Revising a story is arguably the hardest part of writing. I know many writers who refused to revise at all when they first started out. Personally, I also felt like my short stories were gold in just one draft. Then I realized having to revise is a necessary part of the process. That means it’s important to learn how to revise a story.
Revision is Necessary
Having to revise your story doesn’t mean you’re an awful writer. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way. Every successful author out there revises their work. They revise before they send it to their publisher and then they go through more revisions after their publisher sends it to an editor.
The bottom line is, as painful as it is, writers need to learn to love the revision process. Or at least tolerate it relatively well.
In today’s interview, we’re talking with Christina Weaver about how to revise a story. Christina may not be in love with revision, but she knows how vital it is to your story.
Christina Weaver (who also writes as C.M. Weaver) lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, son and a rescue dog named Ariel. She’s published two books and has had multiple stories in anthologies. She’s won multiple awards for her short stories.
Now let’s dive in and see what Christina has to say about slogging through revisions!
You have a couple of books out now: Silent River and The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind these two books?
The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan was inspired by a post from a classmate’s memoir. I couldn’t figure out why an entire town would turn against a woman and take her children from her. It happened at the end of WWII in Italy.
The story intrigued me and I kept asking questions. The man who was writing his family’s story didn’t know, he had only what his father told him. I asked if I could take the incident and write my own story. He said yes.
Silent River was a different story. Back in the mid-1980s my mother, whom I’d been visiting, handed me a full page article from the Oregonian newspaper and said, “Tina you need to write about this.” I read about a family that disappeared into the Columbia River on December 7, 1958.
I started writing a story, but it ran into a wall. I couldn’t figure out how this fictional story might end. I had done very little research on it and had the police reports from the state.
So you had to do a lot of research for Silent River. Can you give me a little insight into your research process?
This was fun and lots of work. I began writing a story by the seat of my pants (panster) and after a few pages ran into a wall.
I had the phone number of the detective that was on the case, provided by my best friend who worked for the state police. I called Walter [the detective] and tried to get him to talk to me. He asked me a couple of questions then asked what the weather was like in Minnesota and hung up on me.
That went on for four calls. He [was testing] me and then it took a couple more phone calls before he believed me and would open up and talk. The last time I called, I told him I had his reports and all the police reports I could get.
[He finally gave in and dug up] his interview of the waitress at the diner where the family last ate. The next conversation revealed the key to the story and I began to write with all my police reports.
Wow, that took a lot of persistence! I also have a lot of fun doing research for a book, but often find heavily researched stories can turn out stale and textbook-like. Did you have that issue with your novel? What did you do to liven it up?
Let’s say when I first wrote the novel I’d never written one before. I wasn’t a very good writer but I could tell a good story. After sending that rough novel to the detective, who loved it, I put it away for years. Thirty-five to be exact.
I began to study the craft of writing and after a renewed interest in the story, I dug it out and began to edit and rewrite. I’d say I did more rewriting than editing.
My main character was flat. He needed something to connect to the reader. I added emotion to the story where I could. Gave him a love interest to keep it real and a partner to help tell the story.
When I was first starting out, I had a hard time getting rid of prose I really liked but that just wasn’t serving the story. I can now “kill my darlings” with the best of them, but it took some time to get to that point. Is that a hard process for you and how do you deal with that? How do you know what “darlings” to kill? Do you recommend keeping those bits for something else or deleting them entirely?
My first draft of Silent River isn’t much like the published version. The process the detective took is the same. Police work is what it is.
“Kill your darlings”? I didn’t have any. I kept this story true to the plot line of police work. What I changed was what I’d developed as a writer.
I learned early on there are great writers and critics. They usually are there to help you. If they say cut, I cut! Even if it hurts.
Now saying that, in The Vanishing of Katherine Sullivan, my original publisher wanted me to cut all dialect from the novel. I refused. I told her my reason why. I don’t know if she agreed or not, but she gave in.
When you read this book, you’ll notice only Sam speaks in the dialect. Katherine doesn’t correct her husband’s speech as she does herself and her children. She wants her children to have culture or class. The townspeople speak revealing education. She wants that same respect.
You obviously felt quite strongly about keeping that dialect to go up against your publisher! What made that element of the story so important?
The reason I gave the editor for keeping some dialect was the desire of my main character, Katherine. You will see through the book she tries to better herself. She had moved out of the hills of West Virginia and into the town of Millerton. I told my editor I needed to show the reader the difference between how Katherine spoke and how the rest of the town might speak.
