Ooof, revising is some kind of process, I’ll tell you what. Today, I sat down and made a list of the scenes that I thought I’d need to insert into the novel between where I am (the halfway point) and the 2/3rds point. Adding scenes to a mostly-complete novel is an amazing feeling. On the one hand, I have complete freedom to do literally anything I can imagine. But, on the other hand, I don’t really want to disrupt the overall structure. Thus, I’m left looking at the shape of the manuscript and thinking very deeply about what I need to happen, and I’ve actually come up with some very elegant solutions that I’m very happy with.
Adding new words to the manuscript is also weird, because you worry about losing the voice. For awhile, I was really worried because the new scenes I was adding didn’t sound quite right. They were more searching and vulnerable. The character was coming off less sure of what to do and who she was, and I kept trying to compensate and bring a little bit of that other stuff back. But then I was like, “Wait a second. There’s a reason for this. What I’m trying to do with this revision is to add those shadings to her character.” If I’m successful, the character will always be recognizably herself, but there’ll be different shades to her character depending on who she’s interacting with. I think there’s a reason that the two storylines I’ve been spending the most time on are the two most complex and unsettling relationships that she has.
In the end, who can say how good this revision is. I’m caught up in the middle of it, so I think it’s going great. For this novel, I wrote a very complete and very readable first draft, but it’s really astonishing how much has changed since that draft. It’s not that anyone has been cut out or anything. It’s that the weights shifted. One love interest turned into an extremely minor character. The other two became much more complex people. The main antagonist was turned into a mere foil. And the sidekick became a plotline in her own write. There’s a lot of moving pieces, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve shifted around and interacted with each other. I can’t believe that this book is actually going to come out and be on shelves for you to read. I’m very excited for that.
Tweaked a few scenes, changed a few transitions, reworked some awkward stuff. Oh, and I also added a sex scene. Yes, that’s not a comment I ever thought my agent would make on my young adult novel: “Instead of fading to black, there should be a sex scene here.”
That was honestly the part that I spent the most time working on. I know that teens have sex, but I, personally, never had sex while I was a teen. I didn’t even really have sex in college. But whatever. It’s not a real sex scene, actually–I just fade to black at a slightly later point in the scene.
But anyway, the long and short of it is that I am done working on this thing. If some common thread arises from the editorial rejections, then I might revise in response to that. And if it gets purchased, I will undoubtedly have to do tons of revisions. But, in some weird proximate fashion, I am done with this thing.
Well, as we ready this sucker for submission, I am left to go through this manuscript one final time. This time, my agent went so far as to actually print it out, circle the typos, and mail it to me for correction (the manuscript arrived in an envelope that’d been torn open sometime during the shipping process). So I’m left to go through the 250+ pages of this thing for one last time (well, actually, if it sells I’ll probably have to go through it another ten or fifteen times).
I really like this book. I was telling a friend of mine that I am literally 100% confident that it will sell. And she told me, “Well…it’s good that you like it, but that seems like a dangerous belief.”
And it is dangerous. I know it’s dangerous. There’ve been many times in my life when I’ve been 100% confident that something would sell, and in almost every one of those cases, the work has failed to sell. And I know, intellectually, that this book is not a slam dunk. I know that most of the editors that see it are going to reject it. And I know that if one editor can reject it, then it’s possible for every editor to reject it.
It seems like the prevailing style amongst modern writers (well, the good ones, at least) is to display meekness and diffidence. Every extremely successful writer that I know is always saying running themselves down and expressing surprise at their success and talking about how they don’t feel like they deserve any of their sales. I don’t understand that at all. I’ve never felt like an impostor.
That’s why I keep moving forward. I believe in the work. I believe it’s worthwhile, and I believe it ought to be out there.
You know, it’s true that I am writing these YA novels now. And it’s true that those have a different tone and feel than the novels that I (try to) write for the adult market. But I am not conscious of using any lesser degree of artistry in their composition. On the contrary, they contain more of me, and are more deeply personal, than the adult works. I definitely didn’t write this book for the money, or because I just wanted to be published. Well, I did write it for those reasons. But not just for those reasons. I think this book contains, in full measure, whatever artistry I have it within me to put into prose. And I really want it to sell.
Just finished proof-reading Enter Title Here and sent it off to my agent. There’s a decent chance that he’ll request more edits, but I feel confident in saying that at this moment, in my mind, the novel is done. If I wasn’t currently represented, this is the point at which I’d begin writing my query letter and synopsis and assembling a list of agents that I’m interested in. You obviously have no reason to trust me when I say this, but this novel is extremely good. Given that, I thought it might be interesting if I broke down exactly how much time I spent writing this novel.
