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Editing, to focus my question a bit. My goal is to turn a book around from concept to publishable in a 2 year time period. Currently the plan is to write a draft in a year and revise the following, starting the next draft while the first is in revisions. A sort of waterfall methodology to writing.

Currently, I have my first manuscript, 200,000 words, in alpha. Feedback has been slow, and I have a writing group that will take about 3 years to read it at the rate they plan on reading it (not good for my initial plan). It needs a lot of work based on the few reads I have gotten comments back on and I know I need to at least practice that work, but it may also be destined for the trunk.

I'm struggling with the time management aspect with the number of revisions I'm likely going to have to do. One character rewrite, one wholesale restructuring, and cutting about half the words out.

How long should a revision process take? When do you know it's time to put a book down and move to the next project? Suggestions on revision methodologies which support suggested timelines would help. I have high level revision objectives, but I am lacking process which may be causing my sense of swirl.

  • 2
    “I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.” Depending on who you believe that's either Gustave Flaubert or Oscar Wilde. – Hot Licks Mar 7 '18 at 2:15
  • If group feedback is slow, find individual beta readers or a professional developmental editor ::cough::check my profile::cough:: who can turn it around promptly, and over multiple rounds. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 7 '18 at 13:35
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I personally would NOT recommend writing a second book while revising the first. It is important to keep the first book in your head as a whole, a second book in my head would result in a jumbled and useless edit due to forgotten or mistaken plot threads and characters.

Pro writers that do a book a year do it raw start to final finish. Multi-tasking doesn't save you any time or make you type faster, it just reduces the quality of your work on both things. If you have 2000 hours in a year to write, spending 25% on revision and 75% on writing means you can't finish a book in a year that takes 2000 hours to write!

Also, give your group one chapter to read, and get feedback, and revise it, and give them the revision, and get feedback, and revise it.

If you are worried about the character arcs and plots, write what Hollywood calls a "treatment" of your novel. A screenplay in Hollywood is typically 110 pages or so. A treatment is a 3-5 page summary of every plot line and character arc, not written as either prose or an outline, but a kind of summary of each scene the screenwriter envisions, so it reads like a "just the facts" short story. It gives all the main beats of the story and does reveal any twists or surprises and the ending. It seldom includes any dialogue, except perhaps iconic lines: "I'll be back."

You can see that this is around 3.5% of the finished page count, so similarly, try writing for your 200K words a 7000 word treatment of your entire story. Go through all your scenes, count them, and divide 7000 words by the number of scenes you have. Devote that many words to the beats (an important point) in each scene, as part of the short story of your novel.

That treatment can be used to help you identify problems in the plot or characters, or identify scenes that are worthless, and your summary of what the scene does can be your guide to rewriting that scene: you know what it is supposed to accomplish so you can better cut the fat.

In your summary, look for repetition (unnecessary) and opportunities to combine partially matching scenes into a single scene, reducing word count.

In any case, revise your treatment to tell the same story in about 3500 words.

THEN give the revised treatment to your group; hopefully you can reduce it to 3000 or 4000 words, as it should be for a novel. Tell them what it is and get critiques on that, for the plot and characters, since they should be revealed by the treatment.

Use the feedback on a representative chapter as your lessons in actually writing prose and dialogue better, and use the feedback on the treatment as your lessons in plotting and story structure and character development.

  • Creating a Treatment after the rough draft is a very cool idea! I will have to give it a try. Thanks! +1 – Henry Taylor Mar 6 '18 at 21:22
  • I might be crazy; but I've choosen a different genre for book 2 and segmented my life so that revisions happen at night and writing in the morning. Also, I'm aiming for a book half the size, so I don't think its impossible. -- Revisions with my writing group will take almost 3 years at the rate they digest content; answer may be: get new group -- I'm doing an outline right now, not quite a treatment as I'm winging it, but it could be; I like the idea and it may solve the years issues, thanks – Kirk Mar 6 '18 at 21:24
  • I'm going to choose this as my answer; but It is worth reading the other answers as this is not a complete or full answer for my position; but I'm going to try the treatment method. – Kirk Mar 8 '18 at 23:12
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Writer opinions on the importance of the revision process vary dramatically. Professionally trained journalists tend to "try to get it right during the first draft" by following rules which organize each scene's (story) points in descending order of importance. More organic writers tend embrace revision as part of the creation process, finishing a first draft quickly, then experimenting with pov changes, structural rearrangements and word cutting for as long as it takes to "get it right". The process by which a first draft is created also influences the revision process. Plotting writers probably need less structural revision than seat-of-the-pants'ers. Even the experience of the author comes into play. Writing a sequel is significantly easier and quicker than writing the initial story, because the sequel's writing voice and style have already been chosen.

All of these factors explain why there is no easy answer to your question. I personally prefer to be revision-heavy (almost to a fault). I believe that there is a point of diminishing returns, but almost every work-in-progress can benefit from careful revision. I usually allow myself no more than two times the first draft writing time for revisions. If I can't make it right in that amount of time, then I am probably not yet ready to write it. Throw it in the trunk and let it marinate for a year or two before trying to revise it again.

