I’m not naïve. I’m optimistic with a dose of the realistic. I knew that after cranking out 50,100 words of a novel in 30 days I’d need to spend significantly more time revising it. And so it was from that perspective that I attended a seminar last Monday evening at the local library taught by Dr. Juliet Kincaid on revising your novel. The target audience was people who completed NaNoWriMo this year. And fun fact: I learned the creator of this international month-long writing contest, Chris Baty is not only from my own Overland Park, Kansas, but he graduated from the same high school as my daughter. Hearing something like that, yet another thread that connects me to a larger whole is motivating.
Back to the seminar. There were eight of us plus a nice librarian named Helen I chatted to that was along for the ride since the library was hosting. About half had taken part in NaNoWriMo this year. Some of the others had novels they’d already drafted and were looking for rewriting tips. And oddly, we were all of the female persuasion. Why is that? Do men inherently know how to rewrite? Did they not hear about the seminar? Were they busy with more pressing matters? Whatever the case, we were a group of women aged 30ish to 70ish, in a spacious, well-lit room of the Oak Park branch of the Johnson County library on a cold Monday night in January.
It should be noted; I walked in the door with fairly high expectations of our just under two hours together. Dear reader you may recall I participated in another workshop by the same instructor back in October. That session was jam-packed with useful advice that made my writing experience so much better. I haven’t had a writing or English class in over 25 years, so any tips I could snatch were appreciated. In this seminar, the one on rewriting, I expected just as much of my instructor, to help me on my path to turning my 50,100 words of a novel into something anyone other than me might like to read. I’ll cut to the chase; I wasn’t disappointed.
Here are the highlights of what I took from the session:
- “Rewriting makes the work come alive”. This quote our instructor shared from writer Nancy Picard, while simple is powerful. I enjoyed the writing experience. But even after completing the writing, I didn’t feel like it had the impact I wanted it to. Now I’m excited to go back and breathe life into what I wrote, by adding more description, making sure the story is as I pictured, etc.
- Expect to do make at least six complete revisions/rewrites of a novel:
- Get the story right (content)
- Check it has all the plot parts (style)
- Cut, add, consider point of view and characters (mechanics)
- Get feedback
- Polish, edit, proofread
- The order of these revisions matters. My first inclination was to do #5 before #4. I learned why this isn’t a great idea. (see final bullet on Feedback for more)
- Write/rewrite every day. That’s going to be tough. During November it was fine to readjust my workout schedule, decline a few social invitations, etc. in order to make time for daily writing. But now I’m back to 3-5 workouts a week and 1-2 evening engagements, this will be a greater challenge. Perhaps I need to think of this in a different frame, and commit to a certain number of intensive writing sessions and short (30 minute) sessions the other days. I can do that.
- Learn the basic rules of writing (e.g., punctuation). I thought I knew most of that, but I think it’s time for a refresher. Thankfully I have The Grammar Devotional (pictured here) by Mignon Fogarty. I won this in my early days on twitter, by responding to a tweet from @GrammarGirl. I’ve had it on my desk at work for more than five years and used it occasionally. I’ve now brought it home and it’s easily at hand. And while that’s great, that wasn’t actually Dr. Kinaid’s point. Her point was that we should know this stuff, so as to save editing time. I’ll definitely need to brush up.
- If using MS Word, use the “show readability statistics” feature. With rare exceptions, you want your novel to be easy to read. Turning on this feature can help you see where you may want to consider simplifying.
- You always need conflict. This was a tip my brother Matt impressed on me (remember him? the brother with the PhD who gave me incredibly helpful feedback on my first short story). I believe I took that tip to heart in my first draft. But I will be giving that a close eye as I revise and I sense I’ll be creating more conflict, big and small. It’s what makes a story interesting. We all know it, even if we don’t consciously consider it.
- Cutting is the most important thing. I remember this from even basic high school English. But I know it’s going to be tough. My strategy is to put myself in the reader’s shoes. If it doesn’t support the story or enhance the scene sufficiently – out it goes.
- Get feedback, but only once you think you have the content right. A wise reader is one who knows the intentions of the work and tells you what it’s like to experience it for the first time. They aren’t editing or proofreading. They are reading it for the story, the flow. This was a lightbulb moment for me. I was picturing having polished it as much as I could possibly do before asking anyone to read it. Now I know why that’s not a good idea. I equate it to my own work with creating training materials. I wouldn’t want someone to give me their completed PowerPoint slide deck before they gave me an outlines of what they planned to cover. If you polish it too much, it’s hard to cut. I’ve already got three people in mind to ask to do this. I think you know who you are (Cathy, Ingrid, and Rebecca). As the time comes closer (months from now), I’ll send an email with an invitation to read along with my expectations, and you’ll have the opportunity to bow out if you choose, no hard feelings.
Want to learn more about revising a novel? There are tons of good books out there (e.g., The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray, which I just purchased – thanks Mom & Dad for the Amazon gift card!) And…there’s also Dr. Juliet Kincaid’s blog. It’s a goldmine of ideas and it’s a lot of fun to read (this woman knows her stuff and how to apply it to her own writing). Start with her most recent post, The Art of Rewriting a Novel.
And now my tea cup is indeed empty again. Until next time…