The psychology of writing and revision

You know, I honestly was not feeling at all secure about the overall structure of PURE MAGIC (which, you may recall, is the sequel to BLACK DOG, which is coming out in February.) I introduced a new pov character — and I already had two! I divided the plotline and didn’t really pull it together till right at the end! These things made me nervous, especially because as you fiddle around with revising, it gets harder and harder to tell whether the story is at all successful.

It’s not like revision is so very much fun, generally. And when you can’t tell whether the book is any good, it’s worse.

This is why *really good* beta readers are so extraordinarily important, even if they give you a whole lot more revision to do.

Sarah Prineas — who, as you may know, is the author of the MG MAGIC THIEF series — happens to have killer editorial skills, especially when it comes to characterization. So when she declares, “Natividad continues as one of my most favorite YA characters. Her voice is so great — I love her balance of sweetness and power and uncertainty. I love her fluffy pink bathrobe!” — well, that is a great relief. Especially when she immediately adds, “The Justin intro scene is terrific. Introducing a new character at this point is a really good idea.” Even when she goes on to critique his characterization — and I hate fiddling with a protagonist’s overall characterization, such a tedious fiddly sort of job, and impossible to know whether you’ve got it right except by sending it back to your beta reader — anyway, knowing that the basic bones of the story are working is so reassuring.

Especially when my agent, Caitlin, adds, “I loved PURE MAGIC! This one is particularly sure and strong. I like the addition of Justin’s pov and your action scenes are fantastic throughout.”

Particularly sure and strong? *I* did not feel that way. Whew!

And you know what? Despite the fact that both Sarah and Caitlin then go on to load me down with stuff to fix, that first positive reaction is the most important part. Because without that, I feel like, Is this even worth bothering with? But after these brief positive statements, I feel so much happier, even almost enthusiastic about leaping back into revision. This is independent of now having a much better idea of where the ms. is weak and how to fix it.

I mention all this because I just thought: if any of you are thinking of writing or are now in the process of writing a novel . . . it’s important to know that the process really may generate a predictable roller coaster. After finishing the first complete draft of a new story, I *often* feel that it may not be very good, that there may be huge structural problems that may not be fixable, that the characters may not work, that (if the book is a sequel) I might have missed re-capturing the protagonists’ voices. I felt that way with Land of the Burning Sands and with House of Shadows and with a ms I am (still) not supposed to talk about and now with Pure Magic. And in every single case, the ms. was basically fine. Even if there is always more revision to do.

Being confident of that is totally crucial for creating the basic willingness to continue messing around with the revision process.

Knowing that the It’s-Not-Working feeling frequently arises and has never been accurate in the past is one big advantage a writer gets only as she completes one ms. after another. Especially because I don’t *always* feel that way, which makes it harder still to tell whether the feeling is based on anything real. Here’s what experience has taught me: for me, this feeling — that at a very basic level, a story may not be working — is completely untrustworthy. You should never trust it. Or at least, *I* should never trust it. It’s important to let your (extremely competent) beta readers make that call.

Revision usually does not take all that long, provided you tackle it with some determination. I hope to have PURE MAGIC completely revised by December. Or no later than midway through December, which is when my month-long Christmas break starts and I like to work on something new.

In case you ever do need to tackle a complicated revision, what works for me is to make a bulleted list of Things To Do and cross them off as I fix things and never, ever go back to revisit an item after it has been crossed off. If you want to *finish* a revision, letting it be done is kind of crucial. You can trust your beta readers to let you know if there is something that still needs work after you have done the revision. But generally, if you work on, say, fixing a protagonist’s characterization, you will find that even if you can’t tell whether you’ve succeeded, you have. Feelings of insecurity about this are just another iteration of the unjustified insecurity that is (often) part of the writing process. Tolerating those feelings and moving forward is one key skill for a writer.

Or at least, for me.

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2 thoughts on “The psychology of writing and revision”

  1. Given that you don’t work like (some) other writers in some important ways (e.g. the importance of writing every day), it would be interesting to know if this sort of experience while working is common for other writers.

    Do you see any patterns in which works generate the Its-Not-Working feeling vs. those that don’t?

  2. Sharon Shinn says she feels exactly like this, only from what she says, more so and more often. It would definitely be interesting to know just how common that feeling is.

    Good question about patterns. Maybe. I didn’t feel this way about CITY or ISLANDS or the third Griffin Mage book, and in all of those, I actually had a pretty good idea about the plot from the beginning. Coincidence or causal? I’m betting causal, but it’s hard to say for sure.

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