Archive for 'revisions'

Monday, December 10th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
The Revision Slog

Back in the day, I thought revising meant reading the thing over and making sure everything was spelled right, grammatically correct, and that the main character’s hair never accidentally changed color.  Ha!  Those were the days…   I’m in the middle of revising the twelfth Kitty novel, Kitty in the Underworld, based on editorial notes.  Here’s what I’m doing, without any details to avoid spoilers.  It’ll give you an idea of what constitutes a serious, in-depth revision.

  • I’m moving the end of Chapter 2 to the end of Chapter 1.  Thematically, the same thing is happening, and this way the story won’t have to switch gears, then switch back again.
  • I’m adding a scene to the end of Chapter 1, a great big bombshell of a plot coupon.  In the earlier draft, the first three chapters mostly described the series’ status quo as of the end of the previous book, Kitty Rocks the House.  This is one of the pitfalls of writing the twelfth book in the series:  I’m trying to re-introduce characters, remind the readers what’s been going on, etc.  But it’s actually kind of long and boring to read.  So let’s follow good novel writing rules and do something early that actually changes things and starts the plot off with a big push.
  • This Very Bad Thing I’ve added will influence absolutely everything that follows.  The novel’s main plot starts in Chapter 3, and this Very Bad Thing has the added bonus of making the main plot that much more critical and suspenseful.  Note that none of the comments I got from my editor or my beta reader suggested adding a Very Bad Thing happening in the first chapter.  I got notes that the whole book needs more drama, that the stakes and motivation aren’t clear, and that the opening is a little slow.  I decided that having something bad in the first chapter will fix a bunch of the more vague problems my readers pointed out, in one fell swoop.
  • Previously, Chapter 2 was a bunch of people sitting around talking about the status quo.  Now, it’s a serious meeting about what to do about the Very Bad Thing that happens in Chapter 1.  Note, I’ll also be reminding my readers of the status quo from the previous book by having my characters discuss the new situation in contrast with the old.  Now this scene is doing more than one thing plot-wise, which is a big improvement.
  • And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten right now, but as I’ve said, the changes I’ve already made are going to have consequences for the rest of the book, so I need to go over the manuscript carefully to make sure those ripples make it all the way through the story.

This is heavy, tedious, slogging work.  Not the glamorous side of writing at all.  Rewriting entire chapters kind of sucks.  I sometimes feel like I’m breaking the whole book to pieces and I’ll never be able to put it back together again.  Reviewing the manuscript to examine how one big change affects every other aspect of the story is intensely tedious.  But I do it, because I know it’s going to make the book better.

Here’s the really tricky bit:  the manuscript was probably okay the way it was.  A lot of cool stuff happens.  My beloved characters are doing what they do, and the readers who’ve been with me throughout the series would probably like the old version just fine.  But you know what?  It can be better.  I can make it better.  I don’t want to put out an “okay” book.  I don’t want a book that makes my readers think, “Oh, that was nice.”  I want them to think, “Holy shit, that was amazing!”  I want a brand new reader who’s never read any of my work to read this book and think, “Wow, I ought to check out the rest of the series.”  I don’t want to put out a competent book, I want to put out a great book.

And that’s why the slog is worth it.  (But I seriously need a big pot of hot tea and some good music to get me through it…)

Monday, May 21st, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
WIP Revision

I’m closing in on finishing my current Work In Progress, the twelfth Kitty novel.  I even have a title, but I need to run it by some folks first before I start advertising it.  I’m at the stage where I’m reading over and revising the whole thing to make it look like the book it’s supposed to be, and not the one I thought it was going to be when I started.  It’s kind of a slog, but also exciting to see it all come together.

I had a rough time starting on the read-through — because the opening paragraph sucked.  I mean really sucked.  I looked at it and thought, “Geez, I don’t want to read this, and it’s my own damn book!”  So I changed it.  Here’s the before and after.


I sat in my office at radio station KNOB waiting for the printer to finish spitting out the page I’d asked for.  I’d found the picture on a website, and I wanted a different perspective on it.  Hence, the printing.  The full-color image took longer than the usual couple of seconds a page usually took to spill out of the machine.

