The Trick with Multiple Revisions

I’m in the middle of the latest revision of DON’T GO TO SLEEP, and I thought I’d take a minute to discuss how revising a novel is different than the other revision projects I work on. With a normal (non-novel) revision, it’s usually easy for me to keep the entire project in my head. Even when I was working on my 150 page thesis, it was divided into a series of smaller chapters, each of which stood more or less independent from the others. (It also helped that the arguments I was making in the thesis stayed consistent.) Revising a blog post is even easier. You glance over the thing after you’re done, make sure it says what you want it to say, and hit “Publish.”

Revising a book takes a much different approach. For one thing, it’s very hard for me to get the whole of the novel into my head without re-reading it in its entirety. Later on in the process, I just have to have faith that I wrote what I wanted to earlier on, and that the tweaks I’m making now won’t drastically alter anything I did before. (I also have faith the copy editor will catch anything that slips by me.) But when I’m still in the throes of major editing, I have to start out by re-reading the whole novel before I’m ready to start changing any of it.

The biggest problem is that I can’t remember what version of the novel made it into the latest draft. The plot changes with each revision. This is the fourth full draft I’ve done of DON’T GO TO SLEEP. I’ve got different story threads in each of the ones that came before. Maybe a more masterful writer than I would be able to remember exactly what they ended up choosing in their latest draft, but I need to actually go through the whole thing to be sure.

So what happens is my editor sends me an editorial letter detailing the things they think I should change. What didn’t work for them. What was confusing. Where it needs more tension. Where the characters are inconsistent. That sort of thing. I read that over a couple of times, and then I print out the latest draft on paper. I can’t do it on the computer screen, because I don’t know what changes I’ll make until I’ve read through the book, making notes and suggestions to myself as I go. Some of those notes are ways I think of that could potentially do what my editor suggested. Some of them are there for personal things I see that I feel need changing.

Once I’m done with that, I look over all the notes I have and incorporate them into a master list of Things I Want to Change. This is usually a list of bullet points. Some of them might be simple: “change all 7 years to 8 years.” (In my current draft, the main character sometimes says a series of murders happened 7 years ago, and sometimes says they happened 8 years ago. I need to figure that out.) Some of them might be much more complex: “Add more nightmare scenes throughout.” This list of bullets consists of both the things my editor wants changed, and the things I want to change.

With that in place, I can finally start editing. I’ll likely have made some minor edits to wording and grammar when I was reading the book through again, and I’ll put those in as I go generally from the beginning to the end of the novel. I usually end up reading the whole thing again as I go through it making changes, simply because I need to do that to get the context for each of the changes I’m making. Once I’m done with that initial pass, I go through and make other passes that require a consistent approach the whole time. I’ll look at all the nightmare scenes I’ve put in, for example, and decide where new ones should be added. Or I’ll pay attention to the conflict between a couple of characters, making sure the arc works well.

What this means is that by the time I’ve finished a book, I’ve usually read it from beginning to end at least six or seven times. It also means that I often don’t fully remember what the final version of the novel ended up as. In my head, there will be all the different drafts. Did I kill that character in the third version, or did I leave them alive? Where did they end up going for the climax? Darned if I know, but I’ve also worked on the book enough that by that point, I’m not really motivated to read it again.

I’ve got other books to work on. Other drafts to write.

I enjoy the editing process. I like the feeling that I’m improving the book, and I like seeing how far I’ve come as I read through it each time. I’m going through DON’T GO TO SLEEP right now, and I’m really liking it. Good job, past Bryce! And just imagine how much better it’ll be when I get through this next draft!


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