[What's Next?] Revision Real Talk
Written by
Cait Levin
March 2013
Written by
Cait Levin
March 2013

Hello, ladies! I am so excited to begin my new bi-weekly blog here on She Writes,
What’s Next?  I’ll be posting here every other Thursday and am eager to jump in and share with all of you, just as you have been sharing with me!

A little while ago (read: three months ago) I finished the first draft of my first novel and to be honest, it was highly anti-climactic. There was an initial sense of relief because, finally, I had finished something. Actually finished something! I started it as my senior thesis last year and thought, well, I’ve got fifty pages, might as well see this thing through. I told myself it would be done by the end of the summer. Then by the end of October. Then by Thanksgiving. Finally, shortly after the new year began, it was done.

But not really.

I think that a lot of people, particularly people who don’t like to write, don’t really give much thought to the revision process. I had a writing professor in college who used to say she had boxes full of drafts for just one novel, which was a work in progress for nearly ten years. If I take ten years to finish something you can take away my internet, or desserts, but I get her point: writing something worth reading takes time. That doesn’t mean what you wrote is bad – it just means it could be better.

I’ve found that getting myself to sit down and revise is harder than getting myself to sit down and write ever was. I’ll set aside a few hours to write and then, what’s that, you say? Downton Abbey comes back on tonight? Well okay, I guess I can watch.

Then I’ll be sitting down again a week later and oh, what’s this? My friends are going to that tasty little taco place with the yummy mojitos? The revision can wait.

Basically, I’m the type of person who (when it comes to writing) is prone to distraction, especially when things don’t necessary need to get done. As a result all I have is a bunch of post-its scattered around my desk that say things like “dream sequence – car crash?” and “Melinda – zany, confidante?” and “buy more chips – not the lame kind.”

That’s hardly the next Harry Potter.

What works for me, and what I’ll recommend to you, is this: Tell people what you’re working on. Not just random people who don’t care about you. Real people, like your friends and your family. The thing about people who like you is that they take an interest in the things that you tell them about, and they’re likely to ask follow-up questions. If a month after you’ve finished your first draft your dad asks you when he gets to read your book and you have to swallow your chocolate chip pancakes and make up a lame excuse, then you aren’t getting any work done, honey. Not that I’ve ever done that.

So I sent my manuscript to two friends – two friends exactly. Ladies who studied writing with me at Barnard, who I knew had been in writing workshops before and who I trusted to be honest, but not soul-crushing. Once I have their notes it will be time to sit down and get to some serious revision business.

And then I’ll really have to figure out what’s next.



Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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  • Irene Kessler

    I got that Sara. You have shown me a way to get to what's missing. I see the things I skimmed over or left out thinking the reader would get it.

    Any other questions you can suggest?

    Thanks again.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Irene, how would you say this in your story? That's what I'm trying to get you to. 

  • Irene Kessler

    I love the pitch and thank you so much for leading me to not only better pitching but better writing.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    Hmm. Married? Divorced? children grown? Never had children? I still don't get a sense of who what drives her. 

    I know this may seem dufus, but the more I personally really clarify what drives, why, who is, who gets, the better off I have been in my writing. LIke, here's my imaginary pitch for your novel:  

    Reeny Silverberg grew up a mouthy Jewish feminist, but spent her life as a therapist, mom and wife, helping other people. In fact, when she finally wins the Theodora Schola award for life-time feminist empowerment, she feels ashamed and unworthy. 

    The kids are gone, the husband is dead,  but Reeny still cannot find the confident girl she once was. Yet, once again, she runs from herself--as far as she can get this time, volunteering in India at a residence for homeless, mentally-impaired women. Here, in her frustrated efforts to combat poverty, culture, a non-existent mental health system, and to teach Indian therapists, Reeny finds wisdom--not from herself, but from the women she has come to save, women she realizes belatedly are no different from herself. 

    Do you see the difference in what propels my imaginary woman-- what she desperately needs and what she finally finds?  

