How to revise your manuscript without losing your mind

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Seriously, does anyone know how to do this? If you do, please tell me, because my mind done got lost about halfway through the process.

So, I’m done with draft 2 of a novel that is slowly, slowly inching towards readability. This is the first time I’ve ever revised a manuscript of this length instead of tossing the whole thing in the virtual trash and starting over fresh. This was the first time I ran into a whole new set of challenges as a writer:

  • I had no idea how to estimate how long it would take me to revise a manuscript. I set a deadline for the end of March, and ended up staggering over the finish line in the middle of May. I hate blowing deadlines, even self-imposed ones, even ones that were completely untenable from the get-go.
  • I didn’t have an easy way of charting my progress. I tried Pacemaker for a while, but it wasn’t nearly as visually exciting as the charts I made to track my rising word counts in years past. And that was part of the problem: I’m very motivated by watching a number counting up towards a complete manuscript, but I hate to see one counting down towards a deadline.
  • I also didn’t have a reliable way of quantifying how much effort I was pouring into my work. I breezed through many of the scenes in Act 1, making only minor tweaks, but I scrapped and rewrote a good chunk of Act 2 and the entirety of Act 3.

And there’s the rub: I rewrote a lot of this manuscript, but not always in massive chunks. A paragraph here, a few pages there, and it didn’t take long to lose track of how much of my word count was new. So, no pretty graphs this time. And no excerpts to post on the blog yet, either, because this sucker still needs a lot of work.

So what’s next? Some well-deserved rest, some tinkering with just-for-fun projects, and then I’ll jump back into the third draft towards the end of 2016. I plan on using this blog more actively, both for funny articles and for some shorter works of fiction that don’t need a massive multi-year editing process to smooth off those rough edges.

My editing process

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  1. Sit down
  2. Realize I should turn on computer
  3. Fiddle with every object around my writing space
  4. Turn on computer
  5. Wander away while computer is booting up
  6. Come back after computer has booted up and gone to sleep
  7. Jiggle mouse
  8. Jiggle mouse some more
  9. Impatiently turn monitor off and back on again
  10. Sign in
  11. Wander away while computer is logging in
  12. Come back to computer, stare at desktop, trying to remember what I was doing
  13. Open some folders
  14. Nope, just pictures of kittens I saved from the internet in there
  15. Remember that all my work is in Google Drive and wouldn’t be in any folder on my desktop
  16. Click browser shortcut
  17. Impatiently click browser shortcut 20 more times
  18. Computer freezes
  19. Wander away while computer is frozen
  20. Come back to find 20 browser windows open
  21. Consider navigating to Google Drive
  22. Checking Twitter real quick won’t hurt
  23. The world needs to know my feminist interpretation of Jurassic World in 140 character installments
  24. I wonder what Tumblr has to say about this
  25. Return from Tumblr fugue state two hours later
  26. Navigate through Google Drive to the folder where I saved my current project
  27. I should look at Facebook real quick, just in case I forgot any events I needed to be at two weeks from now
  28. Message friend “have you seen the new captain awkward, everyone is wrong about everything”
  29. Emerge from Facebook fugue state an hour later
  30. Check clock, decide it’s not too late to write something
  31. Open HabitRPG
  32. Stare at HabitRPG daily task “Write 100 words” real hard just in case it makes you feel inspired
  33. Try really, really hard to feel inspired
  34. Open document
  35. Bathroom break
  36. Tea break
  37. Vacuuming break
  38. Complain to boyfriend about how busy I am
  39. Another tea break
  40. Return to document
  41. Stare at document
  42. Tea break
  43. Teak break
  44. Tea break
  45. Slowly type exactly 100 words
  46. Suddenly get inspired, realize the solution that will fix all this story’s problems
  47. Realize it’s bed time

Repeat tomorrow

Bitches be crazy

A lot of gentlemen have been asking me for advice re: ladies and the mysterious things they do. I guess I’m about as qualified to give this advice as anyone, seeing as I am a lady who has done some mysterious things in my time, but I don’t have all that much advice to give when someone says, “My lady friend is acting crazy about something I don’t understand. How can I permanently erase this insecurity from her brain?” Sorry, bro, but that’s not going to happen.

Because when you’re a girl, you get given this image of The Perfect Woman. What exactly The Perfect Woman looks and acts like is subjective, but for most little girls in the Western world, that woman is rigidly defined indeed. She’s white but not too pale, sexy but not too sexual, bright but not too smart, cheerful but not obnoxiously bubbly, well-dressed without being a fashionista, friendly but not flirty, curvy in all the right places and absolutely not curvy in the wrong ones.

It’s an impossible ideal, but when you’re a kid, you don’t know that. Maybe the only story you’ve ever seen that bucks that trend is the makeover story, where a Hollywood-gorgeous woman sheds her unflattering clothes and–surprise!–was the perfect woman all along. Maybe your parents had the presence of mind to expose you to some stories about women who are warriors or business ladies or otherwise independent, although those warriors of the steppes or the boardroom are always played by the very same perfect Hollywood ladies with their thin arms and luminous veneers.

So you think you’re going to be this perfect woman. Your only option is to be this perfect lady. And then puberty hits you like a freight train, and you discover within yourself the flaw that will always prevent you from being The Good Woman.

