Category: Revision

The Vacuum Revision Technique

I recently finished writing the fourth draft of my novel, A Thousand Roads. I spent the last 4 months on it. I keep track of my writing time, so with my daily commitment of roughly 2 hours every day, 7 days a week, I clocked close to 200 hours of work on that draft.

This works out to almost the same amount of time I spent writing the first draft. It’s more than I spent on the second and third (which were about 130 hours and 80 hours, respectively.)

The draft was 209,000 words. Of these, 90,000 were new (I kept track using a red font). This is more than a standard length novel, I realize, but to put this in perspective, if my novel were 80,000 words, I’d expect to have rewritten about 30,000 words.

How did I manage to bring this amount of fresh rewriting to something as late in as a fourth draft? I discovered a new technique, which I’m going to share with you today.

The vacuum revision technique: creating opportunity through creating an absence 

I’ve posted on the difference between a draft and a revision before on my epic fantasy writing blog. The idea is simple:

  • A revision is a pass over your book with minimal changes. You are, in a sense, “trapped” within the framework of what you wrote so at most you might rewrite some paragraphs, cut away or add, but mostly you’re improving sentences and aren’t actually writing a new story. A beta reader who reads a revision will feel like they are reading the same book, with some changes in some spots.
  • A draft is also a pass over your book but it involves a complete overhaul. You aren’t trapped in your previous draft. You are free to completely rewrite wherever you want. A beta reader who reads a new draft will feel like they are reading a completely new book, that might remind them of the previous draft in some places (ideally, all the places they liked).

In writing the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I used the latter approach. I went through all the way from chapter one, paragraph by paragraph, until I got to chapter 28, then finally the epilogue. I had my editor’s notes (from the initial editorial assessment) to guide me. In addition, I’d made 200 notes throughout the manuscript, based on processing my editor’s notes. These served as prompts along the way.

It was like I was telling the story again, using the previous draft as a guide. I kept what still resonated with me, and whenever something was bad, I rewrote it.

This took on one of two forms:

1) I overhauled a paragraph / series of paragraphs using the old material, coming out with essentially the same passage with some touch-ups. A reader who’d read the previous draft would recognize this section as similar (i.e. that part would read like a revision).

2) I cut away all the bad writing (keeping it handy in a separate file), then inside the vacuum created where good writing ends and good writing resumes, I wrote from scratch. I’d use the cut material in the file as reference, but would rarely put it back. A reader who’d read the previous draft would not recognize this section at all.

Point 1) is nothing unusual, but it’s point 2) I thought worth sharing because it certainly gave me an edge to revision I would not have gained otherwise. This is mostly where the 90,000 new words came from.

Because of the vacuum effect created by the absence of bad writing, and the opportunity for rewriting it presented, I called this the “vacuum revision technique”. There might be an actual term for this technique, but in the writing books I’ve read to date I haven’t come across it yet.

Here’s how it goes.

Step 1: Recognize when you’re staring at a wall

One of my favorite computer games is Minesweeper. In Minesweeper, your goal is to click on cells in a large grid, hoping you don’t click on a bomb. If you hit a bomb, the game is over. The objective of the game is to click on every cell that doesn’t contain a bomb.

Now, after some initial frustration you will realize guessing isn’t a good approach. Fortunately, you are allowed to mark off cells you suspect might be bombs. The revealed tiles also show you numbers to tell you how many adjacent cells have bombs. You can then use deduction to mark off all the cells you are certain contain bombs, while clicking on cells you are certain are safe.

The process becomes pretty straightforward from there. However, you often will reach a point where you aren’t sure. You have to guess. Or so you think.

The right decision is to recognize the ambiguity, then go around it. Always work on what’s easy and flow from there. Eventually, almost always, you come back to the place where you had to guess and with more tiles revealed, you can now be 100% certain of which tiles contain bombs.

The analogy carries to the process of revision. Going through your old draft and using it to write you next draft, you will hit spots that are no-brainers, where you know exactly what to do. Then, you will encounter spots where you know something is wrong but you can’t find the right choice. You’re lost in your own words.

When this happens, recognize that you’re staring at a wall. The solution here is not to find out how to get over it. It’s to go around it.

Step 2: Identify the “bad writing” then create a vacuum with it

When we write a draft we are guessing. Sometimes we are very good guessers and nail the story. Most times we aren’t, or we’re almost there but not quite. The draft we write is the culmination of all those guesses.

This principle applies to any subsequent draft written from a previous draft. Provided we’re being objective in the process (and having an editor’s edits helps add perspective), going over a draft is very much like collecting driftwood blocking a drain: follow your story’s flow but when the flow is broken, it’s time to cut away the driftwood.

Step 1 is all about learning to identify the driftwood. You’ll know when you hit it. For me, I usually notice I’m there when I reread, then reread again, then start typing a revision and delete it, then eventually I sigh and rest my forehead in my hand, and after that I want to pick up my phone and check messages. There’s a whole chain reaction of things that happen, but it all comes back to this initial problem: you hit a wall, or driftwood in the story, and the way forward is not to be found in those words you wrote that you’re trying to figure out how to fix. While writing my fourth draft, I learned to identify this chain of action early, and apply the solution:

To cut tentatively.

