Revision Hell and Story Amputations

dollrestringingBy Lisa Alber

The biggest not-so-secret secret about how to write a first draft is to finish writing the first draft. That’s it. It can suck the biggest suck in the universe. Just. move. on. You can fix everything during revision.

But what happens if you get stuck in revisions? I’m revising GREY MAN, the second County Clare mystery. I keep bumping up against a point about 2/3rds the way through the manuscript where the story flies apart and snarls up at the same time.

When it comes to revision hell, I’ve tried various things with various degrees of success:

1. Brainstorming sticky plot points with friends who are better at plotting than I am.

2. Begging a friend I trust as a reader to give me feedback.

3. Going all analytical with an Excel spreadsheet. Curious? Check out this blog post over on my personal blog.

4. Shuffling colored index cards around (one color per point-of-view character) in hopes that doing so will get my inner lightbulb flashing.

5. Journaling how much I hate my story and what a suckitudinous writer I am until I’m calm enough to think straight again.

6. Reading the printed manuscript fast and taking notes on everything that comes to me as I read.

7. Returning once again to my notes about the basic three-act structure and reminding myself about the basics.

8. Throwing the baby out with the bath water. That’s right, acknowledging the project as the lost cause it is and moving on to the next story.

Sometimes, alas, the creative process just takes time, and no matter how hard I try — pummeling myself all the while — answers to my plot problems refuse to appear. I got so tired of GREY MAN that I gave it up for awhile. I couldn’t deal. Seriously. I considered throwing it away.

Then, a few weeks ago I was in the bathroom minding my own beeswax with not a coherent thought in sight. I was probably shaving my legs or something equally mundane. My little dog Fawn was probably nosing around licking up the footprint puddles I’d left as I’d stepped out of the shower. You know, just another morning. Out of nowhere a thought rose up …

Liiiisa …

Do you …

Have the wrong …


Pfft, give me a break. But then I asked myself,

OK, you, voice from nowhere, you think you’re so smart, who the heck should the villain be then?

The answer was a  kick to the solar plexus. Whoa! I got shivers, shivers I tell you, and we all know that when your body reacts, you’re on the right track. Can we all say, Hal-le-lu-jaaaaah?

My next question was,

But why would so-and-so do such a thing?

More angels singing as the perfect motive rose up on glittering story wings. And best yet, the motive is already on the page — just needs tweaking. Other aspects of the novel need overhauling, but at least I’m excited again, which is key.

So have I learned a new revision technique that I can use in the future? Possibly. It had never occurred to me to question the basics about my story — like the villain. I thought the problem stemmed from something more complex and subtle. Character motivation or lackluster tension or something. So what I’ve learned is that before throwing out the baby, I should try cutting off its arm or leg instead.

The nice thing about amputee’d story limbs is that they grow back even better than before.

6 thoughts on “Revision Hell and Story Amputations

  1. Lisa…I had shivers reading this; great blog. I love, love, love the shivers because you’re right, when they come, you know you have something.

  2. Love it! I sometimes stop working on a project when I am stuck, and miraculously things fall into place or the direction become more apparent. I’m all for forgetting about it and let the process happen organically!

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