Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revision--Shannon Style (Part Three: Critiques)

For those of you who haven't been following this series (or just don't remember because I ramble about so many things it's hard for you to keep up) I've spent the last two weeks talking about my revision process. I've covered my drafting process HERE and my own personal revision process HERE. And today I'm going to talk a little about what I call the third "phase" of my revision process: The CP/Beta Phase.

Mind you--as you know from those previous posts--my poor CPs have already been involved throughout the whole process. In fact, by the end of this phase, they'll have read my draft three times (have I mentioned how amazing the Sara(h)s are? Cause um...YEAH! They = awesome.) So obviously the CP/Beta phase has a lot more to it than: send draft to CPs. (Though that would have made this post nice and easy to write).

And since today's phase is a pretty painful part of the process, I'm bringing out the big guns before we get started. The chocolate COVERED Twizzlers.

Why the big guns? Because what I'm really talking about in this post is: how I work through critique notes. Which is not an easy thing to do.

Though, I'll admit. I'm currently a very lucky girl. I have two wonderful, smart, talented Critique Partners who have the perfect blend of "getting what I'm trying to do" and "pushing me to make me better." They still give me a ton of notes to wade through. But I never have to worry that I will completely disagree with their take on my project.

It...wasn't always that way. For a long time I didn't even have CPs. And then, as I tried to find them I had some...interesting experiences.

Nothing against those readers--at all. Writing is just subjective, and not everyone will like the same things or get what you're trying to do or read things as fast as you'd like or work well with you. It happens. And I'll talk more about finding CPs in another post someday (once I figure out what the heck to say in it) but for now, since we're talking about critiques, I'll just briefly cover how *I* judge if I can work from a critique, or if it's...off.

Here's the thing. I actually have a very thick skin. No really, I do. I couldn't have survived film school if I didn't. (Let me put it this way: we had to read our scenes out loud, in front of the class, and then everyone--including the teacher--told you what you did wrong. It. was. brutal.) So...I'm good with criticism. I don't ENJOY it. But it doesn't freak me out. At least, not when I can see their point. And I'm pretty darn good at seeing their point.

So when I get notes back on my draft, I've learned to listen to my gut reaction to them. Let's face it: even though we all know we're going to get notes back, and they're not going to say: IT'S PERFECT--DON'T CHANGE A THING!, deep down, we're secretly hoping it'll be like: add a few commas here, tweak these five lines of dialogue and you're golden. So...when we get back SIGNIFICANTLY more notes than that, it's kind of like a punch to the gut. Like, "crap...I have a lot more work to do."

But that is an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT FEELING from: "wow...they, hated my project" or "wow, I completely disagree with what they're saying" or "wow, I hate their suggestions." That reaction is a sick-to-your-stomach-curl-up-in-the-fetal-postion-and-sob kind of reaction--and I've learned from past stressful experiences that it means the critique is off. Doesn't mean they're WRONG (maybe their suggestions would work if I wanted to change the book into something different from where I was going.) But they're not right for me.

So I have actually thrown out entire batches of notes from people, because they just didn't see my project the same way I did. It was scary and hard for me to do that--because I'm not one to dig in my heels and say, "no--I'm RIGHT!" But if thick-skinned me is nauseous because I just don't like anything they had to say about my draft...well...I've learned that my gut is telling me what I'm too afraid to admit: that the critique is off. And if the same thing ever happens to you, I hope you'll come to realize that it's okay--you don't HAVE to do what the notes say. Think carefully about them of course. But you can reject them if they don't fit.

And fortunately, I now have The Sara(h)s, so that hasn't happened to me in a long time. But...that doesn't mean I apply every single one of their notes. Again, I've learned to listen to my gut. I have some methods I use to judge the notes, but I'll cover those next week, because that is a HUGE part of my fourth phase of revision: The Agent Phase. So for now, let's just skip to the part after I've decided what I do and don't agree with and have a plan. Here's how I tackle the draft from there:

The Sara(h)s send me their notes as a word doc, with comments in the margins. Before I start working on them, I create an entirely new version of the draft (usually Master Draft 2 at that point). Then I open their notes file, along with my new draft and work side by side. (Oh, and I should mention, I tackle one Sara(h)s notes at a time, so every chapter gets reworked at least twice)

I scroll to their first comment. Scroll to that part of the draft, and reread. Half the time it's a quick fix. Adding more description. Clarifying or correcting an inconsistency. Trimming something repetitive. Finding a better word. Etc. Sometimes it's something bigger and I may have to rewrite a large section of a scene, or make a big cut. Either way, as I work, I highlight all the changes in teal highlighter, so they stand out in the draft like this. 


