Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Eureka Re-Vision Moment (with a fun look at other writers' visual snapshots of their revision processes)

I mentioned last week that when it came to being on the receiving end of a critique, I was a weird mix of anxiety and arrogance. My inability to take criticism is one of the reasons why it took me so long to break through and get that first publishing deal.

Another big thing that tripped me up was my misunderstanding of the revision process -- and by "tripped me up" I mean "took me 15 years." (during which time I wrote and "revised" 5 books)

Arrogance. I knew how to write. I'd been writing since I could hold a pen. I majored in Creative Writing in college. I worked on a freaking MFA in Poetry.

Arrogance. I knew how to write a short story. I had stories published, damn it.

Anxiety. --that naggy voice in my head whispering: "If you know so well how to do this, why isn't it working for you?"

A little background on my Revision Process--such as it was--from my teenage years up to six years ago:

I wrote something. I fiddled around with it. I edited it. DONE

And when I started writing books:

I wrote a sentence. I fiddled with that sentence until it was perfect. I moved on to Sentence Two. I made it to the end of one of these beautifully constructed sets of sentences and prided myself on what I had. Not a first draft, but more like a 3rd or 4th draft. Immediately, I sent this brilliant gem of a manuscript out to editors and agents....
              ...and collected a nice pile of rejections.

The turning point came six years ago when I went to a Highlights Foundation workshop on revision and the speaker suggested putting the completed first draft away (because this is what it is, folks, no matter how polished, a FIRST draft--your very first time through the story from beginning to end.) Let it sit for a month or two. Print it off in a different font (That little tidbit in and of itself was worth the price of admission for me) and read the thing through as a whole completed story.

Revision means literally Re-Vision-- looking at your story, again, and seeing what you actually have there. THE BOOK on the page. And not the book you imagined. (Sigh) (I will note here that even now when I read a first draft through from beginning to end, I feel intense waves of nausea as I contemplate how crappy it is and how much work I have yet to do.)

There was more illuminating information thrown at us during that session and I took notes like a maniac trying to get it all down, light bulbs popping in my head. In all my years of writing I had never thought of revision like this before.

And no wonder.

I had been trained at writing short stories. I can keep a short story--the entire thing-- in my head at once. If I wanted to (not that I ever did), I could print off the pages and arrange them on my dining room table and look at them.

You can't do that with a book.

It's really really hard to keep an entire book-- all the plot strands and character arcs and scenes and bits of dialogue --in your head at once. Even if you are an outliner (I'm not) your draft may drift away from you, meander off in different directions, gallop toward some other story (maybe a BETTER story) than the one you envisioned when you started.

I don't care how beautifully written each of your sentences are, when you get to the end of a first draft, it is still a first draft, and if your drafts are like mine, they are a mess. (See intense waves of nausea, above)

This past weekend I presented a session at a regional SCBWI conference on how to move from a messy first draft toward what will eventually be a draft that you can submit to an agent or editor. Something I know now, that I did not know six years ago when I shuffled into that revision workshop at Highlights, is that there is no one right way to Do This. And my way--the way I eventually figured out through trial and error and lots and lots of crappy drafts-- is not the only way. In fact, with each book I have to figure out the process again.

I won't bore you with all the details, unless you're interested-- and in that case, email me and I'll send you my latest method  jodycasella (@) yahoo (.) com

In the meantime, for your visual pleasure, take a look at some other writers' snapshots of their writing and revision process:

(Erin Dealey)

(Jennifer Salvato Doktorski)

(Bill Thomas)

(Liz Coley)

(Natalie D. Richards)

(Stephanie Kuehnert)

(Kristina McBride) 

(Mindee Arnett) 

(CJ Flood)

(Jennifer Mann)

(Kristy Boyce)

(Claire Caterer)

(Kristi Belcamino)

(Crissa-Jean Chappell) 

(Nova Ren Suma)
(William Faulkner)

Oh yes. That's William Faulkner, one of the great American novelists.

Even old WF needed a little help with revision. The story is his wife wasn't too thrilled that he'd scrawled some of his draft... on the walls of their house.

PS. A HUGE thank you to all of the writers above (including William Faulkner) for sharing their revision processes with me!!


  1. Aw, thanks for including me, Jody!

  2. Wow. You people are all so much more methodical than I am! I do the "print it out in a different font" step (in fact, I print it out to look like galleys so I can pretend it's a real book) but none of the beautiful post-it maps or spreadsheets. I doff my hat!

    1. Aren't they awesome? I've loved looking at these photos. So inspiring.

  3. Thanks for including me. I freely admit absolute jealousy over some of these revision styles. Some of these methods are like art. So pretty!

    1. Thanks, Nat. I didn't think of that way, but you're right: it IS like art.