At the LA SCBWI conference, I attended a great session on Revision by Jordan Baker, executive editor at Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins Children’s Books). He gave an excellent talk that spoke to me, particularly as I was in the throes of what I was hoping was the final revision of my manuscript before querying.
First and foremost, Baker acknowledged that revision was much more difficult and challenging than drafting. (Yes!!! That’s how I felt! Even though that’s not how it seemed when I heard other writers talking about their works in progress. The first draft was hard, but nothing compared to the hill I was climbing to get to the point of feeling done with revisions.)
Here is a synopsis of one of the most helpful things I took from Jordan Baker’s talk. He made many salient points about revising versus drafting and the process of revision, but this one in particular stuck with me as I approached revising my own work:
(Note: the below paraphrases my takeaway of Baker’s original thoughts, so please attribute the ideas below to Jordan Baker, not to me).
In an interview with Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he talked about his process to get the movies to a theatrical movie length.
In his first pass, Jackson cut out the things that stood out because they weren’t strong enough. With a critical eye, those were easier to identify. Yet after that cut there were still so many vital scenes left. The weak stuff was gone, but the movie was still too long. If you have read (or watched) The Lord of the Rings, then you know there is so much more to the world and the story that is fascinating, that could be fully explored and even expanded upon in more detail.
In the next pass, Jackson had to stop just cutting weaker bits and decided to find a new focus for revising the story. Apparently, Jackson sat down and spent time identifying the core themes that formed the crux of this story, specifically the version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story that he was trying to portray on the big screen. One by one, he identified them, for example, finding the ring, friendship, etc. Jackson then decided that if a particular scene or dialogue or act or section did not contribute to or enhance these core themes, then they had to be cut.
Jordan Baker added that it might be tough to lose certain things, but you can always put it right back where it is. The act of cutting is the hardest part.
Taking this approach, I wrestled with my unwieldy manuscript which seemed to have themes and sub-themes and dedicated some thoughtful time to identifying about four key themes that were the true core of the story. These were the pillars of my story, and the parts that did not serve these pillars had to be cut even if I thought they were good, even if I thought they were beautiful, even if I loved them.
Slowly, painfully, I took the blade to “My Precious!” manuscript. Today, it is not as precious anymore, but I do believe it is better.