Revisions: Now or Later?

Approaches to penning a novel fall somewhere along a continuum. Writers on one end — plotters — think through every detail ahead of time. Those on the other end — pantsers — make stuff up as they go along. Either approach can result in a high quality novel.

I bounce back and forth as the mood strikes. The right side of my brain is a plotter. The left side sabotages any attempts to plan things out. Keeping both sides happy is a struggle.

Writing a good story is about getting to know the characters. Early in the process — whether pantsing or plotting — I don’t know them very well. By “the end,” we’ve become old friends. I still might not know everything about them, but the picture is clearer and reasonably complete.

The same is true for the story. Reaching “the end” always forces some tinkering with the beginning and middle. Depending on the type of story, unexpected twists and turns in later chapters can be accentuated, integrated, or concealed with edits and revisions to earlier chapters.

I pantsed my way through Until Thanksgiving, which turned out nothing like the story I set out to write. About a third of the way through, I added a major character. The idea for the serial killer didn’t occur to me until halfway through the first draft. I spent more time changing what I’d written than adding new material.

Experts say not to edit or revise until the first draft is finished. I agree, and I’m trying, but following this great advice is a huge challenge. The day job and other commitments keep me from writing every day. To get back into the story, if too much time has passed, I need to read what I’ve written from the beginning. Since I’m there anyway, I tend to revise and edit as I go.

Editing — tweaking the words until I’m totally satisfied — is fun. The more I read through a manuscript, the better the language gets as I polish and hone each word, sentence, and paragraph. Repeated reading helps. If a particular word or phrase keeps tripping me up, I know something ain’t right. Constant editing leads to a better finished product and frees my editors to improve other aspects of the story.

Revising, on the other hand, is a pain in the ass. Adding characters and subplots, changing story lines, and/or rearranging the order of events can get complicated and more than a little confusing. One little change can ripple through the entire manuscript.

My frustrated right brain — the side that has to fix all the problems — planned my second novel. Detailed character sketches and three-to-five sentence descriptions for every chapter provided a road map to follow to “the end.” Left brain said, “Whatever,” and rolled his eyes.

The final version contained more than a dozen chapters not included in the original outline. Most were needed to get from where I was in the story to where I needed to be. So much changed along the way that revising chapter summaries more than five or six chapters out became a waste of time.

Happy Independence Day started with much shorter character sketches. History dictated much of the action. Weaving my story into the Stonewall Uprising was the challenge. Instead of chapter summaries for the entire story, I wrote them as I went along, staying five to eight chapters ahead of where I was in the manuscript.

My left brain is running the show for Whippersnapper, my fourth novel and current work-in-progress. I started writing with no character sketches, chapter summaries, or preconceived notions about where the story would go or how it would end. Each new paragraph is a step into virgin, unexplored territory.

I’m having a blast. New characters are coming out of the woodwork. As we get to know each other, their actions move the story forward a chapter at a time. I’m far enough along now to see where the story is going.

The first draft is a hot mess. Important scenes and events are missing or out of order. Halfway through, a supporting character got promoted to main character. Subplots that should run through the entire story emerge and are resolved in the same chapter.

I’m not worried. With my first three novels, instead of focusing on reaching “the end,” I spent tons of time fixing those kinds of issues. Better to deal with revisions as they come up, right?

Wrong. Turns out, revising before getting to “the end” adds months to an already long process. I spend hours redoing a section, only to revise it again later — perhaps, two or three more times.

In On Writing, Stephen King says to stay out of the way and let the story come out. Who am I to argue with Stephen King? Letting the story come out is exactly what plan to do — unless I change my mind.