Last week I really enjoyed the TBRcon21 writing conference. The editing panel was fun and informative and the moderator even asked my question–Did you ever receive a piece of advice that made revision easier or more enjoyable for you?– near the end. If you missed the panel, you can watch it on Youtube.
After the panel, I asked one of the panelists, Shelly Campbell, if she would be interested in sharing more about her revision process here on Experience Writing and she so kindly agreed to answer some more questions I have about revision. So today, we are in for a treat!
My Interview with Shelly Campbell
After you finish your first draft and you are letting it rest, what are you up to?
When I’m letting a manuscript rest—three weeks usually does the trick for me—I tend to take a total break from similar writing. Right now, I’m working on a fiction manuscript and, when I eventually reach the final pages of that first draft, I have a non-fiction project waiting in the wings.
I also enjoy drawing and painting and find that I am usually inspired to create art when I’m taking a break from authoring. Visual art provides an almost instant gratification compared to the slow-burn fulfillment of novel writing, because I get the satisfaction of a finished project after a few hours, days or week, as opposed to the months or years of effort leading up to a completed book. There’s the added benefit that, if I’m really wound up in a draft I’ve just put down, I can always tackle character art, letting me revisit the story while still giving my brain time to switch gears into a more objective editing mode.
After (or during) your first read, how do you go back in? Do you summarize, outline, scene card? What are your tools?
I was very much a discovery writer when I wrote my first two novels, and I hadn’t done a lot of research into structure and form. While it was fun to just build a world with no restrictions and then play in it, it resulted in some long-winded, slack-paced manuscripts that needed significant developmental edits. I knew the books needed work, but in my inexperience, couldn’t pin down what they needed.
My first reads for those books consisted of a lot of line-edit polishing, make-every-word-shine sort of thing. I didn’t know any better. But I would learn later that, without the bones of good structure and pacing, eloquent prose that doesn’t go anywhere won’t hold a reader’s interest! Much of those painstaking line edits were wasted when I trashed or changed large chunks of the manuscript later on.
With some resources under my belt, and having learned some of my own fallibility, I now have an editing bullet list that I run through on first reads. I’ve moved from pantsing to more of a three-act screenwriting structure, so the first thing I like to do is compare my manuscript with my initial outline. I chart out my chapters and their word counts and look at the big picture items first. Have I started the book too soon? Do I need to chop initial chapters and dive in closer to the inciting incident? Are all my major beats falling where they should? Is my midpoint a big enough pivot point—and is it actually occurring midway through the manuscript!
When I’m comfortable that the draft is hanging properly on its structural skeleton, I dive into my first read with nothing on my mind other than, does this hold my attention? Anything that I’m tempted to skip over or skim needs work, because if it doesn’t hold my interest, it certainly can’t be expected to hold anyone else’s, right? After I’ve tweaked my tension, I read through again. My first drafts are skimpy on conveying internal emotion, need trimming when describing physical actions, and benefit greatly from tighter dialogue, so I’ll have a read through focusing on all of those things. Then I’ll go through my list of crutch words (words I overuse) and trim those out. After that, it is off to my beta readers to see what they think of the project!
How do you approach your characters once you know them? Are they like friends that you talk to and hang out with, or is it more like sculpting, chipping the rock away for the fine details? Or something else?
Initially, it’s very much a chipping away process as I get to know the character. Often, by the time I’m ready to read through a first draft again, I can pick out things early on that I now know is out-of-character for this person, because I know them better. Many times, when I get stuck, I realize it’s because I’m trying to push my character in a direction they just wouldn’t take. Usually a re-examination of their goals, biases, fears and misbeliefs will point me in the right direction. So, yeah, my characters let me explore dead-end roads a lot, while patiently waiting for me to turn around and follow them onto the proper path.
What was the most challenging part of revising your novel? How did you come to a solution?
Honestly, my first novel was a mess. It was discovery writing. It wasn’t even one novel, it was two rambling manuscripts full of dead-end roads, but it had potential. My beta readers enjoyed it. Editors liked parts of it. I was fortunate enough to find a small publisher willing to take a chance on it with the caveat that I needed to do some significant developmental edits. I heartily agreed. My editor there, suggested a new outline for the combined manuscripts, and once I saw it summarized step-by-step, it didn’t seem so overwhelming to cut out a novel’s worth of words because I could see that the same story was still being told, just far more effectively and entertainingly than I had originally written it. I had a road map. And that’s when I realized, I really am a writer that needs a map! I need to outline or I end up exploring all those dead-end roads and lose my destination.