This is a terrible opening paragraph.  It’s not inherently a terrible paragraph — as part of a description in the middle of some other scene.  What’s going on here?  In the opening scene, I want to introduce a piece of folklore that’s going to be meaningful for Kitty as the book progresses.  She’s printing off information she found online.  But who wants to read about something as boring and mundane as waiting for the printer to print?  What the hell was I thinking, starting with this?  This paragraph is generic, dull, and delivers no important information for the story.  It doesn’t tell me anything about Kitty, what she’s like, or what the book is going to be about.  Let’s not even talk about whether or not it “hooks” the reader.

After the revision:

Online research was a mixed bag.  I could find the most insane conspiracy theories, essays, and propositions, which I could then use to incite heated debate on my radio show.  Not just flat earth but cubed earth, or aliens living at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, or a pseudo-scientific study claiming that vampire strippers make more in tips than mortal strippers because of their hypnotic powers.  (Vampire strippers?  Really?  Could I get one on the show for an interview?)  Or I could click through useless links for hours and feel like I’ve wasted a day.

Sometimes, I typed in my search request and found treasure.

Okay, this is interesting.  From this I learn that Kitty hosts a radio show of some kind (the first version was vague on that score), and by the topics she brings up I can guess the show is pretty wacky.  She deals with off-the-wall subjects — and the rest of the book probably will, too.  And that line about vampire strippers?  If that doesn’t make you smile, this probably isn’t your kind of book.  If it does — hey, you’ll probably be happy to keep reading.  And the last line, about treasure?  That’ll make you keep reading to learn what she found.

The first paragraph was a list of meaningless, contextless actions.  The second paragraph breaks some so-called rules of opening a novel — it doesn’t have any action, it doesn’t set a scene (I think I was trying to do it this way on the first paragraph, and failed).  But it gets the reader straight inside the head of my protagonist, which for the twelfth novel in a series is the important thing, I think.  People are reading for Kitty, not for printers.  More than anything, though, it captures Kitty’s voice, which the first version didn’t do.

A big part of writing is developing that gut feeling, that instinct that tells you, “You know, this just ain’t right.”  It can be tough — normal writer insecurity means that we often feel like it all sucks.  But there’s a difference between general insecurity, and a real problem.  When I’m revising, I try to read my work as if I’m coming to it for the first time, and noting the places I stumble or get bored.  Because that usually indicates a problem.

Monday, December 5th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
“Show Don’t Tell” in Practice

I finished a story this past weekend.  I spent quite a bit of time going over the rough draft, trying to add depth and richness, beefing it up (and I’ll confess expanding, since I was a bit short on requested word count).  Since I wrote the first draft quickly, mostly building the bare-bones structure, I had a lot of room to play.

Something I paid particular attention to:  were there places I was telling too much, and not showing enough?  The story takes place during a complicated period in the Soviet Union during World War II.  I have to tell for some of it, to explain the background to the reader as quickly as possible, since it’s a time and a place I can’t count on everyone knowing about.

But I found some scenes that definitely worked better “shown.”  Here’s one of them:

Original (telling):

She parked her Yak and sat on the wing to talk with her mechanic about the engine, and whether it seemed to be running slow.  It was using more fuel than it should, Martya said.  She was fussy about things like that, and Raisa loved her for it.  She never doubted that the Yak would be airworthy when she got inside.

Another mechanic yelled from the edge of the field.  “Mail’s here!”

Revised (showing):

“Stepanova, you all right?”

She’d parked her plane after flying a patrol, tracing a route along the front, searching for imminent attacks and troops on the move–perfectly routine, no Germans spotted.  The motor had grumbled to stillness and the propellers had stopped turning long ago, but she remained in her cockpit, just sitting.  The thought of pulling herself, her bulky gear, her parachute, logbook, helmet, all the rest of it, out of the cockpit and onto the wing left her feeling exhausted.  She’d done this for months, and now, finally, she wasn’t sure she anything left.  She couldn’t read any numbers on the dials, no matter how much she blinked at them.

