By Rachael Herron
The following is an excerpt from Fast-Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life Story in 45 Hours, featured here with the author’s permission.
“Now, we talk about revision,” I say, writing REVISION on the whiteboard in red dry-erase letters.
I hear a low whoosh.
I turn back to the class to see that all seats have been evacuated. I hear screaming in the halls as my students race for their cars. A single abandoned pencil rolls off a desk, clattering to the floor. Dust rises. I weep.
Knock it off.
Revision is the best.
Seriously. The reason you don’t know this yet is just that you haven’t done very much of it. You might never have revised a book before. I don’t think I’d ever truly revised anything before I started completing books. In my former life as a trying-but-failing writer, I thought revision was going through what I’d written and making sure the sentences were as pretty as I could make them and that they contained as few typos as possible.
True revision, in which a writer takes apart a book and puts it back together again, terrified me. I knew I couldn’t do it. How could anyone pull it off?
I’ll tell you how: step by step, little by little, just like you wrote the book.
And truthfully, you will have to revise. You’ll have to do it the big way, the taking apart and putting back together way. You’ll have to toss out scenes you love and write new ones that are better. There no way around this. But I think it’s way more fun that first-drafting. We might agree to disagree, but let’s have that argument after you’ve done it.
What I adore about revision is this: I know the world. I invented it, after all! When I open the document, I’m right in the middle of something I understand. It’s much easier for me to drop in for hours and rest on the page. It’s also easier to come out of, to shake off and rejoin the world.
First drafts remain torture for me. I can admit that sometimes the writing of new words is glorious. You surprise yourself with a turn of phrase that you’re pretty sure is genius and has probably never been said before. The plot bends and a tree you wrote about comes to life and points a branched finger in a direction you never saw coming. Inspiration flows, hot and heavy.
But maybe I’m just more of a down-to-earth gal. I love falling in love, but I love remaining in love more. Give me a passionate kiss before you take the trash out—that’s happiness to me. I like the comfort of what I know. I like to tuck my feet under the thighs of my manuscript as we cuddle on the couch. I love knowing my manuscript likes the lights on till sleep-time, even though I prefer to read in the dark.
Revision is both comfortable and exciting, like a sturdy marriage. Oh, I love the word sturdy. It’s prosaic, but so am I. My legs are sturdy. My emotions are, too. I love my books to be sturdy enough to lean on.
And lean on them, I do. I fall into them. Revisions are getting in the bed you made of out words and pulling up the covers. Then you roll around, making those words better, stronger, more focused.
Revision is when the really big ideas show up. Then you move parts around—like those flat puzzle toys where you slide pieces around to make a picture—to make the new ideas fit. You might have to pry out some pieces and manufacture new ones. But then you click one piece left and another one right, and suddenly, you’re looking at it.
You see the whole picture. Your book.
This is the important stuff.
You do this BEFORE you make the sentences pretty. This comes first.
When you’re in macro revision, you’re looking at your book structurally.
- Does it have the body you meant it to have?
- Have you clothed it the way you wanted to?
- Does it stand on its own legs?
- Can it do the things you want it to?
Imagine you’re able to get above your book and look down at it from a bird’s-eye view. You can’t see the typos—instead, you can see the ways in which you can make the whole stronger.
You’re used to being on the ground, in the weeds, struggling to write good scenes. Being able to look down and move those scenes around so they work together can seem impossible.
But again, step by step, you’ll get there. Here’s how.
Find Your Theme
We talked a lot about writing either a time-based or a theme-based memoir. This is not the same kind of theme (ah, those tricky writing words that serve multiple purposes). When I say “theme” here, I mean the overall message of your book. Now that your first draft is done, I want you to find a simple theme that defines what you’re trying to pull off with this memoir. I want you to be able to encapsulate your entire book in just a few words.
Love heals all wounds.
Love heals no wounds.
Family is strongest when chosen.
Pain leads to growth.
What’s your theme for this memoir? Write it down now. If you’d like your reader to take away one universal statement about the way you look at the world, what would that be?
This is essential. You can’t skip this part.
Got it? Good. Now write it on a small Post-it and smack it onto the top of your computer. As you revise, you’ll be holding up every single scene to see if your theme is illustrated. More on this in a moment.
Print it out
Yes, all of it. Print it so that the lines are separated by at least 1.5 lines—double-spaced is even better. I like to triple-hole punch that big stack and put them in a binder. I like to flip through them with my eyes slightly closed and think to myself, I wrote ALL of these dang words! Then I like to find my favorite pen and sit on my big cushy blue chair in the living room with a mug of tea.
When you do this, please have at hand a ton of small Post-its. I like the standard 2 x 1.5-inch kind that you can easily steal from work. Have more than you think you’ll need. Prepare yourself to color code or not (I don’t—I’ll happily use any color as long as they’re sticky).
Read the Whole Thing
You might feel sick of the story, but it will look different printed out, I promise. Read it from beginning to end, no skipping.
Ignore typos. Don’t change sentences at this point. Just read.
