How To Revise a Big Ol’ Book-Length Project: Advice From Over a Dozen Writers | Fiction School Podcast #25

How To Revise a Big Ol’ Book-Length Project: Advice From Over a Dozen Writers | Fiction School Podcast #25

Sometimes, you just can’t stop the good times from rollin’.  Like this week, many special things happened.  First, Tommy’s pleading and begging for all these weeks finally came into fruition.  It happened.  

We. Got. A. Voicemail.

It was a great question from a listener, Joseph, and we knew we wanted to do a show on it.  

Here’s proof that this really happened, via the inaccurate hilarity of the Google Voice transcript (sorry Google).  Tommy’s favorite moment is when “daunting” is transcribed as “Danzig.” See here:

Proof of Joseph's voicemail, and also of the inaccurate hilarity of the Google Voice transcription (sorry, Google).  Tommy's favorite moment is when "daunting" is transcribed as "Danzig."

Fiction School was all over this.  Thanks for the question, Joseph!  

But this week also happened to be the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference in Seattle. The AWP Conference is a fun experience for writers–there are famous writers and up-and-coming writers, panels on writing and the writing biz, tons of literary events, and a bookfair featuring publishers and small presses and literary magazines.  Basically, it’s a great conference to visit if you’re a writer.  

So, Tommy and Baker were in Seattle at the AWP Conference this weekend, so we thought, let’s take this question of revision to the writers here.

Day074-7_June_And what we came up with was one heck of a good show, with tons of advice from great writers.  Then we chime in, too.

In this show, you’ll hear all kinds of revision advice: sticking the manuscript in a drawer, retyping it, dedicating a wall in your room to a cork board, using the delete key, and many more strategies from people who’ve done it successfully. You’re sure to find some new approach to revision among these many gems.

We’re thinking of cooking up even more fun stuff for the AWP Conference in Minneapolis in 2015.  Wanna join us?

SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 25

Baker punches Tommy to start the show, then drops the bomb that we got a voicemail.  Tommy starts weeping with joy as we play Joseph’s voicemail, about revising and starting a second draft of his 494-page manuscript.  We head out into the great sea of writers milling around at the AWP Conference Bookfair in search of knowledge.  Here are the writers we talk to and what we learn:

Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure and professor at Ball State University: 2nd draft?  How about the 138th draft?

Jared Yates Sexton, author of An End to All Things and professor at Georgia State University: either work through it immediately and all at once, or if you don’t get through it all at once, let it sit and marinate.

Dave Griffith, author of A Good War is Hard to Find and Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts: Print out the manuscript, lay it on the floor, look from up high, and get out the scissors…

Karen Finneyfrock, author of The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside: Use the delete key liberally.  Clear out what’s there and start fresh, even if you have to delete half the novel.

Mark Neely, author of Beasts of the Hill and professor at Ball State University: Consider the overall structure and order of the book, and the way the parts or poems lead into each other, and shift around based on that. This way you can also revise individual pieces as you go.

Bonnie Rough, author of Carrier: Untangling the Danger in my DNA: Open up a new document, look at a printed version of the first draft, and retype it.  You can’t stand to retype anything that bores you.

Alex Mack, from Los Angeles: for voice-driven fiction, revision usually adds more in to make it clearer.

Deanne Gertner, from Denver: write a crappy first draft, and then retype the story.  This helps you rethink the whole structure of it, and it’s easier to break it apart and put it back together.

Emily Vizzo, a writer from San Diego, CA: Sometimes you can forget content and revise strictly by how the poems and lines look on the page.  Once the look of the writing has changed, you can think more about how the content is working.

Abby Travis, from Rain Taxi and Ploughshares: break chapters or scenes down into small chunks, put them on notecards and post them on a big bulletin board.  Then you can see the structure, to see how it’s doing what it’s doing and why it’s doing that, and if it is not doing its job, you can fix it.

Angela Jane Fountas, with Hugo House: Revising a project by writing 30,000 words, throwing them out, writing another 30,000 words and throwing them out, then writing 11,000 words.  (Revision can be messy.)

Susan Goslee, Idaho State University, working on a poem series titled Liger Town: put away the project and write something NEW and different, and then go back to the big project.  You’ll have fresher eyes and can dig into the obsessive revising a little smarter.

Nicole Hardy, author of Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin: A Memoir: pretend you have to read it out loud and it has to be half as long as it currently is, and that helps you take out everything that isn’t necessary.

Baker’s advice: have a specific purpose for each revision, first going quickly and looking for continuity and structure, then next going slowly and looking at language, voice and sentences and music, then going fast again then going slow again.  Also, the more you revise, the more you have to let go of the book and help it be what IT wants to be (rather than what YOU want the book to be).  The book has to be its own living thing, off on its own without the writer there to explain everything.

Tommy’s advice: His process is to revise as he goes, scene by scene, page by page, paragraph by paragraph.  That way, when he finishes a chapter or scene, it’s pretty much done as is–it’s a slower process that way, but it ends with a polished product.  As you write the first draft, you can skip scenes that are hard to do, to not interrupt the flow and speed that the rest of the story is written with.

Tommy doesn’t believe in putting the manuscript in a drawer and coming back with fresh eyes.  Instead, he feels like his writing is like kneading dough, kneading it over and over until it’s ready.

Baker finds it helpful to put a draft away for some time–a week, a month–and you can see your writing with fresh eyes, spotting plot holes and weaknesses that you can’t see when you’re engrossed in the manuscript.

Then we get Jody’s call with her revision tips:

  • Let time pass.  Helps you see it with fresh eyes.
  • Print it out. Nothing works as well as regular old paper with margin notes.
  • Take yourself somewhere different from where you wrote it.  Changing your physical space helps you see the writing with a different perspective.
  • Make a To Do List.  Have specific purposes or goals for each revision.
  • Take it in passes.  You can use big chunks of time for the first huge revision, but then you can do mini-passes, let it sit for a day and sleep on any ideas, then come back to it.
  • Remind yourself what’s working.  Don’t just focus on what’s wrong–give yourself pep talks about what’s good and what’s worth working on.
  • Don’t let people see the manuscript in pieces–keep it to yourself until you’ve got a full draft done.

That’ll do it.  Thanks to Joseph for the call that got this big shebang going, and thanks to all the interviewees and to Jody for their advice on revision.

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