Revision is a Jigsaw Puzzle With No Picture

I’m in the middle of revising GET CUPID at the moment. I’ve made some comments about it on my social media sites, if you’ve been following along. It’s a biggie. The second draft of the book was 109,000 words long. I’m shooting to have the third draft come in at 60,000 words. (Of course, I’m shooting for that knowing that I almost always end up longer than my goal. So because I want the final thing to be in the 70,000 word range, I’m focusing on 60,000 words as the goal. I know this seems stupid, but this is how my brain works. Deal with it.)

When I’m approaching a revision of this size, it can be pretty daunting. Honestly, part of me just wants to throw everything out and start over fresh. I’m restructuring the whole thing, taking out characters, chapters, plot elements–you name it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to write a new book? It probably would be. So why don’t I?

Well, for one thing, this is a book I’ve put a lot of work into it. I like it. I see that it has potential, and so I want to put in the effort I need to in order to realize that potential. I realize this might not be the best of reasons to do a revision. There’s such a thing as a sunk cost–sometimes it’s better to just walk away from an investment. But while the task is daunting, I think it’ll take me less time to revise this than it would to write it from scratch. So it’s not that bad. My goal is to be done by the end of August. Two months ain’t much, from a writing perspective. I’ve got to be writing something while I’m waiting for feedback on THE MEMORY THIEF, for example. Revision is a great project for that.

Plus, there are big chunks of this book that I’m very happy with as-is. I could rewrite them, sure–but my gut tells me that would take longer. I could be wrong on this. I suppose there’s no real way to know.

I’ve tried several approaches to the revision so far, and nothing has been a home run as yet. At first I thought I’d be able to just re-outline the plot, and then start with a fresh document and begin cutting and pasting sections in as they come up in the new and improved plot. And I’ve stuck to that more or less, but as I go through, I keep having to toss out pieces of that plot when I discover something else needs to change drastically.

Case in point:

GET CUPID is a heist book. The original concept was Ocean’s 11 meets Mistborn. Contemporary setting, magic specialist crooks. Young adult fun. It’s been tweaked a bit since then. Now it’s more Ocean’s 11 meets Harry Potter. A bit more whimsical, and there’s a school involved. (Long story.) In the original plot, one of the crooks is a spirit-walker named Luke, who only speaks in Star Wars quotes. I really liked Luke. He was a fun character. Some people really liked him, too. Others didn’t like him at all. For the revision, I decided to keep Luke in, but tone down on the Star Wars a bunch. Bring him closer to the middle of the road.

One of the main villains of the book was Raphe, the twin brother of Eldin, the protagonist. A really nasty piece of work. For the revision, I decided to take Raphe and make him neither a twin nor a really big antagonist. He became a loan shark who Eldin owes money to, and that outstanding loan becomes one of the main reasons the plot gets going. It’s an engine that was supposed to drive the book. But as I wrote the beginning, I discovered that Raphe-as-engine only works if some serious time is devoted to Raphe. He had to be built up and developed some to make him important.

Fine. I did that. I built him up, and all felt right with the world. Then I got to the point where Eldin is supposed to have a brief confrontation with Raphe–something to “seal the deal,” as far as the engine goes. Really solidify that Eldin has to take a certain job in order to get free from Raphe. It looked like it would work fine when I was planning it, but I discovered a problem when I was writing it:

After I’d spent so much time building up Raphe to be strong enough to work as an engine for the plot of the book, he was suddenly out of the picture for almost all of it. It went from “Raphe is a big problem” to “Raphe is that guy we don’t have to worry about for the next 2/3 of the novel.”

This doesn’t work. It felt wrong. When I’m working on plot or writing (particularly during the revision process), so much of what I do comes down to feeling. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture. I’ve got all these individual pieces, and I know they fit together somehow. I keep turning them around, comparing them to other pieces, looking for something that fits. That just clicks together. Sometimes I might think I’ve found it, and then later on I discover something else that fits even better.

That’s what happened with Raphe. I was in the middle of that scene, knowing that Raphe had to do more. Be more. And then it hit me: Raphe would insist on coming with the others on the heist. This is something Eldin would hate hate hate. But it’s something that felt right. And it works on a lot of different levels: it increases tension throughout the book, it lets Raphe be more important, it complicates life for Eldin. It just clicked all at once. I wanted to do it.

But then I had to look at the implications. If Raphe is with the gang for the heist, he needs to fill a role. Imagine if in Oceans 11, a Ben Affleck suddenly pops up in the plot, hanging around and doing nothing but being a nuisance. That wouldn’t work at all. So Raphe had to have a Purpose. I could tweak the plot, of course. Come up with some reasons for him to be there. Some roles only he could fill. But that felt wrong. That’s complicating things *too* much.

On the other hand, I could also make Raphe become one of the other characters. Erase that character from existence, and have Raphe assume his responsibilities and abilities, but keep his own personality. And there was Luke, just kicking around, quoting Star Wars movies and not really doing much else.

Sorry Luke. It just felt right to eradicate any mention of you from the book.

Of course, once I made that change, then a bunch of the plot I had retooled had to be worked through again. You see why it’s a complex problem? It’s only made trickier by the fact that the more I work with this, the harder it becomes to really be able to tell the effect my changes are having. Once I’ve been revising a book for a while, it’s hard for me to know if I’m making it better. That’s where readers come in. Once this revision is all done, I’ll need fresh readers to look at it and tell me how it’s doing. That’ll be a chance to step back and see if the picture my puzzle pieces made is one worth viewing.

In the meantime, I just keep going by feel–trusting my instincts. It’s a really nebulous way to do a revision, but it’s what’s working for me at the moment, and if there’s one thing I’ve found during my years writing, it’s that I should use what works for me. So there you have it.

1 thought on “Revision is a Jigsaw Puzzle With No Picture”

  1. We are in the same place! I really, really, really want to Indie publish the first book I ever wrote, but I also really, really, really don’t want readers to look at it and think I’m too terrible a writer to ever pick up another of my books. The solution is to make it better, right? But that involves a lot of revision, which creates ripples…I feel your pain (and your joy, cause there is both. 🙂

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