February 16, 2013

Don't You Dare Revise!

Some of the most popular advice floating around for those interested in attempting the NaNoWriMo challenge is: "Turn off your inner editor!" —closely followed by: "Don't revise until after NaNo." At some point during the month, there also comes a warning: the novel you'll have written through this process will need to be completely rewritten, possibly many times. 
  • For instance, Jody Casella—a successful NaNo winner and soon-to-be-published author—writes on her blog
    "Doing NaNo will kill (or at the very least, muffle) that pesky internal editor voice that streams along in your head as you write, telling you that what you write is crappy and stupid and pointless. You don't have time for that voice during NaNo. If you want to finish, you are going to have to keep writing those crappy words. NaNo is about quantity not quality. Repeat that after me: quantity not quality. Write it on a sign and tape it to your computer screen. No, you are not writing the word Bluh over and over, but some days it will feel like it. Whatever. Keep writing anyway –"

I have seen many variations of this admonishment, and I haven't seen any contradictions.  People in my writing group swear by this process: "Don't even think about revising until you have the first draft down!" they advise. Hopefully, such an approach works for them—maybe it even works for the vast majority of writers and specifically of NaNoWriMo winners.  But I didn't do that.

I successfully completed my first attempt at NaNo without strictly adhering to the belief that it's about quantity not quality.  I wrote a story with an organized plot, ensured that my characters and plot didn't contradict themselves, researched details for my locations, drew designs for my characters' living spaces, and in general made sure my first draft was still a readable (though of course not perfect) story.  I didn't always worry about having the ideal words on my first way through, and I absolutely agree with the insistence that first drafts must be revised and polished, but I didn't write "crappy words"—and I still reached 50,000 words in 29 days.  

I even dared to revise, not only before I finished my first draft, but in November!   For me, writing was about getting the scenes onto the page—making sure that the plot and snapshots of moments didn't slip through the holes in my mind and disappear forever. Revising meant reminding myself of what I had already written (descriptions of my characters, outfits they'd worn, snippets of conversation which had already happened) but also adding words as I filled in details to ensure the moments and settings I saw had translated to the page.  Revising helped me complete the challenge while also giving me a break from the pressure of knowing exactly what needed to happen next, because sometimes my characters and plot ideas needed time to percolate before they could synthesize into a clear plan.

I write this not to contradict the "tried and true" wisdom of successful, published, NaNo winners, but rather to underscore the fact that every writer writes differently.  Yes, when starting out, it is important to consider the advice of our successful predecessors, but it is equally important to be selective when adhering to any advice and even more important to find our own way.  

I wrote my novel in such a way that it does not need to be rewritten, only revised, which I now continue to do.  That means I wrote 50,619 words in November as opposed to the 90,000 or even 150,000 of some other participants, but it is nevertheless, in my mind, a more efficient approach in the long run.

Regardless, revising is a long and complicated process, which I now continue as the next mandatory and inevitable step toward publication.


  1. Aria, You're so right that every writer has to find her own process and her own way through. There are a million rules but all can be broken, and I'd say that even writers who think they've found The Way, still deviate. Each book wants to be written in it's own way. Take what works for you and throw out the rest! And good luck!

    1. Jody, I love the statement: "Each book wants to be written in its own way" – it makes them sound like particular children with unique personalities, which I guess books are :)

  2. Hi Aria,

    Did you outline and research during NaNo or did you have it ready in advance? I'm just curious because I'm still working out my own process - and rewriting a very messy NaNo book myself.

    And I like Jody's statement, too. Those pesky little book children are indeed as unique as we writer mothers are.

    1. Hi Karrie,

      I did have some very general plot ideas sketched out for the first part of my book beforehand - it was because those moments and scenes kept popping up in my head that I ultimately decided to try NaNo. Still, most of my research (my characters spend most of their time in cities I've never seen) happened parallel to writing. It would probably have been much easier to have the research done beforehand, but I simply did not know where my story would go!
      At the same time, I felt I couldn't write a scene well if I didn't know what would happen - would they go do something touristy or would they play cards in a hotel room because there's nothing to do? Would they walk places or drive places? etc. I felt like those details would affect the nature of their interaction so much that I needed to know before writing, but I certainly had no real plan before I began, especially since I had only thought of moments between the two primary characters, not the logistics of their real lives.

      For the plot, I had a fair idea of the beginning, and then notes along the lines of: "X has to happen at some point and for some reason."

      How is your NaNo novel going? What has your process been like this time around? Good luck with it!

  3. Sorry I missed this earlier, Aria. I'm still sorting out how to follow blogs and comments. Thanks for sharing your process. I've read a lot of powerful authors who say that they just sit down and the story pours out and it helps to know that not everyone does that.

    I had started my novel in March and was half way through at the beginning of November. I had a basic idea of where I was going and had done most of the research. I so needed that extra kick to get it done, though. And I ended up liking my writing better at that pace.

    Now I've stepped back and am revising. It's a whole other process for me to figure out. I've read it all through and tried not to dwell on its stinkiness. I am taking some time to work through a writing craft book and a novel revision class. In April I plan to go to a writing group I liked to show them a revised first chapter after doing some plot work. It feels horribly soon and I'm jittery thinking about showing them something.

    Thinking that this will only be my first novel is helping me. I adore my story even as it changes into something I hadn't imagined. But I like to think about finishing it so I can move on and get better just like I have with my shorter pieces.

    Thanks for asking! I wish you luck, too.

  4. Oops. I just remembered. In fairness to the tangled heap of words in my filing cabinet this is my *second* NaNo novel. My current WIP is the first I've been ready to revise and put more into.

    1. No worries - I am also still getting the hang of having this blog and setting everything up! I did add a 'subscribe by email' option if you'd like to try that.

      Personally, I can't outline a story before I start really working with it - I feel like I don't know the characters or how I (really: they) would like the plot to go well enough. When it comes to shorter works, I do simply sit down and write, and I can usually finish those quickly enough that I do not need to take notes or outline.

      With novels (my NaNo novel is my first fully drafted one, though not my first started one..), even though I will generally begin by sitting down and writing, my ideas and plans for the story usually come in pieces and more quickly than I can write everything out, so I end up taking notes which inevitably grow into something resembling an outline.

      As for the general 'writer' out there - many don't outline, but many others create detailed outlines, with mountains of research ahead of time. I've known writers who spend months planning everything out in advance (of their own deadline or NaNo), so when the time comes, they plow through the writing without having to stop for research or simply from not knowing what they want to happen next.

      Whichever way works for you – you're in good company!

  5. I did subscribe, Ari, so I saw this right away. Works great;)