It is wonderful to set goals for yourself, and there is no arguing that prolific writers have a marketing advantage over prodding perfectionists. But setting an arbitrary deadline like one book per year is missing the point. For a starting writer, it is far better to produce a single, polished and marketable initial work, no matter how long it takes. Better to become know for something excellent than just another unknown contributor to the rejects pile.

Once your first gem has been produced and successfully sold, you can pound out annual sequels to your heart's (and pocketbook's) content. The potential length of your mouse's long-tale, depends heavily on the quality of the mouse which leads it.

Keep Writing!

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Even if you're thinking of this as primarily a learning project, I would advise trying to get it into publishable shape rather than abandoning it and starting a new one. As you said, it's work you'll need to learn to do sooner or later. Given that, however, I'd say you'll want to be a little less rigid and formulaic in your revision expectations. You're starting with plenty of raw material, so I'd recommend "rewriting" by first editing down to a tightly plotted core, and then filling in any remaining gaps. (Note: I found this revision plan by following links from @DPT's answer, but it seems excellent to me.)

As far as when to stop the revisions, my advice is to rewrite until either a) you think the book is publishable or b) your revisions are not making it any better (for instance, if your new rewrites are undoing old ones, or if you've reworked so much, you've lost the original work). If you're not sure, and an arbitrary timeline helps you, go with it. After that, however, try to publish. You won't really know if you're done or not until you see if someone will publish it.

Two years total, one for writing, one for rewriting, sounds completely reasonable to me. Once you know yourself better, your estimates will improve. It's hard to give more exact numbers given that some successful authors (Jack Kerouac) hardly revise at all, while others (Orson Scott Card) continue revising years after publication. I would suggest, however, that you conceptualize "writing" as including the revisions (unless you want to end up with an endless supply of unpublishable first drafts). In addition to the psychological shift, this also encompasses the reality that some people write quick first drafts, and need more revision time, while others write more slowly but revise less.

  • I've clarified my writing process as it's meant to be 2 years for any given book. I agree largely with the sense that I need to make the attempt; I'm interested in how you recognize the point at which, for lack of a better word, you're no longer in a position to have ROI. I've heard of authors editing the same work for years, and never submitting. Having only recently gotten over the hump of writing to the end of a story, I'm a bit worried about editting/revising eternally and want to figure out how to get to good-enough quickly. Will edit question. – Kirk Mar 6 '18 at 18:01
  • @Kirk Two years total, one for writing, one for rewriting, sounds completely reasonable to me. Once you know yourself better, your estimates will improve. It's hard to give more exact numbers given that some successful authors (Jack Kerouac) hardly revise at all, while others (Orson Scott Card) continue revising years after publication. – Chris Sunami Mar 6 '18 at 18:09
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"How long should the revision process take"

Answer : Variable, and Henry has identified factors that impact it. I'll put my experience at the end. Note: I've heard the words 'editing' and 'revising' used in various ways. I consider edits to be a subset of revisions.

A few more metrics, some of which line up with Henry's answer can be found at this website :

There is no set answer with regard to how long revisions should take. Some writers, such as Holly Lisle, claim that you can revise a 125,000 novel in two weeks (This floored me, but check out her suggested revision process – it is really useful). However in reading further, I found that others did not spend significantly more time revising with other suggestions ranging from a month to two months. Nevertheless, one suggestion was that the revisions should take 80% of the total writing time.

One blogger suggested looking at the length of time it takes for professional writers to write novels and noted that the majority of writers produce new books every 2 to 3 years and observed that most of them probably write full time. Thus it is likely that they spend at least a portion of this time revising – I am going to assume at least 6 months.

And here is a method for revising, if you haven't developed/planned your own. You may not need a plan, and it sounds like you already have one anyway.


My experience, FWIW. (first attempt at writing fiction):

(1) Plotted and pounded out the first bad draft in eight weeks (last July - September.).

(2) I had twelve planned, dedicated revisions. Examples: Check every instance of passive voice and see if it is better in active voice. Check adverb abuse. Check point of view. Add setting. Distinguish character voice. Tighten. Hammer MC to a moral arc. Add a subplot so that every chapter moves the story. (I'm currently mapping each scene to scene-sequel model).

(3) Gave it to family in ~November/December, who caught a few items but generally supported the story. At that point I felt good enough about it. Things seemed smoothed out, and tightened, and everything worked well enough. It was a story.

(4) Gave it to betas, and they needed a month with it. I've gotten their comments back and ... this will require more time than I expected. They don't like a few of the characters. The upshot of this - I'm taking scenes apart, throwing scenes out, writing new scenes, adding new motivations and flaws. It sends me back a few steps because, for example, giving a character an alcohol problem (to make him more complex, flawed, less paragon) has ripple effects everywhere. The consistency and plot holes will creep back in.

I still hope to query by the end of May. But Henry's right - sticking too firmly to a schedule can impact the quality. I think you know that.

  • I will be using the information at the link you provided to help form my own process; it was very helpful and I've bookmarked it. Thank you for sharing. – Kirk Mar 8 '18 at 23:13

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