A revision process

Pen and paper notes

This is a glimpse of what my revision process has become by the third go-around. I still work using word processor documents and pen-and-paper, not yet anything special like Scrivener or manuscript-specific software.

Aged as if in oak barrels

The present series of works is hastily dubbed the Gift-Knight Trilogy. On average, the first draft of each work has sat between 6 to 8 years before any substantial tinkering occurred. This even holds true for the first book of the series, where I did not yet have any formal process for writing the book beyond “Write many words and hope it works”, nor any formal revision process beyond “Make the words better”.

In all cases, because self-editing was going to happen, I required time to put emotional distance between myself and the words. Sometimes, it’s not as if I didn’t try sooner than that, but I was honest with myself about how inadequate the process felt at the time, as if I wasn’t ready. Changes might have involved naming conventions and cosmetic tweaks, when I knew there might be more substantial “big picture” revisions required that I didn’t yet know how to address.

What fills the time? I steadily wrote a different manuscript every year, a different project. I also, you know, lived 6 to 8 years of my life and experienced everything that happened to me during that time interval. One way to create emotional distance is having everything else in life to think about instead.

Taking stock (direction: digital to paper)

If you’re wondering how, after all that time, I would remember the entirety of what’s in a manuscript, you’re on truth’s trail. I will not remember most of it, and that’s the point. My next step is to record notes on a media separate from the computer (I like not having to flip between tabs or windows or having to remember which document is which if I space out; if notes are pen-and-paper while the manuscript is on the screen, I will easily get the difference) while reading the text.

Few, if any, changes will be made to the manuscript at this point. These notes are where I take stock of what happens in every chapter of the present draft. I also record any thoughts off the top of my head of what scenes I would like to move to a different place, what names need changing to fit continuity in this case (when you write a complete rough draft trilogy before making final changes to the first one, then propagate those changes to the second one as you make final changes to that and more changes on top of the propagated ones… you can end up with fairly huge differences in names and continuity by the third book. Surprisingly, the general idea of the third book and most of its scenes remain intact even after all that), and regarding all that stuff in brackets that I just mentioned, anything that requires a complete rewrite because it no longer makes sense. When I believe I can write something better from scratch with less trouble than infinite tinkering to a problematic section, I will rewrite it, harvesting the original section for ideas and any small good ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in the new version.

I find that this is a great way to catch double-counted chapter numbers, or their close cousins, skipped chapter numbers. Just having the manual count on paper is somehow easier for me to parse than skipping around in a digital document. However, it’s important for me to be able to read the paper notes and the digital document and know where it lines up, so once the numbering goes out of perfect alignment, I will mark them down as “Chapter Eleven (Twelve)” for example, where the bracketed one is what it would be if I simply changed numbers, but the official one aligns with the unchanged manuscript that I’m reading.

But I don’t just change the numbers, not yet. There may be entire chapters created out of this restructuring process that render both of these counts inaccurate. I will only know how much of that is necessary after I do this.

Non-spoiler examples of notes from the current process

“So we need to fix every name here before we get much farther. No one’s name seems correct.”

“This is a Lucen chapter.”

“Good, we’ll have Jan’s flashback here, but take italics away and just set it up narratively.”

“We flip back to Alathea, but not for long.”

“GJ, double counted Chapter Seven.”

“Well here’s a part we can prolong and make wholly its own chapter or two.”

“Delete the word ‘hedgehog’.”

“Revisit Chapter Five?”

“So there is a main gate and an auxiliary gate after that? Why?”

“Frankly rewrite this entire part then.”

“So throw all this out unless it becomes useful […]”

(You see more of the “throw out” and “rewrite” as you get further along, because the continuity changes propagated from previous finished books in the series create more noticeable changes in the story as you get deeper into it. All those time travel fics where a seemingly small change in one person’s life leave the world altered beyond recognition over the course of years; well, that’s not a perfect analogy. Our timeline is more tightly controlled, but we aren’t just making one seemingly small change. There may be an effect where some sections become vastly altered, but because others don’t have to be, because we like those sections and we see that they still fit, we only tweak them to make sure that they fit seamlessly if possible. The other side of it specific to this book is that I’ve had better ideas about how it should end during these 6 to 8 years of avoiding this manuscript. One climactic scene was a direct rehashing of another one in the book immediately prior, and that couldn’t stay the same.)

“Throw out this scene. Keep any dialogue that worked.”

(By the lattermost chapters of the book, the notes are more about what to write when rewriting entire scenes, less about little tweaks and continuity; details I don’t want to forget by the time I actually go to write it. Don’t believe that “If it’s important you wouldn’t forget”; you can remember all sorts of things, useful and not, and you can have difficulty remembering all sorts of things, useful and not. Memory is funny. Often we write things down to augment our recall using external media, using pen and paper as a memory writing process and reading our notes as a process of remembering. Wow, that sounded way fancier than it had to.)

