Revision Slog – Novel as Algorithm

As I slog toward the end of my third major draft of my new novel, Untimed, I felt the need for brief procrastination in the form of detailing the process. Most people seem to discount how much grind and sheer time investment is required in writing (and revising) a novel, even a vey steady workaholic like me. Let’s do a little breakdown.

Untimed is actually fairly short, currently at 83,000 words and 38 chapters. This is MUCH shorter than my first book started out. Length is a factor because you have to iterate (i.e. read through the book a LOT of times).

Think of each major draft as a loop (I am a programmer) with various sub loops.

. Generate Idea (for the most part this kind of happens or doesn’t)

. Character Design and High Level Plotting (you could spend who knows how long on this, I don’t find it that useful upfront, most of it just comes to me while doing other things)

. The First Draft:

. Initial drafting: For each chapter (1..38) loop:

. Plot the beats in the chapter. This takes an absolute minimum of 1-3 hours even if you know exactly what’s supposed to be in there. Sometimes it takes several days of banging your head and talking to others.

. Pound out a first draft. I can do 2000-2500 words of new draft in one 8 hour day. I generally make this a chapter. Occasionally I’ll be on a roll and do two.

. Reread it to catch really stupid typos, phrasing, and make sure it makes sense (1 hour)

. Subtotal. For above book that represents 50-60 workdays (NOTE: if you take days off, it’s chronologically much longer). Notes on finishing the first draft, here.

. High level pass:

. It’s impossible when writing a chapter or two a day to see the big picture in the book, so you have to do at least one faster pass through afterward.

. I can do about 10-15,000 words a day like this, which is actually fairly brutal

. Subtotal. About 7 workdays. 1-2 full reads.

. Quick read:

. If you want to judge pacing you have to read it all in a day or two like a normal book, not on the computer

. Subtotal. 1-2 days. 1 full read.

. Draft total. About 60-70 workdays. 4-5 full reads.

. Wait for feedback:

. Since you have to finish something and send it to someone, even a paid editor will take some time to read it and return feedback. This usually takes several weeks. I try and overlap it with the cleanup passes, but it’s tricky.

. Revision Drafts (I’m currently finishing the third major redraft) so I’ve done two of these so far on Untimed:

. Plan, outline, and organize changes.

. Can take from a couple days to a couple weeks. Some thoughts on this with Untimed HERE.

. I can do about 2-3 chapters a full day of revision. So for each block of 2-3 chapters loop:

. Do the actual revision. This can be fairly grueling, involving initial big surgery, a smoothing pass, then a cleanup pass

. Reread it to catch really stupid typos, phrasing, and make sure it makes sense (2 hours)

. Subtotal. Plotting 7 days, revising 15 workdays. Generates 2-3  extra reads per chapter.

. Medium Quick read:

. Checking for consistency

. Subtotal. 3-4 days. 1 full read.

. Total for each revision draft. Approximately 25 workdays. 3-4 full reads. Notes on the second draft HERE.

. Wait for feekback. You have to find out from others, often people who have never read the book before, how a draft comes across. This takes awhile. A reader who gets back to you in a week is amazing. It often takes several and some gentle (or not so gentle) prodding. Or tossing them some money. Sometimes that doesn’t even work. I had one (paid) unemployed beta reader tell me that they couldn’t start it because it interfered with their watching TV! NOTE: Said individual did not get paid.

. Line Editing:

. When the big picture is all settled out one sends it out to an editor for Line Editing. This involves more editor time than author time, but still chunks of the book come back and one must go over the edits and install them.

. My editor will request a “compression” pass before sending it to her. This is an extra pass to try and self edit it first.

. I can do about 8000 words a day like this. Approximately 10 days. 1 read. This is brutal but can be overlapped chronologically with the editor’s line editing. I.e. I can self edit a chunk and then send it out, meanwhile self editing the next chunk while the editor is working on the previous one, then also fit in the next part (processing) of returning chunks in a pipelined fashion.

. I can “process” returned line editing at about 6,000-8,000 words a day. For each chunk loop:

. Read over the track changes version of the line edit in word, approving and rejecting various edits and making cleanups

. Copy over each scene in into the real draft. Cleanup formatting.

. Do a quick read of the chunk or chapters to make sure nothing got screwed up

. Subtotal. Approximately 12 workdays, but spread across more chronological time as the edits can’t churn out this much per day. 2-3 full reads.