This analysis is possible because for the past eighteen months I’ve been keeping notes on two things: a) how much time I spend writing each day; and b) what I spend each day working on. Since I started ETH a little bit more than a year ago, this is the first time that I have a complete start-to-finish record of all the time I’ve spent working on a book.
I got the idea for ETH on July 17, 2012, but I didn’t work on it for another 5 months (though I did spend a fair amount of time visualizing it). I began drafting it on December 18, 2012 and finished the first draft on January 18, 2012 (hey, exactly one month!). The second phase of revision took place over 5 days in May and 4 days in September. This involved cleaning up the novel, tinkering with some of the characters, eliminating inconsistencies, and cutting about 10,000 words. I sent it to my agent in September and got back comments about a month later.
The third phase of revision began on December 7th and ended yesterday. During this phase, I made four passes through the novel. First, I went through from top to bottom, looking at every chapter, scene, and paragraph, asked myself, “Does this belong here?” During this pass, I cut about 16,000 words. Then I made a second pass where I addressed the specific comments made by my agent. Then I made a third pass where I went through and tightened all the sentences. This resulted in cutting about 7,000 words. And, finally, I went through the novel backwards and had the mac’s text-to-speech software read out every word so I could catch any typos or dropped words. During this phase, I also did a final check for internal inconsistencies and stuff that I needed to google in order to make sure it was true*. And then I emailed it off.
In total, it took 165 hours of work over 60 days.
In terms of hours of work, here’s a pie chart with the final numbers:
There you go.
I’m not saying that this is the best way to do it or even that I will necessary do all my other novels like this. In fact, perhaps this is simply a horrendous way to do it and I am leading you all stray. But this is certainly one possible way to produce a relatively good-looking finished novel. Now, everyone knows that you can write a novel in a month, but there’s always the implication that if you write a novel in that short of a period of time then you’re going to need to spend months, or even years, on revision. The major thing I’d like you to take away from this post is that there’s no reason why revision has to take such a loooooooong period of time. In this case, my writing time was about 50% drafting and 50% revision.
Anyway, in case you wanted a chart that details writing days rather than total hours, here it is:
And here is the raw data table (note that halfway through, the title changed from Study Machines to Enter Title Here):
*During this phase, I finally gave up on finding a real town in Silicon Valley that had the same features as the town in my story and just gave a fake name to the town.
As mentioned earlier, I am working on revising Enter Title Here. And I am doing it using exactly the same process that I used, almost exactly two years ago, to prepare This Beautiful Fever for submission to agents. I’m enjoying the revision process considerably. Even when I am in no mood to begin it, I usually fall into it within a few minutes and then I’m happily marking it up for hours. Oftentimes I even overrun my allotted time and do more hours of work than I planned for. I like the novel so much that I’m even willing to put in the little touches. For instance, today I spent half an hour going through and finding places where I could insert super obscure dictionary words (one of them was “filipendulous”) for reasons that will probably only be clear to about 10% of the people who read the book. Yesterday, I looked at a scene that was working pretty well and then I tore it apart and rewrote it so it could be even better.
I like the novel a lot. This is not a given with me! I’ve written multiple novels that I did not like a lot. I’ve written novels that I couldn’t bear to revise. Part of my good feelings are probably because this novel hasn’t yet been rejected by any agents, contests, editors, etc. But part of it is just that I enjoy reading it and think it’s pretty good. Since I’m going through it sentence by sentence, I’m paying lots of attention to the actual writing. And sometimes (not often!) I actually come across a sentence that makes me think, “Hmm. That’s pretty good. All the sentences should be like that.”
That’s a pretty new feeling
Although I’m going through the same process as I did with the previous novel, I’m in a very different position. Writing that novel was a very speculative endeavor. Although I was full of hope for its future, I had zero expectation. I knew that publication was unlikely, not just because I was a new and untried author, but also because the book was a bit of a hard sell (agents and editors can talk until they’re blue in the face about how they want LGBT YA, but I don’t think the numbers bear them out).
This time is different. When working on a book that you love, it’s a very odd feeling to know that it’s a very commercial concept and that this is the right time (or at least a non-terrible time) to sell this kind of book and that you have an agent who loves the book and is excited to send it around. As much as I don’t want it to, that raises certain kinds of expectations. It’s actually not unlikely that this book will sell.
