it. Then, I take another look. Most of the time, it’s not as bad as I thought it was, cause anxiety is a liar, and I was spiraling on a bad day. Like, listen, it’s still a mess, but it’s a fixable mess. I just have to take it one piece at a time.
Sometimes, I take another look and…it’s bad. It’s almost beyond repair. But there are a few pieces that still look pretty good. I need to throw most of them away, but those three right there, I can use those to make something better. Now, this is often the result of me not seeing things for what they were when I started revising the first draft–holding on to too many pieces that were never going to fit. Not wanting to make an entirely new skeleton with just one measly bone, even though the rest of them were too small, too frail, and I had way too many phalanges and no skull. (Oh, we’re talking about books? Not creating monsters? Well this is embarrassing…)
But seriously, sometimes it is too broken to be put back together the way you wanted to–but that doesn’t mean it’s too broken, period. You thought you were building a house but you were actually building a castle. Now you just need to rearrange. Take the time to create a new plan of attack, then get to work.
Janella: I SO agree with Ashley on the necessity of taking a break when you feel like you’re working with a literal trashfire. It’s not. I have to remind myself that I just think it is because in that moment, nothing seems to be working. And when one bad thing leads to another, it can feel like nothing is or ever will be salvageable.
And that is why distance is super vital for me. I find that those negative thoughts invade my mind when I’m getting alarmingly close to a project to a point where I see nothing but its flaws rather than all the wonderful things that are still working in spite of them. The more I attribute flaws to my work, the more I begin to resent it for being this “impossible thing to fix”. The more I give into that thinking, the more I actually believe it.
So in times when I feel the book is “broken,” I know that is my cue to step away before more damage is done. I don’t take long breaks (especially if I want to keep up revising momentum), just long enough to mentally reset, clear my head, and make me miss the story so that when I return to the draft, I can see the specific problem areas I should target rather than writing off the entire book as a problem area all throughout.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING TOO BURNT OUT FROM REVISING AGAIN AND *AGAIN*…
So you’ve been revising pretty consistently over the past month. You get notes from your CPs or agent, and then it’s back into the cave. For hours, for days. Until you’re just flat out living in the cave because another two months pass by, and you get more notes. Another four months pass, even MORE notes. Each time you get through each readthrough or feel like surely this draft is The One, you either receive feedback or realize that there is still so much work to be done. This book is nowhere near close to being a solid product, but you still have to get it there. Day and night, on the weekends and whenever you have time. You’re tired. You’re mentally and emotionally exhausted. You don’t even know if what you’re working on is good or if it’s fixing the book anymore. All you know is work, but with each passing day you feel like you’ve failed because you can never seem to Get It Right. Each word burns, every sentence drags, and suddenly the sight of opening Scrivener or a Word doc fills you with dread because it seems to be all you ever see.
Welcome to that painful stage of revising that could only be described as a combo between the “I’m in a glass case of emotions” and the “It’s been 84 years” gifs.
Janella: Oh boy, I know this feeling FAR too well. Fun fact: the first book that got me my agent was one I’d revised on my own for over a year, only to dive into another year and a half of revisions with my agent. I revised, rewrote, and overhauled. Again and again. It was A Process, and I’m honestly surprised I came out of it with a product I was proud of even though 1) it did not end up selling, and 2) the journey of getting it there felt like five trips to hell and back.
One thing I gained from being plagued by revision burnout whilst not realizing it was that I learned how to better take care of myself when it hits hard. Self-care and being able to forgive yourself for not flying through your revisions is so crucial. Because there will always be notes, there will always be deadlines, and there will always be stress. The process of making a book is so repetitive that we burn ourselves out from the sheer amount of times we’ve read our own words—but since we can’t really escape the repetition and work that comes with this business, we must take better care of ourselves to stave off the burnout or stop it from becoming something worse.
So work, but allow yourself to take breaks. Get distance. Fill the creative well. It truly makes the difference when you return to that draft for the upteenth time, and in time, it’ll feel easier to keep going back.
Ashley: I totally agree with Janella that self-care is essential. If you’re planning to have a career, there will always be another revision. Learning to recognize your burnout for what it is, and how to take breaks is essential. It’s important to have fallow periods, even if it’s only a couple days. Refill the creative well, as Janella said, and know that even if you’re not writing, you can still be working on your book. Self-care and filling the well is as much a part of the process as putting words on the page.