I do that because it makes it easier for me to see the draft evolve. I know some people do "track changes" and let Word keep track of all of that for them. But that feature drives me crazy because it marks every. little. change. I just want to track the big stuff, so I can see what I did to the scene and really make sure the new stuff is consistent with the other stuff. If it reads seamlessly--even with the glaring teal highlighter--I know I have it right. If the new stuff stands out, I need to blend more. 


Bonus: I can resend it to the Sara(h)s with the highlighter in there, that way if they're strapped for time, all I ask is that they read the highlighted sections to see if they're satisfied by the change. They don't have to reread the whole thing again--unless they want to--because they've already read it twice and are starting to get too close anyway. 


Which is where my Beta Readers come in.


I know, you're probably wondering what the difference between a CP and a Beta reader is. Everyone draws their own distinction, but for me a CP is someone I'm going to let read my REALLY messy stuff, someone who's going to brainstorm with me, someone who's going to read chapter by chapter because I want them to be really thorough, and someone who is going to read the draft multiple times. My Betas are the people who get the full draft all in one go (sans highlighting), it will be much cleaner (in theory) and they will probably only read it once. Basically I'm bringing them in for "fresh eyes." 


They also read much quicker because--while I, of course, want them to note anything that bothers them--I don't want them constantly having to slow down to make tiny tweaks and comments. What I'm really looking for at that point is: pacing, believable character arcs, and does the plot make sense? And that becomes MUCH clearer when the draft is read in as few sittings as possible. 


I have a number of different people who Beta-read for me, and I use them based on their availability. Usually they get a desperate email saying, "Hey--are you too busy to do a quick read?" And if I send the draft to them, they know I'm hoping to get it back from them in about a week--unless of course something comes up for them. They read nice and quick and send me the draft back--usually with a lot less comments than a critique. But it's AMAZING what they catch. I definitely, DEFINITELY recommend using Betas in your process.


From there, I do one more round of adjusting based on my Beta-Reader's feedback, sometimes asking The Sara(h)s to read isolated scenes or chapters if I made a major change. And once they're happy and I'm feeling like I've done all I can do, then...*gulp*...it goes to Laura. 


And we enter the dreaded Agent Phase, which I will talk about next week.


*Phew*--do you see why we needed the chocolate covered Twizzlers this time? That is a LOT of work. I tell ya, this process is not for the feint of heart! But it's what turns my draft from a mess of word vomit into something presentable enough to show my agent--so it's worth it.


Still...I think I'm going to need some chocolate covered Twizzlers now. *noms* Anyone want to join me?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Revision--Shannon Style (Part Two: Personal Revisions)

Last week I talked about my revision method during rough drafting, which--in a nutshell--is that I do SOME tweaking on big, important things, and try to leave the rest for later. (If you missed it, you can read the post HERE).

So now we're up to the second phase of my revision process: the Personal Phase. Which is basically just a more official way of saying: the phase where I dive in and try to clean up my own mess. And believe me, it's QUITE a mess to clean up.

(Ugh--I need a truckload of chocolate and Twizzlers just thinking about this...)

So this is basically the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dive-in-head-first stage. And I always start by turning to the handy: Things I need to Fix File (which I talked about last week). It's usually at least 10 pages long at that point (single spaced no less--I told you, I am a MESSY drafter). And I read through it several times so I really familiarize myself with it.

Some of the things on there are clear what I have to do. But most of them are simply "problems." Meaning I know something's wrong, but I haven't quite figured out how to fix it. Which means it's time for a brainstorming session with my CPs--another huge reason why I have them read the draft as I write it. That way they're up to speed with me and can help me figure this stuff out, (Yes, even though this is the Personal Stage, I make my poor CPs work) (Yes, I rely VERY heavily on my CPs.) (Yes, it's amazing they put up with me) (Yes, I probably need to send them more presents)

Okay, so, the brainstorming session. Basically I log into a chat with one of them and start with something along the lines of: THERE'S THIS BIG PROBLEM WITH MY DRAFT AND I CAN'T THINK OF ANY WAY TO FIX IT AND I'LL NEVER FIND THE ANSWER AND DOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!