When you get bogged down with the work, what do you do to get out?
I listen to my characters, or I revisit my outline. If my characters are responding in a believable manner, I have a look at my outline and see if I need to tweak tension. I normally get bogged down when I can’t pin down the intention of a scene. Is this supposed to further character growth? Provide a quiet moment to contrast with coming mayhem? Ratchet up tension by showing our reader something our main character doesn’t know? Ideally, each scene can multitask and, if I’m stuck, I often find I’m at a spot where this particular scene doesn’t need to be here at all, or what I’m trying to accomplish can be done by merging it into another scene. I’ll often enlist the help of my critique group because sometimes you just need a different lens on the problem to see the way out!
To what degree and at what point do you use beta readers or outside feedback during the revision process?
I rely heavily on beta readers because I’m lucky enough to have found a wonderful online group of writers and readers in my genre who offer great constructive advice. It’s hard finding good beta readers. You need someone who reads a lot in the genre you write in because they all do follow certain structures and rules that readers may not be able to list, but they certainly sense when you get them wrong! You need someone who is not your friend or family—in most instances they are just going to tell you your work is great because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. And you need beta readers who you just jive with. If you can’t take harsh criticism, a heavy-handed reader who only leaves you scathing comments is probably not a good fit for you. Unfortunately, this means a lot of trial and error finding the right beta readers for you, the ones who are able to help you lift up your work to a level you could not get it to on your own while still keeping your individual voice in there. I have been exceedingly lucky to find a crew of people who are honest in their comments and who each look at my work from a different angle, giving me the confidence to send my manuscripts out into the world.
I also want to point out that more beta readers is not necessarily better. Every person will have a different opinion and the more people who comment on your work, the more conflicting the advice will be. I use the rule that if multiple people comment on the same issue with the same feelings on it, it is likely something that needs to be fixed. If the correction would go against my character’s grain or cause my work to totally lose my voice, I tend to stand firm in my initial choices.
Where do you find your motivation to finish?
Initially, I didn’t! What eventually became Under the Lesser Moon rattled around in my brain and on my computer for decades. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough, but I had a story in my head that wanted out and, damn it, if I wasn’t going to finish it! So, I suppose, at first, what motivated me to finish—very slowly—was the fact that I’d put so much work into this one story and I felt I owed it to myself to at least finish it.
Now, since the first book in the series is out, I’m motivated by deadlines (as well as readers who contact me to let me know how much they loved the first book and are looking forward to the second. Readers, have you any idea how very much that boosts a tired author?)
How do you know when you are finished?
I have to stop after I’ve addressed all my beta readers’ comments to the best of my abilities and have run through my own editing list. If I can write a good query letter that sparks interest when it is sent out, then I know I’m finished…for now.
Any other advice for writers new to or struggling with the revision process?
What works for me may not work for you, but you do have this in you, revising. You learned how to write and revising is a skill you can learn too, one that you can hone with a bit of practice. Find a book on writing craft that resonates with you. Find a writers group. This is a lonely journey, but there are other people who are struggling just like you, and writers are some of the most helpful people I know! Don’t forget to feed your imagination. Often when you can’t write, you just need time to fill that creative well elsewhere. Read, garden. Do you! The well will fill. It always does 🙂
At a young age, Shelly Campbell wanted to be an air show pilot or a pirate, possibly a dragon and definitely a writer and artist. She’s piloted a Cessna 172 through spins and stalls, and sailed up the east coast on a tall ship barque—mostly without projectile vomiting. In the end, Shelly found writing fantasy and drawing dragons to be so much easier on the stomach.
Shelly’s tales are speculative fiction, tending toward literary with dollops of oddity. She enjoys the challenge of exploring new techniques and subject matter, and strives to embed inspiring stories in her writing and art.
Her debut grim dark fantasy novel Under the Lesser Moon released with Mythos and Ink Publishing in November 2020.
She has a horror novel releasing with Silver Shamrock Publishing on April 2021.
You can find her here: