Three Steps to Revision

I am revising the novel that I mostly refer to as my third. Or, “the dating coach book.” I had forgotten the whole revision roller coaster. During the DM marathon with Ruthie Knox yesterday that caused Twitter to cut me off for violating the 250-DM-per-day limit, I enumerated the steps involved in revising a novel:

Step 1: Love your book too much to ever change it.

Step 2: Hate your book so much you can’t see the point in fixing it.

Step 3: Realize that you had the bones of a pretty good story and every book needs a hard-core going-over once perspective has been gained.

(Sometimes there is a lather-rinse-repeat effect, too.)

I had also forgotten that revising = acknowledging how much I learned since I wrote the draft.

Here are some things I have learned since I drafted this book:

1)   If, early in the writing process, you think, ‘I wonder if this major, impossible-to-remove plot point, is going to be an issue for the vast majority of romance readers, and thus editors and agents?’ that is a good sign that the major, impossible-to-remove plot point is going to be an issue. Over and over and over again. I’m not saying scrap the book, but just know that no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make that issue go away. Maybe it will become what’s special and unusual and delightfully wonky about the book, or maybe it will be something reviewer say you have “handled well,” but it will never disappear.

2)   The rules that govern beginnings of novels (see this post, Ten Things I’ve Learned about Beginnings) do not trump the rules that govern good writing. In other words, just because a scene theoretically portrays your heroine as sympathetic, and allows some leisurely time for settling in, doesn’t mean it’s allowed to lack a scene goal and be drowning in interior monologue.

3)   There is a difference between Inside Out and Outside In.

This was my Ah-ha moment for this book. When I went back to reread it, I was shocked by how underdeveloped the characters were on the page. And when I went back to what I knew about the characters, I was shocked by how little it was. More to the point, I was shocked by the kinds of things I knew about the characters—more or less only those things that I’d been forced to figure out to serve the plot of the book. I knew my character’s jobs. I knew their internal conflicts and the wounds that had set those conflicts in motion. I knew how old they were and where they’d met (it’s a second chances story) and, loosely, why they’d parted ways.

But I had no feel for who they were. And when I say feel, I really mean feel. Everything I knew was thinky. Informational. Something you could list. What was missing was my sense of who they were—what kind of physical presence, what kind of person. How it would feel to be in a room with them. How I would feel about them.

I realized I had never known them, which meant—the key disaster—I had never loved them.

I’d built them from the Outside In, instead of the Inside Out. I’d put them together out of spare parts, plot Tinkertoys, instead of starting from my own emotions.

So I have my work cut out for me. I have a book that works on many levels. It’s well-plotted, full of hot sex scenes, and sometimes even compellingly told. But large swaths of it are arid, because I didn’t love my characters, so there’s no chance the reader could, either. Now I need to go back and reconnect. Or connect for the first time. How would it feel to see and smell and hold this man? Why does she love him? What is so charming about this woman that you would want to be her, inhabit her world, despite the wounds I’ve given her? How can I get that on the page?

I have to love them on every page, and I have to make the reader love them on every page.

It’s a lot of work. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Welcome to Step 3. This book you’ve written? It’s neither the best of books, nor the worst. It’s your book, and the only way forward is through it.