A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
The more years that pass since I was an editor, the less I think I know about editing. How to revise your manuscript? Mate, I’m barely capable of revising my own. Seriously. I mean look at this mess.
These are all the different files I made during the drafting of Truth or Dare. Here’s the word count for the document called ULTIMATE OFFCUTS.
500k? The word count of the published book is only about 80k.
Having cut 85% of the words I’ve written to make a single publishable book, I think we can all agree I’m horrendously inefficient, BUT during this hot mess of a process, I made some helpful discoveries.
The first has nothing to do with revision, but it also kind of does. No two books have the same process, but there is one thing that’s constant: the 33,000 word barrier.
The thing to do is to power through. I am not a Balrog and the 33k word barrier is not, in fact, Gandalf. It’s not even sentient. Yet time and again, I bump up against it and, in an agony of insecurity, I go right back to the beginning and edit all the words I’ve already written.
All that does is change 33k words into 33k different words. It does not get me closer to the end. The feeling of moving forwards by going backwards is an illusion and during Truth or Dare I fell prey to its charms so many times that I generated enough words to write an epic fantasy before I crossed over the halfway mark of a modest contemporary drama.
Be less Non.
The first rule of Revision Club is YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED IN UNTIL YOU FINISH.
Finished? Good. Come in, take a seat. Rather than repeat the editing process I developed when I was an editor, I’m going to talk about the things I’ve learned as a writer.
This is the structural stuff that can only be done when you zoom out and survey your story as a whole – literally. For Truth or Dare I took a pack of index cards, wrote every scene down on a different card, then laid them out on my mum’s dining table. (This picture only encompasses the scenes I wrote for the first half of the book. I told you, I’m inefficient. And I was naughty about revising halfway through. I fail the entry conditions of my own club.)
Each scene fell into one of these categories: Family; Friends; Kam’s recovery; Flirting; Filming; Fundraising. (Obviously your book will have different categories, unless you’re writing Truth or Dare fanfic in which case, I’m honoured.)
Making a different pile for each category allowed me to see which categories were too dominant. I went through each pile and picked out scenes to cut until the piles were in the right kind of proportions. This picture gives you an idea of how many scenes were removed in total.
These scenes were cut wholesale from the manuscript. I opened my Scrivener document and without even looking at the words, I moved them out of the draft and into the voluminous ULTIMATE OFFCUTS.
That done, I laid the remaining cards out, shuffled them around a bit to make sure there weren’t too many of the same category together and re-ordered the manuscript to match.
I’m someone who walks my character up the drive, through the door and into the kitchen where they take time choosing snacks and making a hot drink in a specific mug. They spill something that gives them a chance to ruminate on the reaction someone absent from the scene would have. In cleaning up the spill they’ll suddenly notice a picture that has always been on the fridge and reminisce about it. Eventually, they’ll get upstairs to a bedroom they anticipate in loving detail.
And then something actually happens, like a fight, or a kiss or the discovery of a dead body. Something interesting – and it’ll have taken me about a thousand words to get there.
Those thousand words are very very very important. To me. They mean next to nothing to the reader. Just because I’m going to delete them doesn’t mean there was no point writing them. I need to know what the house looks like. I need to know how Claire Casey takes her tea (hot chocolate, actually, from her dad’s posh coffee machine) and that there’s no snacks in the house (because her mum worries about her weight even though she never uses the exercise equipment that’s in the spare bedroom because she’s never home long enough). I must know everything about my character’s life in the same way that I know everything about mine otherwise she won’t be real to me. And if she isn’t real to me, she won’t be real to the reader.
Those thousand words need to be written, but they don’t need to be read. So I delete them. All of them – and I start the scene in the place where the action’s going to happen.
These are the revisions for when the book is the right shape, but the details are a bit fuzzy. I’ll probably have a character noticing the same thing in exactly the same words six chapters apart because I’ve copied and pasted a phrase of which I’m fond (which means my editor will underline the phrase and write ‘bit much?’ in the margin). Perhaps I’ve deleted a scene that had an important description of a character in it. In which case, quick, to the ULTIMATE OFFCUTS! Find that pleasing description and paste it in somewhere convenient. Or maybe a key scene is too long and could lose a few narrative sentences or lines of dialogue? One thing I do a lot at this stage is to delete the last sentence from every chapter. It’s nearly always unnecessary.
All this sounds very elegant written down in a blogpost… if only it were as easy doing it, then this professional author malarkey would be a lot less stressful.
Oh Lord. The Curse of the 33,000. I so get that. It’s when I go back and fiddle with edits too. Or wonder whether my reference bookshelves need to be re-ordered. Or the fridge cleaned. Eventually I will get round to a creative nap and then mindmap the whole of the rest of the book and make a detailed synopsis, chapter by chapter, then write the rest from that. Weird how differently we all work, isn’t it? But I really like your idea of putting all the scenes on index cards. I know I could do it in Scrivener (glad you love it too) but I can never be arsed. Somehow physical index cards might feel a lot more concrete for me. So please may I steal that for the next big novel. Doing MG ATM which is a lot less stressful since only 17k with a v manageable plot arc!
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