From the Archives--Mental Revision Tools
Our dear Bret Ballou is on paternity leave for a few weeks, so I'm filling in every other Friday with some of my favorite Bret posts from the archives. I chose this one today because I'm in the middle of a revision myself, and have used Bret's "graveyard" idea many times already--both to cut scenes and to pull from them. I also love this post, because it includes a photo of the oldest Ballou baby, who is now almost two! -- Katy
I’m sure you’ve heard how writing a first draft is akin to running a marathon. If so, then revision is like completing an Ironman Triathlon. It pushes your writing muscles to unimaginable lengths. But like any endurance sport, half the battle is overcoming your mental limitations. So today, I want to address some mental tools that I’ve used.
The graveyard: There’s nothing more difficult than selecting an entire chapter and pressing that delete key. I’ll admit there’s even been times when I bend whole scenes to work in that perfect joke. I know a lot of writers do this. It’s understandable. We’ve poured blood, sweat, and precious time into those letters and to kill them seems inhumane. However, most of the time, they’re bad for the manuscript. So what I do is every revision I create, I make new document called THE GRAVEYARD. Now, instead of the delete key, I cut the chapter and paste it into here. The idea being that all that good stuff is there for me to come back to should I need it. Honestly, I rarely use anything from these graveyards, but it eases my mind to know that my darlings live somewhere, even if in purgatory, and lets me focus on what I need to do.
Separate yourself from the words: Sometimes, I fall in love with my own work so much that it’s hard to asses the story, arcs, etc. when revision time comes. Or sometimes, the opposite is true where every word flat out stinks. Neither is a good position to be revising. That’s why it’s critical to practice techniques such as Talia’s outline or Katherine’s index cards. Mentally, it removes us from the text enough to see the structure, the arcs, and the holes.
Note…I think a lot of pantsers cringe at the outlines and the index cards because, well, it’s not the way they are hardwired. As a plotter, I resist redoing these techniques because I did them at the onset – though, inevitably, things changed from what I had planned and the original exercises are no longer 100% correct. But, pantsers: DO THEM. And, plotters: REDO them. It’ll help you see things clearly and you’ll save time in the long run.
Be a sniper, not an A-bomb: Most the time, revision is about tweaking and massaging, rather than blowing the whole thing apart with a complete rewrite (of course, sometimes it might need that – just don’t start with that mindset). A well-crafted, perfectly placed line line will clear up that confusing plot point, character’s motivation, or world building detail. Suddenly, the whole issue is resolved. Of course, it’s not easy to find these sniper points, but keep pouring over the text to find them because, over all, it’ll save you a ton of rewriting.
Drink from the fire hose, but on low flow: Revisions are often overwhelming. If the issue is about a character arc or particular plot thread, it likely resonates through the whole work. Add a few of these and I find myself going, “by golly, nuke the whole thing and begin again.” Stop before you toss any babies out with the bath water. Try to separate all the changes into different buckets, then go over the story and just focus on that single thing. When you finish, hit the next bucket without looking back. Like anything in life, most challenges aren’t so hard when you break them down into manageable chunks.