#120: Separation Before Revision, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not the kind of writer who can start editing a draft as soon as I’m done with it. By the time I stumble over the finish line of a novel-length project, I need some time to emotionally detach from the story before I can think about how I want to change it.

This would be fine, except… by the time I feel ready to edit a story, I’m usually no longer interested in it, or I’ve come up with so many new ideas about how to change it that rewriting from page 1 feels easier than editing. Over the years, I’ve amassed a huge number of trunk novels I just don’t feel passionate about cleaning up.

I’ve just finished a new novella, and I really don’t want to hide it away in the dusty depths of my Google Drive. I know it needs changes before I can show it to beta readers, but I’m having a hard time making those changes fresh off writing THE END. How can I strike a balance between letting it marinate and shoving it out the door before it’s ready? What’s the line between a necessary break from a project and unhelpful procrastination on editing?

Thanks for all your great advice,

Trunk Novelist (she/her)

Dear Trunk Novelist,

Thanks for giving me the perfect companion question to the one I answered in #119: Separation Before Revision, Part One. In that post I talked about why that emotional separation from your draft is needed. You’ve got that part down pat. But the reunion can be just as challenging, and requires its own set of tools.

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#119: Separation Before Revision, Part One

Dear Story Nurse,

I have finished the first draft of my novel (coming of age, romance). It took a year, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The characters became so real that I started to ‘see’ them in the street, and looked forward to getting back to spend time with them every day.

I understand that this draft is just a beginning, and I also understand that I need to leave it alone for a while before starting to revise, revise, revise.

But I am missing my characters, and I am sad that their story is complete, as in I know what happens, even though the novel is far from finished.

So my question is what to I do now? Start another novel (or at least start collecting ideas)? Get revising so that I can get back to my characters? Something else? How long should I leave my draft before getting back to it?

In the early stages of writing the novel, I took time out to write short stories, collect ideas, do writing exercises, but in the last six months, it’s been all consuming and I just don’t know what to do!

—Hazeliz (she/her)

Dear Hazeliz,

Congratulations on finishing your novel! It sounds like you really fell in love with it, which is a wonderful experience.

That depth of emotional connection is exactly why writers are often advised to take time away from their drafts before revising them. A little distance makes it much, much easier to assess a book’s strengths and weaknesses—and that’s what you must do, as dispassionately and thoroughly as possible, when you revise a book. Without a degree of separation between book and self, revision is far more difficult, and may be impossible.

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#87: How to Add Visual Elements to Tactile Descriptions

On Twitter, @birdinflyte_ (she/they) asked for help with “Trying to translate my kinaesthetic visualisation into s’thng that doesn’t make vision focused folk say Add More Description We Can’t See It.” When I asked for clarification, they wrote:

I seem to get that reaction no matter what I write. Right now it’s farm-based fantasy. I don’t visualise visually, never have, only kinaesthetically. Natural instinct for description is t/f movement/touch/interaction, then smell/taste/sound, then vision sketched in round the edges. And then I get told to add more description bc it’s “action in a bubble of fuzzy grey” – clearest crit of my style.

Ex: MC is plowing. I get the uneven ground under her feet, the feel of the reins + plow handles, the way the jolting plow jars her arms what she says to + about the horse pulling it, the swooping turn at the end of furrows, how the sun warms diff sides as she crosses field. For me that’s enough to make the scene clear, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for readers. Most desc adv I’ve found is less vis more other senses, and I’m going the other way, if that makes sense?

Dear @birdinflyte_,

I love your example, which for me is splendidly evocative! In my mind, I immediately get visuals to go with it, drawn from my own experiences with fields and horses and sun. But I can see how someone who’s more oriented toward the visual—or who doesn’t have personal experiences with the things you’re describing—might want a little more to go on.

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#77: Making Your Story the Length You Want

Dear Story Nurse,

I recently finished the first draft of my novel—a mystery set in a pretty traditional fantasy land. The problem? When I did the final word count, it came out to 27K. I’m doing the first round of editing—well, mostly adding scenes that I missed the first time around—and at the rate I’m going, it’s going to roughly double my wordcount, which still won’t bring me to the 80–90K typical of the genre. And I definitely do want this work to be a novel, not a novella. Retooling it for the typically shorter YA market would involve excising a lot of themes important to the story. So how can I get my wordcount up without adding unnecessary fluff?

—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)

Dear Wannabe Novelist,

There are two ways to approach this dilemma. One is the philosophical approach: the story is the length it wants to be, and there isn’t much that you can do about that. The other is the engineering approach: there needs to be enough story structure to support the story’s length, or the whole thing will collapse and that will be sad. I’m going to get into the engineering approach a bit, but I want you to keep the philosophical one in mind, because there are very good reasons that most of the seasoned writers I know tend to end up thinking of story length in those terms.

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#72: What Is Revision?

Dear Story Nurse,

I finished the first draft of my novel a few months ago, and I really want to get it published soon. But every time I try to revise it, I just end up “polishing” it—line-editing or cutting sentences within scenes. I guess at a basic level, I don’t know what writers mean when they say they “re-write” drafts. Do they literally re-write their entire novel, page by page, from scratch? Or do they only re-write the scenes that don’t work? (I know everyone is different, but I also feel like no one gets it right the first time, so I want to know how people go about fixing it).

