Teachers Write 7.14.17 Friday Revision Notes with Gwenda Bond

Good morning! Fridays on Teachers Write are feedback days, so feel free to hop on over to Gae’s blog for her Friday Feedback feature. Be brave!

Most Fridays, we’ll be focusing on revision here. Many of our Wednesday Q&A session questions were on that topic, so I hope you’ll find this helpful. Beyond Teachers Write, those who have a novel draft – or pieces of a novel written – and want to take the next step when it comes to revision may want to spend some time with Linda Urban and me on Lake Champlain in the fall. We host an annual weekend revision retreat called Time to Write, with craft talks, workshop and critique sessions, and quiet revision time. It’s held at the Valcour Inn on Lake Champlain, which is pretty much the loveliest place on earth to write and learn. I just got back from a retreat there…

Here’s more info about the Time to Write Revision Retreat for those who might be up for a road trip in November. Back to Teachers Write now…

Today’s guest author is Gwenda Bond, whose work includes the Lois Lane series and the Cirque American series, about daredevil heroines who discover magic and mystery lurking under the big top. She also co-write the the Supernormal Sleuthing Service with her husband, author Christopher Rowe; book one, The Lost Legacy is out now. Gwenda has also written for Publishers Weekly, Locus, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She’s joining us today to share some favorite revision strategies!

I’m one of those writers who loves revision. For me, first drafts are usually at least a little painful (and sometimes tragically awfully so). I fight every draft, usually because I’m so eager to get to the revising part. But sometimes it’s possible to be too eager, for me anyway, and I try to revise before it’s time to revise and just end up–in the words of writer friend Justine Larbalestier, who might have been borrowing them from someone else–”moving around deck chairs on the Titanic.”

So these days my watchword for revision is distance.

A couple of years ago, I realized that my best revisions have all been done at a very specific emotional and psychic distance (bear with me, sometimes it’s impossible not to talk about writing with terms that sound vaguely magical…because so much of the time when it’s going well it feels that way…even if that is a deceptive side effect of hard work). The best way I can describe it is that arm’s length feeling, where I don’t feel like I’m clutching the story to my heart anymore, it’s far enough away that I can see it more clearly–but not so far away that my heart and head don’t feel a strong pull to it. It’s when the story starts to feel flexible. Like I won’t just be breaking it or bashing against it, but see how to mold it–finally!–where I want it to go to make it better. (I also try to get into this frame of mind for outlining, sometimes easier than others.) In a perfect world, time would always or usually do this on its own. But, alas, in the world of deadlines and reality, sometimes you have to speed your brain along as best you can.

Since I had this realization, I’ve worked on perfecting getting into that mindset and have developed a few different strategies to do so. These work in combination or on their own, so try mixing and matching if you’re struggling to wrap your head around a revision. These are all things I do when I’m stuck on a draft too.

1) Work on something else. Especially if I’m expecting notes back quickly or will have to don the revision gloves and slice back into a project right away, one of the most effective things for me is to write something, anything else, as long as it’s fiction. A short story, a fragment, jumping to another novel, whichever. Immersing myself in another project–as long as it’s fiction–decouples my brain from the one I just finished drafting. At least a little.

2) Give myself a reading vacation. Sometimes I’ll give myself a week or two off from writing and just inhale as many good books as I can find. Sometimes they’re in my genre, sometimes they’re as far from it as possible, sometimes a mix, but reading fiction is a great way to let your story brain both work out and relax at the same time. I almost always come out of these stretches ready to work again.

3) Get feedback. Often seeing a story through someone else’s eyes is the best way to get perspective on it and distance from it. Notice your reactions, what resonates and doesn’t, what makes you excited to get back to work and what makes you feel hopeless. Take the helpful stuff and get back to work. Leave the rest on the table.

4) Trust your gut. Let your subconscious work on it. The longer I write, the more intuitive about the process I become. One of my favorite screenwriters is Ernest Lehman, who famously struggled to put the script of North By Northwest together, because he was largely stitching ideas for scenes and moments from himself and Alfred Hitchcock into a story. I’ll just share this anecdote in his own words:

“So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I’m sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they’re all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn’t like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, “God, what’ll they say about me upstairs?” and Hitch would say, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I’ll tell them I should’ve been able to help you, but I couldn’t — or something like that.”