But that’s a horrible place to be. Because it could very well fail to sell. That is also a not unlikely scenario. And I know lots of aspiring writers read this blog, so let me tell you…the closer you come to the sale, the worse the rejection feels.I know, it doesn’t make intuitive sense. Since rejection is primarily painful for the way it undermines your self-image (as a smart person, good writer, etc), then you’d think a “close, but not quite” rejection would be less painful, since it implies that you have at least some talent. But I think the reason it’s worse is because when you come close, they provide reasons for why they rejected it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the happiness research, it’s that the brain loves vagueness. When the brain is free to believe anything, it inevitably believes the thing that is most flattering to itself. When you get an impersonal blow-off of a rejection, it’s easier to believe, “Oh, they just didn’t understand it. They weren’t the right market for my work.” When they send back a detailed reason that describes the things they liked and didn’t like, then it’s harder (though not impossible) to escape the conclusion that the work just wasn’t good enough.
So yes, in the future this might result in some major hurt. But, for now, I’m really excited by my novel, and I hope that you all can someday read it.
I am going through the novel, sentence by sentence, and systematically cutting and shortening everything. Now, I won’t say that brevity is the essence of good writing: I think that good writers often know when they should use extra words. But I’m not the most amazing prose stylist in the world, and brevity is at least something that I can reliably do. At times, this part of the process is a bit of a pain, but it can actually be a very immersive experience sometimes. It’s fun to play around with sentences. And for some reason, the second part of the process–after I’ve gone through and rewritten the chapter–is always to go through it again and figure out which sentences and paragraphs can go. I don’t know why I can’t do the latter first, but somehow the process of going through it really makes me see the whole thing in a new light.
It’s not particularly fast. In an hour of this, I can usually go through about 2500-3000 words of draft and cut 500 words from them. If carried through the entire novel, I should be able to cut about 15-18% of it, ending up with a draft that’s around 61,000 words long.
Sometimes I get a bit angsty over cutting little bits and pieces, but my solution is always to just cut them anyway and see if I miss them. Usually, I don’t.
Actually, this draft has been a marvel of excision. The first draft of 93,000 words long. The current draft is 67,000 words long. I’ve cut 26,000 words, and I don’t think anything is really missing. I’m honestly not sure what I cut. It was mostly just wheels spinning, I guess.
I think I’ve cut most of the easy stuff already, though. The cutting went in two phases. First I cut 10,000 words on this one day. Then (six months later), I cut 16,000 words in three consecutive days (9k the first day, 5k the second, and 2k on the third). Still, it feels good.
Not much else to report on this fine Sunday. Just finished another revision on my 2nd / 4th novel*, Enter Title Here, and decided it was finally time to send it to readers (and my agent) for comments. I really like this one. It almost makes me sad that it’s already written…that I’ll never again have the experience of writing it for the first time (I wrote the first draft over the course of about 28 days, most of which were while I was in India over winter break). I’m sure I’ll write better novels in the future, but, well, the future always feels impossibly distant. And then when it comes, it’s over so fast. Looking back, I’ve realized that I actually do revise my novels considerably (except when I abandon them completely). But it always feels like 90% of their goodness is implanted within them during the initial drafting phase. Later revision can extract the badness, but it can’t necessarily add in more goodness. That’s why it often feels more productive, to me, to abandon a book that’s not working and go to work on the next one.
Not sure what I’ll do next. Maybe I’ll revise some short stories. I have some unrevised stories that’re as old as January of 2012 (more than 18 months ago). If I leave them any longer, I won’t even want to look at them anymore. Usually, I have a basic sense of what I want to do with them, but I can be a bit lazy about actually going ahead and doing that thing. In some cases, they just need to be polished up and then sent out into the world to fend for themselves–they’re not worth the effort it’d take to make them better.
And then there’re some novel-related things to do. I really have to do some more revisions on the novel that I drafted in secret over the summer (my 5th) . But I think I am saving that for the winter break.
Part of me really just wants to start a new novel. I have an idea that I am super excited by. Been kicking it around for a bit. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the good ideas don’t really go away.
Anyway, I’ve been feeling pretty happy lately. I like having a routine. And I also like working on new things. Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing left in life to do except all the stuff I know how to do. But I don’t feel like that right now. Right now I feel like life will be full of things that I can’t really imagine.
Amongst twentysomethings, there’s such a fear of aging. And there’s something to that. Life does become different as you age. You can’t party like crazy. Your brain loses some of its plasticity. But you also get to do great stuff. Like…be good at stuff. Produce original work. Be in charge of shit. Make major life decisions. Create tiny humans.
It all (well, except for the tiny humans) sounds very intriguing.
