by James M Jackson
I have entered the final self-revision phase of my fifth Seamus McCree novel. It’s the last step before I send it to my editor. Over the years I have honed my revision process, making it much more efficient.
I’m a pantser (or as some prefer, “organic writer”), so I don’t create an outline before I start writing; I begin with only a basic premise. Ninety thousand words later, I’ve found my story. I’ve tried outlining, but it’s a waste of time for me. As I write the first draft, I discover new things about my characters and their stories. Soon the outline is as useful as a losing lottery ticket.
In my early novels, I’d take the first draft and rewrite from scene one to the end, and then repeat the process. After some (large) number of drafts, I completed the project. That was neither an efficient nor effective approach.
One of my favorite lines about writing comes from Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” I’ve distilled my process to start with the largest issues and work my way down to the tiny nits that can make the difference between a frustrating read and an enjoyable one.
I share my process in the online course I’ve taught for chapters of Romance Writers of American and Sisters in Crime. (I’m offering it again this October. The details about the month-long course can be found at https://jamesmjackson.com/.) The final step of my revision process, and the one I am performing right now with the novel, is fixing the nits—putting the final spit shine on the writing.
With each new manuscript, I fall in love with some word or phrase that I overuse and then need to discover and root out. But I also have bad habits that I can only kill with conscious effort. I have developed my personal list, which I add to when I find a new problem.
Some words are redundant. For example, I don’t need to say, “She shrugged her shoulders or she nodded her head.” Have you ever seen anyone shrug a knee or nod a foot? Me neither. Shrugging or nodding is sufficient (and should not be done too often).
Other problematic words are flabby placeholders for what could be a stronger word or indicate a sentence I should revise. Going to, planning to, and trying to are three phrases I check to determine if a more determinant sentence would be stronger.
You see, I like flexibility (don’t make me commit before I’m ready) and carry that trait into my writing. Finding multiple uses of “a bit” or “about” are leading indicators I’ve fallen into this flexibility trap. I might write the sentence, “He walked about a mile to the liquor store.” Readers know the character didn’t get out his ruler to make sure he walked 5,280 feet and 0 inches. In any given novel, I’ll include about
about a thousand
times before I apply the scalpel.
Do you have any pet peeves about authors’ writing styles that you wish they would change?