Book Renovation

It’s been a while since I regularly used this blog! Not planning to resume, too busy, but because WordPress has implemented some new features, I decided to write this just to help myself get used to it.

Anyway, right now, I’m working on the revision of Book 2 of the Great Cities. A friend asked me how to do revisions, so I figured I might as well lay out my process here. Note that this is my process; as with all other writing advice, you should look at many methods and then choose or customize something that works best for you. So here goes.

Step 1: Write a book

I know, lol, why are you even here if you haven’t written a book — but you’d be surprised by how often I encounter up-and-coming writers who start fretting about revisions (or the finished product!) long before they even have a manuscript done. This is revision anxiety, and it’s bad for you! Get rid of it! Take a deep breath, touch some grass, and remember that you can fix nearly everything in revision, so don’t worry about how the raw draft looks. Just get it down first. I call this the Zero Draft: ugly, but the gist of the narrative and dialogue as it came out of your head, with (hopefully) a complete beginning, a middle, and ending.

You probably don’t want anybody to see the Zero Draft. If yours are anything like mine, it’s got typos, plot holes, missing chapter titles, character beats you included but don’t know what to do with, [stuff in brackets where you need to do research or just check your word choice]… It’s a mess, in other words. That’s why your next step is…

Step 2: Make it readable

Read through the entire book, start to finish. Fix all the typos, remove the brackets and the worst wtfery, make it readable. Note that I said “readable” and not “good.” Good’s for later. What you want right now is a version of the book that other people can comprehend, at least enough to see where you’re going with the overall story structure. They’re not going to understand much if it reads like Dadaist poetry. Unless you’re going for Dadaist poetry. If so, maybe skip Step 2.

Once you’ve created a readable draft, congratulations! That’s your First Draft. You can now share it with beta readers, a writing group, your editor or agent if they’re okay with looking at a Draft 1, etc. This is not publishing! You’re not putting it in any public place because it’s not finished! Make sure anyone you give this draft to understands that they’re reading a work in progress.

Step 3: Collect and Analyze Feedback

Now, take a break for a while. Go on vacation, or staycation. Do something different creatively, too: learn an instrument, write some fanfic or a short story. Start your next book! You need the palate cleanser, and your beta readers need time to read your First Draft. Give them a month or two, then collect whatever feedback they’re willing to give you. Read it. Cry a little if you need to. The feedback is going to feel harsh because this story isn’t finished, and unfinished stories are always a little broken. However, the people giving you feedback are doing you a favor, so thank them for all the labor they put in — buy them coffee, offer to critique something of theirs, etc. And listen to what they’ve said! Listen also to what they’re not saying. The crucial questions their feedback can answer include:

  • Did the story do what you intended it to do? In what ways did it succeed or fail?
  • If not, what is it doing? Do you want it to do that?
  • Where did they get bored? Where were they hooked or riveted?

What you need at this stage is feedback on the story’s overall structure: its pacing, its clarity, whether its tension arches or plateaus, whether or not its characters serve the narrative purpose you intend. The focus for this stage is on all the big, chunky stuff that might require you to remove entire plot threads or characters, add chapters, and more.

You aren’t going to fix everything your readers want. Individual tastes are all over the place: what feels too slow for one person might be just right for another. If you see more than one reader commenting on a thing, however? It’s a problem — maybe not for the reason that they stated, but the fact that they mentioned it at all means there’s something wrong that you need to fix.

Step 4: Make a Revision Blueprint

If you did Step 3 right, you know exactly what the story needs, now, to be made better. So write that down. Here are some examples from my own feedback collection, condensed from what my readers told me:

  • Sprinkle more foreshadowing throughout: macrostepping, feeling of being watched
  • Pace too slow in first half, too fast in latter half
  • Padmini seems to be focal point but disappears in the middle for too many chapters

Then jot down a list of your chapters and a super-basic summary. I know the content, so mostly I just need one keyword to help me remember what happens in each. In my case, since I’m writing a story whose structure consists of alternating chapters from different characters, I also need to keep track of the various points-of-view, so I’m not overusing X character or leaving out Y character. Here are my first 10 chapters from the First Draft:

Prologue:  Neek POV

Chapter 1: Padmini POV. Firing.

Chapter 2:  Manny POV.  Strategizing.

Chapter 3:  Brooklyn POV.  Caravan.

Chapter 4:  Padmini POV.  ICE.

Chapter 5:  Aislyn POV.  Honeymoon.

Chapter 6:  Bronca POV.  Zoom.

Chapter 7:  Manny POV.  Fuck you.

Chapter 8:  Veneza POV.  Ferry.

Chapter 9:  Bel POV

Chapter 10:  Manny POV.  Mom.

