Under The Skylight: Maintaining Persistence During Revision

by Erin Dionne

Last month, I blogged about cultivating objectivity during the revision process. Another crucial element to effectively revising any piece of writing is persistence.

Finishing a novel or short story or poem requires persistence, so you already have that quality. But revising one…well, that is a whole new level of commitment. Taking a closer look at our work, finding flaws and fixing them, can be discouraging.

That amazing fifteen-page action sequence? In revision, you realize that you forgot to include your main character’s sidekick, who’s been standing off to the side with that bowstaff just waiting to join the battle. Or that heated argument in the kitchen between the main character and her mother? You sent Mom on a two-week trip to Indonesia the chapter before. Whoops!

Writers find that stuff on almost every page (for me, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this point in the process). We wonder how we ever thought this story was good to begin with, or how the heck we will solve these problems. It’s too much work. Why bother? Applying to dental school would have been a much better life choice.

This is when we need to dust off our persistence and dig in to our writing. Here are a few ways to get your internal cheerleader back to work:

Freewrite. Set a ten- or fifteen-minute timer and freewrite about your revision in a journal. Whine and complain about how hard it is. Make lists about problems and how you’re going to solve them. Write a scathing letter from your main character about her annoying her little sister. And when the timer is up, the negative is out of your system and you can dive in—hopefully eager to take on the day’s challenges.

Break it down. Work on one scene at a time. Focus on fixing one element. Breaking things down into manageable chunks allows us to accomplish a goal, which builds momentum. I make a list of things I need to fix and happily cross off each item as I achieve it. As that list gets smaller, I realize that I can get through this revision.

Skip it. Does the problem seem too big or too difficult to fix? Skip that and work on something else for now. Come back to the larger issue when you’re in a better frame of mind. That said…

Don’t stop. “Taking a break” from the book might sound like a good idea, but you can quickly lose enthusiasm for a project if you’re away from it for too long. Even if you’re just opening the document and futzing with word choice and punctuation, you’re still in the world of the story. Stay there.

Make a “love list.” Set a timer and jot down all the things that you love about this story. Remember how awesome that line is on page 15? Or the attitude that your main character gives to the antagonist in chapter 5? Put those things on paper and remember why you wanted to write this book in the first place. Reread when you need a pick-me-up.

Use your community. Send a few pages to your crit partners and ask them for help solving a sticky problem. Brainstorm with a writer friend at The Writers’ Loft or online. You may ask them to tell you what they love about the book. Sometimes we need an outside voice to silence our inner critical voices and get us moving again. (Note: This is not to be used as a way to dodge critique—just as a momentary pick-me-up).

Recognize the process. Feeling bogged down by your story is part of the process for many writers. We have to get through these tough revision cycles in order to create the polished, finished story that our readers will enjoy. Acknowledging that this is normal can go a long way toward helping us through it.

Developing persistence will help you not only with revision, but with many aspects of the writing life: querying, submitting to editors, dealing with editorial notes, getting reviews. The ability to keep going, even when it seems hard, is the mark of a professional. Stick to your goal, and great things can happen.

What are some of your tricks and tips for staying persistent in the face of a draggy revision? Let me know in the comments.

Next month we’ll be focusing on the desire to create the best story possible.

Happy revising!

Erin Dionne’s books are “Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies,” “The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet,” and “Notes from an Accidental Band Geek.” Her novel “Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery” is based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and was a 2014 Edgar Award finalist. The series continues with “Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting.” Her first picture book, “Captain’s Log: Snowbound,” will be released in 2018. She teaches at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.

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