Revisions: One Year Later

Around this time last year, I went to my novel critique group and listened to my peers talk about the first draft of Lost Notes, my 19th century historical novel. This is what I wrote about the results of that process:

I came away from Monday’s critique equipped with thoughtful overview letters, manuscript line edits and 10 single-spaced pages of notes from our several-hour discussion.

And now I’m digging into all this rich, fertile soil, not sure whether to plant or weed or water. The only way I’ll find out is to jump in and get my hands dirty.

My wonderful writing group, thorough as always, posed questions, offered big-picture suggestions and pointed out specific choices that don’t work. As I expected, my protagonist’s development isn’t fleshed out yet–it is, after all, a first draft, and I’ve been focused on plot and voice and world-building.

After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to smooth out Henri’s journey before I continue writing any new scenes. It’s a dangerous choice, because I don’t want to lose momentum, but on the other hand, I’ve been struggling for weeks with the final chapters. They don’t feel right. And that’s most likely because Henri’s arc is incomplete and unfocused.

So even though I’m approaching the end of the novel, I’m going to slow down and work with the first 80,000 words for a while. Get my hands really dirty. Fill documents with new scenes and cut scenes.

A year later, two years into the writing process and beginning the third, where am I? Not all that far, page-count wise. In fact, those of you just finishing NaNoWriMo might laugh at my year-long output. I’m midway through chapter three. My protagonist Henri hasn’t even left for America yet! (You can read my apology letter here.) Of course since August, I’ve been working nonstop on launching Forest Avenue Press.

But I did get my hands dirty. I worked and reworked the same small patch of ground, over and over, until Henri’s spirit showed up on the page. Until unexpected things happened that felt exactly right for the story.

That small patch of ground, for the most part, was Chapter 2. I joked recently about how I was finally bringing the last installment of Chapter 2 to my monthly writing group. In fact, all I’ve brought (so far) in 2012 is four-page chunks of Chapter 2. I have 10,000 words in my fourth draft of Chapter 2, many of them written and then discarded at the bottom of the actual scene.

Even ignoring the parts I cut and dropped at the bottom, it’s a really long chapter.

It’s also a pivotal chapter, where the plot moves and shimmers and shakes and explodes in an inciting event that touches off a second inciting event that sets Henri on the Hero’s Journey. Clearly, I had to get him on the page properly before the plot could work. The version I brought to my manuscript critique group last November had a flat Henri but lots of plot. He was overwhelmed by circumstance, instead of being an active participant–or even active recipient–of what happened to him.

Did I do the right thing, cutting my work off before I reached the end and starting over? Absolutely. I wish this process had gone faster, but it has been an exceptionally busy year. My work has paid off because Henri is much more richly drawn now, and I’ve continued to perfect the voice that’s both historical and full of modern humor and sensibilities. Everything is where I want it to be.

Now I just have to finish Chapter 3.

What’s your longest chapter? Do you spend years working on one novel or do you write and revise on a faster timeline?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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31 Responses to Revisions: One Year Later

  1. laurenwaters says:

    I love your gardening metaphor for the revising process. Historical fiction is especially frustrating since you have to double check every. little. detail. I find that I actually write quickly, but the researching, fact-checking, and citations extends each book’s time line considerably. But you will have nothing worth selling if you rush any of these critical steps. Your book will take as long as it needs 🙂

    PS-One thing that truly helped me was making myself write at least 500 words a day. Even if I wasn’t completely sure of them I had to write. Later you can chop out all of the filler, but it does get things rolling.

    • Yes, every. little. tiny. detail! Lauren, I so agree with you! And in looking at my revisions from that perspective, year one was about creating a general story and story world. Year two was about strengthening Henri. Year three–now!–will likely be about working out those details, doing more research and such.

      You make such a good point about not rushing the process. I love your 500 words plan; I have never set a goal for myself like that, but I’ve only had two slow, lagging years–both when my children were born, and I wasn’t sleeping much, so that’s a good excuse! I do need to figure out how to work on the novel every day now that Brave on the Page is fully launched. I find myself sitting down to work on the book and ending up working on the publishing business instead.

