Nov 11 • 51M

The 30-Day Revision: Episode 338 How KJ Revised a Novel in 30 Days/189 Hours and approximately 72 Chocolate-Covered Peeps

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Entertaining, actionable advice on craft, productivity and creativity for writers and journalists in all genres, with hosts Jessica Lahey, KJ Dell'Antonia and Sarina Bowen.

Many of you have heard me (this is obviously KJ) whine about my revision in process. Well, I’m here to report that it’s done, and successfully. Below is a full description of the process, and in the episode you’ll hear me talking about it with Jennie Nash. I detail everything except the Peeps that fueled me, and I decided it was wrong to leave them out.

So, in addition to a lot of butt-in-chair time and a surprising number of hours spend really just staring the at screen, I should own that I also ate a lot of Halloween peeps and most of a bag of fun-sized $100,000 bars. And I would have eaten the whole bag but someone else beat me too it, and they owe me big.

Here it is in writing, THE LONG VERSION: How to do a substantial novel revision in 30 days

The Overview

I had a long, rambling, completed draft of a book with a solid plot and decent thematic/internal story. The magic system was unclear and the romance undeveloped, and I had too many side-characters and too many scenes that weren’t doing more than one job. Because it’s a seasonal book, I couldn’t take my time with a revision without getting pushed another full year out. So we were shooting for publication in less than a year—and we needed to leave some time, tbh, for me to get this wrong and have to fix it again. Thus: 30 days to a revision that involved nearly a full rewrite, even though the characters, story and in particular the plot excitement of the ending would stay the same.

What the hell did I sell?

At the time, I thought I sold a solid, almost-ready 102K draft.  Looking back, I see I sold an idea (Grown-up Gilmore Girls meets Practical Magic with a stolen set of family Tarot cards with powers and a mission of their own) and a rambling, creaky proof-of-concept draft with a solid plot at its core and characters my editor liked and wanted to spend time with.

What this was: Same basic plot, both inside and out. I’ve done revisions that required altering a major plot point or removing characters. This did not.

Same characters.

Same themes, but narrowed and clarified.

A few thoughts on that—the draft I sold was, in my mind, intentionally “edit-able”. There comes a point in a draft when editing it is hard. When what you have is both very polished and tightly wound, the editor may be able to see what’s wrong, but pulling it out will be more painful for the writer, because you’ve locked down all the story elements to intertwine and all the language, etc. This wasn’t that—when I yanked out scenes, they were at least flabby or tangential. I didn’t have to feel too bad about it. And the story wasn’t quite locked in as well. So none of this was unexpected. I know this editor likes to edit and is really good at it.

That said, it WAS a … third or fourth draft or fifth, I can’t remember. I’d done a lot of work on it. When I let go of it I thought it was pretty darn good. When I got it back I was like, OMG I can’t BELIEVE I gave this to anyone, it’s so long and there are scenes that don’t go anywhere and it takes forever to get to the point. And in many ways I had done too much writing work on a story that wasn’t ready to be written (although some of that is necessary for me to find the story).

So a) I thought this was a lot better than it was and b) even after you sell a book, sometimes there is substantial work still to be done and that is fine, it doesn’t mean you’re terrible and the story is crap and the editor is staring at it and thinking, I cannot believe I bought this horrible piece of junk. (Or so I kept telling myself, over and over and over.) And c) apparently what you go out with can be (and will be) far, far from perfect. Even if you think it is.

All that said, some editors don’t edit. I was talking with another writer at a party recently, a NYT best-seller who broke out on her seventh novel, and has written 2 more since, told me that she doesn’t get edited any more. That may be because of her skill and experience (and if so, I am so not there and can go back to feeling terrible about this draft) but I’ve heard the same from newer novelists. And debut novelists, although that situation is a little different, as our debuts are usually the product of a longer period of work and often working with paid editors or readers.

I knew this editor and knew what to expect. If I was submitting to an unknown editor, I would submit something that—to me—was ready to go. Which, I should say, does not mean that it won’t get the same big editorial treatment, so it’s important to be ready for that and accept it. It also doesn’t mean it wouldn’t need it.

The goal for this go-round.

