Avoiding Revision Fatigue

In my post about things I learned from the Sea Story, I mentioned the importance of love: loving your story and loving the act of writing itself. I’m a butt-in-chair writer. I don’t believe in just waiting for inspiration, because inspiration has never gotten me much further than a pretty line or an interesting character — it takes work to make a novel. But the Sea Story taught me something important about love and I thought it deserved its own post.

I’m not a huge fan of revising. I understand its importance, and I throw myself into it wholeheartedly with every novel, but for me, a revision will never compare to the messy, beautiful process of getting a story down the first time. I’ve compared drafting to riding downhill before, and the metaphor still works. First drafts are exhilarating, breathless and free, while subsequent drafts are like riding on the flat: long, tiring and often boring.

I’ve always known this about myself, but what I didn’t know was that weariness I feel when I’m revising can creep into the draft itself. I can, entirely by accident, revise away the best parts of my story. Knowing this, I’ve started assembling techniques to combat revision fatigue, and just in case you are experiencing something similar, I thought I’d share:

Too Many Cooks

A few months ago, McDonalds Australia ran a crowd-sourcing campaign to create a new burger. People all over the country voted for their favorite burger toppings, and for a limited time the resulting burger was sold in stores. I tried it. It was perfectly fine. Turns out, most of Australia loves your standard burger: beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions,  and cheese.

The problem wasn’t that the burger wasn’t good, it was that there was nothing all that unique about it. It didn’t stand out in any way.

Sometimes, we fall into the trap of crowd-sourcing our novels. I don’t mean in the drafting stage, where it’s just you and your story. I mean in the way we get and receive critiques. Critiques are important — my critique partners are the most valuable weapons in my arsenal — but there is a point where too many voices start to crowd out your own.

What makes your novel special isn’t having a character everyone loves, or plot that’s completely inoffensive. It’s you. You are the special ingredient. Don’t revise yourself out of the story.

Trust Yourself

Before you ask for a critique, it’s important to have a very clear grasp on what you love about this story. Know what you want to keep, what you’re going to fight for, and what makes the manuscript unique, so when you start getting those critiques back you know when to bend and when to stand by your choices.

But it’s not only critiques you need to protect the story from… it’s yourself. Lately I’ve been noticing an insidious trend in my own drafts: changes I’ve made because I think someone might object to them. No one has actually said anything negative about the abrasiveness of a character in this scene, or the way this character cries or lets her anger get the best of her, but I imagine someone one day will, and I take it out. The result is… bland. When you fail to trust yourself and your own choices, when you let all those other voices in, you can accidentally revise the spice out of your story.

Know what you love about your story, and hold it tightly. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, not even yourself.

Take Breaks… Long Ones

I’m terrible at this. Even when I do manage to take a break from my manuscript, while waiting on critiques or leaving a draft to settle, I still spend every waking moment thinking about it. With the Sea Story in particular, I love it so much I’m afraid to let it go, and that’s been detrimental to my own revising process. In the whole year and a half since I started drafting, through 500,000 words of discarded drafts, I don’t remember a single occasion when I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the story.

A strategy I’ve started using lately, with great success, is dual-weilding novels. I never thought I could work on two novels at once, but so far it’s working great! The way I handle it is, I’ve set extremely tough daily and weekly word count goals for my WIP. The only time I’m allowed to even brainstorm the revision on my second novel is when I’ve met those goals. Most days I run out of time. But in those stolen moments, in the midst of the heady rush of a first draft, I’ve found my enthusiasm for the story I’m revising again. Maybe it’s the excitement of an illicit relationship, maybe its the enjoyment of my first draft bleeding over into my other story, but I’ve found the love again. Just as importantly, I’m having fun.

Other Ideas

Another thing I’ve tried is having a theme song for my novel, a song that reminds me of everything I love about the story: the atmosphere, the tension, the drive of my MC. I can’t listen to it too often, because I tend to burn out on songs. After awhile they start to lose their impact. But when I do, I feel it: that spark that started it all.

You could also try moving to a different location. I love working in coffee shops — the right kind, with good coffee, quiet music, just the right number of customers, and staff who don’t bother you too often. But even just working at my kitchen table rather than at my desk can spark something for me and get the words rolling.

Sometimes what I need is space — physical space. Going for a walk and clearing my head always seems to bring that sense of freshness back to my spirit and onto the page. Cleaning my desk and adding small touches of beauty to my workspace helps as well.

Lastly, I’ve become a Pinterest convert. I didn’t really get it at first, but it’s become instrumental for helping me remember what I love about a story. Spending a few minutes before I sit down to write lingering over a story’s Pinterest page and searching for new images to capture my story can be just what I need to get the ball rolling. Somehow, switching over to a visual medium just sparks something for me. For my WIP, I’ve even started doodling in a notebook, drawing scenes and images that recur in the story. Try it — it might help!

So. Maybe you’re one of those gifted folks who love revision, or maybe you’re like me and think nothing can compare to a first draft — either way, I hope you’ve found something here to help you hold onto the love and make the revision process just that little bit smoother.

A spark for the Sea Story
A spark for the Sea Story, taken October 2011
Avoiding Revision Fatigue

5 thoughts on “Avoiding Revision Fatigue

  1. kiperoo says:

    These are all such great ideas. So important to take time away–yes! Though it is so difficult. And although I collect my own photos and inspirations, sounds like pinterest might be fun to try. I can’t wait to read what you’re working on!

  2. All great tips! Another thing that I do to help me get distance from the MS before I start revising is I’ll go on a mega reading binge. Get some serious work done on that TBR pile!
    I also found last year, much to my surprise, that I too like to revise one project while writing a new WIP.
    Great post!

  3. Great post! Taking a break to read a few books really helps me too. And I agree about working on more than one project at once — I never thought I’d be one to do that until I realised I am ALWAYS doing that. haha.
    (love the burger analogy as well, by the way. So true!)

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