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How Many Revisions?

Another in a continuing series of essays on the craft of writing.

A lot has been written about the “process” of writing. I recently gave a seminar on how to stay motivated to finish a book, in which I discussed outlining as a way to avoid trapping yourself in your plot. One aspiring writer in the audience felt very strongly that outlining strangled the creative spirit, so much so she felt compelled to leave the presentation. Indeed everyone approaches this very personal endeavor with very personal methods and expectations. So let me emphasize from the beginning, what I share with you here is how I do it. I happen to know a lot of writers who also do it this way, but that does not mean it will be the best way for everyone. I invite you to try it, as it may work for you. If it does, then you will have one more tool with which to express yourself.

Whatever your initial inspiration for a story, you will need to decide the rest of the basic story elements before you can start writing. These are characters, plot, setting, and the main conflict to be resolved. Once you have those figured out, you can make your decisions about beginning, middle and end. Many writers leave the ending open until they flesh out more of the story and get to know their characters better. Even without a pre-determined ending, you will have to decide what conflict resolution concludes your story. What are the victory conditions that your ending will eventually have to fulfill? By deciding this early on, you will have a goal to work toward.

Once you have these basic building blocks, even if they are molded out of Jello® and not concrete, you can develop a road map for your story. If you have a firm vision of where you want the story to go, this road map can be a fairly detailed outline. Even if it is not, it is useful to make a record of the decisions you have made. You don’t want the time you have spent thinking about the story to be wasted.  If you have made good decisions, you don’t want to have to go back and make them again just because you didn’t write them down.

This is the first time you have enough of the story figured out and written down to be able to use this as a script to tell the story out loud. So this version can be called the Talking Points Version.

Some writers do not outline and like to fly by the seat of their pants on faith that their storytelling abilities will rescue them from any conundrums.  Those brave souls will take their Talking Points Version and start writing in earnest – straight to the first draft. I have spent to many hours, no actually years, trying to find my way back out of storytelling traps I set for myself by blundering ahead until I ran out of road. So I outline. Extensively. As I said before, this is how I do it. To each his own.

I take the Talking Points Version and expand and reorganize it into a chapter by chapter breakdown of what happens in the story. Clearly a lot of detail is left for later, but at this stage I make myself decide how the story unfolds.  I include every detail that I have figured out to date. This synopsis/outline/chapter map is usually at least 20 pages. A stranger can read this version and understand what it will be like to read the completed book. This is the story. I call this Version Zero.

I find the experience of bringing a story up to Version Zero is different than diving in and writing the story itself, which is the next step. A well crafted Version Zero has a certain satisfaction and charm. In fact, I find I can go back and read a Version Zero and get myself all fired up again and start writing it in earnest. So when I am cooking with big godlike ingredients (What Ifs and Why Nots) and coming up with entirely new story ideas, I develop them up to this stage before I set them aside. I want to be able to come back months later and see whether I am up for moving this story to the front burner and making it the current project. I usually, and currently, have six Version Zeros waiting for their turns in the spotlight.

When I get excited enough about a Version Zero story, I go do the research needed to tell the story believably. You can only write what you know. So I need to know before I can write.

Once I start writing actual draft text, I first focus on those things that move the story along. When I finish my first draft of a chapter, it will tend to be heavy on action and dialogue and light on descriptions. As I see the characters playing their parts and the action unfolding, I come to see what things look and smell and feel like. So I add those things in after I get the other more critical decisions made. I usually don’t go much further than a chapter or two before I go back and add the descriptions. So there has never been a complete draft of just the dialogue and action. The fact remains that I do make a separate pass through the book (a chapter at a time) to add descriptions. So one could think of the next version as the Action & Dialogue Version.

Once I have added the descriptions, the story can be read start to finish. This is the First Draft.

By this point I will know these characters and this story much better than the words I have put on paper. So I read the book as a jaded editor who knows the story, and I fix inconsistencies, add details I missed the first time, clean up clunky dialogue, make the book sing the way it is supposed to. This becomes the Second Draft.

I show the Second Draft to my posse of reviewers. The membership of the posse depends on the book. The book I just finished, Daughter Cell, is a medical thriller with a big supernatural twist. The Daughter Cell posse consisted of a cancer researcher, a critical care nurse, an English professor, a religious scholar, and an independent film producer. The reviewers mark it up and I review their changes. Often they will see something I missed and the fix will involve more than just tweaking a bit of dialogue. So incorporating their changes can take quite a bit of time.

You know you’re done when every time you go to make a change you reconsider and keep it the way you had it. This is the Final Draft. This is the story you pitch and show to agents and editors. The professionals who pay you or get you paid will make changes. When their changes are made, the book is done and it goes to press.

So to recap:

1)      Talking Points Version

2)      Version Zero

3)      Research

4)      Action & Dialogue Version

5)      First Draft

6)      Second Draft

7)      Review feedback

8)      Final Draft

9)      Editorial changes

10)  Published work

So in this method a book moves through ten stages and seven versions from idea to print.

At the heart of this analysis is the truth that everything you write is just words on paper, and it can all be changed later. You want to capture all of the thinking and decisions you have made as you go along. But you should never feel compelled to keep something that does not fit with all your other storytelling just because it was cool when you first thought of it. That’s the road to dead end and frustration and writer’s block.  If you embrace the notion that a book is going to go through versions before it is done, you will be free to make what changes you feel like as you go. You know you will revisit them in the next draft, and the book will just keep getting better and better.

Good luck, and keep writing!


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