The Returning: Thoughts On Novel Revision

Revising a novel or story is something everybody goes about in their own way. Each of us have strengths and weaknesses, for example, so what needs work varies on an individual and even per project basis. As I prepare to revise my second contracted novel for publication, the fourth novel I’ve revised ever, I wanted to reflect on what that process is like for me. Every editor works different, too, so I’m sure the routine you develop with your editor will vary from this and that’s only natural. There is no one correct way. I can’t say that enough.

First, some reflections on the debut novel’s editing process.

The Worker Prince was written August through November of 2009. I worked on it daily during that time. The chapter which took the longest to write was Chapter 13, as I had no clear idea how to wrap it up. The fastest Chapters were the Prologue and Chapter 7, as I recall. Others varied. There were a few days I actually wrote an entire chapter in a sitting. Most days, I wrote a scene or two and was happy.

The Worker Prince was my first science fiction novel and second I ever attempted to write. While the idea had been gestating for 27 years, far longer than the idea for The Last Wish, my failed attempt at a love story novel (which I revisited during NaNoWriMo 2010 and will again), still I was learning craft and it was a fly by night situation, especially since I work best as a pantser with a limited amount of outlining for the chapter ahead of where I am. I do this outlining to keep in mind upcoming scenes events and where the subplots and characters fall. this way I can lead into them with what I am writing before and make sure I get back to storylines and characters in reasonable time so the reader doesn’t lose track of them.

With The Worker Prince, I hired two independent editors to help me with it. The first had a personal crisis and dropped out after a few chapters so I hired another guy to revisit what we’d done and then continue on. My feeling was knowing the whole novel was vital to his being able to help me revise the whole not just parts. Once those editors sent notes, I made several more passes to work on things and sent the novel back out to a few betas. Then it sat while I worked on something else. This repeated. By the time Randy Streu and I set to work, it had gone through about 16 drafts. Now I got bids from three publishers and extensive notes from two of those, so I incorporated those in drafts. I also did drafts as I learned craft, so not every draft was page 1 to end. I often worked on specific things. In any case, Randy’s approach was to read and then chat on Facebook note by note and I often rewrote sections on the spot as we discussed them and sent them to him for feedback. The editing took us a month or two and then I went back for a polish pass and turned it in. ARCS went out but I polished a few minor things up until publication. This is one advantage of Print on Demand.

Now to the present project.

The Returning is book 2 in the Saga Of Davi Rhii, a sequel to The Worker Prince. It was written from February 2011 through November 2011. During that time, my marriage fell apart as my wife was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder. And I had a lot of other stresses which really slowed me down and created large gaps. My normal process for a novel writing straight through remains 4-6 months. So this was unusual. Unlike the previous book, I had 3 beta readers reviewing the chapters as I went. But I did not look at their feedback until the end, except to briefly review the first chapter and make sure the system we’d set up and their notes would be useful. I went back through all of their notes at the end and incorporated them before sending the book to Randy for editing. The book then sat at the publisher while they finished other projects for a couple months. I began revising again working on descriptive prose, emotional arcs, and tight third person POV plus anything else I catch  and sent a chapter at a time to Randy for editing. Which is where I am now. I am on Chapter 5 as of today out of 13. Aiming for 1 and day if possible. Randy will make notes and edits and send them back to me in Google Docs for another pass. I then make the pass and send them to Jen Ambrose who will do another editorial and copy editing pass prior to ARCS going out.

Again, I’ll probably tweak between ARCS and final production since this is Print on Demand.

Now the draft I am doing just prior to handing chapters to Randy is third draft. I found that I incorporated elements of craft which I did whole passes to develop for The Worker Prince. I think this is a natural outgrowth of writing as you internalize things you learn and just start doing them as you write. However, I still have weaknesses I am focusing on. For example, one of the criticisms we heard a couple times on book 1 was POV jumping or being too broad so we didn’t connect emotionally enough with characters. So I am working on making sure I do better with that in this final pre-edit pass. I also tend to write the story, focusing on plot, dialogue and characters first and add descriptive prose later. In this case, I did more on The Returning as I wrote that I had on anything before. But I am going back and working on adding more and revising more. Things I didn’t worry about in book 1, like clothes etc., I am trying to impart. Besides making a more emotional journey, I also have a lot of characters now and I need to make them distinguishable because I want book 2 to be an entryway for the series.

The beta readers in general said book 2 was way better than book 1, which they read after they read book 2. This way I knew if my back story exposition to introduce readers new to the series was effective. And I believe it was. You don’t get every little nuance, but you do know the basics of what happened before. Book 1 will still help tie together character relationships and conflicts, etc. But at least the back history of the saga is in book 2 and not info dump. It’s done a few lines at a time here and there. I worked really hard on that.

I also compiled a list of every negative criticism from every review and sent it to my editors. I review it every day as I edit. And I asked them to as well so we can try and eliminate those issues. Let’s make reviewers work to find issues in book 2. I don’t want to hear the same ones.

In any case, this is the approach we’re taking and I am finding that once again I am eliminating extraneous words, clarifying prose, using more descriptive and emotional internal words, etc. in my polish drafts. And the book is getting longer. Mike Resnick once said he was the only writer he knew whose first drafts were shorter than his second but I join him in that. I add the flowery stuff after the basics are down. And that’s the case here as well. My 95k novel has grown to 98k after revising 4 chapters and expect to hit 102k at least if not 105k by the end. This is true despite eliminating a lot of words. In chapter 1 I think I rewrote 50 percent of every other page and 25 percent of the rest. Later chapters have been less intense so far. But I am spending about 5 hours a day just reading and making notes to tweak then typing them into the manuscript to send Randy. It’s intense but I hope will result in a much better book. In two cases, I rewrote 50% of a chapter. One of those times, I added a scene and a half to what existed. But both were early chapters very much affected by later events in the plot and the changes now make the story coherent and add foreshadowing that ties it all together (weakness of being a pantser).

For me, The Worker Prince is so imperfect. Writers always feel that way, I suppose but the criticisms are taken to heart. Luckily it’s gotten positive reviews from everyone despite its flaws. Even a high honor of Honorable Mention on a Year’s Best. But I look at it now and it seems so much less than what I can do. So I am determined to really knock book 2 out of the park. Now, in truth, I believe as long as you make each book the best you can do at that moment, you’ve done all you can. No writer is every truly satisfied with a finished book. We’re always finding things we could have done better. But at some point the only healthy thing is to let it go and move on. And so you send your babies out into the world and make another.

Not sure how useful this will be but perhaps one day fans and readers will find it interesting (and me too) as a peak into my process. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

4 5-star & 11 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb