Alright, deep breath, here goes.
The Problem with Revision.
I’ve been thinking about revision and how to handle it ever since I sent a short story to Critters.org and got 20+ critiques. The results were very confusing–and actually quite overwhelming. Each piece of advice contradicted the next. What one person loved another person hated. How could I sort through all these different editing opinions (unfortunately most of the comments fell into the “editing” rather than “alpha-reading” category) and find the solution to what I should do to make my story better? I asked for help in how to sort through the pile of contradictions, and I got some good advice, but still what I should do remained unclear.
So, as I am wont to do, I kept my question in the back of my mind as I browsed authors’ websites the following months. For example, Beth Revis wrote a fascinating series of posts on her revision process. I recommend the read, if you’re like me and curious about what others do.
Gradually, my general, murky confusion about revision refined itself into a particular question:
I have met writers who are too arrogant and self-assured to take criticism, and their writing and their stories suffer for it. I don’t want to be so confident that I can’t listen to much-needed advice. I have also met writers who are tossed about by every wave, applying every passing comment until their story is barely cohesive or coherent and hardly unique. I don’t want to be like that, either.
How can I make my stories better? How do I decide which advice to follow and when? What in the world do I use as a yardstick to measure advice against?
Revision Plan B.
After much thought and consideration, I have come up with a plan–or a rule of thumb.
Assuming that I have a vision of how I want the story to go, then,
- Any advice that resonates with and adds to my vision of the story, I will take. In other words, I’m only going to make changes that add to my vision of how I want the story to go.
- Any advice that diminishes my vision, comes into conflict with it or detracts from it, I will ignore.
This plan still necessitates change and taking advice. I refuse to be stuck in my own ways, alone in my ruts. However, it also means that I am free to say no, and now I have a reason for doing so that makes sense, rather than on the basis of an arbitrary “I don’t think I should” feeling or simple stubbornness.
As M Williams said when I proposed this plan, “Some people’s advice is going to be motivated by a desire to help, but it’s going to be advice that wants to make the story into the kind of story they would want to tell, instead of the kind of story you want to tell! . . . [This plan] lets you look at advice and figure out which advice is useful and which advice takes your story away from where it’s supposed to go! It’s humble and learning-ready, but it still protects the integrity of the story you’re trying to tell.”
It also means I will carefully consider all advice before I dismiss it, and if there’s anything I’m unsure about, I can hold onto it for later reconsideration. I’ve actually done this a lot. Advice that at the time I dismissed because I was too close to the story, I have still held onto and have later adopted as time has gone on. (There is hope for me yet?) For example, in my current novel WIP, one of the character’s names was originally different, but I received some really strong advice that her name needed to be changed, and for good reason. There were too many other connotations associated with it. I hesitated, but decided not to change it at that time because I didn’t feel right about the decision. However, I held onto that piece of advice, and just last month I found a solution that would continue my vision of the story and also address the legitimate concern about her name.
A Caveat on Reactions.
Generally, I react one of four ways.
- Doh! I can’t believe I did that. You are totally right.
- I see why you had that reaction. That isn’t how I’d fix it, but I know how to.
- I don’t understand. Can you clarify?
- Hell, no.
#4 is actually a variant on #3. In that, if a reader’s idea is so wildly different from mine, I might be communicating the wrong thing. It’s worth looking at that one again in case they are pointing at an actual problem but misidentifying it.
I mulled over this off and on for about a month, and here’s what I’ve come up with in how it relates to my revision plan.
When looking at writing advice, it’s important to try to piece together why the reader had the reaction they did. If they’re a good alpha-reader, they should be articulating their reading experiences and giving just their reactions to the text without any advice. But the majority of the time, people tend to act as an editor when they give feedback, so it’s useful to try to dissect why they are saying what they are. Perhaps what they are really communicating is that what you tried to get across was actually unclear, they didn’t understand a passage, or one or two sentences at the beginning of the chapter wasn’t enough to anchor an important idea they will need to understand xyz, and so on and so forth.
I’m about to do a revision stint on a few stories, so here goes nothing! I also wish everyone best of luck in their revisions.