*I’ve written first drafts of five novels, but I decided not to revise or market the 1st and 3rd novels (both were adult science fiction novels) .
I’ve only written three stories this year (and it’s half over; also, one of those stories was only 700 words long)! The last story I completed was finished on February 17th. This year I’ve almost exclusively done novel-related stuff: drafting and revising Enter Title Here¸ revising This Beautiful Fever, and, this summer, working on the first draft of a different novel.
Not only have I not been writing stories, I haven’t even been revising them. I have seventeen unrevised stories, with some of them dating back to January of 2012. Normally I take a month or two at the beginning of the year to revise my backlog. I didn’t do that this time. And my submissions pile is showing the damage. Half my stories aren’t out right now, because I don’t really have anywhere exciting to show them. If I had new stuff coming in, then I might retire old stuff, but that’s not really happening.
It’s a bit disappointing. I like to always be in a place where someone could email me with good news RIGHT NOW. And that’s not really where I am at the moment. The effort-to-reward time for a short story is really good. You can get good news within a few months of writing the story. For a novel, it’s very bad. I wrote the first draft of This Beautiful Fever two years ago, and I’m still not in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Actually, right now, there’s no chance of good news happening on that novel, since I am sitting on a second round of edits from the agent. Good edits. Sound edits. But as long as they’re hanging over me, the novel isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully I can get them done before I go to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, but if I can’t, then I won’t be able to get them done until maybe mid-August. And the it’ll take him a month to read them. So, best case scenario, the novel doesn’t even go on submission until, like, mid-September–ten weeks from now!
And that’s for something I wrote two years ago.
The stuff I am writing now is even further from being in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Not actually clear how long their journey is, since I’ve only ever taken one novel from first-draft to submission, and that novel still hasn’t completed its revision lifecycle.
But, on the other hand, the prospect of writing more short stories is not too exciting. Firstly, because the last few stories I’ve been super excited about have gotten nothing but rejection. And, secondly, because the potential reward is so limited. I mean, I like reading short stories and I like writing them. But I also like getting readers and getting paid. And novels are where it’s at for that stuff.
And even though I’m a pretty fast writer, it does take a noticeable change in gears to switch over and write short stories, and I just haven’t felt like taking the effort.
The result is that I am in a different place nowadays, mentally. In some ways, it’s relaxing. I’m not worrying as much about submissions. I’m not tracking them obsessively. I’m not staying up at night wondering if some magazine is going to like my story. But I am also deprived of the pleasure of that kind of hope.
Sometimes I do think, “Wow, actually, the odds of an agented manuscript selling are much better than the odds of a story being accepted by Clarkesworld. So it’s not at all unlikely that something good could actually happen to me.”
But that prospect seems so remote. Any success that is further away than POSSIBLY RIGHT NOW is just too far into the mists of time for me.
Three months ago, Brooke Wonders tagged me in that “Next Big Thing” meme that was going around. I intended to write a post about it (since it was the first time I’d ever been tagged in a meme, woooo). But then I didn’t, because I was in too early a stage w/ the book (I’d just completed the first draft) and I didn’t want to commit myself to it if I wasn’t going to go further with it. But now I feel like the book has a little more get-up-and-go to it, so I think I’ll stop being coy.
What is the working title of this book?
It used to be Study Machines, but I developed that title back when I thought it was going to be an SF book. It also has a fairly specific context that no longer makes sense. So now it’s called Enter Title Here. I am completely in love with this title. When I view the output from Scrivener, it really does look like I’ve forgotten to give the book a title.
Where did the idea for the book come from?*
I can answer this question! Twas July 17th, and I was reading Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, a book of financial reportage that was edited by Michael Lewis. In retrospect, this was a poor decision, since the book was not very good. I only read it because I was in my Michael Lewis phase. However, as part of a bit of color commentary on the economy of Korea, there’s a whole section on student suicide that contains this passage:
In 2005, in the first rally of its kind, hundreds of high school students demonstrated in central Seoul, shouting, “We aren’t study machines!” They gathered to mourn 15 students fro around the country who had killed themselves, apparently because of intense pressure to succeed. (p. 154)
For some reason, I really loved this passage. After reading it, I thought, “There’s a novel in this! What if I was to write about a dystopian future where kids have to, like, study really hard or something…”
I walked around my neighborhood a bit and thought about it. And I slowly realized, “Wait, this doesn’t need to be a dystopian future. This is now. This is real life. In the present day, many high school kids work really, really, really, really hard.”