It took me years to finish the first draft, so the idea of re-writing the entire thing feels really daunting to me. At the same time, I don’t want to simply rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—I want to save the ship (to borrow from Justine Larbalestier’s metaphor on rewriting). I want to fix any major structural issues. I want the novel to be the best it can be, even before I let beta-readers see it.

What should I do? At its most basic, rudimentary level, what does re-writing a draft mean? What exercises can I do to take baby-steps towards re-writing?

—(Another) Confused Reviser (she/her)

Dear (Another) Confused Reviser,

What a wonderful question, and I’m glad you were willing to ask it! You’re absolutely right that people talk about revising without ever talking about what it can or should entail, and that does a real disservice to writers who are just starting out.

Every draft is different, and every draft needs a different amount and type of rewriting. It often helps to find a good beta reader or three who can point you in useful directions for your specific work. Every writer’s revision process is different too, but I can still make some general suggestions that may help you get a foothold. Continue reading

#57: Second-Guessing Revisions

Hi Story Nurse,

I’ve completed a full draft of my romance novel with a political/dramatic twist (yay!) and i’m staring on the first round of editing (boo!). It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting, and I don’t deny there are a lot of sentences that could be shorter and a lot of stuff that is not required to be there. Usually, the cutting feels pretty good – especially when I catch hanging threads I meant to do something with, and dropped.

However, I do have some anxiety with cutting some of the longer threads of the story. When I wrote the story and read it in the earlier processes, I really like them. On this edit pass, they don’t seem that great – kind of awkward and not flowing as well as I remembered. However, the next day, they seem wonderful, and the story is really lacking something without them!

Anyway, the summary of the question is: How do you tell what to cut? Is cutting more better than less, or should you cut less the first time around so and come back and trim again, when you’re more sure?

Now I’m thinking that I should leave it in for now, because it will be hard to put it back if I change my mind. (Unless you have some amazing editor software that allows themes to be matched like Photoshop layers.)

Thanks again,
Confused Editor (she/her)

Dear Confused Editor,

Congratulations on finishing your draft! I’m sorry revisions are stressing you out so much. I promise you and your manuscript will come through them just fine. Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you find your way out of your mental tangle. Continue reading

#54: Feeling Guilty About Spilled Words

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the middle of writing a fantasy novel (target length 120k). The story breaks down into three major sections and I’ve got a solid enough plan that I’m comfortable with it; I’m currently mostly finished with the first section. I’ve already had to start it over once to fix concept problems—fortunately that bit’s taken care of.

However, recently I realized a major subplot wasn’t working; I have the solution, which is to rip it out and replace it with a different subplot, which is intended to both address the reasons I needed the subplot there in the first place and also, you know, be a valuable part of the story in its own right (which is where the original failure was). So, okay, I know what I need to do.

The problem is, as I actually do the thing I’m feeling… really bogged down, like I keep retreading the same old ground. I would love for nothing more than to just get out of this same damn section of the story and actually move on to new ground but if I just move on and leave the replacement for later, a) that’s just making work for future me and b) I feel like I’ll have less of a handle on what actually happened in the bits that I’m scrubbing/replacing.

I feel like the answer is probably ‘suck it up and finish rewriting these bits’ (and that’s been my operating assumption as I’ve kept at it) so I’m not dealing with vestigial remains of dead plot lines but I’m hoping maybe for some guidance or ideas as to What To Do When Cleaning Out Stuff That Didn’t Work When You Still Need To Move Forward. Or maybe some way to make it feel less like I’m in a rut.

—neongrey (they/them)

Dear neongrey,

Your answer is, alas, correct. Some parts of writing are slogs and chores and there’s no way around it. When you’re doing plot tectonics there is a long slow grind and it grinds on forever. But one day it will push up a beautiful volcano that will spew drama-lava all over the place and you’ll be glad you stuck it out.

That metaphor got away from me a bit.

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#39: No Writer Is an Island

Hi Story Nurse!

I started off writing fanfiction in a community with a lot of group and dyad critique. When I got into pro fiction I discovered I had built a great critique toolbox that I used to further myself into an excellent developmental editor.

I can do hard, deep critique for folks where I immediately see the bones of a story and how it is or isn’t fitting together. Structure and content problems are breeze to see and fix. I quickly come up with a fix or offer a variety of options (“You make it the uncle, not the dad, and what if he’s a veterinarian who specializes in rare tropical fish? Or give both tasks to the aunt and make her a world-renowned biologist?” “Hey that improves everything and allows X, Y, and Z, to happen more organically. Thanks, Ajax!”).

When I sit down to work on my own stories I rely heavily on friends, beta readers, and most especially my editor to help fix the broken and disconnected bones of my own story. Often I know something is wrong with my work, but I just can’t see what it is until someone else points it out. If someone shoots me a good fix idea I can run with it and make shine, but I can’t come up with it alone.

How can I turn those good editor eyes on my own work?

—Ajax Bell (they/them)

Dear Ajax Bell,

You’re not at all alone in this. Many, many editors have run into similar issues when they’re writing. (Editor and author Jessica Strawzer just wrote an op-ed for Publishers Weekly on her struggle to accept that all her editing expertise didn’t make it easier for her to write, or to get her fiction published.) Fortunately, that means there’s a known, tried-and-true answer to your question: you can’t.

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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