“Then we went to his office — it was about six o’clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him.” So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That’s the way it works sometimes: you’ve got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I’d completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him,” he didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren’t in the Underground.” And I said, “Yes, but these are fake bullets. That’ll convince Vandamm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she’s a fugitive, he’ll decide to take her on the plane.” And, instantly, I had the whole last act.”
(end blockquote)

Now this was a drafting problem, but it’s the same kind of question that happens in revision and can make it hard to approach. Particularly if you’re too close to the story still. It’s the “but I don’t know how to fix it” problem. The “I don’t know what happens” problem. Your subconscious will work on it while you’re doing other things, and sometimes you just have to let that happen. Sometimes you have to walk away from your desk that day and say, “I may just have to abandon this. I have no idea how to fix it.” And voila, the answer usually presents itself as soon as you give yourself permission to walk away or give up. (Tricking our brains into cooperating is so much of the writer’s job.) Long walks are one of my favorite things to abandon desk and do to tackle story problems.

5) Talk it out. I’m a big believer in describing stories and story problems out loud, especially if I’m trying to figure out a revision. First off, you have the distance of being away from the page. Second, there’s something about articulating a problem out loud that often leads you to the solution. I use my husband for this most often, but a dog or cat will work. Because you don’t even need another person to be listening (although it’s a bonus; hit up your writer friends). Just forcing yourself to say the issue out loud can reveal solutions and give you new perspective; it helps create that ideal distance to be at for fixing a story.

I hope some of these are helpful for you — happy revising!

42 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.14.17 Friday Revision Notes with Gwenda Bond

  1. Thank you Gwenda! Love your writing and these are some great tips for revising and for writer’s block in general! Do you ever revise with another author or do you revise as a solo exercise? Thanks again!

    1. I’m lucky to have an in-house sounding board and on some projects co-writer — so it’s always nice to have those “not in the revision trenches alone” times. For the most part though, my revisions happen on my own, going back and forth with my editor. I’m a big believer in feedback from other authors, but usually for me that comes during an earlier draft when I need help to gauge if something is working or not (because I don’t have the distance). Honestly, I’d do a lot more of it if deadlines didn’t create a time crunch! That said, Christopher reads pretty much everything for me, because he has no choice. 😉

  2. Gwenda,Thank you for taking the time to give us advice about revision at a distance.Your words come at the perfect time. I love revision too and am trying to give my brain a break from my book. It’s very hard to put my world aside – little revision post-it notes slip into my brain and keep sticking until I acknowledge them.Your suggestion to start something new may be just the push I need.

  3. This is fascinating, about how the subconscious works behind the scenes. I remember reading something about Robert Louis Stevenson referring to the little brownies, or imaginary helpful beings, that word work for him when he was sleeping. He would wake up and know his next moves with the text.

  4. So many great strategies for writing with enough detail to make them meaningful. Thanks for the thoughtful sharing. I’m looking forward to sharing your books I just purchased with students in my middle school library this fall!

  5. Thank you, Gwenda!

    I love to go for a run to think about ideas (about something I’m writing or a future lesson plan/final unit project). The funny thing is that sometimes I get six or seven miles from home and I have an “Aha” moment. These are always my fastest runs because I find that I run home at an incredible pace just so I can get the idea on paper. I always think that I should leave my notebook at the finish line of the next race I run. If an idea comes at the start of the race, I probably could win the race.:)

    Thank you again for taking the time to share these wonderful tips. I find that teaching revising and editing is even more difficult than doing it with my own writing.

    Happy writing!

  6. Am shaking my head in agreement. Great tips and getting that emotional distance is key. Am sharing this w/my Cps.

  7. Thanks for the practical tips! I’ve read numerous quotes/articles that discourage discussing a work that you’re not finished with, so it was good to see you recommending just that and finding it useful.

    1. I think the key for me is not to talk about it too much before I’ve actually started it. But once I’m writing something, all bets are off in terms of staying quiet!

  8. I am at an artist retreat in Florida for three weeks. There are only two writers here. One of the things I wanted to accomplish was the revision of my manuscript. I found myself stuck. The other writer and I sat and discussed our goals and our work. We had been here for two days, and we were having a horrible time finding our rhythm. We found ourselves listening and giving advice to each other that jump started the writing for both of us. I always talk about my work to different people. If I am stuck, sometimes something they say will trigger a thought that will push me along again. Thanks for sharing your process.

  9. Love these suggestions. I don’t usually talk about my work but the other day I was Skyping with a writer friend about her book and, even though we didn’t talk much about mine, I realized later that our conversation got me totally “unstuck” from working on my revision. So now I have this image of my dog listening to my babbling about why I’m stuck on revising, while she thinks about something totally different, like rabbits in the backyard. Wish I could draw cartoons! Thanks again for your tips!