Major notes from my editor: it’s too long, and it drags. The magic system is unclear. The motivations of several major secondary characters who move the plot are unclear. The love story is an afterthought. There’s too much of one secondary character and not enough of 2 others. Too much internal monologue, too many conversations in parts that should be action. The deep backstory (i.e where the magic comes from) should be super-clear to me but mostly unseen by the reader.

Minor notes: Some scenes don’t work hard enough. Magic should be more magical. The stakes are high, but make it more clear what they are. More descriptions of the cute town and shop.

My editor suggested a fresh structure of the first half of the book that moved it more quickly, which was very helpful. There are two inciting incidents, and we moved things so one of them happens very very quickly (the return of the magic) and the other later, after the first had more time to develop (the magic goes badly).

I had two calls with my editor, the first before she wrote her (10 page!) editorial letter and the second after I’d read it. I didn’t do any revision in between—I re-wrote the flap copy and worked on their author questionnaire (and if you’ve never done one of those, they’re quite long). We also wrote the tagline. Both of those—the flap copy and the tagline—were really helpful in reminding me what it was I was doing here, especially the tagline, which ended up on a post-it on my desktop: Flair is done with magic. But magic isn’t done with her.

I needed to cut at least 10K words, make the magic, the plot and the motivations of the characters around it clear, bring the romance forward and take out a lot of action (and a few tertiary characters and events) that were obscuring the main story.

An aside: I think we’re either writers who stuff too much into the story (and write long) or writers who get right to the point (and write short). Whichever you are, outlining a favorite book in your genre or one that really did whatever your goal is (page-turner, thought-provoking, slow burn) successfully for you can really help. How many additional characters and plotlines were there? Which did you remember at the end of the book? How many did you really love, or really contributed to the book’s success with you? Did they move the plot and the inner story or just one or the other?

I did this during my revision and found it really helpful. Again. For me, outlining—or at least thinking about specific elements—of books I hope to be like on some level is always a good move.

The numbers

Original: 102K/330 pp 36 chapters

Revision: 83K/298 pp 30 chapters

30 days/189.5 hours of butt-in-chair. This does not count anxiety dreams, walks to think through problems or time spent staring at other people and nodding while thinking about book.

Longest day: 11 hours (I had 2 11 hour days and 5 10 hour days)

What did that look like? 7-8 hours before dinner, with a substantial dinner stop that often included a walk or short bike ride, then back at it until 11 pm or so. I’m a natural night owl, so that’s not that hard for me.

Shortest: 1.5 (I traveled 3x during the 30 days, so I knew in advance that there would be several days when I did very little.)

 The shortest “real” day—as in, I didn’t drive for 8 hours or spend a full day in family activity—was 6 hours. I’d consider that a normal day, and if I hadn’t been in a rush I would say that’s about ideal.

Average: 6.3

The mechanics

I made one big decision first thing: I decided not to work in the draft, even though it had (relatively few) line notes from my editor. Instead, I decided to return to Scrivener.

The big advantage to Scrivener is the ability to move from chapter to chapter easily—as in, when you realize you’re quoting something said in an earlier chapter, it’s in the outline off to the side and easy to pop up and see, or if you realize you’ve forgotten something, ditto. That’s really tough in 300 pp in Word, or even if you pull out each chapter and work on them separately in Word. And the risk of choosing an old version is high for me.  This worked really well, and I would do it again on any revision where I didn’t need to be following line notes in Word. The ease of moving around a doc in Scrivener cannot be beat.

I also decided not to pull out each chapter, put it in Scrivener and plan to revise it. Here’s why—there was a LOT in this draft that wasn’t going to make it into the final. At a minimum I needed to cut 10K/15pp. But truly, so much needed re-writing as much as revising—or maybe I should say, there was a lot of new material that needed to fit in. It would be easier to take what I needed from the old draft and add it to new stuff than to cut things, especially things I liked. Most of the scenes I needed had been written, but interspersed with scenes I did not. It was MUCH easier not to even look at those scenes again unless, say, I began writing a conversation and thought –they’ve done this before. Then I’d go dig it out.  

