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revising in chaos
rewriting a novel, revision highlights and the books I read in January
New year, new platform! I've completely neglected this newsletter, because for a solid two months I was entirely in the revision trenches for my Singaporean historical fantasy manuscript, aka ButterflyWIP, which I wanted to have done by the new year. I didn't need to be on deadline, strictly, but I enjoy making my life difficult (and, okay, I wanted to make use of the holidays, and they ended up being super productive).
I didn't manage to finish it by December 31st, but I HAVE now finished a draft I'm happy with, a near total rewrite, and it’s off with my agent and with friends. I’m middling through the comedown (not quite burnout, but a break is needed), so now I'm here, and I thought I might as well talk about revisions.
producing a plot
This was the first major rewrite I've done in a while. My previous book, THOSE YOU'VE KNOWN, was vomited out in a 4-week fugue and has stayed fundamentally the same since. It was a linear plot with like 2 characters in an isolated setting I could vibe my way through; BUTTERFLY takes place in a big city with multiple opposing characters, too many side characters, socio-political dynamics, a mystery, and the burden of historical accuracy. The first draft had no plot. It had the arcs, the themes and the world, but the vague story I'd squashed them all into wasn't doing much with them.
I’d finished that draft the day before I left for Clarion West in June—it wasn’t finished, but I wanted to send my agent as much as possible to get feedback over the 7 weeks I was going to be away. Over about three months from November to January, I rewrote the entire thing into the first solid draft of the book, clocking in at 122k. I read a couple non-fiction books (The Comfort Women of Singapore in History and Memory by Kevin Blackburn; Ah ku and karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 by James Francis Warren), inserted several new subplots, rearranged existing scenes, found my vision for the story, and threw in way, way more fun dark fantasy descriptions of gods. All of that was triggered and guided from a few key prompts:
1) Could the nature of the conflict be tied more closely to the conceit of the main character's magic? The magic and the premise of the story stemmed from gendered elements and feminist issues. What plot would bring out and give opportunity to explore that rather than compete for page space?
2) How could the action scenes/climaxes be tied more naturally to character? Fonda Lee talked to us about how action scenes should be incredibly character-heavy—all conflict, after all, is a culmination of goals, motivations, fears, etc. Every action is driven by character; a fight without the stakes, emotions and motives propping it up falls flat. In the first draft, I’d forced in action scenes because I knew I needed a climactic beat at that point for pacing, but I hadn't done the build-up work to make them feel natural and inevitable.
3) This was adult, not YA. Because the book had teenage protagonists and I’d started in YA, I think I was reluctant to switch over, even though I suspected I wasn’t really writing YA anymore. But once I let myself go wild, so much of the book came easier. My friend Jen once said something about age categories that’s stuck with me ever since: if you didn’t write the book with teenage readers in mind, it’s not YA. Especially as upper YA becomes murkier and murkier, with several books that should probably have been adult or new adult if not for marketing to mostly adult women who enjoy YA pacing or stylings (that’s not an issue!), that clarity of who I’m writing for is enlightening.
I won't say yet what the plot actually ended up being, BUT there's a little hint in this quote I've decided to take for an epigraph. It's an excerpt from a letter written in to The Straits Times in 1946, about the increase in women in sex work during and after the Japanese Occupation, cited in Comfort Women of Singapore:
These women are one hundred per cent infected… the sight of these painted dolls behaving shamelessly in public is a blot on the fair name of Singapore.
revision highlights from a chaotic reviser
I wish I had a detailed revision process I could break down and write a manual for. But for these big rewrites I revise, just like I draft, out of order. I don’t make extensive outlines, just bullet-point beats for a couple chapters at a time. I don’t have spreadsheets or notion pages. I read my edit letter, digested the main points, sat with them, and let my brain cook up some initial responses. Then I tossed the letter and rewrote 120k words in the chaos of my head and random notebook/paper scrap scribbles, pulling together plot ideas, character arcs and worldbuilding details as they came to me, often mid-scene, then going back and just tweaking everywhere else that detail affected. (I’m so used to doing things out of order that I’m used to remembering where anything is across the manuscript. I can switch to a random scene and pick up the character point, plot progression and track existing foreshadowing pretty instantly. Didn’t stop me from having 3 side characters called Lily and 2 called Betty though.)
So I don’t have a revision guide, but I did come up with a list of pointers that either helped me, or that I managed to articulate for myself.
P. Djeli Clark phrased this to us as "don't hide your cool" —if you've got an interesting element, don't bury the lede. (Well, you can, strategically, but it's usually good advice to give the people what they came for.) If you just go in on the elements that make it fun, you’ll probably have more fun writing it, and people will probably have more fun reading it. The Locked Tomb series is one of my favourites; Everything Everywhere is an 11-time Oscar nominee; I think passion and propulsion can show in some level of indulgence.
