Revision Week: Rough Draft Triage

Not long ago I finished the rough draft of the second book on my contract, called Magisterium for the time being, and now I'm trying to get it in good enough shape to show it to the nice folks at Scholastic. Since this is a contracted book the experience has been a bit different than the last time I edited a rough draft, mostly because it needs to happen a bit, um, faster. Not that they're rushing me or anything, I just figure the earlier I can get their comments back, the longer I'll have to work on them.

What's been good about this is that it's forced me to be very focused about what I need to do. I don't have time to turn this rough draft into a real live finished book, all pretty and polished. I really only have time to get it to a point where I can hand it to my editors in a form that makes it clear what I'm trying to accomplish.

This meant finding the spine of the book and working on that to the exclusion of anything else. For folks that don't use the term spine, what I mean is the core of the book, the character or relationship or journey the book is most centrally concerned with. For me, this is the main character's arc and the arc of her one most significant relationship.

I would love to work on world building, or take the time to make that one secondary character's journey sing, or make the action scenes more varied and, you know, exciting, but right now none of that can be a priority, not until that spine is solid

While it can be maddening to see something that you know either isn't working, or could be soooo much better, and pass it by, I'm liking working this way and think I'd do it like this even if I wasn't on a time crunch.

One of the most dangerous things about approaching a rough draft is to see the amount of work that needs to be done and become overwhelmed. This can lead to paralysis or, as I saw alot when I taught writing, a tendency to get lost in the weeds of smaller changes.

If instead you narrow things down and focus on the most important points first to the exclusion of anything else it seems a bit more manageable.

Think of it like triage. In an emergency situation you deal with life threatening injuries first and then work your way down.  Ask yourself what fixes your book needs to work on the most basic storytelling level. Focus on fixing those things and then move on, revising in layers.

(Oh and because I'm so revision obsessed right now, you can cruise on over to my personal blog if you want 5 more observations on revision. And hey, while you're there, become a follower, why don'tcha? )

How about you all? What's your process when approaching a rough draft? Any personal revision words of wisdom?

Jeff Hirsch
The Eleventh Plague
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at and @jeff_hirsch


Robin Reul said...

My renewed approach to revision comes courtesy of a few words shared by YA author Jay Asher at a Writers Day last year. I was stressing over an upcoming rewrite and he said "I love the rewriting process. It's where you find your story." Those words stayed with me and drove me forward as I embarked on the process, and they have yet to fail me. So simple, but true. It's like a journey. You've planted your garden but now it's time to weed it. Having to let go of words and whole sections of text is painful, like butchering babies at times, but when you learn to let go, the real story emerges. You also said something key in here about narrowing things down and keeping the focus on those things that are most important, and I agree tenfold. When revising, be prepared to go back into that story 100 times if you need to, and train your focus on one thing at a time. In the last pass, I look at it as a whole and do my best to let go, wait for feedback, and begin again if necessary. Thanks for sharing your process! Always good to know it's not a solitary experience!!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Great advice Robin! Thanks for the comment. I agree with Asher too, I love rewriting.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I've been lost in the weeds many times. I'm glad I'm not alone. Now to roll up the sleeves and get down to saving the plants. Good luck!