Instead, I tackled it bit by bit, taking out the part I planned to work on and creating a Scrivener folder for it. I divided my book into about 6 sections—broadly, the beginning, the beginning of the middle, the midpoint scenes, the beginning of the end, the big action at the end and then the end. I planned for it all to end up in Scrivener and to compile it out from there.

I often did the editing in Word by pulling out, say, three chapters that needed to become 2, dumping them into a fresh word doc (that way I got my editor’s comments, too), giving it a name and working in there by also opening a dumping ground word doc next to (on desktop) or behind (laptop) it. I’d pull out a huge chunk, put it in the dumping ground and then go snatch lines or paragraphs as needed. This also gave me confidence, because the original always remained whole. I could always go back and get something if I needed it.

Those Word docs looked like this:

I drafted new material in Scrivener. Once or twice, I duplicated a chapter so that I could try something and see if it worked but easily go back to a previous version, which Scrivener also makes easy. I did some smaller chapter revisions in Scrivener too, although often I did them in Word and then pasted the result into Scrivener.

I created multiple outlines (about which more in the next section), and often—especially as I got closer to the end—included target word counts, and I really paid attention to those. I have a tendency to repeat things, especially in dialogue, and keeping an awareness of where I was in the scene/chapter in terms of middle and approaching end helped me move things faster.

Why are my fingers not moving?

Of that 189.5 hours, I spent approximately 103 staring at the screen, outlining, prewriting, staring, outlining again, and generally struggling.

I loosely outlined my revision with my editor before I started. A few days in I crashed headlong into the first wall and pulled back to really outline. We’d focused mostly on plot, which was just great—but what I ran into was the question of why anyone did anything and then, what the reader knew and believed when and what they were wondering about.

It seems so straightforward now, but on day four I wrote in my calendar (I keep a calendar record of what I actually did, as opposed to what I meant to do, often quite different): “struggling.” And struggle I did, for 9 days. I tried summarizing, I tried outlining, I tried fitting the story into various structures. I did a lot of prewriting of dialogue, which is dialogue with no punctuation and no tags or stage direction, which was one of the most useful things I did—just basically let the characters yell what they really thought at one another and then used it in various places. Here’s an example:

Mocking her. None of those cards were for her, they never were.

What came next, Nana taught her, was what you faced.

The card that, for Flair, held the flash of premonition, the knowledge of what was coming.

She pushed it away. She didn’t want it. She didn’t want the cards, not even these cookies, to exert their control. She didn’t want to know what would happen. She knew what she wasn’t going to let happen.

He can’t take Lucie from me.

The Hermit. Herself, alone.

A figure on the ground, lucie’s frightened eyes, the five of cups. She hadn’t even made a five of cups. Death—we cannot outwit death and we cannot outwit change—that was not what lay ahead.

They were just cookies.

I made them.

They’re mine.

None of that. She reached out, seized on the Devil, that card of control, to push it away with all her might but found her grip tightening on it.

Because of David. David needs to do what I want and leave my daughter alone.

Whew. Harsh.

Well, he’s an asshole. She can’t go live with him.

Agreed. But you know what I think.

I know, enabling, blah blah. Well that’s done. I’m done with him. As long as he’s done with Lucie.

Oh yeah that sounds like you’ve totally let him go in a healthy way.

Flair picked up death and bit its head off.

Oh, maybe we leave the nice cookies alone now, morticia. I think you’ve had enough.

And then things went on well enough for a little over a week. And then I hit another wall and spent 2 days circling around, again, why one secondary character (the antagonist) would do what she does and how she would interact with my protagonist, in particular in one scene—what would she be offering and why would it work? That seemed to go on forever. Part of the problem was that I had two different elements of her motivation that I quite liked but I couldn’t keep them both, and I kept leaning in one direction, then the other, depending on what I was working on… honestly I can barely remember the details now, but that’s when I created the document labeled “pick a fucking side”.

Sometimes you just need to make a decision and write it that way. Sure, save your place so you can go back and all that. But sometimes you just have to CHOOSE.

At about the same time I sent my agent what I had, and she didn’t like the first chapter and that… let’s just say I took that badly. I mean, she had like 35K words and she liked them all except the opening 3K. IT WAS FINE. And revising them later was really good. But I might have had a slightly unprofessional meltdown.

