Revising on the Run: A Work In Progress

In our continued mission to pull back the curtain on the creative process — without, hopefully, going overboard on the me, Me, ME business — I submit the following:

Every writer works differently, and often individual writers might use different approaches for each book. There’s really no formula beyond: git ‘er dun.

While I recognize the value of blasting out that first draft — it’s time to turn on the faucet, not tinker with the plumbing — it’s not really how I work on a longer piece of fiction. I will take that approach for a scene, or for as long as the energy carries me (best, handwritten on a notepad). I’ll knowingly write sentences that are pure garbage and not fret in the least. Because it’s about riding that forward push of story while that fickle mistress, Momentum, has my hand.

Here’s a picture of what that’s like. You hang on and know that it will all come crashing down at any minute, so you try to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

But unlike some authors, I constantly circle back, fuss, reread, rest, and tinker — while I try to push the book closer to its conclusion. Maybe that’s not an advisable habit, I can’t say. (Cleaning as you cook, I guess, as opposed to my wife’s glorious mess in the kitchen.) In the best world, I tend to revise and write simultaneously. When it works — Six Innings, Bystander — the typical revision process is quick and painless. Other times, I’m just a mess all the way through and need to be saved by my editor, most recently in the case of Along Came Spider. Thank you, Shannon Penney.

Ultimately, I know this: No reader cares how you got there, the only thing that matters is the printed  page.


I don’t sleep well. Insomnia. The engine revs, the car’s stuck in neutral. So two nights ago I groggily scribbled some words in the dark of night, ideas for improving little scenes that were previously written. Here’s that scrap of paper:

Can you read it? That, folks, is my lefty scrawl. From a prone position, middle of the night, sleepy. Not that wide awake is much better.

Again, this is a YA novel, with characters around age 16. I’ll quickly take you through it.

“Hey you,” that’s promising

NOTE: There’s a conversation between two boys, analyzing a text message from a girl. I had the idea of tagging “Hey you” in front of the message, and adding some conversation (hopefully humorous) about the potential meaning of “Hey you” as opposed to, say, “Hi” or “S’up.” Jude’s friend, Corey, sees “Hey you” as a very promising sign of great import.

Tree — butt-ugly — umbrella

nothing can keep out the rain

NOTE: There’s a large, old, ragged maple next to the main character’s house, keeping it in shade. It’s a minor detail. As I’ve gotten farther into the book, this tree has taken on unexpected metaphorical responsibilities, and I felt I needed to insert another reference to it earlier in the text (it gets chopped down in the end, to let in the light). These quick notes remind me to have Becka, the main girl in the story, comment on the tree’s ugliness; to have Jude, the boy, convey that his mother — worried about sunlight fading the rugs, among other things — thinks of it as an umbrella; and Becka to reply, matter-of-factly, “Nothing can keep out the rain.” Typing that just now, I wonder if I should change “rain” to “weather.” Mostly, I have to be careful with this, keep a light touch, and not turn this into Big Meaningful Tree.

— you have green eyes

NOTE: I simply decided that Becka has green eyes. Actually, last night on a separate scrap of paper at 3:00 AM I wrote this sentence:

And then the word came to him: turquoise.

Finally, there’s this:

— why are you so sad?

— downturn to your mouth, when you are thinking.

NOTE: I haven’t written this scene yet — it’s actually on today’s “to do” list. I want Becka to recognize the unspoken sadness in Jude, that buried darkness he carries around. Of course, it’s part of what attracts her to him, his sensitivity and depth. That she sees it in Jude, a detail that most others miss, indicates they might be right for each other. It also serves as a tool to pry open his secret.

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