  2. CC MacKenzie says:

    Great post,

    It took me four years to dig down, to world build, to really ‘get’ my characters and their motivations. During that time I hand wrote scenes in journals, outlined new ideas, new stories, new characters and even worked on a new genre. I have sixty journals. I know. But strangely enough I rarely use them for my works in progress, which makes me wonder if the stories just needed to be downloaded out of my head.

    I’m almost ready to publish my third contemporary romance. I write a paranormal vampire series too. A prequel to a futuristic urban series I began all those years ago – I need to destroy our world before I rebuild it.

    So I think that Henri will be a fabulous character because you know him intimately. It’s a character a reader remembers, every time.

    • I love hearing about other authors who spend years crafting and digging down–a perfect phrase, CC! Your upcoming novels sound great. Did they all come out of that four-year process or was that just the urban series?

      I’ve always loved writing characters, so it was a bit of a shock to end up with lots of plot and a wooden character this time around. I’ve really enjoyed the process of building him and letting him change the story. Slow as it has been…

      • CC MacKenzie says:

        The urban series started life as something different where I’d needed to world build and it sort of evolved over time. The contemporaries began life as competition entries when I was honing and developing the craft – something else that keeps evolving is the fact we never stop learning our craft. So when I finalled in three competitions within three months I knew I was ready for the next step – to develop them into full length novels. Of course that took a loooooong time. The great thing about entering competitions of a short word count – 1,000 and 3,000 – is that a writer needs to nail the emotional intensity asap. When I had readers say they laughed and cried when I wanted them to (tricky) it gave me the confidence to move forward.

        If you’ve ended up with lots of plot, you might find that’s your backstory and you can weave that through the work as you go. I write in scenes usually in a specific POV. A great tip is to enter a scene late and leave it early – I think a script writer wrote that. And often I’ll work backwards too, especially during revisions (love revisions).

        • So interesting, CC. Your competition results must have been such an exciting development and a great call to you to turn them into novels. That’s amazing!

          I’m not a short story writer, but I do know some great short story writers who use that immediate emotional intensity in their novels in fulfilling ways. I’ve learned that much slower by working on novels exclusively.

          I’ve never been a plot-driven writer, until this book, which has more because it’s historical fiction, I think. And because of the genre, I’ve embraced a pretty solid start-to-finish timeline that mimics 19th century literature. (My last novel was full of backstory woven in and I decided I didn’t want to play around with that as much this time!)

  3. I’m a fan of short chapters for pacing. I think my longest is 12 pages. I have a drafting and revising timeline. The longest I’ve ever spent on a revision was 3 months straight. But I think it’s important to give the manuscript a few months to breathe between drafting, revising, and final revisions.

    • I may very well take my giant chapter and turn it into three or four, Kourtney, or even turn it into a lot of tiny chapters, like Peter Carey in Oscar and Lucinda, which uses chapters instead of space breaks.

      My Chapter Two started off as a somewhat normal sized chapter, but I kept opening doors in the rewrite and finding new passageways to go down. Everything connects and works well, but it probably doesn’t all belong in the same chapter. In some ways calling it Chapter 2 was a crutch, much like me calling my first novel “writing attempts” instead of saying, out loud, that it was really a novel.

  4. My time line for novels is 15 years, as you know, so I think you’re doing fine. 🙂

    I’ve tended to do shorter chapters early on, and even in Stevie One the first part is more like 5k. But there may be a genre thing here. It would make sense for early chapters to be longer in genres where you have to establish a world (historical, fantasy, sf).

    The longest chapters I ever did were the two in the middle of U-town, later subdivided to three, which are long enough to qualify as a novel all by themselves. I don’t think I’ll do that again. 🙂

    • My longest, so far, has been seven, so I feel better now, Anthony! And your story-world development of U-town has certainly paid off in other stories.

      Good point about genres; I do expect historical novels to have longer chapters because there’s so much to tell about the world. Of course I was happy with the size of Chapter Two when I first wrote it, and now it has grown and changed in multiple (good) ways, much like a balloon animal getting twisted in various places and turning into something more recognizable as a story. That being said, I expect some of Chapter Two to migrate into Chapter One, and some will probably get shuffled into a third or fourth chapter. Unless I go with making lots of short chapters, which I am considering. It’s all moot until I write Chapter Four and Five and Six and…

      • I think it makes sense not to sweat it too much until the draft is done. Frequently things become clearer at that point, when you can look at the shape of the whole book.

