Here’s the answer: you can’t.
On a good day, I’ll write about 800-1000 words in an hour. On a REALLY good day, I’ll actually decide to use those words. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before, but when you’re revising your novel and you know you have to cut out 35,000 words (that equates to approximately 38.8 hours of my life/at least a month of writing, down the drain) before it’s even close to readable, it hurts more than just your brain and your social calendar.
It hurts your soul.
The first-draft mindset involves a lot of, “Wait, that doesn’t really… oh well, I’ll cut it later,” and “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S COMING NEXT BUT I AM GOING TO KEEP WRITING ANYWAY BECAUSE I HAVE TO GET MY WORDS IN EGGPLANT DOORKNOB CHEESE GRATER.” A friend once pointed out to me that the revision mindset is completely different. At the time, I didn’t fully believe her, because it’s all part of the writing process, right?
No. *slaps your hand*
Privateer is the first novel I’ve ever worked up the guts to revise this extensively, and let me tell you something—rewriting is totally different from first-drafting. I don’t know if I’d call revising less creative, but it’s absolutely more analytical, more meticulous. I just finished Privateer draft #2 (which I did over the course of 4 months). Here are a few things I’ve learned about second drafting since I started.
1. You are your own worst enemy.
The worst part about revising your own work is that you will inevitably be fighting yourself all the way through. Your first draft is your baby. You friggin’ slaved over that chapter, didn’t you. You spent way too long on that sentence to chop it out. I know.
When you enter second draft territory, you take on another identity. You are no longer the tender, loving mother of your brainchild. You are a chemically imbalanced Mary Poppins to whom somebody gave a carving knife.
You must look at your own work as though you have never seen it before (it helps when you’ve let it sit for a couple of months, like I did before I dove into revisions). You must challenge each sentence with the narrowed eyes of a jaded literary critic, and ask, “Why do you deserve to stay?”
And sometimes the mother in you will rise up, pleading for you to let her take over. And sometimes, you can let her. But only if it’s for the good of the whole story.
2. You can always use less words.
But save the ones you decide to slash. My Privateer cuts document is about 13,000 words long. That’s the size of a small novella. There is no way in heck I am going to extract a small novella from my novel and then delete it forever.
Also, on a personal note, I am just a wordy person. I write things with twenty words that would have taken any normal person five to say. I know this about myself. So when I’m revising, I look specifically for sentences that need shortening, scenes that don’t further the plot—places where I was rambling just because I could.
It’s natural to think, “But I can’t cut out [some obscene amount of words] without damaging the plot or a character’s development.” This leads me to my next point.
3. Readers are smarter than you think they are.
If this sounds kind of insulting, it’s because it is. I’m of the opinion that writers should always be readers first, writers second. Do you know how I feel when a book continues to explain a plot point three chapters later, or beats me over the head with a moral that I understood from one sentence?
I feel like the writer is talking down to me.
I feel insulted.
When I was drafting Privateer, there were a lot of moments when I thought to myself, “Is a reader going to get what I’m going for here?” The answer 99% of the time was, “Yup, and you definitely should have quit three paragraphs back.”
People who read have been trained—let me say that again, we have been trained—to read between the lines. We look ahead for plot twists instinctively. We scrutinize characters for any hint of future betrayal. We know it’s coming, so we watch for it, and try to guess what’s going to happen before it does.
For this reason, readers are highly sensitive to any new information you give them. If you start to pound it into their brains, repeat it two hundred times for the sake of clarity, they’re going to throw your book across the room.
4. You are probably not as poetic as you think you are.
Actually, you probably are. I, however, am not.
This point just comes down to knowing your strengths. For example, besides fiction and babbling blog posts, I also write plays. I’m good with dialogue. I luuuurve dialogue.
Description does not come as naturally to me. I would rather pore over five pages of dialogue than write five sentences about the infrastructure of a city I invented. Unfortunately, this means that I come up with a lot of really bad metaphors and add a lot of stupid, fluffy details to my first drafts.
There is such a thing as “overwriting.” It can happen when you’re so determined to force people to fall head-over-heels in love with your writing, that your work reads overly elaborate, overly poetic, overly sarcastic, whatever. That’s when you need to stop and reevaluate your life choices. Why do you care so much? Who are you writing for?
Of course, this can also happen when you’re writing for yourself. You do it because you can. If that’s you (it’s totally me), go back to point number 1. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
5. Step back. Take a deep breath. Go outside. You look awful.
Look, when you’re cutting up your work like Demented Mary Poppins, you’re going to need a break. Because yes, it pretty much sucks no matter what you do. No matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise, rewriting is work.
But seriously, if you get frustrated, put it away. You won’t do anybody any good while you’re aggravated. So close the document. Remind yourself what it’s like to create something new. Go for a run. Play some music. Run through a sprinkler. Hang out with friends.
Do something else. No shame. Sometimes, the draft just needs to sit. Writing is work, but it’s also supposed to be fun! And if you hate your life while you’re doing it, you might be doing it wrong.
What have you found helps you when you’re rewriting? What are your revision tricks? Tell me in a comment, because I want to steal them and use them forever.