Revisions: How complicated can they be?



A cedar arbour has stood in our back yard for some fifteen years, supporting a climbing white hydrangea for the past ten. The hydrangea wasn’t blooming, but I was told it could take many years to get started. Finally, two years ago, the first couple blooms appeared, and then last year there were a half dozen. Halleluia!


Last summer we noticed the arbour was listing to starboard, and by fall it was threatening to fall over. The wood was rotten and the hydrangea pushed vigorously from the one side. My hubby nailed supports on to prop it in place over the winter and last week we began the task of replacing it. We didn’t expect it to be much of a challenge. Just get a new arbour ready, ease the hydrangea branches off the old one and take it out, slide the new one into place, anchor it, and presto… replacement complete. Except I wanted to salvage that hydrangea, and we discovered its woody stems were tightly entwined through the latticework. Thus we had to undertake the huge job of cutting the lattice on either side of every branch, and wiggling the loose pieces free. It ended up taking the better part of three days.

I don’t know if we stressed the hydrangea so it won’t bloom this year, but we’ve done our best to save it and (I think) it’s still alive. I did some judicious pruning, also trimming the rhododendron beside it to give it some room, and cutting back hemlock branches that wanted to rest across the top. All we can do now is wait to see what happens this summer.

DSC01211The process reminded me a little of manuscript revisions. The hardest part of writing a novel is getting the first draft in place, right? The revisions just require some reorganizing, checking for continuity, maybe shifting the occasional scene, and, of course, fixing lots of typos and grammatical errors. That’s what I thought until I began revising my first novel. How could it take me so long? Every slight change I made required subsequent changes somewhere else. The main character was wimpy; the antagonist was unbelievable; there was too much backstory. I cut, changed and corrected, but the resulting narrative was choppy, and I ended up doing a total rewrite from the beginning. A year later it still didn’t feel right.

That manuscript has long since been shelved and I’ve learned a lot as I’ve written my way through several more. I enjoy doing revisions, but I understand now that there is much more to them than implementing a few quick changes. As we gain experience and knowledge some of how we write becomes instinctive, but a good revision checklist is still desirable. I keep one handy that I found years ago on Nathan Bransford’s site. It’s still there if you’d like to check it out. There are undoubtedly lots of others.

Getting it right the first time would be nice. If I were a planner and plotted out the story in detail before starting, I would undoubtedly cut down on the amount of time I spend on revisions, but I don’t think I will ever be one those writers who thinks everything out first, ponders the words as they hit the paper, and never has to look at them again after typing ‘The End’.

Revisions shouldn’t be complicated, and if we have the basics right, they won’t be. I highly recommend reading PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell, and WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION by Donald Maass for an understanding of what good writing is all about… and the groundwork that goes along with the gruntwork.

Do you delight in revisions, or dread them, or do you sit somewhere in between? How do you tackle them?



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Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

10 thoughts on “Revisions: How complicated can they be?

  1. Hi Carol –

    I’m also a seat-of-the-pants writer, so editing is often extensive. My first book went through at least 3 major re-writes before I was satisfied with the end product.

    Susan 🙂

    1. I never got to the point of being satisfied with my first novel, despite revising and rewriting, but in retrospect I know it had a fatal flaw. I chalked it up to a useful learning experience.

  2. I like revising better than first-drafting. No scary blank pages, lol! But being a panster, sometimes there are a LOT of revisions to do as I discover exactly what story I’m trying to tell. I wonder, does a plotter spend as much time on the thinking/planning/outlining process as I do on revisions? Maybe in the end we’re not so different… 😉

  3. Carol, I loved your analogy. No matter how long it takes, we just have to keep at it. And maybe it will survive or end up in the (delete) scrap pile. Editing is a challenge for me. I’m constantly vacillating between first person and third, and now I’m ready to go back to first. Or maybe I’ll just go work in the flower beds! 😀

    1. My third novel was rewritten three times, going between first and third person. I’ve decided I’m more comfortable writing in the third, but I think sometimes it’s the story that determines which it should be. Fortunately the flowers don’t care which perspective you take while weeding and deadheading, do they? 😉

  4. Well, that settles that. I’m getting a plastic arbour; one of them heavy duty ones. Which, I know, isn’t the point. Ah, but is it. Build a good story on a strong foundation and maybe, just maybe, your publisher will jump for joy. I’ve got my publisher on the mind these days, but truth be known, if the story excites me, then I hope it’ll excite the reader.

    Great post, again!

    1. I hadn’t gone that far with the analogy, but you’re right. A good, strong foundation will help a story survive through whatever we heap on it. BTW, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on your next story. I hope it’ll be soon.

  5. I’m so glad you were able to save the hydrangea. This was such a perfect analogy. When you revise (and it is hard work) you always try to save the main idea or goal of your book. Some people revise so much it gets lost. I don’t like revision but I know it is important and am always glad I spent the time. (as you will be when the hydrangeas bloom around the new arbour)

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