        For example, with U-town, the second long chapter stayed whole until very late in the process. When it was split in half, it wasn’t for length; it was because something happened in the middle of it that really divided the book into two parts, and it was wrong for that event to be buried in the middle of a very long chapter. The book divides (informally) into thirds (as you can see from the TOC: http://www.u-town.com/text/utown/) but it also divides (informally) into two halves, and that aspect was getting lost. But I couldn’t have seen that until it was done.

        • I totally agree, Anthony. I’m thinking vaguely about chapter length as the story grows and I expect I’ll throw out my current designations once I have more of the story reworked. But I’m not focused on that right now. Your splitting a chapter near the end of the writing process makes a lot of sense. It’s often hard to see stuff like that mid-draft, or if you do see it, as I do with my long Chapter Two, the solution might not present itself until later. (For one thing, I’m not as happy with Chapter One, so I’ll probably siphon some of Two off and put it there once I revise the opening again.)

  5. jmmcdowell says:

    Both of my WIPS were started in 2009, and they’re still being revised. I don’t think your pace is all that slow. 😉 My chapters seem to run between 2,000 and 4,000 words on average, but some are longer and others a bit shorter. I really think length comes down to your gut feeling about where that major break should be.

    • I love hearing that, jm! Hurray for tortoise writers, yes? We will get to the finish lines one of these days, and I admire the fact that you’re working on revising two books.

      Your chapter lengths are helpful, as is your comment on length being related to gut feeling. I do think some of Chapter Two will be merged into the first and third chapters once I’m finished. There’s so much plot at the start of the book that I could find many obvious spots to break and start a new chapter.

  6. emmaburcart says:

    My chapters tend not to be too long. And since I decided to stop worrying about how long or short they are, I have found it much easier to write. I take a long time to write a novel, when I think about NaNo writers and others who can write a draft in a few months. I just (today!) finished the first draft of the novel I started in August 2011. So, that’s a little over a year for a first draft. I had been shooting for a year, so that’s not too bad. I am SO excited to hear that you are back to writing Lost Notes. I love that story and I LOVE Henri. I can’t wait to read how much he has grown, not just as a French Pimp, but as a person. 🙂 I think everyone has their own style, process, and time frame. We just need to accept ourselves as we are.

    • Congratulations, Emma! I can’t believe it has been only a year since you started putting your characters on the page. They seem like real people to me.

      Part of Henri’s development is preparing to turn him into an inadvertent pimp, which has been an–ahem–unusual journey! And a rewarding one. Your comment on embracing your own process is so important. As writers, it’s easy to read blogs and essays about what works for other people and then start worrying about what we’re doing wrong (too slow? too fast? too long? too short?). It’s much more rewarding just to sit and write and move forward at one’s own pace with one’s own sensibilities and hopes for the work right there front and center.

  7. Hi Laura, we are new to your site by way of mutual blogger Kristen Lamb. We enjoyed knocking around your blog and reading up on you and your work and respect the time and attention you put into your characters and story. Your determination and drive is admirable, and can be heard when your talking about your books. Our longest chapter was: Book 1 (Ch. 10) this would also qualify as the chapter that gave us the most fight. We spent more time on that chapter, than any other. And at times, had to put it down and walk away. But eventually, we worked it out and was happy with the results. Excellent post, and we look forward to reading future posts.

    • Welcome, Inion! It’s nice to meet you! I loved hearing about your Chapter 10. It sounds like you went through a similar grueling, but ultimately rewarding, process. It’s funny how a chapter can fight us–but that’s a perfect way of stating that process of molding certain scenes and chapters that somehow push back or refuse to cooperate.

  8. Carrie Rubin says:

    Writing certainly requires patience, doesn’t it? It’s a long process, and one needs to be able to wait for the rewards. And wait. And wait. If I had no other responsibilities, I think I could easily polish off a novel in a year. But sadly, we all have other responsibilities, thus we have to be content with an hour here, an hour there.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I appreciate it. 🙂

    • Patience, indeed, Carrie! I agree about life getting in the way; although I consider myself a disciplined writer, and have never had trouble carving out time for writing, I’ve definitely had other priorities this year, and it shows in my slowness. Starting a small press was part of that, and I don’t regret all that energy spent away from my own work. It has been a great year! (And congrats on The Seneca Scourge–sounds like you’ve had a big year too!)