A few quotes from that time:
10/8, 12 PM: Day of Panic. Why does anyone do anything? Why?

10/9, 1 AM: Ugly ugly ugly

10/9, 10 AM: Still staring at Loretta scene….

10/9, 7 PM: Finally back on track!

In which I actually revise actual words on actual pages

So after about 30 hours of returning to outlining/prewriting/cursing mode, I found my way back in, moved a scene to earlier, revised some transitions and then… finally… chugged along to the end. Where I’d known all along that the action would remain the same, but the dialogue/internal dialogue would change a lot. (In part because, right at the most dramatic moment when life and death hang in the balance, I … had two people go have a heart-to-heart about their relationship. Twice.)

But I knew it wouldn’t be hard to revise, and it wasn’t. It was such a relief to be there, too! And then I changed one part of the end dramatically, which oddly didn’t involve changing that much text, and then, instead of dropping straight out of the story and heading to a “one month later” style epilogue, I actually WROTE the end of the story, which I know will be way more satisfying for readers. The other was largely a choice made from exhaustion.

Once I’d solved all the problems (that are going to be solved in this draft, anyway), it took 4 days to actually revise the rest of the book and get to the end, a glorious moment.

Which was immediately followed by rewriting the first two chapters, and then it was on to my checklist.

The yellow and the green

Jennie Nash suggests a stoplight checklist for revisions—Red/Yellow/Green. I had such a list, at the beginning of this process. But I quickly realized that so much was red here that, for the most part, that was all I could do. I fixed some green things (changed the name of a character, physical descriptions, that kind of thing) as I went and had an awareness of some yellow (build up this relationship, tighten the dialogue) but I was very much concentrating on red. So I kept a running list of things I’d need to go back and revise for at the end. Here’s what that looked like:

Play up can’t use magic without cards even more esp cyn

Craft enclave. Kansas League of Craftswomen/coven, build up trail’s importance again

Bakery has bright turquoise boxes with the logo stamped on them by her

Josie is still an EMT

Cyn needs to know who Alice is

Maybe Renee would call Flair Harwicke? Maybe she coached some ridiculous soccer team they were on once?

Loretta lick lip

Add Jude pop rocks

Back of the cards: On each was an elaborate medallion, a fleur de lis with an eye inside a triangle made of a floral vine,

Loretta and Jude: The tough, genuinely ruthless spirit had also doted on him and raised him, supported his dreams, pushed him to be more, driven him relentlessly, had—along with Renee—turned him into who he was today, good and bad/or wtf IS the deal between him and Loretta and Renee? Because Renee didn’t tell him anything, bc she never gave him any credit.

Josie’s sig other still in national guard

Someone needs to extinguish flames as well as start them. Maybe make point that it’s easiet to put out your own fire?

BLACK MOON is big deal all over

Some of those I ended up disregarding. Some were literally one line additions (green), others I needed to look at in nearly every chapter—which could be green (hair color, bakery boxes) or yellow (the relationship between two characters). I made a tidier checklist and then went back through most of the chapters in the book, line editing and addressing those issues.

Anything I’d really worked on and didn’t want to touch again, I mostly left for the next round. Which I knew would come.

How did it turn out?

Well. Fabulously. Here’s this, from my editor:

Wow! Amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever had a book improve so much from the first draft to the second. You have done incredible work. Brava! Standing ovation! You took all the different elements that had so much potential and you pulled them tightly together into a story that is constantly moving forward, has a solid internal logic, makes use of the fun magic that is dying to be used, but without making it kitschy, and that has a wonderful happy ending. I’m truly amazed by how far you have taken the book in just one draft. I’m also impressed by how much self-editing I can tell that you did. There are so many fewer instances of circular thinking, sentences where it’s difficult to parse the meaning, and using forty words when twenty would do. It’s hard to self-edit and you have done it and I’m very grateful.

Do note that she managed to list all the things I usually do poorly (most particularly, “using 40 words where 20 would do”) and that she’s this excited because the last time I did a revision for her, I managed to actually make the book worse.


Maybe I learned, maybe I didn’t. But this one goes in the win column!

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