The Metrics of Revision

Exciting news ahoy! This weekend, I finished the third draft of Mimesis. (That’d be my second novel, which I’m saying here in parenthesis because the sentence “my third draft of my second novel” sounds a little too Spaceballs.) There’s a lot to do from here, but I thought – since I’ve just climbed out of the long, dark tunnel that is Revision – this would be a good time to talk about what these drafts mean and entail, at least for me. Y’know, sharing experience and whatnot.

This might get a touch wonkish, but I’ll do my best to pepper it with lots of my standard absurdity.

A first draft, as writers smarter and better than me have said, has one and only one goal: To be finished. This is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, that your first draft not only doesn’t need to be great, not only won’t be great, but honestly shouldn’t be great. If you’re perfecting your first draft as you go, if you’re nudging sentences around and fiddling with dialogue and otherwise sanding paragraphs down to a fine, smooth polish, you’re probably not finishing the thing you’re writing. Unfinished chunks of perfection don’t get you much, so drop that nonsense. Finish it.

This isn’t about first drafts, though. Let’s assume you’ve got a lump of words that roughly resembles the thing you wanted to write. It’s time to revise.

Mimesis‘ first draft came out to something like 93,000 words. Because I spend a lot of time  figuring out the bones of the story (getting inside my characters’ heads as much as they’ll let me, laying the track for their arcs, and getting a sense of what the pacing of the story is going to be) before I write, my first drafts tend to be structurally okay, but full of digressions and patches where it’s clear I was writing my way around a character’s motivations the way a coin spirals its way into those vortex wishing wells. There are hiccups in how people get from here to there, missing links between what’s happening and why, and a general bloatedness that needs trimmed. Well, fine, it needs hacked and chopped away with a machete.

The second draft of Mimesis took me around 3 months to complete. Most of that work came down to either sussing out and rewriting sections of why a character does something and how they go about it, or cutting out things that didn’t pay off and/or distracted from the main narrative. One of my point of view characters came off as shy and awkward when they should have been confident but confused. Another did some awful things for reasons that didn’t really make sense. Also, some significant plot elements at the end were utterly unforeshadowed and needed some Chekhov’s Gun action to work correctly.

The majority of those changes happened to existing scenes, but I also added an entirely new scene and fully rewrote two others; those rewrites used the same characters and revealed the same information, but differently. In the end, the 2nd draft of Mimesis shed 6,000 words. That brought the word count to 87,700.

At that point, it was time to get readers to tell me if what thought made sense was actually the narrative equivalent of that swamp with all the ghosts in Lord of the Rings. Drafts went out, notes came back, and I sat on the suggestions for a while to distance myself from the last draft while giving my brain a chance to solve those problems in the background.

If we imagine the first draft as the bones of the story, and the second draft as the muscles, that makes the third draft the skin. I got the structure done, then I made sure that the story moved from piece to piece in a more natural way, but I hadn’t touched the presentation. The language, the flow, the way the whole thing looked and felt. It was time to sand Mimesis down and give it a bit of a sheen.

Here’s what I do for a major draft: I print the whole thing out, pick up a red pen, and read. When I don’t think something is needed, I line it out. When I think a word or a sentence is awkward, I surrounded it with little red brackets. If I’ve got an idea of what would de-awkwardize it, I write in a suggestions. Sometimes I think a whole paragraph sucks, and rather than mark up exactly why, I’ll just write messy ¶ next to it. If a transition between two sentences sucks, I write a T with a circle around it between them. Some of this is obvious notation, some of it I stole, and some of it I made up because I got sick of writing awkward and even shortening it to awk was just too much over 200 pages. In the end, I end up with a manuscript full of this:

Photo Mar 24, 10 29 50 AM

That’s the version of the first chapter I sent out to my mailing list last year. As you can see, I thought it needed a lot of work. (The whole damn book  needed a lot of work.) The story itself was solid (really solid, I think), but it was ugly. Some of it really ugly. See how that first paragraph has a note that says, “This whole thing has to be better.”? I spent three days rewriting that paragraph.

What surprised me about this draft was how much got cut. Again, nothing that happened really got lost, it simply happened in way less words. Most of those cuts came from the beginning, when I was doing that spiraling-around-the-drain thing, over-explaining why characters were doing things and dumping in a ton of unnecessary details. So much got cut from the beginning that there was a point about halfway through when I thought Mimesis might end up as short as Broken Magic, which seemed bananas considering how much more happens in this book. I mean, it’s got 4 point of view characters and scary horror scenes and death and more scary horror scenes! Still, everything I lost made the story feel stronger, tighter, more full of ass kicking. Onward I went.

It turned out that this (at least this draft) was still longer than Broken Magic. While the opening had way too much explanation, there were sections in the end that buzzed by so quickly, it wasn’t clear exactly  some things were happening. Huge swaths of text were torn apart and rebuilt to get at their point more clearly. Sentences were pulled out, paragraphs were turned inside out, and dialogue smoothed from a collection of plot points into more natural conversation.

Also: Beyond the cuts and rewordings, I replaced a scene by changing it to another character’s point of view because the exposition was all perclunkity. It happens.