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        Thank you. Unfortunately the marketing is the biggest drain on the writing time. 🙂

        • Oh yes–totally agree. We should compare notes! I spent nearly five hours at a book fair yesterday and met some great people but didn’t sell very many books. It was a wonderful experience, but it underscores how hard it is to connect with one’s target market (especially when you’re in a building with 70 other authors plugging their books!). I may write a post about that, because it seems like a microcosm of the industry itself.

          • Carrie Rubin says:

            Yes, I think I get a better bang for my buck with online marketing.

            • That’s interesting, Carrie! I’ve embraced the old-fashioned thing with a print book, although the Espresso Book Machine allows distribution in 80 locations, plus online sales, so that’s modern! I don’t have an e-book, though, and my primary sales mode has been local events and appearances, since my authors are all here in Oregon. With my next book, I expect to focus on more of a national audience and will be doing more online marketing. I’ve been reading your posts for a while and will take notes about what you’re doing for my next book! Congrats again.

            • Carrie Rubin says:

              Thanks, and good luck with your endeavors!

  9. 4amWriter says:

    I have spent years on one novel, and I told myself I will never do that again. A lot of it was due to emotional reasons and a need to break through some life stuff. I feel like I’ve turned a corner recently, and I look froward to starting fresh with a new novel that I expect will not take me years to complete.

    • My benchmark is seven years, so if I finish this one in, say, five, I’ll be doing well! My seven-year novel encompassed the time after my first daughter was born when I couldn’t find my way back to the page for the longest time, and when I did, I was a changed person–a mom who saw the world differently. So that was similar to your “life stuff” trajectory. It takes time to process one’s own feelings and self-ness, and when it happens mid-novel, the writing slows. But (ultimately, I like to think) all that helps the book.

  10. Debra Kristi says:

    Sorry I’m joining this party so late. This has not been my best week for being on top of things, but I loved this post. When I first started writing I followed my gut and my chapters were between nine and eleven pages. Then I doubted my gut and changed them. I have now switched them back, trusting my gut again. As for time it takes to write a book, I think that all depends on what’s going on at the time. My current YA fantasy was started in 2010, but I finished the first book in a year and continued on to draft out the second and most of the third before returning back to work on my edits. The first book just went through its final round of beta reads. I’m letting everything settle as the edits form in my head. Hopefully she’ll be ready for the next stage in the next couple of months. But I haven’t been working exclusively on that book so it probably hasn’t moved along as quickly as it could have. I prefer not to have all my eggs in one basket. At times I think the hardest part is the patience..

    • I have been slow to get to blogs since launching my book, Debra, so I’m just glad you did make it over here!

      Our guts often make excellent decisions–even if our brains doubt the results! That’s part of why I’m leaving my behemoth chapter as-is for now. The writing is flowing and feeling good so I don’t want to tamper with the progress!

      Wow, I’m always impressed with multi-book authors. Putting all my eggs in one basket hasn’t really worked out (yet!) but I’m pretty stubbornly single minded when I’m working on a book. It would make more sense to have another manuscript going or at least write and submit a few short stories, but I’m better at multitasking in the world than on the page. I admire your ability to have several books in different stages. Congrats on finishing your final beta round and being in that wonderful thinking phase.

    • I think pacing, in particular, is a gut thing. It’s pretty easy to consciously decide to use fewer or different adjectives, or to change your favorite dialogue attributions, but pacing (where to break paragraphs, where to break chapters) goes more by feel (at least for me).

      I started to think about this because of a Nero Wolfe mystery where Wolfe determined that three manuscripts by different authors were actually written by the same person, and he cited paragraphing as a particular element that’s difficult to change even if you’re trying to disguise your style.

      (I usually like to have two projects going at once, too.)

  11. What a great reflection. I think the benefit of writers groups often is the overarching picture. Do they believe your characters? Are they wrapped up in your plot? Is the tension there that you believe you added? It gives your brain a different tilt as you edit.

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