One of my goals for the year is to revise a novel I wrote a few years ago. I love the story (about the grandson of a towering American literary figure, and various family secrets that come to light). The manuscript itself was a bit of a mess in places. But I thought it was worth saving.
Anyway, the prospect of a major revision is always daunting, especially when you don’t know quite how to start. I had some fantasy of retreating to a cabin in the woods (or on the beach) for a month. Or three months! But that might leave a bit of a mess in the rest of my life. So that leaves a different question. How, practically, does one do the mentally intense work of revision in the middle of everything else?
Here’s what I’ve wound up doing. On the advice of KJ Dell’Antonia, I spent a few hours one morning making a chapter outline of the existing manuscript. Upon doing so, I saw that several chapters could be cut or combined (I should note here that the chapters are quite short — I originally had close to 50 in a 50,000 word novel). I also wanted to rework one major plot point. So I spent another few hours making a new chapter outline that did both of these things.
Then I created a revision calendar for the next few months. Each week I would revise somewhere between 0-3 chapters, depending on what was going on in my life and how much work those chapters would need (a complete rewrite takes more effort than polishing a chapter that’s in pretty good shape). A work week where I was traveling or had limited childcare might be assigned one chapter. A vacation week (e.g. next week) would get zero. A full, “normal” week might get three.
Then, each Friday as I plan my week, I figure out where I can do this work. Generally, it’s an open Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday morning. Ideally it’s a fully open day (even though I do break for lunch). When I’m writing fiction I don’t like to count down to a call or meeting at some point, even though I absolutely can switch from one to another quickly if I need to.
But…a funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten about halfway through the revision calendar. I’ve become better about creating open days because I want to preserve the space. I really do love this part of the writing process, when I have something but I am clearly making it much better. Progress is motivational.
I should have a roughly revised manuscript by some point in May. Then I plan to do some more polishing work and take a shorter writing retreat this summer to plow through it. Then, hopefully, the novel will be ready to show people by the end of the summer. I’ll likely do a “Summer Reads with LV” series — a book club of sorts — where I work through The Cortlandt Boys, Off the Clock, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, and then this novel with readers. The sign-up for that will come later this spring.
In the meantime, I am having so much fun immersing myself in my characters’ world, and in their struggles, which all feel real even though I made them up. A cabin in the woods could be cool but sometimes holding that out as what is necessary can become an indulgence, an excuse for procrastination. It’s often possible to do a little something. And a lot of little somethings add up.