Maybe you put on fat in your stomach and not your hips. Maybe you like boys a lot less than you thought you would. Maybe you like boys a lot more than you thought you could. Maybe you like the wrong kind of boy. Maybe you want to do the wrong kind of things with that boy. Maybe you want to do all those wrong things with multiple boys. Maybe people start making comments about your race, about what black women really want, about what Asian women do in bed, and they’re saying all this to you like you ought to be flattered. Maybe the stores at the mall don’t make clothing in your size. Maybe you don’t like any of the clothing in the stores at the mall.

When you look the other young women around you, they seem to have everything figured out. They look and act like they’re well on their way to becoming That Woman, the perfect woman, the one who smells nice all the time and never farts unless her guy friends think it’s funny. You alone have your flaw, your inner or outer wrongness. You have failed at Womanhood.

So you make one last, desperate leap for perfection.

You eat too little, or too much. You follow every trend, or you wear your old jeans until they fall apart. You start drama, or you say you hate drama, or you start drama and then say you hate it. You kiss people you don’t really want to kiss, or you run away from people you do want to kiss. You’re trying to force yourself into that very small and very uncomfortable hole where the Perfect Woman is supposed to go, or you’re trying your damnest to stay out of that hole but you don’t see anywhere else you could possibly fit. From the outside, it looks completely irrational. People call you crazy. Maybe you call yourself crazy. You certainly feel crazy.

It lasts for a while. Then you leave high school, or college, or the clique you ran with since way back when. You stumble across the right article on Wikipedia. You see a word you’ve never seen before in a book and look it up. A casual acquaintance posts something on Facebook and you get that little shock of recognition, that realization there are women out there just like you, with your exact flaw, and they’re doing all right for themselves. They’re doing great. They get together and celebrate their flaw, the very thing you always believed was so dark and shameful, but they’re not calling it a flaw any more. They have clubs, meet-up groups, conventions just for celebrating that part of them that disqualified them for eligibility in the Perfect Woman sweepstakes (prize: nothing. There never was any prize, because no one has ever won).

You calm down. You grow up. You don’t think of yourself as perfect, but you find your place in an imperfect world. Maybe you feel the occasional twinge of sadness about your flaw, but it doesn’t eat at you the way it used to.

But people will still call you crazy sometimes, because they still believe that the Perfect Woman is out there, and you could be her if you just tried a little harder and emoted a lot less.

Note: This essay isn’t about mental illness, which does tend to crop up around puberty or early adulthood and can be difficult to distinguish from normal teenage angst. It’s also not about women who have survived traumatic or abusive childhoods. This is about young women who get called crazy for going through the completely normal process of adolescent self-discovery.

How I spent 2013

2013 marks my second year of completing a novel-length textual product.* I didn’t technically finish a novel, in the sense that I do not have a manuscript that is ready to be released into the world, but I did complete the structure on which a more polished story will one day hang, and I passed the word count that is generally considered to be novel-length.**

* I technically spewed out more words when I was freelancing in 2011 and the beginning of 2012, but that wasn’t fiction and wasn’t on my own projects so I’m not considering it part of my work count.

** I’m going off the NaNoWriMo rules, which count 50,000 words as the threshold for a novel. Other counts differ; for a final draft, I’m shooting for somewhere between 80-100,000 words.

Because I’m fascinated by how different people handle the writing process, I tracked my word count for the past two years and made some graphs showing my progress.

Words per week

Words per week

I kind of stumbled into my 2012 project; you can see the spike in April where I wrote the first bit, then the long stretch of time when I left it alone before realizing that hey, there might be something there after all. Once I realized that I wanted to finish the story, I quickly got into the habit of writing at least 2000 words per week (mostly by writing on my lunch breaks).

In 2013, I started off knowing that I wanted to do a similar project, but my word count was lower per week and I finished later in the year. 2013 was a much rougher year for me personally. Some of the dips down to 0 were weeks when an illness/emergency/move/whatever meant that all my energy went into something other than writing. Those multi-week stretches at 0 are times when I didn’t have a working computer (my old desktop ate power supplies for breakfast).

The way I wrote in 2012 was definitely more fun, and I’ll try to get back in the habit of writing every day in 2014.

Word count over time

Word count rising

Here’s a cheerier chart. You can see how long I spent not paying attention to writing in 2012, and the sudden burst of effort towards the end of the year when my self-imposed deadline was looming. Starting earlier in 2013 paid off; despite my lower weekly word counts, I was still ahead of my 2012 progress until mid-October. I’ll be doing the same in 2014, with the benefit of an outline so I can write even faster.

Total word count

total words two years

The story I wrote in 2012 was the only fiction project I was seriously tinkering with that year. In 2013, I wrote a smidge over 12,000 words on a just-for-fun side project, plus 4,000 words on the outline for the story I’ll be working on in 2014 (I didn’t track these projects in my weekly word count chart; that was just the novel-length textual product). So, despite the low weekly word counts and 10,000 words less in the tally at year’s end, I did surpass my word count from 2012. I also started this blog, but I’m only counting fiction in these totals.

Although it’s not apparent in the charts, my 2013 project is much, much closer to resembling an actual novel. It doesn’t have any scenes left unfinished, its plot is more or less functional, and I won’t have to completely hack it to bits in the editing process. The 2012 project was so rough that revising it will be less like polishing and more like selecting passages to recycle in a better story.

What now?

Now I lock my little proto-novels away in a drawer, where they can stew in their own juices for a while before I’m ready to start editing. Since I’ve proved to myself that I can write something 1) long enough to be considered a novel and 2) semi-coherent, I’m taking on a more ambitious project in 2014, with the goal of ending the year with something much closer to a final draft.