April 1 – 7: “When revising a book, do you tackle all the problems at once or do you work in layers?”

This week we talk book revisions: “When revising a book, do you tackle all the problems at once or do you work in layers? Which elements of fiction – point of view, eliminating wordiness, character checks – might require a special read?” with Clea Simon, Susanna Calkins, Robert K. Lewis, Jonathan Maberry, Heather Graham, Thomas M. Malafarina, Katia Lief and Pamela Beason.


Pamela Beason lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes novels and screenplays and works as a private investigator. When she’s not on the job, she explores the natural world on foot, cross-country skis, by kayak, or in scuba gear. Beason is the author of the Summer Westin eco-mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime (ENDANGERED, BEAR BAIT, UNDERCURRENTS) as well as three novels from WildWing Press: THE ONLY WITNESS, SHAKEN, and CALL OF THE JAGUAR.

Katia Lief ‘s newest thriller THE MONEY KILL, just published by HarperCollins, is the fourth in her acclaimed Karin Schaeffer series. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan and lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Susanna Calkins is a historian and academic, currently working at Northwestern University. She’s had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England since grad school, when first doing research for her Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives—tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange—inspired her historical mysteries, including A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives outside Chicago now with her husband and two sons.

A reformed journalist, Clea Simon wrote three nonfiction books before turning to a life of crime (fiction). She is the author of three series, the Theda Krakow mysteries; the Dulcie Schwartz feline mysteries, the most recent of which is True Grey (Severn House); and the Pru Marlowe pet noirs, which continues this month with Parrots Prove Deadly (Poisoned Pen Press). She is currently working on new Prus and Dulcies.

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan’s crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him online at RobertKLewis.com and at needlecity.wordpress.com.

Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His novels include EXTINCTION MACHINE, FIRE & ASH, PATIENT ZERO and many others. His award-winning teen novel, ROT & RUIN, is now in development for film. He is the editor of V-WARS, an award-winning vampire anthology. Since 1978 he’s sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, and poetry.

Heather Graham is the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author of over a hundred novels including suspense, paranormal, historical, and mainstream Christmas fare. She lives in Miami, Florida, her home, and an easy shot down to the Keys where she can indulge in her passion for diving. Travel, research, and ballroom dancing also help keep her sane; she is the mother of five, and also resides with two dogs, a cat, and an albino skunk. She is CEO of Slush Pile Productions, a recording company and production house for various charity events.

Thomas M. Malafarina is an author of horror fiction from Berks County, Pennsylvania. He has published four horror novels 99 SOULS, BURN PHONE, EYE CONTACT and FALLEN STONES as well as for collections of horror short stories; 13 NASTY ENDINGS , GALLLERY OF HORROR, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 1, MALAFARINA MALEFICARUM Vol. 2 and most recently GHOST SHADOWS. He has also published a book of often strange single panel cartoons called YES I SMELLED IT TOO; CARTOONS FOR THE SLIGHTLY OFF CENTER.

  1. Revising is, for me, the most painful part of writing – especially when you know it’s going to be the last time through and your ms. has to go off to the editor when you’re done. That said, it’s so necessary.

    I usually just blast out the plot in my first draft – who did what to who – and this can change and develop as I write. So my first stage of revision is making sure that the story makes sense. The enemy who I refer to in the fifth chapter has to be retrofitted into the first; the motive that I fell in love with on page 200 has to have its antecedent on page 50. As I realize what happens, I make notes on little stickies, and by the end of the first draft, these are all over my computer. So the first revision involves incorporating these into the manuscript. Subsequent revisions will deal with voice (do all my characters sound like themselves?), tone, and pacing – but making sure that the plot I ended up with is now the same plot throughout the book is the first step.

  2. I was so happy to see this question posed, because I often wonder if anyone else writes in layers (I guess now I’ll find out!). After I’ve gotten the basic plot worked out, I will go back and work on different aspects, building up key dimensions of the story. I find it much more motivating to work this way, and it keeps me from revising the first 25 pages over and over, and never working on the middle. This process also keeps me from getting bored or suffering from writer’s block. I’m able to work in very small chunks at a time when necessary (since I have a full-time day job, teach two grad classes, and mother two elementary age kids—I don’t have a lot of free time, so I have to take what I can get, when I can get it.) So for example, when I don’t have much time to really concentrate, I’ll use the “search” function to seek and destroy all the adverbs or word tics that have snuck into my writing. Or I’ll work on dialogue. Or I’ll develop description—usually of one location at once. Essentially, I’ve divided the very large—potentially daunting—revision process into manageable engaging chunks. Some aspects do require a special read though. For example, I find I often need to go back and develop motivations of lesser characters, or enhance the interactions among characters to a greater aspects. Sometimes, since I write mysteries, I find I need to go back and develop clues (or red herrings!) for my readers to make discovering ‘whodunit’ fair for the reader. After I’ve worked on chunks here or there, then I will do more read-throughs elevating all the prose. All the ‘hot potato’ scenes I left untouched (the ones that weren’t quite working) I will make myself work on. While this method mostly works for me, sometimes I’ve discovered repetitious passages and continuity errors. Maybe I should try Clea’s “stickies method!” (but I’d worry about important ones falling into the trashcan!)