    It took me SO LONG to do this with my own novel, which is why I'm pushing you to try to find it on yours.

    I dunno. I have been working on a historical lit novel about a woman learning from the past of her house and her mother's hidden history, how to become someone who fights for good in the world, and bam, what do you know? I'm suddenly this educational activist, making change for disabled kids. 

  • Irene Kessler

    Thanks for your questions, Sara.    Originally from New York, she now lives in Florida. The caretaker part of her wants to help women evolve, become self-empowered and she sees herself as an activist in that realm. She is fleeing her disappointment with herself for never being able to enjoy recognition for anything she has tried to do and is seeking a major success with this project. The culture is the main antagonist. The plight of the women and recognizing herself in them, plus the memories of her life this causes, propels her to new awareness after she gets back home.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing


    so this 60ish psychologist, what drives her to volunteer at this resident? Where is she from? What is she fleeing? What is she seeking? How does this differ from the poverty she encounters at home? is it only interviews that propel her to a new awareness or is it encountering this entirely differenly culture and thus seeing her own with newly outsider eyes? 

  • Irene Kessler

    Sorry Sara, I couldn't get the message below to post on the other group.

  • Irene Kessler

    Hi Sara, (that's my granddaughter's name, same spelling)

     My ms. concerns a 60ish psychologist who agrees to volunteer at a residence in India for homeless and mentally-impaired women. She comes up against the poverty, the culture, the problems of a non-existent mental health system, and teaching the therapists about Expressive Therapies. During her interviews with the few residents who speak English she learns something about herself that opens her to a creative life when she goes home.

     Let me know if you are interested.

  • Sakki selznick Publishing

    I've been using scrivener, which is a computer program. I enter scenes on note cards, color them by characters, write a summary on the note card, and then if I move the mote card, the material in the document moves as well. Mine is quite complex, so this way I can search for thematic connections in the threads, and begin to see the rising and falling tension more clearly. Tremendous help.

    I only wish scrivener had an iPad ap. otherwise, I am deeply indebted to it.

    What's your wip about, Irene?

    He, I tried to log onto your blog and was unable to. Do you have a what do you call it, a URL?

  • Irene Kessler

    Hi Anne,

    Just got to read your post. Great idea. I know I have picked up all the threads (my editor said so) but that is a great way to track tension, resolution, etc. Seems like a lot of work but worth it.

  • Anne Bower

    Wow--you started writing at 15!!!! At that age I was a dumbfounded teenager, bumbling along with no idea what I was supposed to do with any small talents I had.  I'm a half century older than you and still kinda figuring it out.  Sounds like you've found your path and are determined to keep to it.

  • Mercy B. Taylor

    Hello Anne,

    I have learned to be a writer who can sit down for hours at a time to write and that was not easy. I'm 21 and the second oldest of five children so I had to find the time to write and discipline myself in order to make progress. I was fifteen and a half when I began to write my story and as I got older my 'voice' matured and so did my plot which is part of why it took so long for the first (as I call it) official draft.

    But I have learned a lot along the way and I like the challenge. Most of my writing gets done at night - I'd say the best of what I write is at night because the house is quite and its dark out. I'm not sure why but this is the time that my imagination goes wild. 

  • Irene Kessler

    Thanks Nancy,

    Good advice. Never thought of printing it out. I'd like to read it as if it was not mine. Step back. I think that would help.

  • Anne Bower

    Hello Irene and Nancy--I think Nancy's suggestion is great, but I'm also wondering how different people "see" the shape of the narrative.  Could one physically draw or chart it somehow (you know, the conflicts, the complications, the rise and fall of tension, the knots/quandries, possible resolutions, resolution or hint that resolution is emerging)?  At the near half-way point, I did make a chart:  chapter #s at the top, main characters and themes down the left side of the page.  Then as I read through the ms., I filled in each box, and this did help me see where things were and how they tracked.  For example, in chapter 2, my main character (Miriam) has a bright idea--and it's like she's rubbed a magic lamp, the genie has popped out and said go for it.  I couldn't remember how often (or well) I'd used the genie "motif. My chart demonstrated he shows up in chapters 3, 7, 8, and 11.  He's kinda fun, so I think I'll bring him in once in a while in the book's second half........