. Quick read:

. If you want to judge pacing you have to read it all in a day or two like a normal book, not on the computer

. Subtotal. 1-2 days. 1 full read.

. Total for line editing. approximately 24 days. 4-5 full reads.

As you can see. This adds up to a LOT of days and a lot of passes. Finishing up the third draft here, I’m already on eight months and at least 12 read throughs, and I can look forward to several more of each.

For more posts on writing, click here.

On Writing: Revising, and Waiting

The Darkening DreamOne of the weird and disconcerting things about the revision stage of novel writing is the waiting. For me a revision often goes like this:

1. Receive a bunch of notes about problems or possible improvements for the book.

2. Become briefly depressed (1-2 days) as I ponder how to fix the problems.

2. Cheer up as I create a revision plan with little notes per chapter detailing my grand scheme to fix everything. I try and visualize in my head how the big picture of the story will be affected.

3. Do all the “little changes” that can be done without breaking the book and requiring a full read to fix.

4. Take one by one the bigger changes (including big cuts) and make them, attempting to repair the story as I make the changes, including finding any references in the story that are now inconsistant because of changes. Anytime a scene requires substantial changes I need to make the changes and then do at least one full sweep read of the scene to pickup typos and the like. Within each of these changes it often involves moving around passages and cutting stuff first, then blending in the changes and repairing the loose ends. I think of this as the surgery stage.

5. Sometimes certain “global” changes which involve small changes across a lot of the book are left out of the surgery. An example of this would be adding a pervasive trait or line of thought to a major character. For example in one draft I added a dead little brother into the history of the protagonist and needed various little references here and there.. These are things that can only be easily done in the context of a full read.

6. Start reading at the beginning. As I go through each scene correct any errors, line edit, revise, tighten etc. Insert in any changes that are part of large sequential changes, particularly things that involve complex reveals of information back and forth across the entire novel. If the changes in a particular scene are big, do a sweep read. An interesting note here is that one’s style evolves. Even simple things like how I use line breaks, or most particularly my style of dialog tagging change over time. The full pass is a good place to “modernize” scenes and try and bring them all up to the latest style.

7. After finishing the whole pass do line edit and compression passes on a few scenes that might have felt “fat” but for some reason I didn’t compress during the big sweep.

This whole process is very intense and I tend to do it in a big manic burst of energy. Then I have a new draft. Given that I’ve read the book so many times, I’m usually out of new ideas for improvement at that point. If I had any, I would’ve put them into the draft. I’m unlikely to get any more until someone else jogs my brain via feedback. I’m a maniac workaholic so I’d prefer to work steadily on the book until it’s done. Totally done. But at this point until I get some feedback the only thing I could actually do is read scenes over and over and “tune” the prose. However, If I just completed a big full read this is counter productive. One only gets so many reads of any scene before it becomes very difficult to actually pay attention, so doing too many back to back isn’t a good idea. Plus, what you can’t tell after big changes and cuts is how exactly the overall reveal of information in the book works for a new reader. As the author one intrinsically knows too much about everything. You need a virgin reader for that.

So I have to send the book out for comments and wait. I send it to my professional freelance editors, and I try and solicit as many friends and family readers as is reasonable for the draft with the goal of getting just a hand full of decent commentaries back.

I hate waiting. So I try to keep myself busy with other things. Catching up on my reading. Learning to Blog. Updating my synopses and/or query letter (mind numbing!). Searching the web for possible agents. All this is dull and not nearly as creatively rewarding as working on the book itself. What I really want to do is find out what might be wrong with it and fix it until it’s done.

But it takes at least two, usually more, weeks to get comments back. Arrgh! I’m used to video games where everything is done NOW NOW NOW. Let’s not even talk about the archaic mid-century operating speed of the traditional publishing biz — I’ll save that for another time — the only things slower than that are French silk factories, municipal construction, and the US PTO.

What I really SHOULD do is work on the outline for my next book. I do a bit of this, but it’s hard to jump full tilt into the early stages of another gigantic creative endeavor when what I really want to do is finish the one on my plate. I used to have this exact same feeling after we’d ship the US version of a Crash Bandicoot or Jak & Daxter game. I’d sit around waiting for the external QA department to approve the Gold Master, or the foreign groups to return their last tiny localization changes. Meanwhile, I could neither go on vacation nor devote proper creative energy to the next project.

Maybe it’s just my hyper kinetic “finish it!” type personality, or maybe it’s just part of the process.