If you use Scrivener, then you simply highlight the passage all the way to where you are confident the story is fine, cut the weaker/uncertain passage of text out, then create a new note and place it somewhere handy. I like to place this note underneath the note that contains my chapter, since Scrivener displays it on the left side of the screen in a tree list and I can easily click on it later.

I also give it a name. For example, Jak is my protagonist, and there was a scene where Jak learns a lot about a place in the world called Allamar that’s not needed in the scene. I called it “Jak Allamar dump”. This short, yet explanatory title lets me see without even having to click on the note exactly what it contains, in case I do need to go back to it, say, seven chapters later. For this example, it turned out this “Allamar dump”, while being no good in this story, ended up getting moved into the directory of notes I’m building for the eventual sequel.

If you don’t use Scrivener but work in Word, this is a little harder. I’m aware Word has a table of contents feature which you can use to set up a tree directory much like Scrivener does. However, this does not give you the same cutting edge to organize segments of your book with quick, visual drag-and-drop and create/destroy efficiency as Scrivener does — and is the very reason as a writer I switched over to Scrivener.

Either way, with the passage cut tentatively, you now can go around it.

Step 3: Bridge the break in story flow with fresher writing, using the cut as reference

I’ve always enjoyed the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. God tests Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his eldest son, the one who God previously told Abraham would be the bearer of descendants more numerous than the stars. Abraham didn’t question at all. He did as he was told. Likely, in his mind, he figured God had many ways to fulfill his promises and who is he to question with his limited understanding?

We all know how the story goes: in the end, he didn’t have to do it. But his willingness to do it opened up a future far brighter to him than had he fretted and tried to hold on to his previous understanding.

The vacuum revision technique is very much like this story. In your willingness to cut a whole swath of your writing away, which you may love and think is fundamental to the story, you will gain insight over just what it is in this passage that’s worth keeping. If you get it back, you know exactly why. If you don’t, then you understand why your assumption about it was flawed.

The beauty about this technique is you aren’t left staring at a blank slate the same way as in a first draft. You are creating brand new words, but you have the tentatively cut material as a guide.

I found at this point that one of two things would happen:

1) With the cut material gone, I was free of it and wrote something else. Sometimes I even just wrote a sentence or two of transition (in the case of seeing it as a darling that needed to be cut).

2) With the cut material gone, I found that a lot of what I needed to write was similar to the previous, but the act of retyping allowed me the freedom I needed to take it in the direction it needed to go. In this case, I used Scrivener’s split-screen feature to have the cut text note visible on the bottom half of the screen, and the chapter in the top. I then retyped from the original, sometimes word for word where I liked what it said, other times paraphrasing. (You can achieve this effect in Word using the split screen in the view option.)

In either case, performing this cut allowed me to quicken my writing pace and avoid wasted time from BCS (blinking cursor syndrome). Yes, I still had a lot of BCS, but for the most part this was where it was needed, such as having to think carefully about narrative choices and ramifications and rethinking assumptions about direction. Writing every day for 2 hours was also a huge aid to allow this extra process during time away from keyboard; if ever I was insecure about my writing, when the 2-hour timer finished for the day I could leave off wherever I was then know I could come back fresh the next day. Most days, usually during a traffic jam in the afternoon, I had the breakthrough I needed for the next day’s writing session.

Step 4: Avoiding paint-by-numbers

Writing the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads was a huge learning opportunity for me. I’ve fallen for many “paint by numbers” writing formulas and have read many how-to books that advertise dozens of “one and only” ways on how to write. None of them work.

Well, that’s not entirely true. What I’ve actually found is that all of them have certain aspects of truth about writing that have helped me (which is why I still read books on writing regularly, though now with a few grains of salt). And if anything, I’ve learned that, were I to stake a guess on what the “one and only” way to write is, it’s this:

There is no formula. The moment you think you’ve got it all figured out, all that’s happened is you’ve stopped learning and settled.

So, in sharing this technique with you, I emphasize that it is just a useful tool for your toolkit as a writer. Many times along the way in my fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I made it through by faith and a prayer. I could blog about that topic in and of itself.

Writing is complicated. Every word you write, you’re creating something that’s unique not just in the combination of every word, but in the combination of every word with every other word you didn’t use. In a short story alone, there are (my rough estimate) as many possibilities for how this can come together as there are atoms in the known universe, probably more. This is why we will never run out of stories, because every person who writes a story is going to spin together something different. Why? Because we’re all different, we see the world different, and therefore we use words differently to tell a story.

Revision is about how you, as a writer, can refine your story to make it more and more true to your voice. It’s not about attaining some ultimate perfection that you have to guess at until you get it. That’s why there is no course on how to be a writer, nor one method on how to write a book. (Well, there are, but beware of snake oil.) Only you can figure out for yourself what you need to do to make your writing amazing, and that’s a lifelong learning process.

Please share! I’d love to hear about your revision process or if maybe you’ve heard of this technique before and can help me come up with something better than a Hoover ad. How do you revise, so that your next draft has the freshness of a first?