If you can’t bear to overlook the typos, only let yourself make a check mark next to the line that needs to be fixed later. The reason you don’t let yourself fix anything at the granular level right now is this: thinking about how to spell “guess” correctly will crash you down from the bird’s-eye view and bring you right back into the writing trench. That’s not what we want. We want to stay soaring above for a while longer.
But Rachael, I’ll forget to make the change if I don’t fix it at that moment.
No, you won’t.
First, your eye is remarkably reliable. You’ll always see the same errors and think of the same fixes because your voice is your voice is your voice, as I’ve mentioned. Trust that.
Second, if you make the words too perfect now, you’ll be loath to throw them out later if you need to.
Third, copy editors are better than you’ll ever be at checking your work. They’re imperative. Rely on them (but later).
This is the secret weapon of revision!
This puts the eye in that bird we’ve been talking about—this is how you get off the ground and into the air to get a real, true look at your memoir.
While you read through your book, make a list of your scenes. Don’t look at your earlier outline, and don’t guess. List each scene as you come to it, summing it up in just a few words. It can be messy. The phrases don’t have to make sense to anyone else, just you.
Yours might look something like this:
- 1. Mom, dad, bacon on porch
- 2. The fire
- 3. When John and I met
- 4. John meeting Mom, the ice
You keep going, keep reading, jotting a phrase or two for each and every scene you encounter. There’s no judgment at this time. Just write it down.
So you’re reading. You’re writing down phrases.
What do you do if you have a big idea?
The Beauty of Post-its
Another piece of magic, friends: write the big idea down on a small Post-it. Again, I’m talking the 2 x 1.5-inch Post-it, the small, rectangular ones.
But this idea is so awesome it won’t fit on a bitty note like that.
Yes, it will. If you have more than a small Post-it to write it on, you’ll lose momentum. Distill this great idea into four or five words, write them on a single Post-it, attach that Post-it to a piece of binder paper, or into your writing journal, and move on.
Don’t get attached to these ideas. You’re going to be having a lot of them, and many of them won’t work out in the long run. That’s okay, just keep reading, writing your sentence outline, and jotting down Post-it notes. They’re safe there.
Actually Starting Revision
You’re now 99 percent more equipped than most writers are when they stare into the open maw of revision. Take a moment to feel proud of that fact. Feel your chest swell.
Now the real fun begins.
Print out that list of scenes, your sentence outline (if you’ve been keeping this by hand, that’s fine, but quick-like-a-bunny type it up now, double-spaced).
You just took about two minutes to read your entire book.
And I bet you’re feeling some things. You realize that the back end of the book is too heavy with stories about your husband, whereas you want this to be more about you and your mom. Or you see that you need more about basic training and Iraq and less about Afghanistan.
Even better, while reading, you make an association you’ve never seen before. Oh, shit, the problem you had at that job was directly related to the problem you had as an eight-year-old on the playground! How could you not have seen that before now?
Start to draw all over it. Mark it up. Draw arrows. Write bubbles of dialogue you hear in your head. Make connections. See if you can slide scenes around to help you create a stronger story arc.
Pro tip: It’s possible you’re doing multiple timelines, a common practice in memoir, shifting from then to now to a different then. Consider each timeline a thread and weave them together in your book. Can you slide scenes around so that all the timelines hit their marks at approximately the best location? If you’re writing about your relationship with your now-dead dad and also the relationship with your current wife, can you make sure the Dark Moment of each will occur at around 75-80 percent of the way through, word-count-wise? This is advanced, but you might be surprised how things start lining up for you as you shift and juggle scenes. (Scrivener is wildly useful for this kind of juggling.)
While looking at your sentence outline, ask yourself what-ifs.
- What if I moved the Dad section to the beginning? It wouldn’t be chronological then, but does that feel better to me?
- What if I didn’t talk about Egypt at all? I think it might not fit.
- What if I moved the boat trip to the end?
- What if this book isn’t about me and my aunt at all, but about the way I respond to female influence?
Yeah, you might have some big surprises when you start scribbling over the outline. Be open to them. You might even change the theme you drafted in the first part of this chapter. That’s okay.
After you’ve given your all to that outline, after it’s covered in scribbles and ideas, go back and update that outline file.
Make your outline what you want your book to be. On mine, I make it clear what I need to change in revision by putting all the changes that need to happen in bold, so I don’t miss them. Other people use different colours or fonts. You do you.
This is a great time to bring in outside help. Don’t ask other writers to read your whole memoir yet—you want to get it into better shape before you do (unless you’ve already been workshopping with a class or group). But do ask a writer friend or three to look over your new outline (these need to be writers, not just friends or family). Meet for coffee and explain it to them, since they won’t understand what your outline abbreviations are.
Ask them to be honest.
- What are they missing?
- What do they want to read more about?
- What connections don’t they understand?
- Do they see the story arc?
- Do they have ideas for a better way to map it out?
When you’re done with your new outline, you have a map for your revisions.
Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t this exactly what you needed? Again, you’re 99 percent ahead of writers who open their books to revise then run out of the room screaming in fear.
You’re going to rewrite your book to fit your ideal outline.
You’ll rewrite your book to fit your theme.
How? Start at the beginning.
