From mess to success: A writer’s guide to revision

A no-fear guide to revising your novel.

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Introducing the ‘zero draft’

For yet another approach, let’s turn to novelist Skip Horack, author of The Eden Hunter and The Other Joseph.

“Personally,” says Horack, “I’ve come to view the novel-writing process as akin to embarking on a long drive. You’ve set off from New York, and know you need to wind up in Los Angeles eventually, but god only knows what digressions you’ll take, and adventures you’ll get into, along the way. It’s nighttime, and all you can see is the area of the road illuminated by your headlights – but that’s something, so concentrate on that limited sweep of pavement when you sit down to write every day (while always being aware that you need to keep going in the same general direction if you’re ever going to reach your final destination).”

A second metaphor works with his conception of creative writing: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

OK, now. When are you actually writing a novel? At what point do you have an investment that’s worth pursuing? How about 25 pages? How about 50? For an answer to this question, Horack looks back to a remark by a creative writing instructor he once had, who “was fond of stating that a writer can’t claim to be at work on a novel until she had written at least 80 pages.”

Even though Horack finds this proclamation “overly dogmatic” (and assumes the teacher “would have no doubt admitted that”), he nonetheless finds the logic of the 80-page marker “very sound.” Because, he says, “by the time you’ve written that much, you’ll have driven too far from New York to turn back. ‘The point of no return,’ if you will. You owe it to yourself to finish the thing now, as you obviously have: (1) something to say, and (2) enough words on the page to make the completion of the project possible.”

“In creating those 80 pages,” Horack says, “you’ll have made and locked into many of the necessary, important ‘elements of fiction’ decisions regarding character and characterization, setting, plot, point of view, voice tone, mood, pacing, and even structure (among others).”

You might have a good start, but, if you’re like most writers, you will probably have some voices in your head – namely all that advice you’ve gotten from teachers, fellow writers, writing books, blogs, etc., over the years. The problem is, much of this naturally contradicts other things you’ve read and heard, says Horack. But that’s only natural because: “(1) we’re all wired differently both as people and as artists; and (2) each novel project presents its own unique challenges and, in essence, teaches you how to write it.”

And because this is true, Horack emphasizes that “there’s no single ‘true path’” when it comes to novel writing, of which revision is a crucial part. But he does think writers should strongly consider this one piece of sound advice: “One thing I’ve been consistently told by other writers, as well as an assertion I agree with, is that by far the most important thing is to get your first draft down before you allow yourself to become overwhelmed by editing and revision concerns (or, even worse, the opinions/input of others).”

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“Put simply,” he states, “you write with your heart, and you edit with your head, as they say…and the fear is that if you allow your intellect to become too involved too soon, you will lose ‘heart’ for the project and put it aside.”

He agrees with this division between writing and revising, yet he’s not able to practice it – not entirely. “I’ve found it is impossible to push forward without occasionally stopping to take a step back and revise the pages that have begun to accumulate. So how do I make this jive with my belief that nothing is more important than completing that elusive first draft?”

In his case, it’s a way of thinking of this first draft in a special way. Think of the first attempt as “the zero draft,” he says. “It’s not “a first draft,” it’s “pages that you revise so that they become something you are comfortable referring to as a first draft.”

He’s quick to say this is his method, and it may not work for you, but think of it as another tool for your revision toolbox. Here is his detailed, step-by-step process for writing and revision:

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  1. Fairly early on, I try to estimate approximately how long the novel I’m working on is meant to be; 300 manuscript pages, for example.
  2. Then I divide that estimated length by three. (So, in an envisioned 300-page novel, Part I is pages 1-100, Part II is pages 101-200, and Part III is pages 201-300).
  3. I finish a zero draft of Part I, then spend considerable time revising and editing those pages into a first draft (of Part I). My primary concern here is revising for clarity as well as addressing such things as sketchiness, shallow characterization, undepicted action, and vague description. Once I’m mostly comfortable with these pages, I do not return to them until a first draft of the entire novel has been achieved.
  4. Repeat Step 3 for Part II (without tinkering with, or returning to, Part I).
  5. Repeat Step 3 for Part III (without tinkering with, or returning to, Parts I & II).
  6. Congrats! I’ve written my first draft – one that I can now begin revising as a whole.

 

What are the upsides of this method? For Horack, there are several: “First, it allows for occasional breaks from pure ‘creative’ writing in order to spend time revising – a process that all writers should enjoy,” he says. “(Indeed, I don’t think I could spend several years working on a novel without stopping occasionally to see the forest for the trees, and revise.) Second, going this route allows me to get a better sense of the movement, and arc, of the novel as a whole.”

“Lastly, while devoting time to shoring things up slows down my accumulation of pages at the outset, it also means the first draft I do produce will be relatively cleaner and less dispiriting than one written with no regard to revision along the way – and that saves me time, and lessens the headaches, when it comes to creating the second draft,” he says.

All in all, when one has that “first draft” ready, it’s a well-executed manuscript – and it’s got potential. As Horack states, “Basically, my goal is to write a first draft that reads well, as that makes it easier for me to deal with more pressing, second-draft concerns such as character development, structure, and theme. I find that when I have such a first draft, it’s much less difficult to spot those larger problems that exist in the manuscript (as there is less to distract me as I search for them).”

Does Horack get tired of revision? “I do find it helpful, during natural ‘resting places’ in the novel-writing/revision process, to back away from the novel for a month or so and work on a short story or essay. A new piece of writing that, after completion, enables me to return to the novel somewhat fresh and palate-cleansed.”

His average number of revisions? “Who knows,” he says. “Once typewriters gave way to computers, I think what different writers refer to as subsequent drafts or revisions (of the first draft) has become a little blurry – that is, to create a new draft, all I have to do is hit ‘save as’ versus retyping a few hundred pages. But I can say that, with my novels, I have spent at least as much time in the revision process as I have in writing the initial draft.”

 

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