    1. I wrote for many, many years with a day job and so that contact with other writers in stolen snippets of time or online was very, very important to me in staying in touch with my writing goals. Sometimes just a check in that reminds you “oh, yes, this work I’m doing is important” helps a lot. Still!

      Dogs make the best listeners. 😉

  10. Thank you for this, I’m finding your insights so helpful this morning. It’s been years, literally, that I have shared any of my writing. This community of teachers and writers has been extremely rewarding, and we’re only in week 1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times, just in case an “Aha” moment arrives at an odd time. I am looking forward to taking your insights and applying them to myself and my students. Thank you, again!

  11. Hi Gwenda!

    Thank you for joining us and sharing your process (& magic) for revision. I teach 9th grade English and so often my students think that once it is on the page, they are done. I’d like to share your tips with my students as I continue to cultivate a writing community in the classroom.

    When I’m writing, sometimes it is like a marathon–an endurance race just to plod along and get the words out– and other times it is like I can’t focus, jumping from one project to the next. I’m tried to be more methodical with my process and think of my various projects (personal writing, social media posts, emails, blogs, and reading) as spokes on a wheel. As I get stuck on one, I rotate to the next project and return to the stuck one after a bit of time/distance.

    Thank you again for your tips!

    I’d like to share with the group the writing process of one of my favorite authors, Diana Gabaldon: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/2016/05/my-writing-process/

    Enjoy and Happy Friday!

    1. Hi Kate,
      I also teach English 9, and I also have students who believe once their work is on paper, they are done. Thanks for the link. One of my goals this summer to collect as many authors sharing their writing process as possible.

  12. Hello there! I really appreciate your tips today! I especially loved “trust your gut!” I LOVED the NXNW story! That’s awesome!

    I’m in a SCBWI critique group, I have several MS partners and I’m constantly researching not only writing ideas but Agent wish lists\do’s don’ts. Sometimes, that’s….a lot of ….input and noise. The first time I submitted a MS to my Critique Group, my MS came back with strikeouts and rewrites. I didn’t know what to think. Finally, another MS partner said this:

    MS advice is like something you get from my Mother-in-Law: you can either keep it or take it to Goodwill.

    She was right! Since then, I’ve listened and considered. In the end, though, I’m learning to trust my gut. Thanks for the reminder today!

    1. Absolutely! Learning what to take and what to leave is so important. And also learning to identify places to look at again in a piece based on feedback that might not necessarily map on to any specific comment.

  13. Thanks Gwenda!! It’s always so interesting to “get into the mind” (as it were) of another writer. These are great hints, and I think — as you’ve alluded to — that a lot of them help not only with revision but also with drafting. It’s reassuring to know there’s a good reason I often get my best ideas — whether they’re writing ideas or lesson plan ideas or life ideas — while doing something else. Taking a walk (as you mentioned), driving, showering, cleaning. I think of an article I read recently that talks about the importance of “doing nothing” in order to let our creative minds work. A great reminder for me, for sure! Appreciate your taking the time to share your ideas with us today.

  14. I am revising the draft of my mystery novel, and what you say about getting some distance and objectivity makes total sense. In this last round of revisions, I’ve been able to get that balance of distance + a good knowledge of my characters and story. Your suggestions are helpful!

  15. Fabulous tips. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process. I’m currently working on a first draft of a contemporary romance and I swear it’s like pulling teeth right now. All I want to do is hurry up so I can revise the darn thing!

  16. Thanks for sharing this insight with us, Gwenda! I am looking forward to getting far enough in the writing process to do revisions — haven’t even reached the first draft stage yet! But I appreciate your advice and am excited to have something to revise soon! As my cat is draped across my keyboard, I laughed out loud when you suggested that a cat or dog can be a valuable sounding board. I have to be extra vigilant for typos, since he accidentally adds plenty of revisions to whatever I am typing.
    Thanks again!

  17. Gwenda, thank you for sharing your process with us today! Sometimes my mind feels like it’s stuck on repeat and I can’t get past a point until I work on something else or step away. It really helps me to take a walk with my dog without my phone, music, podcasts, etc and just let my mind untangle the piece I’m struggling with.

    Teachers Write has been so amazing this week. Thank you to all of the authors and participants who have posted – it has really made a difference for me!

  18. Gwenda, thank you for the terrific advice. I find reading my work out loud is a great way to catch mistakes too. I also try and keep in mind the overuse issues I run into with the words, that and just. Best wishes with your writing.

  19. Thanks, Gwenda, for sharing your strategies. I especially like number 5. Will be bouncing my story problems off my stuffed gorilla (I don’t have a dog or cat) later today. I’m sure he’ll have a suggestion or two for me. And he’s a great listener