On April 10th, I blogged about the rough draft of my next Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery. (See http://mainecrimewriters.com/kaitlyns-posts/rough-drafts) At that time, I was about to put it aside for at least a month to give this work-in-progress (WIP) a chance to “rest” and to give me a chance to get some perspective on what I’d written before I began to revise. Among the things I knew I’d have to work on, besides the usual “add more sensory details” and “add more humor,” were adjustments to the sequence of events, the language (finding better words, taking out repetitious words, changing passive to active voice, paring down adjective use, and so on), continuity (it doesn’t do to say the victim was shot to death in chapter two and refer to him as having been smothered in chapter ten), and length.
Length isn’t usually a problem for me, even though I tend to “write short.” My contracts call for a final manuscript of approximately 75,000-100,000 words. The seven previous books in the series have followed a pretty consistent pattern. The rough drafts have been between 55,599 and 71,797 words and the final drafts have come in between 73,714 and 76,803 words.
The work in progress is tentatively called The Christmas Tree Farm Murders, and although the story, as usual, is set in Maine, I’m still hoping to come up with a way to add a Scottish twist to the title. The rough draft was 70,949 words in length. On May 10th, I started revising. Each day I worked on the WIP, it got a little longer as I fleshed out sections that were almost all dialogue in the rough draft and inserted tiny details here and there and unclumped information dumps. Sometimes I took out whole blocks of rambling dialogue. In other places I had to clarify points because the information was in my head but never made it to the page. Sometimes, I had to add a new scene, or part of one, and/or rearrange or combine scenes.
This will be my fiftieth traditionally published book, but if I count unsold novels and nonfiction I’ve written for family and local history projects, it’s the eighty-eighth book I’ve written since 1976. For better or worse, my method of revising is pretty well set. Here’s how the process goes.
I start with a clean printout of the rough draft in a three-ring binder. It already has post-it notes sticking out of it because even though I don’t let myself start serious revising until I’ve had my month-long break from the WIP, I can’t help but think of things during that period. Some notes concern details I’ll need to verify (What pain medication can you take if you have a concussion?) Others indicate where I may need to add material. A few are just reminders that I need to include details earlier in the story to set up what happens later. For convenience, the binder also contains my character sheets, any relevant maps, floor plans, and family trees, plus a chronology of events. I made a chapter outline when I finished the rough draft, writing down the highlights of each scene. I sometimes refer to this as my “who-knows-what-when” chart. I do not, by the way, make an outline before I write. I’d love to be able to, but my brain doesn’t work that way.
When it’s time to start revising. I find a comfortable place to sit, either in the living room or, weather permitting, out on the porch, with the looseleaf in my lap and a red felt tip pen with a fine point in my hand. The first scene, sometimes the first chapter, doesn’t usually need much work. After all, I’ve already rewritten the early sections quite a few times. (Back on January 5th, I blogged about the challenges of finding just the right point at which to start the story.) But pretty soon, certainly by page fifty or so, the revising process slows to a crawl. Take a close look at the illustrations that accompany this post. That’s what almost every page looks like when I revise a rough draft. If I have to add a lot of new text, then I write in longhand on a legal pad and insert it when I type in my changes into an electronic file. That happens shortly after I stop revising by hand for the day . . . while I can still read my handwriting and figure out where all those asterisks and arrows are supposed to take me.
I keep going straight through the manuscript until I get to the end, working two to three hours a day by hand and another two to three hours a day typing in changes and corrections. This actually amounts to a second revision for each day’s work. If I think of something I should go back and change earlier in the manuscript, I usually just stick a post-it note in the appropriate spot and keep moving forward so I don’t lose the flow of the story. I also keep at it every day. No days off for good behavior.
I finished the revision on May 26th (yesterday). Before I reached the halfway point, I was already over my minimum goal of 75,000 words. At the moment, the word count stands at 78,484. The WIP isn’t finished by any means, but knowing that I have a complete manuscript that is long enough to meet my contractual obligations always takes the pressure off. The next step is to go back and deal with the post-it notes and then the manuscript is ready to go to my first reader.
At this stage, the only person I trust to see what I’ve written is my husband. He’s also my in-house consultant on all things to do with Maine law enforcement. For this book, he’s also the Christmas tree farm expert. He’s also brutally honest. He’ll tell me if the book isn’t working and why. In an earlier book in this series he caught a major flaw in the way an important continuing character reacted to a situation and I had to do a lot of rewriting, but I ended up with a much better book.
Whether it needs major changes or only small tweaks, I’ll let my WIP have a second “rest” at this stage. Ideally, I want to put enough distance between revisions to be able to pretend that someone else wrote the novel. Somehow this makes it easier to find and fix whatever is wrong with it. It’s easier to spot typos, too.
There is only one drawback to this method. It depends upon setting deadlines well in advance of the real one and sticking to them. For the last few years and under my current contract I have to turn in a new book on September 1st. That means my personal deadline for rough drafts is the end of April, with a goal of finishing the first revision by the first of June. Yes, I’m a little ahead of schedule with this book. Yea! After this next break, I’ll have all of August, if I need it, to produce the final draft. Come September, I’ll let you know how much more work I had to do before the WIP was ready to be submitted to my editor at Kensington.