“Stepanova!”  Martya, her mechanic, called to her again, and Raisa shook herself awake.

“Yes, I’m fine, I’m coming!”  She slid opened the canopy, gathered her things, and hauled herself over the edge.

Martya was waiting for her on the wing, in shirt and overalls, sleeves rolled up, kerchief over her head.  She couldn’t have been more than twenty, but her hands were rough from years of working on engines.  She was very good.

“You look terrible,” Martya said.

“Nothing a shot of vodka and a month in a feather bed won’t fix,” Raisa said, and the mechanic laughed.

“How’s your fuel?”

“Low.  You think she’s burning more than she should?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.  She’s been working hard.  I’ll look her over.”

“You’re the best, Martya.”  The mechanic gave her a hand off the wing, and Raisa pulled her into a hug.

Martya said, “Are you sure you’re all right?”  Raisa didn’t answer.

Another mechanic yelled from the edge of the field.  “Mail’s here!”

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the first version, but it’s essentially nothing more than a transition from one scene to another, with a bit of period detail thrown in (indicating that there were women mechanics as well as women pilots).  In the second version, I get to do so much more:  give main character Raisa another relationship, add more details about what it’s like on a wartime airfield, and reveal more of Raisa’s emotional state.

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
The Red Pen Strikes Again

It’s a draft.

I turned in the latest Kitty novel yesterday.  Woo!  By my count this is the eighteenth novel I’ve written.  It’ll be the fifteenth published.  (This doesn’t count the three or so I wrote that never saw the light of day.)  That blows my mind. I know I’ve been busy and productive, but as I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes have a hard time focusing on what I’ve done, because I’m always looking at what I still haven’t accomplished.

Eighteen novels, and I feel like I’m still learning.  Exhibit A:  I took a blurry picture of my hardcopy rough draft (a very industrious person could probably suss out some actual text from this, but you’ll hurt your eyes doing it).  I still like working on paper, and here you can see why:  I make a lot of notes.  (I also clipped each chapter together separately to get a sense of length and structure.)  All that red writing — revision notes.  This is a normal part of my process.  I rewrote the book once when I got to the halfway mark and figured out what was really going on.  Then I did it again to make sure everything fit.


For people who ask if it ever gets any easier…well, no.  But I’m a bit calmer about the work, now.  As difficult as the process is, I’ve had plenty of evidence that it works, so I can get through it without pulling my hair out.  Much.

I’ve given myself the next two months to write whatever I want to, before I need to start work on my next contracted novel.  I have a couple of short stories and a couple of novel proposals I want to finish.  I’m really looking forward to working on something new.

Monday, September 12th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
The Power of File Names

I did something last week I haven’t done in a while, writing wise.

I’m in the messy middle of Kitty 11, and it’s really messy this time.  (I say that every time, I have to remind myself.)  I finally got to where I couldn’t move forward anymore.  I had to go back and fix the broken bits.  I knew how I wanted to fix them, I’ve got a new outline for how everything fits together.  I just had to buckle down and do it, however much I dreaded it.  Boy, did I dread it.  I worked on another project that isn’t due until November rather than tackle this one.

Finally, I pulled out an old trick:  I saved the file under a new name (or a new number version, at least).  Then, I started hacking with impunity.  Scenes I thought I needed but turned out to be red herrings — gone.  Superfluous information that had to make way for new, more tightly written transitions — chopped.  It’s frustrating, working for several hours and ending up with the same word count I started with.  But I can see that the story’s getting better, coming together in a way it wasn’t before.

I’ve always gone through this stage of pre-rough draft revision, but it’s been awhile since I did it with a new file, preserving the old version.  For the last few books, I think I was under tight enough deadlines that I didn’t have time to dither.  I didn’t wait around to start cutting, and wasn’t as attached to the earlier drafts.  I knew what needed to be fixed and just did it.  This time, I have a looser deadline, more time to ponder, and I didn’t look at the manuscript much at all through the last month of traveling.  I dreaded what I would find when I got back to it.  So I pulled out the old “save as” trick, and it seems to work.  I’ve got some of that forward momentum back.