So I decided to write about one of them.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s pretty squarely a contemporary young adult novel. My first book with no guns! Not even one! It was, surprisingly, not very hard to write a realist novel. I always wondered how people did it. How did they decide that this prosaic situation was more worth writing about than that prosaic situation? Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about prosaic situations. In fact, I think it’s better than writing about really weird situations. I prefer to read about ordinary life. But still, it does seem to pose conceptual problems. In SF, you know something is worth writing about if people think it’s super cool when you describe it to them. In realist novels, something can sound utterly boring when described but actually work really well on the page. Anyway, now I know the answer: when you find the right prosaic situation, it doesn’t seem prosaic at all (at least, not to you).
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I will not play this game. This game does not interest me at all.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The novel you’re reading is the novel that is being written by an Indian American high school senior who plans to use it as her ‘hook’ for college admissions; however, her carefully-managed self-transformation into a ‘typical’ American teen is interrupted when one of her teachers accuses her of plagiarism.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I actually thought about writing this book last summer, when I first thought of it, but I held off because I wanted to revise that other (terrible) novel first. In the end, holding off was probably a good idea, since it let me do some additional brainstorming. I didn’t go into winter break intending to write this novel, but then I just went ahead and did it, because it seemed silly to spend day after day groping around for another short story when I already had this idea that really excited me. I wrote it in thirty-one days (Dec. 18, 2012 through Jan. 17, 2013). I didn’t set out to write it in exactly one month. It just turned out that way.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A lot of the book is inspired by my own anxieties over getting published and whether I really knew how to write stories (it’s primarily told as a monologue to the literary agent who’ll be reading it, which I thought was cute, since I expected to be querying agents about it).
Since I didn’t go to a large public coeducational high school (the graduating class at my all-boy’s catholic HS was 36 people), I also read all these ethnographic studies of high school to see if I could fake the social dynamics a little bit (yep, that’s how I roll).
Will your book be self-published or presented by an agency?
Assuming nothing goes horribly wrong, I guess it’ll be represented by my agent at Greenhouse Literary. However, that seems like it’s a ways in the future, since we haven’t even started to do anything with the last book.
My tagged writers
I will not tag anyone, since I am not sure: a) which writers read this blog; and b) whether those writers have already done this or not.
*Note, in this question is normally listed (in most posts that use this meme) as “Where did the idea come from for the book?” That is a dreadfully awkward wording and it’s an example of the trouble that you can get into when you try to contort a sentence to avoid ending it on a preposition.
I’m in the process of revising Study Machines (the contemporary YA novel I wrote during Spring Break). Except now it’s called Enter Title Here, which makes me laugh every time I think of it. I’m (surprisingly) really enjoying the revision process. On Monday, I spent ten hours cutting 10,000 words. About 1500-2000 of those were in full scenes, the rest was bits and pieces. I’m a bit shocked by it. I literally cut words as rapidly as I normally write them. And I really have no idea what it is that I cut. I think it was mostly extraneous descriptions (describing two gestures where one would do) and shortening dialogue (cutting places where characters said the same thing twice). But it’s hard to tell if I’m tightening the manuscript or just thinning it.
When I revised This Beautiful Fever, I also cut about 9,000 words. But in that case, it was a horrible death-slog through the text. I cut words at a rate of (I’m not kidding) about 150 an hour. I’d spend three hours cutting and all I’d have to show for it was the loss of two manuscript pages. Am I just a better writer now? Or is Enter Title Here a looser book? Or am I going too far in my current cutting?
I dunno, probably a combination of all three.
When I cut words, I do take solace in the idea that there’s nothing sacred about these specific words. I wrote most of them between the hours of 8 PM and 12 AM while I was sitting in either: a) the incredibly cold–and normally uninhabited–living room of my parents’ flat in New Delhi; b) my dad’s (much warmer) office, in that same flat; or c) the window seat of my bedroom in a Sri Lankan villa. These were not words that I sweated blood over. I wrote them in a blind rush. And if I’m cutting too much, then the new words that I write will probably be better and more thought-out than the ones that I cut.
Overall, I am really not a very good reviser. I always look for ways to avoid reimagining the draft in significant ways. It’s obvious (at least to me) that there’s no way I’m telling this story in the most effective and economical way. But, while I know that on an intellectual level, my heart does not agree. It’s kind of in love with the current form of this story. Oh well, that is where the critique process comes in. It was only after it’d gone in front of a few eyes that I was able to make the (fairly significant) changes that This Beautiful Fever needed. I don’t really even need to get suggestions from my critiquers, it’s just that once I know that there are problems in the draft, then my mind finally starts addressing itself to the task of fixing those problems, rather than rationalizing them away.