Also: indulge in inspiration. Consume the media that makes your brain spark, whether it’s inspiring prose, similar emotions, research, etc. Don’t tunnel vision yourself into your project! Art is enriched by interaction with the world. Do things that remind yourself you write because you like it, not because you’re pressured to achieve something. Commission that art, do fun prompts, make all the aesthetics in the world. I’m a dedicated pinterest boarder. Here’s my board for for ButterflyWIP. And here’s my commissioned art for Butterfly! (I’m sitting on THOSE YOU’VE KNOWN art I’m really excited to share)
Chase the shiny thing. (Another term stolen from someone at CW) This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s the allowance that lets me work. I want to minimise my brain getting stuck, so I flow towards whatever chapter, scene, or even paragraph is strongest in my head at the moment. If I insist on sitting in a rut my brain will just keep circling, and I could be using that time on another scene I already see clearly. I want to get out the words that already want to come out and figure the snag out later. Sometimes you need the clarity of what you know comes after to figure out the road you actually need to take there. And sometimes:
Are you procrastinating, or is the scene instinctively not working? Like I said earlier, I was struggling with some climactic scenes and feeling like I was forcing them out. Once I got my plot down and understood my characters better, these scenes came ridiculously easily. Other times I left a blank space because I outlined something there, and after staring at it for weeks, finally realised I didn’t actually need anything there.
Sometimes more really is more. I wasn't struggling in the first draft because I had too much story to juggle; ironically, I didn't have enough. It was hot air. Turns out that when you actually give yourself something to work with, the end product is easier to shape.
Keep the heart, be willing to kill everything else. Christina Li actually just wrote a great newsletter on the heart of a story. I feel like heart is the pulse, which is often instinctive and there from the first draft, and vision is the execution, which is the one I need to hammer out and untangle. Butterfly was always about girls, and anger, and transformation. In this second draft, I finally figured out how I wanted to tell that. And I actually killed fewer darlings than I’d feared! (So far) I had the beats, I just didn't have the connective tissue. By rearranging and recontextualising, I ended up reusing way more than I thought I'd be able to.
Listen to the characters. If you’ve done them right, they know the story better than your outline does.
Take the research and distill it into feeling. I have a bad habit of doing research and then trying to cram every new fact I’ve learned into the worldbuilding, like it’s a thesis or manifesto. While key relevant facts do help enrich the story, I’ve found that the key is to take it all, sit with it, digest it, and find the emotional core of that period of history that resonates with the story. Here, 1970s Singapore: anxiety over becoming a new nation, the need to control, to create, to construct, to survive.
Gamify the process. This one is for my people with short attention spans or who need dopamine. At the start of December, I was at 67k words. I wanted to approximately double that wordcount by January. As motivation, I gave myself as many things to tick off as possible every time I gained the tiniest bit of progress: a Notion chapter tracker where I kept a list of all chapters and their current completion status, checkbox icons in Scrivener to tick off when a chapter was done, and this wordcount tracker. I'd update it every time I added words just to watch the numbers change and the bars move, and seeing visual representations of how much I'd written vs my goal pace really worked for my toxic need to exceed expectations at all times <3 If you want the convoluted template, here it is.
And that’s it for revisions for now! I’ve been having a needed break binge-watching the recent seasons of Criminal Minds and reading more, including some friends’ manuscripts. I’ve missed being more involved in the community. As for this newsletter, I’ve decided to let myself post whenever I have something to post, rather than force a schedule. I want to be more deliberate about these—to use the space for more interesting essays, for example. I have no intention currently of going back to actual academia, but I do enjoy the process of mulling over a thesis and working out an argumentative flow on a niche topic I’m interested in. (I have two in the works about tender apocalypse and flower girls that I’m really excited for! I need to use my liberal arts education somewhere. Stay tuned.)
books of january
I’ve been on a reading roll! I don’t know how long it’ll last, but of the 10 books I’ve read this month, I particularly enjoyed:
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (cried multiple times. Chanel is a gorgeous writer.)
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (endlessly gripping, though unsure what to make of the end)
Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (yes FINALLY - I preferred Gideon and Harrow, but I still devoured this. Muir’s tone, voice and ability to string me along is addictive.)
Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee (birdsofpreybirdsofpreybirdsofprey)
Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova (more lit-leaning, more tender and more queer than I expected, with prose I could eat. still a shade of deranged, though <3)
The Orchid Folios by Mok Zining (poetry: orchids as hybridity, identity, postcoloniality, the careful nurturing of a nation)
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