  • Nancy Cohn

    Sympathies Irene. Sometimes the biggest problem is that we know what we want to say, but have not necessarily said it. My advice: take a step back for a few weeks, wait to see what others say.  Then print the thing out as though it's a book and reread, noting where the story bogs done, where information is missing, etc. and go from there. As I wrote earlier, I've revised my novel (86,000 words, give or take a few thousand, depending on version) from beginning to end 9 times and spent this morning polishing (now that's a lovely word, isn't it?) and re-polishing the tenth revision of chapter one for the sixth time.  You keep revising and polishing until you just know that you can't make it better.

    So, bet of luck.

  • Irene Kessler

    Thanks Anne,

    I do have two people from a former critique group and I just sent them the ms. I am just anxious to get going and do it so I can focus more on my new book. It's so frustrating to not be able to see what it right in front of me. I feel it but can't pinpoint it. Are there any exercises or suggestions that you know of? I went to one revision workshop but her method does not work for me.

  • Anne Bower

    So, Mercedes, Are you one of these disciplined people who can consistently write for a certain number of hours every day?  I know what you mean about wanting to move the narrative along, keeping the story's cohesiveness and movement dynamic over the years of its creation.....

  • Anne Bower

    Irene--do you have a couple of supportive readers who'll give you the time and care to go through the whole thing?  That would probably help a lot.  I find I get so close to the work I can't tell what's working and what isn't.....

  • Mercy B. Taylor

    I've been working on my current story for the past six years. It took me five to write the first draft and the editing is moving faster but I just hope I can finish the story before too much time passes. 

  • Irene Kessler

    Does anyone have any advice on how to revise? My novel is missing something and I can't seem to figure out what it is or how to begin to look for it. HELP please.


  • Anne Bower

    Rewriting is certainly when I discover what it is I'm truly trying to say . . . .  Such a painfully sloppy process.  If only my brain would deliver the truth of the narrative from the get-go!  31,000 words is a major accomplishment, especially when writing about such painful events--congrats and onward!!!!

  • My guiding mantra is books are not written they are rewritten. Editing as I go is the process of how I have generated my entire manuscript so far (which I just added up and it is 31,000 words to date!) I am writing auto biography about surviving war as a child, being shot, dying and coming back to life. This chapter alone took 4 years of working on it, letting the huge emotions move through me, resting, and going back to clarify and enrich because I had made more meaning of my experinece during the resting phase. This book process is what I have to share with others, and the first and primary process is rewriting my view of myself and my life. I have come to peace with the time it takes.

    I regularly post my progress on Facebook, and I have a slew of people who volunteer to be readers. The most potent learning came from doing a public reading on the dying and coming chapter. I was stunned by the group response, and it gave me unquestionable commitment to keep going on all the hard work!  

  • Congratulations, Cait, two-fold here, on the first finish, which is still a HUGE first step, and on launching this blog. I'm excited for you!

  • Anne Bower

    Ah, the endless revisions.  Thanks for the reminder, Nancy, that sometimes the fresh page, and a willingness to let go of the old stuff is really productive.

  • Nancy Cohn

    I'm revising my first novel for the 9th or 10th time.  Yes, that many rewrites over eight years. The drafts have been read by others, who have made suggestions which I would incorporate (or not) while I revised using the "red pencil" method, re-reading and revising over the existing draft until now, when I'm using the "blank page method" suggested by a workshop leader. I'm on my 5th chapter and am a total convert. It's freeing. The "old" chapter sits open on my computer next to the new one as a reference. Most of the "new" chapters are truly new, but I do "cut and paste" the best of the old. This has allowed me to rethink my characters, their conflicts, their flaws and their strengths. I've also streamlined, moved deleted scenes, characters and enhanced others making what I hope will be a tighter, more interesting, better written novel.

    Try it, it works.