One of the best sessions I attended at this year’s NESCBWI conference was Kate Messner’s workship entitled “Real Revision: Big Picture and Line by Line.” Messner is an engaging speaker — probably because of her background as a middle school teacher — but the main reason this workshop earns a “Best of 2013” rating from me is because it was filled with usable tips, guidelines, and insight into the somewhat daunting process of novel revision.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I signed with an agent earlier this year. (Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary!) What that means is that I’m currently working on revisions to my novel. It can get overwhelming to think about all of the pieces that you want to work with, everything that needs to be edited or changed or downright rewritten. Where do you start? How do you keep from losing what you loved about the book in the first place? How do you keep track of what you need to do and how do you even know what that is in the first place?
I can’t pretend to have the answers. What I do know is that Messner’s workshop was a godsend. Based on the exercises we did, and the work I’ve done since then, here are my four biggest take-aways. They’re helping me — maybe they’ll help you.
- Make a Chart. Or maybe more than one. Right now, I’m working on a chart that maps out which chapters my characters show up in, which chapters have scenes in which settings, which chapters include important elements or repeating events or objects, and which chapters tie into my major theme (this last one should really be all of them, and I’m seeing that that’s not the case, which led to some truly exciting revision ideas). I’ve also charted out which chapters include lots of action and which are quieter (the novel is a thriller), and I’m actually really pleased with the pacing as it is, which makes me feel good.
- Question Everything. I tend to get unconsciously stuck on ideas. Even where I think I’m being open, I may be attached to something non-essential that isn’t working and try to reorganize a scene around it without realizing it. Questioning everything doesn’t mean you need to change everything. But asking “what if” about every element can get you thinking about what is essential and what can be sacrificed.
- Admit Your Weaknesses. My major weakness is setting. I don’t use my setting as effectively and interestingly as I could, my description tends to be bland and full of clichés, and I often resort to “choreography” where I describe what people are doing but don’t ground it in meaningful setting details that could communicate more meaning. By admitting that it’s a weakness, I can pay attention to it and look for opportunities to improve, which will improve the novel.
- Charge Ahead. This is actually a life philosophy of mine. When a task feels completely overwhelming and I don’t know where to begin, I just start anywhere. Generally, that will give me an idea as to the best way to approach the task and I can step back and be more organized in my approach. This happened to me last week. I dove in, got very frustrated, and have now stepped back and figured out how to proceed…but it was the diving in that broke the paralysis and made me less afraid of what lies ahead.