And they (after most likely running to grab a GIANT bottle of alcohol) say: Okay, so tell me what the problem is.

So I ramble for...5-10 minutes. Explaining what the problem is, and what solutions I've already rejected and why (and yes, there's plenty of whining in the mix too). And then, we play the "What if?" game.

They throw out ideas. I reject them. I throw out ideas. They poke holes in them. Round and round we go. Usually for at least an hour. But the AMAZING thing about that process is: I ALWAYS end the chat with the solution. Every. Single. Time. 

There's something to be said for tossing out bad ideas. Nothing makes it clearer what WILL work, than thinking about what WON'T work. I highly recommend it.

So after thanking them a million, zillion times and telling them I'd be lost without them and promising them my kidney and a small piece of my liver, I am ready to dive in to the revision. Which means...rereading. A lot, lot, LOT of rereading.

I know some people at this point like to revise on paper. I hate it. I hate making notes for myself and then having to go back and apply them. I would so much rather save time and make the change right then. So I work in the actual file. And yes, I know, that does mean I might delete something I regret. Which is why I create a new file called: Draft One--Deleted Pieces. I cut, copy, and paste pretty much everything in there. Single words, no. But sentences--yes. And certainly big chunks. Every so often I do go back and take something from there, so it's worth the time. Plus, it's fun to see how much the draft has improved when I reread that garbage.

Anyway, when I work through the draft, I work chapter by chapter. I read the chapter once, tweaking anything from the "Things I need to fix file." Then I read again, to see how I like the changes, and if they bring up any new issues, etc. I read again, watching for repetitive phrases and words. I read it out loud, to catch awkward rhythm--especially with the dialogue. I read again, trying to ask myself if what I'm saying is clear and if I've described the setting enough. Then I read again, to see if the writing feels like it's good enough, or if I need to push myself to do better.

All of which means I do a lot of: listening to my gut. 

Deep down, I KNOW when something's wrong with my book. Do I still miss stuff? Of course--because I'm just too darn close to the project. (That's why my revision process doesn't end here) But over my years of writing I have found time and again that whenever I let something go, something I'm just not happy with but think--eh, I'm probably over-thinking it. I WILL get notes on that very same thing. My inner editor isn't as dumb as I sometimes think she is. So I'm learning to listen to her. 

Usually takes me 3-4 hours per chapter to feel like I've gotten it to a point where there's nothing more I can do. At which point, I send it to my CPs for a much more thorough critique than they did the first time, and move on to the next chapter. (Okay, fine, I have a VERY bad habit of rereading the chapter one more time the next day and making a bunch more changes and sending my poor CPs an email titled: DON'T USE THOSE PAGES--USE THESE!!!!!!) (I always promise myself I won't do it) (And at least half the time, I do) (It really is amazing they haven't flown to California to beat me over the head with my laptop)

And from that point, it's out of my hands, until I get feedback from CPs. Which is one of the reasons why I like working chapter by chapter with them. I know it's a bit harder to get a feel for the pacing, but I like that I always have something to work on, so I don't get to that point where I've sent off the ENTIRE DRAFT and can now do nothing but bite my nails and obsessively check my email and try not to go insane while I wait for them to get it back to me. Instead, I have the next chapter to work on. And by the time I get to the end I have an inbox full of critiqued chapters to go back to. I let my Beta Readers address the pacing in the CP/Beta Phase. Which I will talk about next week.

So there you go--a relatively scary glimpse into the crazy way I attack my drafts. Sadly, all I've probably accomplished with this post is making you feel VERY sorry for my CPs (and VERY happy you're not one of them). And many of you probably work very differently from this. But this is what works for me. Still a long way to go from here. But I'll talk about that next week.

*Phew* 

That was stressful. I think I need more chocolate. Anyone want to join me? *noms* And what about you guys: how do YOU attack your drafts during the first round of revision?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Revision--Shannon Style (Part One: Drafting)

As promised last week, this month I'll be using my Tuesday, Shannon-Style posts to talk about what is probably the most painful and difficult part of the writing process: Revision.