There are times when you feel the reason behind keeping something is important. Weigh it against the story. If you take it out will the reader lose something? In this case, I felt showing the reader Katherine’s desire was one of the reasons the town turned against her.
In your novel, if it doesn’t change the story, cut it and see what your beta readers think.
Speaking of beta readers, getting critique is a vital element in the writing process, but it’s often discouraging as well, especially for new writers. What advice would you give to writers about taking and applying critique?
“Pull up your big girl/boy panties and deal with it!” I look at the person giving the critique and if I care enough I’ll look at how they write. How long have they been writing?
Most critics are there to help you become a better writer. If they just red line everything and smash your work then walk away, put their review to the side.
Look at all the reviews [they give]. If they seem to be saying the same thing then you’d better change the way you do something. [For instance,] if you have a problem with POV [point of view], you’re going to have to do a rewrite.
I met a wonderful woman in one of the classes on The Write Practice. She’d written a 350-page epic. After a number of reviewers began saying the same thing she took another look at what she wrote, then at what I’d suggested. I try to always include the way you might write something to show a change in POV or by adding emotion, setting or even movement. You don’t want to have a chapter of talking heads.
Since she lives just a few miles from me we met and began to rewrite her story. She told me right off the story had to have this and this and that. Okay. We are now a few months into the rewrite and she just told me she could get rid of those very things she’d been so attached to.
How do you know when your book is ready to go out into the world?
To some, it will never be ready. I see that as a lack of confidence. If you have told the story from beginning to end and the people you trust have critiqued it with no more edits, you’re ready.
However, the next issue is how much money do you have to have it edited and proofread? Are you willing to sit on it until you can afford to have this done? If not then do your best. If you have friends that can read it and look for any obvious mistakes, buy them a book they want or lunch or something.
After that, take a big breath and hit the PUBLISH button.
You say “do your best.” Do you have any advice for editing your own work? Any specific programs or ways to tackle the process?
I use Grammarly when I’ve completed the manuscript. I use Word (and a notebook) when I’m writing.
I’m still trying to learn Scrivener. I haven’t used it to do a full novel. It’s a learning process.
I look at new ways to write all the time. I just bought the Thesaurus of Emotions. It’s been quite helpful. I have many books on writing and technique.
One thing I learned about writing is to write and have better writers review it. Join writing sites that help you. The one I joined was the most instrumental in making me a great writer.
How many revisions on average would you say you go through before your book is ready to be published?
Not all that many. I have the original rough draft. Then I put it through an online critique like 100 Day Book, or put Silent River on the Writer’s Workshop. I took the suggestions and rewrote what was wrong.
If I’m happy with the book and my critical sisters are happy, then I’m good with it. I don’t over stress about mistakes. Even the big publishers don’t catch everything. It’s no excuse, but it’s reality.
What’s been the hardest part of the writing process for you and how did you overcome it?
It depends on the story. [With] Silent River it was/is the ending. This is an unsolved murder. I wrote it as close to the possible truth as I could. I had to have an ending and it took a number of tries before I could accept the one I have.
The manuscripts I have now have other problems. Sometimes it’s the middle and in Twisted Roots, I’m nearing the end and struggling on how to end it. I have plots semi filled out that have missing sections I don’t know what to do about.
I ask friends, other writers and my sisters for suggestions. I may take all of them and suddenly the ending will come to me. How it happens I don’t know, it just does.
Any other advice you’d like to give new writers out there?
Write. Good, bad or ugly, write your story. THEN put it out for review. Look at what people say and fix it.
I’d say start writing short stories and don’t start with a novel. Take the premise of your novel and write it in fewer than 2500 or 3000 words. If you can tell the story in that amount of words and hook your readers, you are getting there.
I have stories that when they are reviewed, I get the request to make it into a novel. Perfecting the craft of writing short stories is the best place to start.
When you get that done, then stretching them into a novel is just expanding the plot line, adding setting and emotion to the three acts of your story. You can do it if you put your ego in the drawer and accept help.
“Put your ego in the drawer and accept help.”
Christina is right about ego. I said at the beginning of this post that I thought my stories were gold after one draft when I first started writing.
That was ego.
I had to learn to ignore my ego in order to move forward and revise my writing. In order to learn how to revise a story, I had to realize nothing is perfect the first time, no matter how much you want it to be and how much it hurts to hear criticism.
Revision is necessary. Learn to appreciate the process.
Thanks to Christina Weaver for her very real advice on revision!
Do you love or hate revision? Why? Let me know in the comments!