It’s a purely psychological trick — by working on a new file, I can tell myself that if the new scenes and revisions don’t work, I can always go back to the old version.  I’m not really deleting anything, I’m just trying something new.  Giving myself permission to play around, rather than telling myself I have to rewrite.  That seems to free up some creative muscle.  It’s important to note:  after saving the manuscript as a new file, I’ve never, ever gone back to the old one.  I might double check a line or detail.  But the new file always becomes the working draft.  As usual, my subconscious knows what it’s doing.

So there it is, another trick for the tool box.  If you’re having trouble seriously revising a manuscript, try saving it as a new file and see if that shakes things up.

Thursday, December 16th, 2010 by Candace Havens
Next Level Of Revision Hell

The lovely Jaye Wells is back with part two of her Levels of Revision Hell.

Hello again. Remember me? I’m the lady who’s forcing you into the murky depths of revision hell. Welcome back for more punishment, campers! This week, we’re diving into–

LEVEL TWO: Word Magix™

Warning: If you have a nagging feeling that you need more character development or plot work, go back to step one. Proceeding to level two without having your story in shape is a waste of time. And the last thing any of us need under deadline is doubled efforts or make-work.

Are you back? Good. Now your story is genius. Your characters are developed. You, my friend, are a storyteller to rival Willy Shakespeare. So you must be ready to submit, right?


I am of the school that believes that good books are a combination of excellent storytelling AND brilliant word craft. Some people are better at one of these or the other. But ultimately, since we want to be the masters of our craft, our goal should be to rock at both. And that means you’ve got to do a word magix revision.

So is word magix, exactly? To me, it’s going through line-by-line and forcing every word to perform. It’s about ruthlessly cutting out sloppy, weak sentence structure. And it’s about utilizing rhetorical devices and style choices on purpose (like using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences).

Now, here is where I should say there’s such thing as getting too wordcrafty. Editors call this syndrome “overwriting.” Your goal is to make the reading experience effortless. Don’t get too fancy with the thesaurus use. Don’t become a candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton competition because of your ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious metaphor use. But most of all, make sure that you stay true to your voice as a writer and you’ll be fine.

Now, on to rhetorical devices. These are the techniques you might have learned in freshman English–onomatopoeia, alliteration, metaphor, etc. Here’s a list of rhetorical devices. WOWZA! You had o idea there were so many, right? Many people have never heard most of these words because teachers don’t spend enough time on them in school. But you’re a writer, so you should add them to your toolbox because it’s your job to do interesting things with words.

In the early stages of rhetorical devices experimentation, focus your use of them on your big bang scenes where they’ll pack the most emotional punch. You’ll also find that you fall back on a few. For example, I tend to use a lot of anaphora and asyndeton in my first drafts. That means in revision, I have to back and make sure I’m not overusing them. I also have to ensure I’m mixing things up and trying knew devices to keep my writing fresh.

If you want to know more about rhetorical devices and deep editing for power, check out the fabulous Margie Lawson. I just took a week-long editing master class at her cabin in Colorado and it rocked my socks off. She offers seminars several times a year, so check her out.

In addition to looking for opportunities for rhetorical device use, you should also  relentlessly hunt down the following:

Passive voice

Overuse of the word “that” (seriously, this is a common crime, don’t be a victim)

Repetition of physical ticks (Raised eyebrows, shrugging shoulders)

Lazy descriptions


Vagueness of description–specificity of important details makes the book come alive

While you’re working through this level, repeat the following three words, they are your Word Magix mantra:

Specific, Active, Fresh.

Put these words on a piece of paper and tape it to your monitor. Repeat it as you fall asleep each night. Here’s the dirty little secret of the word magix draft: Most readers and even some editors won’t be able to put their finger on why your work has improved. Clever use of these strategies tightens your writing, adds depth to the reading experience, and helps a reader engage more easily with the work. They won’t know why it’s different, but you will. And you’ll be able to sit in your office cackling maniacally at your demented genius.