  3. I definitely make multiple passes when revising, and oddly enough, this is when I make an outline, after I’m done with the first draft. With the outline in hand, I make sure that my timeline is working, that I didn’t leave any important threads hanging, and I know how much of the time each character is “on scene.” Then I follow each important character through the manuscript, asking myself what that character is doing in each chapter, and checking whether I’ve made their descriptions and attitudes consistent, etc. I naturally do a lot of word cleanup as I go. Then, as a last pass, I do my best to clean up language, especially seeking out the words and phrases I have a tendency to use over and over again.

  4. Once I’ve finished writing the rough draft of a novel, if I’m smart I’ll put it aside for a few weeks to gain some distance from it, but often I’m too impatient and start reading it right away. The main thing is to switch hats from writer to reader to editor, so you can evaluate your work with a critical eye. Once I ascertain what problems need fixing, I sit with my notes and address all the large story and plot issues first. After that, I read and reread, many times, revising and polishing as I go. With each pass, the revision becomes more detail oriented as the larger problems fade away. I’ll continue this in a kind of rinse-and-repeat process until I can’t change another comma. It’s not unusual for me to spend more time revising a novel than I did writing it.

  5. I tend to work not so much in layers as sections. I go back countless times during the writing process and review each chapter, one at a time, in the proper order. I do this so many times that by the time I am finished with a book I am basically sick of it. I check again and again for all elements I feel are important, such as point of view, good flowing and interesting story line, avoiding repetition, graphic horror descriptions and one of my personal pet peeves which is eliminating holes in the story.

    I absolutely hate a good story that fails to provide an adequate explanation for something. This however, sometimes gets me in trouble with editors as in the past I had a tendency to over-explain in order to fill any and all holes my stories. This is largely because I am a manufacturing engineer by profession which is a very left-brained job. And although it may be a noble cause, it can result in a major slowdown to a story. However, I am getting better at controlling this anal retentive technical side of myself and just allowing the story to creatively happen.

  6. I really let the first draft tell what that first revision is going to be. I am a guy who starts at the beginning and works to the end. Once the first draft is done and I’ve let it sit, I’ll then sit down with my red pen and go through it line by line. At this point I’m just looking for bad scenes, paragraphs, developments. I’ll usually put “BTT” in the margin (Better Than This) next to these parts. This read through gives me a good sense of the rhythm of the book.

    THEN I go macro. I’ll take the book apart, chapter by chapter, making a coversheet for each of them. On the coversheet I’ll give a synopsis for what happens and I’ll list the characters in that chapter, color coding each character. Then I lay this all on the floor of my office, in order. This is usually like 4-5 rows of 8-10 chapters. This gives me a really good idea of which characters might drop out of the book and where. Or if I’m repeating beats or scenes. I’ve found this step to be of incredible help.

    After that, I’m working chapter by chapter, then paragraph by paragraph. My final revision is a line by line revision. During this revision I’m looking at EVERYTHING: dialog, spelling punctuation, smoothness in the sentences. I might keep an eye out a little more for dialog, unless I feel that’s already the best it can be, and if it is, then I’ll keep an eye out for ANYTHING that even HINTS of being “below the line” in quality.

    And I’m doing this all as quickly as possible, as I do a book a year and I do not use readers.

  7. Like Pamela says, its SO important to check and recheck the timeline (making sure each character is adhering to that timeline too). I’ve messed that up before! And Robert, the process you describe…I’m amazed by the meticulousness of your process! 🙂

    1. Susanna,

      Yeah, I hear ya. 🙂 I’m pretty OCD, so this process feels completely natural to me!

      It really took me a LONG time to arrive at this method, trust me. I think I turned a corner with it once I came to love the editing process more than the first draft or story development phases.

      The real benefit from the way I do this is that when I turn over my manuscript to my editor, she only has like two or three things that need to be addressed, and they’re small. My goal is to hand off a finished book, or as close to that as humanly possible. Not only does it ease the “to publication process”, I feel it also gets you in good with your editor. 😉

    2. Yes, I absolutely have to check the time and place throughout my books for each of my characters, because my stories usually take place over a pretty short period of time and I often discover during my rewrites I didn’t allow enough hours for a character to get from one place to another. Critique partners can be invaluable but embarrassing when they say “Wait just a minute–wasn’t this guy twenty miles away only a half hour ago?” Arg.