Janella: Since this is all part of the career, there is also the issue of just HOW to keep working on in spite of all this. Yes, we don’t want to push ourselves dangerously hard—but to make sure we hit that deadline or even just The End, we need to get there. When I was working on one major overhaul after another, writing and rewriting so many different iterations of it, I had to find ways to make each revision fresh and exciting. As I previously mentioned before, it’s great to find ways to trick yourself! In this instance, it was extremely helpful for me to branch out and try other methods writing, plotting, and thinking. Not necessarily to adhere to them, but to see if they would jog a plot solution from in my brain or inspire me to get back to the page. As a non-outliner, I actually outlined. I color-coded. I mapped out the story based on character development rather than plot. I read other authors’ blogs and tried out their systems. I did so many things I would’ve never done, and while not everything worked, it did open so many windows in my head I wouldn’t have opened otherwise. Even though it felt like revising All The Time, one pass after the other, trying new things gave me far more new ideas than if I’d just sat and sulked while attempting to do the same old thing.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING LIKE A PERFECTIONIST AND CAN’T LET THE BOOK GO…
Excellent, you’ve reached the stage where the book no longer feels like utter garbage! Actually, according to your CPs and beta readers, this manuscript is actually pretty heckin’ good. Your read throughs of it have become more painless and truly enjoyable. Your characters are fleshed out, banter on point, world refined. You’ve spent so much time revising and polishing it that no one is surprised, only at the fact that you haven’t queried or sent it back to your agent/editor yet! What are you waiting for!?!
You know what. Hecking good isn’t enough. It needs to be perfect. Infallible. Any step in the wrong direction could be the difference between that offer of rep and rejection. Any passively phrased sentence or overly used crutch word could be your make or break moment. All this hard work and time NEEDS to amount to something, and you are not throwing away your shot unless you are absolutely certain that everything in the manuscript is—
Oh no look at all those commas, they’re out of control. Guess it’s time to go back to the revision cave for three more months to fix this clearly hopeless book…
Janella: This is a tough one to get over. For me, this is the point where I don’t have that safe “It’s Trash!” shield to hide behind anymore. Even though this whole post has been about the struggles of working with a not-so-perfect draft, to be in that position is also kind of a weird security blanket of sorts? From my personal experience, it’s normal to always be working. It’s not normal to close the laptop and declare, “This book is done and I am so happy with it! Out into the world you go, book, you’re gonna kill it!” So sometimes I spend a bit too much time looking over prose or rereading the first half and the ending. I have a solid book that I’ve tirelessly worked for so long on in my hands, but now I’m looking for more problems or excuses to keep it there.
To combat this, the advice I’ve been trying to get better at taking is to resist. Nothing is EVER going to be perfect, and in the long run, agents and editors are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for potential, something that will resonate with them or that they can editorially connect with. Of course, the book should be in the best condition possible so that you can submit it with no regrets (or glaring typos/inconsistencies!)—but be wary of over-editing. Sometimes, I’ve edited a book so much that my prose became even more stilted, and as a result, my story lost vital pieces of my voice. Try to resist the urge to keep tinkering away if you feel like you’ve done all you can for it. Be proud that you’ve taken the draft this far, and that it’s now stronger than ever.
Ashley: Honesty moment–I’m really bad at this. Perfectionism is something I struggle with at every level of my writing, whether it’s a single sentence or the entire book. It’s easy for me to get caught in a loop of, “It could be better.” It’s like I have this idea of what the book is supposed to be, this one perfect version, and anything else isn’t right. Which is simply not true. Everything you write is the unique product of who you are at the time, what is going on around you, the things you’re experiencing; there’s no perfect version, only the best you can do at the time. And the only way to make the book the best it can be is to loosen that tight grip, and let other people far wiser than you help. Like Janella said, agents and editors are looking for potential, not perfection. Every book you’ve ever read–even your favorite, the one you think is perfect–was the product of not one mind, but several. All you have to do is look at the acknowledgments to see just how many people it takes.
At the end of the day, the book will never be a book unless you learn how to let go. Tell your perfectionism that first of all, perfection is a myth, and second of all, your book will be better when you have other people working on it. Whether it’s CPs, an agent, an editor, or even a copyeditor–your book will never be closer to that non-existent perfect version than when you’ve got a team making it so.
And don’t get me wrong, it takes a village, but you’re the architect. Everyone else is helping make the thing you created real and sturdy, strong enough to stand on its own. One man didn’t build the Empire State building, but his is the name we know. So I’m going to echo Janella, and say be proud. Take pride in what you created by stepping back. You won’t be able to see just how amazing the whole thing is until you do.