Wednesday, December 03, 2008


“I believe more in the scissors than I do
in the pencil.” - Truman Capote

National Novel Writing Month 2008 (NaNoWriMo) ended November 30 leaving me with 66,103 words of a novel which I now must expand and revise. It seems there are as many methods of revision as there are novelists. Some writers make only a single pass through, but a very thorough one. Others revise draft after draft. How do you handle it?

For my first NaNoWriMo in 2004, I simply did writing practice in response to prompts which I had created. My only parameters were that the topic had to relate to golf or my father. I wound up with 50,000 words worth of little essays. No plot. No consistency. I spent the next four years completing it.

I began the revision process by simply printing out all the pieces. I double spaced them, 3-hole punched them, and put them in a three-ring binder in chronological order. Unfortunately this chronology spanned my entire life and reached back into my father’s as well. I took this binder to a coffeehouse and spent three days reading it all the way through. I tried to figure out which pieces were workable the way they were (very few), which bits needed to be chucked (many) and which parts might work with revision (some).

Next, I stepped waaaaay back from the individual written pages to think about the whole story structure. I stepped so far back that I wound up in grad school to study plot and characterization and other aspects of craft. I looked at what and where the climax would be and the different turning points that would lead the characters to the climax. I figured out the story’s timeline and the overall shape of the thing. I chopped the NaNo book into pieces again and, according to where I thought they fit in the timeline and story arc, I rearranged them using tools like yWriter and index cards and lots of weird outline type things to actually move the ideas and the huge wads of text around. I found holes the size of small countries so I spent tons of time writing new scenes to fill them.

Once I felt I had all the pieces in all the right places, I went through and polished, polished, polished correcting grammar and punctuation, tightening the dialogue, and checking for unnecessary repetition of words. When I was through, I had probably read every word in that book four or five times. I wish I could say it was perfect, but every time I pick it up, I can still find a place to tighten and polish, revise and correct.

I would love to hear from folks who have tackled revising a book-length work. How did you approach the revision process? How many passes through do you make? What tools do you use?

For those of you who have a draft to revise, good luck! May the rest of you have one soon.

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Joe McLaughlin said...

Congratulations on your achievements, Nina!

Years ago a colleague told me "You can't write long--that's why you write poetry." She was right. The most obvious evidence of that came when I decided to write GOLF IS THE DEVIL'S GAME (fiction). First, I borrowed a successful Faustian theme: the original Broadway play of Damn Yankees! (Not many of you are old enough to remember this hit which later became a 1958 film starring George Abbott, Tab Hunter and Gwen Verdon. (I went to a revival production at the Carousel Dinner Theater in Akron just a few months ago.)

I wanted to do for golf what Damn Yankees had done for baseball. And the Faustian theme was nothing new, so I felt all right about my idea.

Once I began writing, I pretended I was writing a screen play, since a sale of film rights was my ultimate goal. So far, so good.

The ironic surprise I encountered was that, whenever I sat down to work on the book, I was compelled to read the entire work from the beginning EVERY TIME! Yes, I couldn't begin writing until I reloaded the entire manuscript into my brain in order to pick up where I'd left off. No wonder I wound up with just 109 pages! (A novella---which I think works just fine in approaching the film industry.)

I guess I'm trying to say I'll probably never enter a novel writing contest because I CAN'T WRITE "LONG." (And I know it. Some of you probably should get out of there.)


---Joe McLaughlin
Dover, Ohio

Kat Good-Schiff said...


Congratulations on completing your 2nd NaNoWriMo! That's fabulous.

I've been enjoying your blog for months now so I thought I'd post a comment.

I have to say, I think I am in the boat with Joe McLaughlin. No one has told me I can't write long, but I've found it to be true so far.

I did the 3-Day Novel Contest over Labor Day weekend and ended up with drafts for 5 short stories. The problem, as I see it, is I have three characters whom I love & want to write more about, but I am going to have to approach it the way you did your first book - writing it in small pieces.

It was helpful to me that you shared that part of your process: the writing of one piece at a time & putting it all together later.

I am a poet at heart so that's just the way it is.

Best, Kat

Nita said...

@Joe and Kat - Brevity is the soul of wit and all that! I'm pushing my edges and loving it. It's great when we each find what works and run with it.

Write That! said...

Hi Nita - I love your newsletter. It's the best literary round-up in Columbus. I've written three novels now. The first I had a baby at the breast so approached it like a collection of short stories - which meant I had to re-write about 30k of words in the back half. The second I plotted carefully but it felt too paint by numbers - although people who like high concept enjoyed it. The third I wrote with toddlers around, and dug deep into my own process for material. It's polished, and I'm trying to sell it. Part of me wants to do an MFA before I write another novel, just to get more ideas in the mix. Thanks for the monthly reminder that I'm a professional writer with a real community here in Columbus!

Nita said...

@Write That! Thanks for your kind words and for discussing your process. Sounds like tenacity to me.