Revising a revision strategy, part 1: Scenes

I’m finally diving into revisions of the book I finished in May with a whole new revision strategy. That is, with a strategy at all.

Usually I just start reworking everything all at once, from structure to punctuation, becoming pretty overwhelmed by my big mess.

Well, early drafts are always a mess, but I’m feeling more in control thanks to Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, which I recommend for all speculative lit writers.

Vandermeer suggests Systematic Testing a draft in three parts: Reverse Outlining, Interrogating Your Characters, and Paragraph-Level Edits. (The three can be done in different orders or combined, depending on what you need.)

Right now, I’m Reverse Outlining, which is basically reading through my entire book and making an outline of each scene. Not the kind of I, II, III, A, B, C outline you learn in school (unless you’re partial to that), but more of a series of lists. For each scene, I list the following:

  • Chapter name
  • Scene number
  • Point of view
  • Actions (physical activity that occurs in the moment)
  • Information (necessary stuff conveyed)

Then I ask questions about the lists, such as

  • Do actions have consequences?
  • Is there cause and effect for every action?
  • Is every necessary action dramatized on the page?
  • Are there actions or acts that are unnecessary?
  • What other actions could occur but didn’t?
  • Have I started and ended the scene in the right place?
  • Is there cause and effect between scenes?
  • Are there unnecessary scenes, or scenes in the wrong place?

It’s a lot, but I’m somewhat loose in my questioning; it’s pretty clear when something is “off.” So far I’m finding this process very helpful in investigating my book’s overall structure and sorting out what makes sense and what could be made better.

A tip that writers hear all the time is to let the manuscript sit for a LONG time before tackling revisions, and that has made a huge difference for me.  I didn’t touch this draft for almost 3 months, and now it feels like reading someone else’s words. I’m not nearly as attached to things that felt vital when I wrote them, and the clarity is amazing (“oh wow, that doesn’t work there at all!”)

Another tip is to conduct this investigation for the entire book before going back and fixing anything. Hard not to dive right in, but good practice to look at the big picture (and make notes in early chapters to set up the brilliant ideas you have at the end!).

Also, I’m working on hard copy with a couple of pens, a printout of my manuscript, and a legal pad, a different feeling than working on the computer. It’s daunting, but already I feel like I’m getting somewhere!

I’ll write about my experience with Interrogating Characters and Paragraph-Level Edits, too, though I imagine I’ll be at this for a while!

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