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Smart Revisions

I know I'm quoting someone, I just don't know who, when I say, "Write the first draft with passion, and the second with intelligence." I'd add "write the second, third, fourth, fifth… with intelligence." A good solid story does not arise from a slightly revised draft. It's only once you have your passionate draft completed that you begin to understand what you're trying to write, and can begin to craft your story.

Call me woo-woo, but I believe that subconscious thought plays a large role in writing, which is the reason for letting yourself write freely the first time through. When you read and pay attention to what you've written in that draft, you will begin to find connections, echoes, themes you never intended to introduce at the conscious level. It's like weaving a tapestry; only when you've chosen the threads and woven them together do you see the actual design, and from there you can work on certain areas to enhance them, tighten individual threads to bring them together, and eliminate others that don't serve the design.

Here are some simple tips for making smart revisions.

-Put it on ice.

Before you start a revision, take a good chunk of time off and completely away from your manuscript. Go hiking, shopping, on vacation, to visit your cousin. Do something completely different and clear your mind. This may take a few days, weeks even. When you return to your manuscript you will see it more clearly, for all its wonders and flaws. You will read it more like a reader and less like its author, noticing gaps in logic or continuity, elusive mistakes or typos.

-Cut, then cut some more.

When revising, use every ounce of craft you've learned, read about, and discovered on your own to pull your story into a tightly woven construct, with no superfluous scenes, sentences, even words. Cut every single thing that has no purpose in the story. Each and every element should perform a function, either providing conflict or furthering the story. There are the occasional "worker-bee" sentences: getting your character into the car, or describing a setting, but even these sentences need to do more than that. Put every little critter to work in your writing.

-Build character arc.

Using "search" or "find" on your word processing program, find each reference to your main character, and build her story arc from beginning to end, then do the same with other primary characters. This way, you will be able to find inconsistencies in character development, smooth out jumps in personal growth and leaps of faith, and make sure the characters transform believably from beginning to end.

What is each character's "job" in the story? What is each one there for? If they have no purpose other than to just plain exist, get rid of them, or create composite characters. Less is always more, in every aspect of writing. Really.

-Determine your premise*.

What is your book "about"? What is the one sentence that explains what you're really trying to communicate to readers through telling this story? This sentence has nothing to do with plot, but with truth, justice, beauty, love . . . whatever it is that's at the heart of your book. This sentence is leading toward understanding both the theme and the premise of your book.

Examples from Riding with the Queen:

This book is about coming home and finally growing up.

This book is about what it really means to be in a family.

This book is about the search for unconditional love.

Once you understand what you're trying to tell the world, re-read your text with that in mind. Is it there in black and white? Do you need to pull it out of the shadows, turn up the volume in any key scenes? Play down or remove other elements that hinder or do nothing to serve your message?

State the truth you are trying to tell in the book as a premise*:

Coming home leads to unconditional love.

Have you proven it?

*Read about premise in Jim Frey's book How to Write a Damn Good Novel.

-Listen to your gut.

Is there a section, a sentence, a word that always causes you to pause when you read it? Do you think, Well, it's a little strange, but no one else has ever said anything about it. I have two words for you: CUT IT. Get rid of anything that doesn't strike you as perfection. Rewrite to fill holes you leave. If it's bothering you now, imagine how much it will bother you in print, especially if some reviewer or reader notices it and brings it to EVERYONE'S attention!

-Final checks:

Does each scene:

• Further the story?

• Contain conflict, action, and resolution?

• Provide sensory detail?

• Present only new information or insight?

• Satisfy the reader yet compel her to read on?

• Evoke one of the four basic emotions: sorrow, anger, fear, or happiness? (Caveat: beware of too much happiness in a book, but it does have its place even in the most serious of literary fiction or the darkest of murder mysteries.) If not, does it at least leave the reader curious enough to read more?

Watch the VIDEO: Tips for Revision. Jennie explains her process for revising fiction at Jackson's Books, Salem, OR, as part of the Writers on Writing Series, for Creative Development Network. (10 min)