By the end of the third draft I’d cut out a whopping 12,500 words. That’s twice as much as what I chopped the second draft. The final word count of the third draft is 75,100 words. To compare, Broken Magic is around 67,000 words in its published form, which comes out to 198 paperback pages.

Looking at it in another way, I cut 20% of the book out in revisions. I’m still figuring out my processes, but that’s pretty consistent with what’s been left on the editing room floor from other recent stories. Like I said, I’m over-explainy.

Though I consider this draft “done”, I’m not actually finished mucking with it. There’s a less-discussed part of revisions that you (well, at least I) have to do, which is a sort of cleanup pass. When you rewrite, weird errors creep in. You move things around so much that you accidentally end up with a word from three changes ago stuck in the middle of a sentence, and you’re so cross-eyed from the hour you spent on the paragraph that you don’t see it. This garbage collection pass is relatively speedy. I open up the PDF every once and a while and pick a scene. If something is borked, I switch over to my editor (which is Scrivener, for those interested), make the fix, and move on. I don’t allow myself to agonize over anything big, because after two months on a draft, I’ve lost all perspective. To put it in programming terms, this is debugging, not refactoring.

Now the manuscript will go out to a couple of new readers, people who have yet to see a draft, to make sure I haven’t cut anything too close to the bone, and that I didn’t miss anything in the last pass. If I haven’t completely ruined the book, I’ll do a quick pass to fix anything brought up by those readers and move on.

Move on to what, though? Well, I’m back to the terrifying land of querying, a dark country I’ve avoided since the pile of rejections for Broken Magic stacked up on my desk over two years ago. I have to write a query letter, write a synopsis, and make sure my first chapter is typo-free. Then…I submit. And wait. And try not to be bulldozed into a pile of goo by the rejections that will come.

I can only hope that they won’t all be rejections. That this book will eventually find a home.

I’m really, really scared. But I’m also hopeful.

Because Mimesis is really goddamn good.

I hope you’ll all get a chance to read it soon.

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7 Responses to The Metrics of Revision

  1. I hope that, too. This is very exciting. Thanks, as always, for sharing your process.

  2. Peach says:

    This was eye-opening for me in more ways than one. Not only did I not know AT ALL how intense the revisions process is, but I need the reminder on the first draft. I need to FINISH IT. Because guess who’s totes guilty of revising as she goes? Oopsie.

  3. I love your page of notes! “This whole thing has to be better” hee hee. I don’t revise longhand, but often just put in parentheses “write this better.” I’m excited and hopeful for you, and *so* looking forward to reading it in its final form. (By the way, do you keep track of the pitchmadness stuff on twitter? Or are you not so into the madness aspect?)

  4. Eric Sipple says:

    @OnOneCondition – Thank you, Brian! Always happy to share, and it honestly helps me review what it was I did, and why, and whether I think it worked.

    @Peach – It took me going through revisions once and not doing a very good job of it and then having *someone else* give me detailed edits before I even got close to getting it. Revising Mimesis has ridden a lot of the experience of screwing a lot of the process up on Broken Magic. AND STOP REVISING! GO FINISH FINISH FINISH! I want to read what you’re working on!

    @Catherine Egan – You can tell I’m getting frustrated when I start leaving myself notes like that. ;-) I greatly appreciate the excitement and hope. I do keep an eye on the pitchmadness stuff, but until now haven’t had a book in shape to send them so I’d been ignoring them. I don’t know that I’m very good at pitching in a twitter space (and I have a tendency to write things that I struggle to boil down to a sentence; hence my difficulty in getting represented/published, I’m sure), but I think I might give the next round of it a try if it comes up soon. There’s nothing to lose, right?

  5. Yeah, I don’t know. My own feeling about pitchmadness is that you are kind of fishing blind and that’s not how I like to fish. I’d rather target particular people and send them a proper query, BUT, as you say, there’s nothing to lose. Also if I were you and not me, I would see twitter more as my ally than I do since I’m me. If you can untangle that sentence, you get a gold-plated dingo.

  6. As for the revising-as-you-go, I think that’s a perfectly fine way to write. I do it. It takes longer to finish, but as long as you keep going, you still finish. I find it hard to keep up my momentum if the writing gets slack or things aren’t lining up, so I do writing spurts, and then go back and revise a bunch, and then continue when I’m happy. I still need to do a lot of revision on the final book afterwards, though!

  7. Eric Sipple says:

    @Catherine Egan – I agree totally, and I’m sorry if it sounded like I was calling out in-process revisions as an inherent evil. I tend to think of it as something to add to your process once you’re comfortable finishing things. Revising As You Go is probably the most commonly cited reason people give for not getting done (at least that I hear), and I think that’s because people fear they won’t be able to fix things after completion. Once you realize that things can be imperfect and still great later down the line, you stop freezing up.

    Though I tend not to revise my language mid-stream, I do tend to do a *lot* of mucking around with the narrative structure as a I go for the same reasons you said. If something is *definitely wrong*, then it’s gotta get fixed before I weave Wrong all the way through things. But I definitely got comfortable knowing what kinds of things I *should* revise midstream by letting myself not do it on a big project once and getting over the fear that I couldn’t get something done.

    That project sucked, but it did get done, and I haven’t been afraid about being able to get over the finish line since.

    Filed under: There’s no wrong way to write except not writing.

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