Outline of proposed chapters (direction: paper to digital)

I find it quaint using pen and paper in a process where hypothetically I might not have to. I have collected a few notebooks for their aesthetic, but taken years to find any reason to use them at all. One became a diet and gym log for several weeks. One became a dream journal. Frankly, for reasons I won’t go into here, I write slowly compared to many other people and I’m not nearly as comfortable holding and using a pen as I am typing with a reasonably ergonomic keyboard (or any keyboard, compared to writing with a pen, and this applies even more to a standard pencil). I never want to have conscious thought about the mechanics of a manual physical process stealing focus away when I might need every ounce of focus to compose fiction. I want to feel like my hands have the muscle memory to know what they’re doing, to know the home row of the qwerty keyboard and hit the right letters so my eyes can remain on the screen as much as possible, and focus on the story.

So I have found use for notebooks in being a “second screen” while taking stock of what’s already in a manuscript. However, the bulk of my process lives on digital, and I will need a new document in a new tab or file (oddly, the sort of thing I was previously avoiding) that tells me what I planned to do next so that I don’t have to remember everything off the top of my head. This next process sees me taking the pen-and-paper notes and typing in a crisp new document a chapter-by-chapter outline.

The outline for the book, in the present case, is about 10 pages and 5500 words long in a Word document. There rather quickly came a point where the chapter count in this outline lost alignment with the notes, so I’m glad I wasted no time “fixing” chapter numbers at a prior point in the process when I was only going to alter them further. The original manuscript ends at Chapter Twenty-three or an Epilogue. The notes list up to Chapter Twenty-six followed by an Epilogue. The outline of proposed chapters counts up to Thirty, followed by the Epilogue.

This has little to do with adding new material, because most of the new material to be added is replacing old material to be thrown out; true, the word count will come out longer. My first draft thoughts are rarely expanded enough, and beta readers want me to dig deeper. As a result, my revision process can actually increase the word count instead of tightening it up. The day I have a professional editor, I’m sure that will change. I’m not sure there will ever be that day, but we can imagine.

The shape of things to come

The paper notes will increasingly become less useful, and reduced to being mementos just like the ones for The Crown Princess’ Voyage. Ideally I would have put every useful suggestion in the outline, instantly rendering the notes obsolete. It’s still good to keep the notes in an easy-to-find place for the remainder of the process just in case. If you’re not so easily distracted or confused, you could probably accomplish this process entirely on digital, or entirely on paper as people used to do it before computers. Your process is up to you, I’m just showing you some of mine.

There will be three digital documents open on my screen.

One of them will be the outline. Every chapter numbered in this is marked as proposed: “Chapter One (PROPOSED)” for example. It’s all a proposal until something is actually done and committed to writing. I then have the option of removing the all-caps word in brackets to signify that I have finished that part in the revision process. I may do something else like render that section of the outline in italics, something that works as an easy visual placeholder; I have done this, I should scroll until I find the first item that’s still proposed and in plain script.

One of them will be a new document. This is going to be the new version of the manuscript, starting from blankness. Anything I need to copy over from the original manuscript, I’ll carry over at its exact time. I like this better than making mass edits to the original manuscript, losing my place at times, getting confused about what I have done or not done; no, if I have worked on Chapter One, the new document will contain just Chapter One, and I will know right away from scrolling where I’ve left off. Anything more complicated than that, like having to duck out for dinner or something else mid-process and I suppose I could leave a comment for myself just as I would during the first draft writing process. Getting stuck due to not remembering where I left off is an easy block to avoid, and we don’t need to struggle with things on this level; let’s just keep with the more challenging and abstract forms of writer’s block that require a nuanced understanding and approach, those are quite enough.

One of them will be the original manuscript. This is, generally, not to be edited. At the most, I would make find-and-replace name changes, because I would rather do that all in one go before proceeding than have to keep changing names every time I copy a passage out of this and into the new file. If you thought back to the notes, and how I needed to find ways to keep the alignment between differently numbered chapters, then you might get one reason why I should keep the paper notes handy. The new document will have the widest discrepancy in chapter numbers compared to the original manuscript. The notes will at least act as a bridge. If I like, I can keep a pen handy and put a check mark next to my current spot in the notes.

The expected result

The next step after this one would be simple and pedestrian in comparison. I can put the outline away. I can put the notes in a safe place. I can put the original manuscript away. Now, everything else having gone reasonably well, I have a new draft of the manuscript. Provided I only let this draft be the best thing I could make it at the time, provided it fits the continuity and naming conventions of the previous books, and provided I never left the previous process with some glaring structural change that should have been made in a prior step, I can re-read this new manuscript a few times for slight cosmetic shifts as I prepare it for release. At least now I have one document in one tab, one window, to work with.

Fascinated or at least amused? My revision process is itself subject to revision. The Masked Queen’s Lament is the first book where I will have gone through this exact process described, one I arrived at through the growing pains of revising two previous novels and not being coached through anything in any way whatsoever. It may look dirty and asymmetrical because it came about in an “organic”, vaguely systematic manner from a place of isolation. If something feels like it doesn’t work, I can always change it up next time.