*shudder*

I mean, doesn't that word strike fear in your heart? It does for me. (I've mentioned the revision-is-stressful diet, right? Yeah, I'm down TWO dress sizes thanks to that bad boy.)

So why is it so hard? 

Because the way I see it: Writing is just word vomit on the page. Revision is when you have to clean that vomit into something good. It's icky. It can feel impossible. And most of the time you wish you could pay someone else to do it. But unfortunately, it has to be done. 

And there's a million-and-a-half ways to go about it. It's one of those things that everyone has to find their own method for. So all I can really do is share mine. It may work for you. It may not. All I know is: this is what works for me. And you've asked me about it. So I'm sharing. 

Basically--as always with these Shannon-Style posts--take the advice. Then salt to taste. Okay? Okay.

But before we get started, since we're talking about REVISION--and most of us are probably dying inside just a little because of it. And since this is Shannon-Style, and my AWESOME CPs send me revision care packages to help me survive...

*sends virtual cupcakes and chocolate and twizzlers*

Doesn't that make you feel better?

*noms*

See, revision's not so bad now right? 

Okay, fine. It is. But let's get to it anyway.

For me, revision is a process I tackle in four different stages: the Drafting Stage, the Personal Stage, the CP/Beta Stage, and the Agent Stage. They of course have crossovers and what-not. But for organizational purposes, I'm going to break these posts up the same way, and cover one every Tuesday. Which means today we're talking about: the Drafting Stage.

But wait--you say. You've read time and time again from all these famous authors (who are way more successful than lil' ole me, btw) that you're not supposed to revise when you're writing your rough draft. That's why it's your ROUGH draft. You're just supposed to go go go go go until you type, "The End," and THEN you can start revising. 

To which I say: Yes, I've heard that too. And I just. can't. work. that. way. 

I've tried--believe me, I've TRIED. I just can't do it. I'm too much of a perfectionist. I'm too OCD. 

Cause here's the thing: yes, when I'm drafting I get in that: ooo-shiny-new-words-everything-I-write-is-GOLD!!!!!!!! zone. I do. And MAN that's an awesome place to be. BUT, I still--even in the drafting stage--have those: this-isn't-working-the-scene-can't-go-this-way-it-just-can't!!!!!!! moments. And I just can't move on until I feel like I'm on the right track. I have to go back.

Now, I'll confess, when I first started writing, I did it wrong. I didn't just go back. I started over. I threw out entire chapters over and over. I was on draft ten before I even got to "the end." And when I got there--as tends to happen--I realized what I'd REALLY been doing wrong. And I had to go back and throw a ton of it out and start over again. 

Don't do that. That was very frustrating and not cool and I definitely don't recommend it.  THAT'S why they tell you not to go back. Not just because its a big old time suck, but also because it's INCREDIBLY discouraging. It's so easy to feel like: I will never get this right and give up before you even finish. I'm very lucky that didn't happen to me. So I don't let myself do that anymore. I've learned from my mistakes.

But I've also learned that I have to sometimes listen to my inner editor as I draft. Why? Because a lot of times, she's right (the smug little minx).

That little voice telling me this moment shouldn't happen yet, or shouldn't happen at all, or needs to happen differently? She's right. And I'm not going to just pretend I don't know that and keep going blindly forward. I can't. I won't. And I don't think I should have to.

But I also don't want to fall back into my old, bad habits either. So I've come up with a few rules for myself to try to keep the right balance. 

When I'm drafting, I will revise IF:

-The scene/character/plot has started to go in a different direction than where I need/want the book to go. Otherwise I could steer way off course, and make a big old mess for myself. 

-I get to the end of the scene and realize NOTHING HAPPENED IN THERE! This is a dead giveaway that I've lost sight of my plot and need to take a minute and figure out what's actually going on. Then go back and include that in the scene.

-I realize the moment I've just written needs to fall in a different place in the book's timeline. Most of the time this just means moving the scene to a different document and adding it in later. But it needs to be done in order to move forward properly.

-I discover a giant, gaping plot hole that needs to be addressed--stat. Partially because this just messes with my head too much to ignore. But also because HUGE GAPING PLOT HOLES take a LOT of work to fix. Best get started on that early. And make sure it CAN be fixed.

