Revision will eat your brain. (But that’s okay, because your brain will grow back.)

This is not a scary story.

I feel like I needed to start with that, because looking at it head-on, revision can seem awfully bloodthirsty, and also like it wants you dead.

But your manuscript (my manuscript) is not some shambling monster, even when it kind of looks like one. It is not faster, stronger, or smarter than you (me).

Sometimes, you might leap to the daunting conclusion that it’s meaner, but that’s only because you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. You let a few scenes get totally out of hand, and now the whole thing is well on its way to turning into one of those hideous fast zombies. You can hear the manic flurry of approaching footsteps, but have no idea what direction it’s coming from, which is insanely scary.

Do you know how to stop a fast zombie? Set it on fire.

Except, figuratively. The main point I’m trying to make is that even when you (I) feel like the situation has gotten very bad very quickly, there’s still a solution somewhere. So don’t actually set fire to your manuscript. That would be dangerous and irresponsible. Plus, it’s almost always unnecessary.

(Also, because I grew up watching Romero movies, I tend to use a lot of zombie/shopping mall/shotgun metaphors. I should probably stop.)

The thing is, it’s difficult to talk about revision in any sort of umbrella-way, because there’s not a one-size process. It depends on the writer, and on the book, and even though it’s pretty easy to hit up the internet for some blanket guidelines, the actual revising part is really personal. (There is no one-size-fits-all zombie apocalypse.)

So, instead of a neat set of precise step-by-step instructions, here is one big fat paragraph of generalization:

There’s a point in the lifespan of most stories—almost always sometime after the first draft—when the situation gets really ugly really fast. Suddenly, the flaws are taking over, seeping into the cracks, covering up every scrap of brilliance and goodness and light, and it’s up to you to put on your flak jacket and save your made-up world. And this isn’t easy, because all at once, the problems are EVERYWHERE. Maybe you hate the pacing. Or you hate the way that subplot plays out. Or you wish the characters were different people and the setting was glossier and the kiss happened on page 64 and the title wasn’t stupid.

To be clear, this is usually the place where I completely rewrite the book (burn it down), because the whole scenario just seems incredibly dire, and my default survival mode is to panic and start hacking up the place indiscriminately. In light of this, what I say next is going to sound kind of strange.

Revision is my favorite part of writing.

Seriously, it’s where all the good stuff happens. Everything that came before is just a big, sprawling mess of words and ideas. But once revision sets in, there’s hope for a better brighter future (one that actually makes sense). You discover meaning and nuance where there was none, and that those two characters should actually be combined. You realize that you’ve said the same thing three times, and you probably only need to say it once. And these are all realizations that improve a book.

There are a lot of different kinds of revision—big parts and little ones. Some people do all the parts all at once. They’ll overhaul a character or refine a plot point, while also making all the sentences the best sentences ever.

This is not how I do it. Which is kind of weird when you think about it, since I can usually be counted on to pick the most complicated thing (sewing patterns, recipes, friends). When it comes to revising though, I try to do all the big structural stuff first, and then the character development, and then go through and look at the scenes and sentences to decide if I like them, or which ones I would rather have. Then, once the last good sentence is in place, the book is done.*

This was supposed to be a how-to post, but I don’t know how.

I mean, I know how for me, but not for you, because you’re different. Your book is different.

There’s only one thing I can actually tell you—one overarching rule about revision, which is that you have to be willing to do it.

Also, I lied. There is one other thing I can tell you.

No matter how hard the work is, you don’t have to be scared of your book. Revision is safe. It’s basically a no-risk proposition. Computers make adding and tracking changes so, so easy. When you rewrite a paragraph or gut a whole scene, or rip out 50 pages, or 100, it’s not like painting over something precious—those pages are still there, and you can always go back to the earlier version if it turns out that you’ve made some terrible mistake. Mostly though, you haven’t. Mostly, you did the right thing, even if it was hard.

In the end, it’s all going to turn out okay. The quirky genius scientist finds a cure and the dog doesn’t die.

But first, it’s going to be kind of complicated and bloodthirsty.

And that’s fine.

*Until I look through it again, and realize that it’s not. (Sometimes writing a book takes a long time.)

9 thoughts on “Revision will eat your brain. (But that’s okay, because your brain will grow back.)

  1. Thank you so much Brenna! I actually love the whole zombie apocalypse metaphor- it makes writing more like an awesome quest to save the world than just sitting in front of a computer typing. Revising was a bit scary for me at first, looking over my jumbled up mess of a manuscript. It has gotten a bit better since then, with rays of goodness peeking through the rest of the work. I have sent the manuscript out to agents, and have so far gotten many (8 in 10 days, I’d say a record). How did you catch an agent’s attention? I had once sent a general inquiry (about what genres they were accepting, submission policies) and the agent responded with a general “Sorry your manuscript is not right for us at the time”. How can you make sure an agent actually reads your query? Thank you so much for this post!

