It’s traditional to say you must finish one draft before you can revise. You’ll find that traditions often are more prescriptive than descriptive, telling you what someone thinks ought to work rather than what necessarily does work for any one individual.
Revising Before You Finish a Draft
The plotter needs to address some high-level revision as soon as finishing the outline, before any manuscript even gets written. Don’t go to the trouble of writing all the scenes for a flawed plot, then have to throw out thirty thousand words, when you can catch those problems in the outline. That’s the plotter’s built-in advantage, to have the plot strongly built before writing, ready to support all those wonderful characters and fascinating narrative.
If pantsers or railroaders find themselves stalled halfway through a draft, they may need to stop and check their plot. The problem may be a big plot snag. It may be a character that isn’t working out. It may be part of the world or society or how reality works that needs to change. It may be an information hole you need to fill. High-level revision tools can help you figure this out and how to fix it.
Revise Later — Much Later
Then there’s my utterly maverick advice to new writers: write three unrelated novels before you seriously revise the first (this doesn’t count outline revision or halfway revision). It probably applies to short-storyists, too, but you might want to increase the number of items to, say, ten.
The idea is that when you write your first, you hardly know what you’re doing. Just getting something with a beginning, middle, and end finished is remarkable. Remember, most people never try to write. Of those that do, only a tiny percentage finish even one project. So you are in the elite just by getting through a draft. But you still don’t know much about how to write, and I don’t mean book-learning. You can’t learn to paint by reading books: you have to get down to using the paint. You can’t learn to write except by writing and finishing projects. After only one, you don’t know enough about how to write for a meaningful revision. You just haven’t messed around with the tools enough. Do a low-level edit to fix up the spelling and grammar, get practice with that level of writing, and set it aside.
Go write some more, and don’t count sequels, prequels, or paraquels to anything. New setting. Unrelated characters. Okay, same genre allowed because you might be entirely a mystery or romance or science fiction writer.
“You mean I have to build a whole new planet?!” the specfi folks are squawking.
Sigh. Probably not, though don’t immediately brush off the idea. After all, we do allow Western writers to stick to the same century and part of a continent. So you can use the same planet/universe. But no character whatever from the earlier book(s) can appear in the ones you count as “different.” Avoid descendants and ancestors. If possible, go explore a different culture. You can learn a great deal about your world’s other eras and cultures by making a disconnected story set in them. It’s kind of natural to step back and see what the legends were like as actual events, and it may change details or attitudes in your earlier books when you explore the sketchy reference in detail. For example, when I wrote a novel set five hundred years earlier in the Falkazari Empire in its heyday, with Khodindali protagonists, it gave me a lot to think about how much would change or survive the civil war, and what a complex non-Western culture Kho’ characters were operating from (for example, money is nice for the toys it buys, but it’s not the real counters used in tallying success, so beyond a certain amount they start giving it away).
By the time you finish three disconnected novels or ten short stories, you will know so much more about how to craft plots, characters, and the rest, that you will be astonished at how much you bring to revising that first story. It’s not that the story will look so different (which is the purpose of “cooling” stories by putting them aside for a few months) but that you will have so much more ease in using words and scenes to influence a reader, with manipulating the materials.
Then there’s another aspect no one seems to want to talk about.
Growing as a Writer
When we start, our writing is usually full of wish-fulfillment and autobiography . Three unconnected novels lets us get that out of our systems. By the end of them, you will probably be starting finally to write about the characters more than yourself (there’s often some of you in any lively character). When you bring this cleansed muse back to your first novel, you can do one of three things you couldn’t before:
- You can see this as therapy, love it, and put it aside as not really fit to sell.
- You can see where you can take it out of Mary Sue or meander hell and make a good story of it by massive revisions.
- You may be so lucky that you avoided major problems in your writing, and it only takes regular revision to make it salable.
Also, as a matter of learning, your earliest work is most likely to be the most derivative of the books you love. (We don’t even count actual fan fiction.) After you have created three universes, three different detectives, three sets of lovers in different towns, you will have used up much of your source material and moved onto original stuff. Coming back to #1, you will now be ready to mark what is truly new in it, replace the derivative material, and revise at a high level to make it work as your story, not a knock-off of someone else’s.
The requirement to not count sequels (you can write as many as you like, but it only counts as one story) serves two purposes. The first is in the preceding paragraph. The second is that new writers often get far too attached to one single world. This is their Idea, the only one they will ever have, the beautiful thing they will spend their lives building in print, like Middle Earth or Kinsey Milhone or Harry Potter (Rowling is having some difficulty getting into anything else, as this is written).
This is a Bad Thing®, professionally and psychologically.
If you cling intensely to the first big idea you get, you won’t explore others. This may not be the best you’ll get. You just don’t know until you have more.
Also, from now on let’s assume anyone much worried about revising well has sales on their mind. You may adore your first idea, but it may not sell. You’ll want a second string to your bow, because if you can sell disconnected novels #3 and #4, then #2, then maybe, as an established writer, you can sell your darling #1.
If you stay married to #1, you may never get it out the gate.
Books, even settings, aren’t spouses you “stay true to.” They’re more like wild animal rescues, that you want fixed up strong enough to go out into the world on their own. Some may come back to visit, is all.