I've also given myself some Don'ts, to keep myself in check. So I am NOT allowed to go back for:

-Bad/repetitive writing. I know it's there. It happens to all of us. But it's not important at this stage. I'll clean it up later.

-Pacing issues. Pacing is IMPOSSIBLE to determine until the draft is complete. So even though I KNOW I'm running long/short, I'm not allowed to go back and cut/add. Yet. 

-Tiny plot/character inconsistencies. They happen as you get to know your characters. But there's no way you're going to find them all unless you reread the entire draft. So save that for the revision stage.

-Clarifying/adding description. This is one of my big tics (probably stems from my screenwriting experience). I tend to forget to like, describe the setting or the characters or clarify the rules of my world (what--I know this stuff, don't my readers like, instinctively know it?) Again, it's one of those things that affects every scene. I can fix when I work through the draft as a whole.

Makes sense, right? (Well, it does to me at least). And I try try TRY to follow them. But, I'll confess, sometimes it's hard. So I've added three other tricks to help me obey. 

1) I keep a separate document titled: Things I need to go back and fix. Anything that falls into those red "don't" categories that's driving my inner editor crazy gets noted here. It tends to shut her up. Like, oh, okay, it's been noted. We're aware of the problem. We have it on a "to do" list--often cited by page and chapter number. NO NEED TO PANIC.  Makes a big, big difference. Bonus: it makes it nice and easy to know where to start with my REAL revisions. I have this clear, organized list to get started on.

2) I set self-imposed deadlines and word count goals and force myself to meet them. Which means I HAVE to move forward, even when my inner editor is SCREAMING at me to go back. My inner self disciplinarian is stronger than her. She shuts her up like none other.

3) I send chapters to my CPs almost as soon as I finish them. I know. This is SCARY. It was really, really hard for me to get to a point where I was okay with this because a) um...my pages are a MESS at that point. And I don't like anyone to see my mess. It's like letting them peek under my bed and see all the clutter and vomit I try to hide from the world. (Okay, there's no vomit under my bed. At least I hope there's not. *eyes the cats suspiciously* But you see my point. ) And b) getting notes from CPs could, very easily, tempt me to go back and do all kinds of tweaking I'm not quite ready to do. 

So why do I do it? Because what's even SCARIER is that voice in my head saying: this sucks. I'm wasting my time. No one will like this. I'm a hack. I'll never write anything good--ever. DOOOOOOM! Yes, my head is NOT a pretty place when I write. I have all kinds of different voices I battle. It can be a little debilitating. 

Fortunately I have the incredibly awesome Sara(h)s, who have no problem being my cheerleaders. So I send them my very rough chapters as soon as I'm done writing them, with the only instructions being: let me know if this sucks and watch for any huge, gaping plot holes. And they read quick and respond with the: OMG I LOVE THIS AND WANT MORE! encouragement I need to keep going. 

Do they sometimes give me notes for things I'm not really supposed to be adjusting yet? Of course. And I even tell them that if they notice something I'd prefer they mark it. But I'm pretty good about copying and pasting those notes into the "Things I need to go back and fix" file, and saving them for later. Plus, sometimes they find some big, gaping plot holes I missed. And then I can fix those before I weave the mistake through the whole draft. Win and WIN.

So basically, my approach is kind of a middle ground approach to drafting. I'm not a pure "word-vomit only" kind of person. I do revise as I go. But I try to limit the revision to the essentials only. Just enough to stop my inner editor from going insane, but not letting her run the show either. 

Because there is a LOT to be said for getting to the end of the draft. It's AMAZING how clear so many things become once you get there. You really do want to save the bulk of your revising for after that point. But that doesn't mean you can't do SOME along the way. It's all about balance, imho. Works for me anyway. 

And that's the real lesson. Like I said at the beginning. It's about finding what works for YOU. Try different things until you find the right system. And never do something just because it's the way you're "supposed to do it." There's no x + y - z = International bestseller (at least, I don't think so. If you guys know about it, please--do tell.) You just have to find your own way through this frustrating, murky process. Write. Revise. And Repeat.

Okay, I *think* that covers my drafting process pretty well. Any questions? Comments? Concerns? Tips? Pointers? Revision snack of choice that helps more than chocolate or Twizzlers? Feel free to share in the comments.