    • I’m glad you liked it! (I started using the whole adventure-combat metaphor in college as a way to psych myself up for me thesis, and it actually works really well for me—or at least makes me feel better.)

      As far as querying goes, I will say that even though you had the indignity to receive a form response to an honest question (which, wow, that sucks) agents in general DO read submissions. They might not respond to them in a personal way, but as a rule, you don’t need to do anything special to get an agent to read your query and your sample pages.

      However, if you’ve been getting a lot of fast rejections, it usually means there’s something not quite working with the letter itself. In that case, there are a lot of good writing forums online where you can get excellent hands-on help with your letter, so you might give it a try, and even if you don’t wind up posting your own letter, it can help a lot to have a look at other people’s and see what works and what doesn’t. (Disregard if you’ve already done this.)

      Also, just to be safe, it’s always worth it to go over your first five pages extra-carefully and just make sure that each sentence is the best it can be. Good luck!

      • Thank you so much! Since those rejections I have revised my query letter, and hope to be getting back responses from those agents soon. It was pretty disheartening to get that formal response, and I have tried querying that agent again (getting a response about 2 days later, my email telling me it was sent in the middle of the night…”), and have now just settled with exploring other opportunities. When working at my local library, I came across a paperback cover for the Replacement which is gorgeous (so much more shiny than the hardcover)!

  2. That is an awesome post Brenna :). I also like the zombie metaphors because it makes the post sound more like you.

    I think I tend to over revise. I start revising before I’ve actually finished the first draft. I start rereading after the third paragraph or so. I try not to, but sometimes (all of the time) the urge is too great to resist. I tell myself, “You are not going to reread this paragraph. You are not going to…. Would this character actually say that? It doesn’t even sound like she has a separate voice from the other characters. In fact, in this whole story, there isn’t a definitive difference between the character voices. It just sounds like me talking to myself. Maybe if I change the way she says it… No, that’s crap. Maybe if I change what happens in this paragraph… Nope, even worse smelling crap. Are the other paragraphs this bad?…. YES! They are! Actually, this whole idea is plain awful! I’m just gonna take a break and have some Oreos…”

    Yep, that’s what goes on inside my head every time I start a new idea, and that’s why I never finish any of my story ideas. I think I should just go right through the whole first draft without stopping and then come back and revise. I think it might be easier. Do you just sail your way through the first draft and then revise?

    I apologize for the random inner monologue and incoherent ranting… Yeah… What I meant to say was… that was a lovely post Brenna and you should do more how to stuff :D

    • Okay, so. I have a thing for this. Depending on how you work, it might not work for you, but I have absolutely the same problem (which is, I think, a side-effect of liking revising more than drafting).

      What I do is, once a scene/chapter is written, I put a big fat * at the top of the page, which tells me that it’s done-for-now and I don’t have to worry about it. Which is how I phrase it to myself: “I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” not “I’m not allowed to look at that right now.” Because if I say it like it’s a good thing, a treat to not think about it, then I can just get on with the rest of the story.

      Another thing is that I never finished anything until I was about 20 or 22, so it might be that you’re still doing a certain kind of work and then will transition into other work. This is absolutely not intended to sound like one of those “Oh, well, when you’re older …” speeches, because I hate those and I certainly don’t think that teenagers can’t finish novels, because that’s just blatantly not-true. I do want you to know, though, that when I was a teenager, I couldn’t finish anything, and that was okay. I got there at my own pace, so just because you’re not getting to the end right now has no bearing on what you might do in the future.

  3. I tend to use a lot of zombie/shopping mall/shotgun metaphors. I should probably stop.


    don’t ever stop!! :)

    Loved this post. I am on the tippy toes of the very last legs of my last revision before *gulp* querying, and I’m pretty darned sure the zombies of revision got my brain. Good to know it’s going to grow back. I’ve been worried because this writing/revising journey has been painfully slow and it sure doesn’t feel like it will!

    • Revision can be stupidly hard and intimidating, even though technically, it’s not anything remotely hazardous! Also, it will destroy your mind, but I swear, after a month or so off, it’s like your idea-maker is better than ever!

    • sometimes I think I like revising because I have more control over what I’m doing

      This is exactly why revising is my favorite part. I’m not a true outliner, so by the time I get to revision, there’s a lot of work to be done, but I love the part where I actually start making the book look the way I want it to!

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