Also, this is where I remind you that there are actually three levels of revision hell. We must never, ever forget our good friend the copy edit and its evil mistress the Red Pen of Doom! But after all the tortures we’ve just covered a copy edit is like an invigorating walk through a flowery meadow. But I must warn you: Ignore that step at your own peril. PERIL!

Look, I know it’s a lot. You just want the damned book done. You’re tired of it and wish all the characters would just all sign a suicide pact and leave you alone to quietly rock in the corner while you nurse a bottle of Jim Beam. But do yourself a favor and leave time for this level of revision hell. If it doesn’t improve your story, then you can send me nasty letters. Just be sure to edit them first.

Check out Jaye’s books and visit her at

Monday, August 9th, 2010 by Carrie Vaughn
Just When I Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to the Keyboard

I’m finishing up one of the most difficult novel revisions I’ve ever done.  It’s for Kitty 9:  Kitty’s Big Trouble.  It’s not particularly extensive — I’m not moving entire chapters around or changing locations or removing characters, all of which I’ve done before.  But I feel like I’m rewriting the entire thing anyway, sentence by sentence.  That is, I’m making a decision whether to keep or change each sentence as I come to it.

I got my editor’s notes, which were short but unenthusiastic — the gist was that the story was lacking a lot of details, and a lot of plot points weren’t working.  I also got some extensive notes from my very talented beta-reader (who is a full-time, award-winning novelist), who called me out for what was the real problem:  the novel had no narrative drive, no tension — no stakes.  Ouch.

I did some soul searching.  Sat down and wrote out about three or four pages of what I think the novel is about.  Took some of my friend’s suggestions and thought about how the book would look if I incorporated them.  I took the manuscript with me on my trip, read through it, used up an entire pen’s worth of ink marking it up.  Was seriously daunted, but did what I always do when I sit down to start revising:  start on page one.  Keep going, one page at a time.

Like I usually feel on revisions, I’m furious at myself for not getting all this the first time around.  Clearly, this was a case where the first draft was figuring out the story, and this draft is making the story work.

Here’s an example of what I changed:  There’s not enough suspense/narrative drive.  So, instead of having my characters wandering aimlessly in San Francisco waiting for something to happen, as they do in the first draft, they’re actually aware that the bad guys are on their tail, and they’re trying to flush them out first.  This means that they’ll actually have to carry around the gun that they left in the glove box of the car in the first draft.  This means that later on, when I want the bad guys to beat them up, I have to think of a plausible way for them to lose the gun, or have the shot miss, or something — or have them shoot one of the bad guys instead of just having a fist fight.  Then what would happen?

That’s how revisions snowball.

Changes like this will definitely make the book better, but they have a ripple effect.  Giving a character a gun in the third chapter means I now have to deal with that gun for the rest of the book.  Part of the plot centers on a powerful magical artifact.  In the second draft, the bad guy gets possession of it, which he doesn’t in the first draft.  That changes the characters’ goals in the second half of the novel.  The structure of the novel hasn’t changed — they’re chasing down the bad guy in both drafts.  But in the second draft, the reason has changed, the stakes are higher, and it’s more exciting for the reader (I hope).

Which means I really have to pay attention.  What have I changed?  What’s the story saying now?  It feels like I’m weaving a blanket, decided to change a color in the middle of the project, and am doing it by replacing individual threads with tweezers.  Every blue thread now has to be red.  How freaking tedious!

What’s made it difficult is working on this thing for six to eight hours a day for the last seven days but only netting about a 3,000 word increase in my word count.  I’ve written a ton more than that.  The trouble is, by my estimate, I’ve taken out about 700 words for every thousand that I’ve written, and most of it has been sentences and paragraphs, not whole sections.  I’ve completely rewritten maybe three big scenes, for a net word increase of. . .zero.  The overall book has maintained its shape and structure.  But I’m thinking it reads very differently because of how many of the little pieces have changed.  I’m also thinking that when a story is the right length it really is the right length and all the revising in the world isn’t going to make it shorter or longer.

Next step:  Read over the whole thing and see if changing out all those threads really did make a difference.