Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tips From Dave on Revising

 "Your first draft is for what you want to say; your final draft is  for how you want to say it." --Dave Farland.

The most useful advice anybody ever gave me as a novice author was go to writing conferences.

I had a 27-page picture book that wanted to be a novel, 60 pages of another book, and no idea how a person would go about getting anything published - or whether my writing was good enough to bother trying.

Writing conferences answered my ignorant questions, pointed me to the resources I needed, gave me valuable feedback on my writing, and eventually led to signing with my awesome agent, Steve, who loves my writing and believes in my books, even when I am ready to throw them in a mud puddle.

I still often find something I hear at a writing conference gives me some little insight I needed. Last week at LTUE it was Dave Farland's session on revising.

Aha, said my brain. Oh, yeah. Now I see.

I got a little excited. I like revelations. So I'm passing Dave's secrets on to you. Maybe you're stuck, and something will help you, too.

Dave's Excellent Editing Tips:

Your first draft of a  novel is the one where you're figuring out what your story is, where it's going, finding its shape. After that, Dave goes through each novel at least 7 times before sending it out into the world.

First time through: what Dave calls the "triage" edit; the high-level, drastic edit, where you add, chop, and change major stuff, figure out what shape your story needs.

Second time through: "Shotgun" edit. Go through manuscript, identify problems, bug-a-boo areas, look at all ways to improve my story--world creation, characters--go through until every word feels right, then make a to-do list to come back and fix it all.

Tracy Hickman says at this point that he likes to print manuscript out and do a chapter-by-chapter break-down on paper, with color-coded markers for different characters, to see where somebody's not getting enough page time, etc. Which sounds really organized. Like the kind of thing I will never do. Although I admire Tracy for being able to.

3rd time through: Voice edit.
- throw away the beginning and start where characters come alive.
-make sure each character sounds consistent, uses the same kinds of unique buzz-words and dialogue tags.
-make sure each is recognizable, remind the reader of his characteristics throughout, so they don't forget what he looks like.
-do research at this point, if necessary, to make the character feel authentic, to get a true feel for your guy or gal.

4th time through: Descriptive edit.
Check all your descriptive passages and ask
- are you using all five senses?
-do you give a clear sense of place throughout?
- are your metaphors/similes fresh? Do you need more?
-check the poetic elements; is your language evocative?

5th: Syllabic edit: Dave loves Hemingway. Hemingway uses short words.
- Dave's take is that cutting back syllables speeds up the writing, lowers the level required to read it. Sometimes that's not what you want. I feel you could overdo it, give your writing a chopped, too-harsh rhythm, but it's something to consider.

- cut extra words (you can always cut "finally" and "then")
- cut extra paragraphs
- cut extra pages

6th: Line edit.
- Put the manuscript in a new typeface, like palatino 14, and print it out, then read aloud for typos.

Um. I'm not a math person, but I'm pretty sure that's only six edits. I don't know what the mystery seventh edit was, but Dave swears he does seven. Maybe I got mixed up somewhere in there.

*Dave's final warning: don't over-edit or you'll kill it.

My mini-apotheosis: I was trying to do all six edits at the same time. I am a compulsive copy-editor. Triage needs to happen all by itself or I will copy-edit my book into oblivion. Ready to dive back in. Hooray!

What's your revision style? Do you have any methods you love? What works for you?


  1. Editing is hard for me. I want to make it right the first or second time. It can be frustrating,but I liked this, thanks for sharing it!

  2. I'm at the half way point for the first draft of my first novel. I have enough writing behind me that the idea of editing has started to crawl into my head. Structuring the editing into separate sections like this will be wildly helpful!

  3. Gaylene: I like to remember that established authors like Dave who pay their mortgages with book money and have their face on t-shirts in Japan work really hard at their job. Good writing doesn't slither out of the brain onto paper in a perfect state.

  4. Alex: Welcome to the blog--glad you found something to help you. Yes, Dave Farland is brilliant. Happy writing and revising!

  5. I'm really glad you posted this Elena, thank you!

    I happen to be in the middle of edits myself, so this is perfect timing. I'm not exactly sure where I am in these steps since my book was basically a first draft, but it was a rewrite--so the voice, characters and basic story were all more well formed than a normal first draft. But I guess I'm somewhere between 2nd and 3rd. I'd never heard or considered the syllabic one. That's very interesting.

    Thanks again!

    And can I say? I totally am bummed we're not in that full-novel group together. You were brilliant. ARE brilliant.

  6. Ali: Thank you! Yes, it's sad that group died. I miss my writing friends and I appreciated everyone's excellent feedback.

    Hope your writing is going well. Happy if my post helped!


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