  8. This is so cool. Insights into how each of you work is priceless. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I totally understand the urge to overexplain, Thomas. it’s a fine line: you want your readers to understand. But, at the same time, your characters understand more in context than we would, so you have to find a way to clue the reader in (without anyone saying, “I’m sure you remember that the XX was because of YY” or any clunker like that). It’s a balancing act, but I prefer to err on the side of “they’ll figure it out.” Because even if a reader misses something, if the story moves along quickly, she or he won’t care (and maybe will check back again later!).

  10. It’s fascinating to learn how other writers go about this. I love the thought of sticky notes all over the computer. In fact, I’m looking at a little blue one right reminding me to check in with the ITW Roundtable this morning!

    I used to keep lists that would evolve into two outlines, one long and detailed, and one short and succinct, highlighting the main plot action in each chapter, so I could easily find what happens when and in what chapter. Now, for the second book in a row, I’m using a program called Scrivener, which I find immensely helpful in keeping track of chronology, characters, notes, research, and an outline that constantly and (with Scrivener) easily evolves. I’m doing a huge revision right now and keeping track of everything that I set up in the first draft can be daunting. Staying as organized as possible is key.

  11. Scrivener rocks! I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

    HOWEVER, that said?

    I’m going to type the first draft of the 3rd Mark Mallen novel on my old, 1950’s Smith Corona or old Royal typewriter. I think this will not only really make me THINK more during the first draft, but also when I edit those pages and then have to RETYPE the entire thing into my computer, I’ll be editing again and fixing as I go. I think this will actually give me an extra “look” at the entire book. Yeah, the first draft will take longer (typing on a typewriter is strenuous, hahaha), however, I’m really looking forward to it.

  12. I should mention that I only use Scrivener for outlining. I don’t write my chapters directly into the program. For that, I write directly in Word, the old-fashioned way.

  13. Wow, I may have to try this. The problem with sticky notes is that they do occasionally fall off. Also, my handwriting is illegible, even to me, after a few days…

    In terms of what you revise – do any of you retrofit clues? I often realize “Oh! I wanted her to have heard that from XXX!” But if it’s a first draft, I don’t want to go back and rewrite. That’s not revising in the sense of smoothing and polishing, but it is part of my process.

    1. Hi Clea,

      If I’m writing the first draft, I NEVER go back. I just make a note to go back in the next draft. I definitely do retrofit clues, or plant more clues to another character to try and throw the reader of the track, etc.

  14. Ha! Good to hear it. The best though – and I’m sure this happens to you, too – is when you change who the baddie is, but then you go back and you realize that you had clues pointing to that person, too. As if subconsciously, you knew all along…

  15. I like to go from beginning to end when I’m revising–one of the things I hate most is when you put in a mistake you didn’t have to begin with! This is simple, but, if Willie becomes Fred on page 3 (because you already had a Bill; because your editor just hated the name Willie, because another author at your house just had a major villain named Willie, etc.) you don’t want him to become Will again on page 204. It really doesn’t matter what the change is–if you make it, you have to follow through. It’s also imperative to make sure that your time line flows (unless you’re working on a time travel) in the way that time flows. Even if you’re working on a time travel, you have to make sure you travel to the time where you want your characters to be. And, if you know you’re going to make a more major change in the middle of a book or toward the end or at the end, you’ll want to make sure that everything you’re doing leads up to that change, and Sally, who was to have committed a murder in Pittsburgh, was in Atlanta at the time.

  16. Scrivener! Never heard of it! How does it work?

    I use an odd combination of long-hand, Word, tables and excel to keep all my stuff straight. The worst problem I had with the timeline was when I collapsed my first book, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gatefrom 3 years to about 18 months. I really had to think that through pretty substantially. I also had this tic where I’d say “a few days later”…used to drive my husband (my alpha reader) crazy! ‘what happened in the meantime?’ he’d demand to know. I thought it quickened the pace, but it actually slowed it down!

    The other timeline issue I’ve run into is how long it would take to travel to different places (my books are set in 17th century, so everyone walked or travelled by horse and cart. Hard to estimate travel times!)

    1. Susanna, here’s the website: http://literatureandlatte.com/

      It’s a super easy program for organizing your story. You can put in notes right where you need them most: where that chapter is. You can also do a “pin board” of 3×5 cards, with a synops of each chapter so you can get a great overview of your story, etc. It’s just a brilliant way to work. It also has an export feature so you can do your first draft(s) there, then export it to Word if you want. I ping-pong back and forth, from using it for early drafts to just going for it in Word. It just depends on what sort of grip I feel I have on the story to begin with.

  17. It is interesting to read how different writers work. I’m doing translations from French right now, and I definitely work in layers. I’ll push through a first draft of the translation, getting a feel for the whole work, staying very close to the original text. You’d never ever want to read that first draft. It would sound way too French. Then, once I’ve got the author’s voice inside, I go back and revise the translation until it works in English, creating a same or similar experience I had reading the original French. It’s a fascinating experience.

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