08/13/2010 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: Revise as You Go, or Forge Ahead?

I once knew a novelist who set herself the goal of writing a page a day, and she would not stop until the page was perfect. Every night, she would read the page to her husband, whose job was to listen and to affirm that it was, indeed, perfect. She wrote at least two books that way -- a feat which still amazes me.

The other extreme would be to spit out as many pages as fast as you can, then go back and make sense of them.

Most writers, including me, adopt a circular process that falls somewhere in the middle. In the past seven days, I have probably spent somewhere close to ten hours working on just one chapter of my novel-in-progress. All that work has only resulted in the addition of two pages. What I have been doing is trying to get the voice right and the story details right and the dialogue right, and I have been paying a lot of attention to the rhythm of the pages, to how they come across to the reader, to how they sound. To that end, I have re-written one paragraph about twelve times. I have thrown out dialogue and created entirely new conversations. I have moved blocks of text from the middle to the end to the scrap pile and back to the beginning.

The words, at this stage, are elastic. They are like clay. I am playing with them, moving them around. I feel (relatively) confident in what I'm doing -- but what if you don't? What if you don't know what's "perfect" or what's "right?" The tools of revision are easy to learn. Here are some great resources:

  • This handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is meant to guide students writing papers, but it has terrific step-by-step instruction on revision, and some great points about the dangers of spending too much time on the process.
  • Novelist Holly Lisle has got revision down to a science. She has a post on her website on how to revise a novel that is simple and wholly understandable. She also has a workshop you can take to revise your novel, step by step.
  • Susan Bell's book, The Artful Edit teaches the micro and macro view of revision, and gives excellent examples from famous writers.