In the first book of the Great Cities, I included Interludes, in which we followed a character outside of the New York avatars (São Paulo) whose POV provided some useful plot development, so I’m going to want to include some Interludes here too. Also, now that I’ve written out the POVs it’s pretty easy to see that Padmini disappears after chapter 4, for example, which means my beta reader was 100% right with that particular bit of feedback.

Once I’ve created a basic list of what’s there, I decide where I’m going to insert changes. Same list with insertions:

Prologue:  Neek POV

Chapter 1:  Padmini POV.  Evilcorp.

Chapter 2:  Manny POV.  Strategizing.

  • Interlude 1:  Tokyo

Chapter 3:  Brooklyn POV.  Caravan.

Chapter 4:  Padmini POV.  ICE.

  • Interlude 2:  Istanbul

Chapter 5:  Aislyn POV.  Honeymoon.

Chapter 6:  Bronca POV.  Zoom.

  • Interlude 3:  Padmini visits ???

Chapter 7:  Manny POV.  Fuck you.

Chapter 8:  Veneza POV.  Ferry.

Chapter 9:  Bel POV

  • Interlude 4:  London?

Chapter 109:  Manny POV.  Mom.

The new list of chapters includes things I’m going to add (the arrows), things I’m going to subtract or replace (the strikethroughs), any reordering I might need to do, etc. Notice how one of the interludes inserts Padmini into the middle of what was a Padmini-less stretch, solving the problem of her disappearing for a while. For Draft 1, Bel has his own chapter — however, there’s a plot element that happens in his chapter that might be better-handled as an interlude from the POV of London. I’ll be sad to give up the Bel chapter, if I do. I think it’s exciting and also gives a favorite secondary character some spotlight, but removing it would help solve another problem that my readers identified (slow pace in the first half) and also the fact that I want to include POVs from some other cities. Sometimes you just have to murder your darlings.

Once you’ve completed your list of planned insertions and subtractions, and maybe shuffled around the order of your chapters, etc., then congratulations: you’ve just completed your revision blueprint.

Step 5: We can rebuild it. We have the technology writing skills.

By following your revision blueprint, you can address the biggest structural problems of the story. Don’t work on anything else at this point. Just make the changes on your blueprint. I need to write 5 Interludes and delete a chapter, for example. That’s going to take a while, depending on how long I make the Interludes.

During this process, the book will no longer be a readable draft. The insertions will create contradictions, the deletions may leave plot holes; anyone who tries to read it from start to finish will end up very confused. That’s okay. These are gut-renovation-level changes, leaving the load-bearing walls in place while the other walls get moved and the old wiring gets replaced. It ain’t supposed to be pretty.

Step 6: Plaster and sand

You’ve finished the major renovations! Now read the entire novel again from start to finish. You can make the changes that will make your manuscript feel like a book again: adding small bits like foreshadowing or working in the implications of the inserted segments. I’m going to have to make sure everything that would’ve been in Bel’s chapter is covered in London’s Interlude, for example, and re-number the chapters after 9. The goal is to make your manuscript read as if those inserted bits were always there, and the deletions never were.

But when you’re done? It will be readable again, from start to finish. Hey, hey, you’ve completed the Second Draft, good job.

Step 7: Inspection

Here’s where you bring in your expert readers. A lot of writers probably skip this step, especially if they’re writing about something they know well. Since I tend to be the kind of weirdo who writes about, oh, orbital mechanics and geophysics even though I know fuck-all about those things, it’s a necessary step for me. For example, with the Istanbul interlude, I’ve never been to Istanbul, and I don’t want to travel right now given covid. However, I’ve got a friend who’s from there and visited recently, so I’m going to have them read this chapter for me. I’m going to pay this friend, too, because they’re providing an expert service, and because their time is valuable. For the first book, I did the same thing with São Paulo, and with Bronca’s POV as a Lenape, since I’m not Indigenous or a member of that nation. Always pay your experts. To beat the renovation metaphor to death, these are the folks who’ll tell you that your attempted Victorian aesthetic actually looks more like modern bohemian because you’ve got the completely wrong moulding in place. You should probably make the changes they recommend.

You can bring in your experts earlier, particularly if the component you want their help with is structural — like if you’re wondering whether you should even write the story that’s in your head. Personally I just hate subjecting laypeople (because the experts aren’t always writers) to the awfulness that is my First Drafts, but YMMV.

Step 8: Paint and Decorate!

Now read through the book from start to finish again, and make the small changes: line edits, pacing tweaks, etc. This may require several rounds of repetition, if you’re a pro author with an editor, copyeditor, etc. — and you’re still going to miss things. You’re trying to make the book as perfect as possible, but you’re only human, and this is your fourth? fifth? read-through of the same book. Your eyes are tired. Your mind is tired. Your editor is tired.

But. When it’s done? Renovation over. You’ve got a finished and hopefully beautiful book. Whew.

So, hope it helps for me to lay all this out. Good luck!

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