Open your document or Scrivener file and do a SAVE AS. Make yourself feel better. Save this new revision as a new project. That way, your finished first draft is always safe. Start clean. Save as. Did I mention save as? Do a save as.
Move scenes around now to match your new outline. Again, this is easy in Scrivener.
Look at the very first scene. Ask yourself (and check your gut for the answer; it knows):
- Is this necessary?
- Does this fit with my theme? (This is why your theme is stuck to your computer on that little Post-it. If the scene doesn’t illustrate or expand upon your theme, you’ll need to fix it so that it does. This will make your book cohere. For example, in this book I’m not talking about how to garden. Gardening isn’t my theme. Writing memoir is.)
- Am I positive that this is the way I want to open?
If the answer is no, send that scene to:
The Cuts File
This is what I call it on my computer. Other people call it the Dump, the Bonus Scenes, the Garbage, the Save For Later file. I have a friend who calls it the I’ll Use Every Gorgeous Word in Here file. Call it what you like. In Scrivener, you can just delete the scene, and it automatically lands—very safely—in the Trash file.
Those words are secure. They’re not going anywhere.
Tell yourself you’ll go back and fish all those words out and put them in the right place someday. (This is a lie. I can count on one hand the times I’ve gone into the trash to pull something out. But this lie is a sweet one, and it comforts me.)
If that first scene isn’t exactly right, move the whole thing to the Cuts file. You’re allowed to copy and paste out what does feel right about the scene into a new first scene. Bring along the words that work. Maybe the first three paragraphs are killer, but the end of the scene is weak. Great. Bring into the new revision only those first three paragraphs, dump them into the new scene, and write around them. Forget the words in the trash and write new ones.
Because you’re starting from something that’s all you, something you’ve already partially breathed to life, this will feel exciting. It might also feel overwhelming. But I guarantee this will be more fun than you thought it would be—because you did the prep work. You have that gorgeous new outline, your roadmap to success.
When you’re satisfied with the first scene, do the same with the next one, referring to your outline and theme as anchors. Throw out what you don’t love. Add words that you do.
You’re going to adore this part of the writing. To me, this is when I truly feel like a real writer. To me, this is when it’s fun.
Other good things to ask of each scene:
- Can I combine this scene with any other scene? Oh, the joy of combining scenes for maximum awesomeness. It feels great to do this.
- Can I enter the scene a little later? Can I get out earlier? Trust your reader. Don’t show them the way you walk up the porch and ring the doorbell unless this helps illustrate something important. If the fight with your best friend happens inside, get us inside that apartment faster. Get us out quick. Keep the pace tight and keep it moving.
- Am I keeping this scene just because I love it? Am I keeping it because I’m proud of my writing, or because it’s super funny? Is it necessary? Does it move my story forward? Hey, even if it’s the best writing you’ve ever done, if it doesn’t fit in your outline and help illustrate your theme, toss it into the Save For Later file. You can revise it to be a personal essay, perhaps. Maybe you can send it to Modern Love. But if your gut says it doesn’t belong, then it doesn’t. Don’t try to fool your gut. That thing is smart and knows more than you do.
Getting to the End of the Macro Revision
I know it’s not as simple as I’m making this sound, but honestly, you just keep doing the same thing, over and over, till you get to the end.
Lift out a scene. Hold it up to the light and look at it. Is it perfect? Great. If it’s not, move it to the Cuts File, and build a new one from the ashes of the first.
It will feel like it takes forever, I know that.
But take comfort in this truth: the first half of your revision will be the slowest part. While you’re making these big choices about how to restructure your memoir and deciding what goes in and what stays out, you’re narrowing your exit. The further you go into the revision, the faster you’ll go. By the end of the revision, it will feel like skiing downhill on a crisp, sunny morning when the powder is fresh and you’re the only one on the mountain. Your speed will astound you.
But yeah, if it feels like you’re crawling through mud on your belly for a while at the beginning, that’s normal.
Trust your gut.
Do the work.
You can do this. You already did the hard parts! Revision is nerve-racking, but it’s way easier than writing the whole first draft. You’ve got this.
The Draft Passes:
Now you get to do something I take great joy in: doing draft passes.
Some of us are good at certain things, and others are good at other things. None of us are good at everything. Personally, I’m terrible at including setting in my scenes. I have terrible cases of “heads in space,” in which my characters just talk to each other as if they’re suspended in a completely blank room. I used to worry about this and struggle through each scene trying to add setting. Now I don’t. I just do a Settings Pass in which I go quickly through each scene and make sure the setting is vivid. I do this at the end. It takes maybe an hour to insert this into a whole book, fiction or memoir.
Isn’t that tricky? Doesn’t that feel like you’re cheating a little bit? Nope, it’s just a tool! Harness this to help your own weaknesses.
Other people use draft passes to check and fix things like:
- Dialogue—Can more be added?
- Visceral details—Can the reader feel the main character’s emotions simply through bodily, visceral details?
- Point of View—Do you ever slip into knowing something about other people that you couldn’t have known for sure?
- Tense—Do you keep the tense consistent?
- Passive voice—Is your manuscript mostly clear of the passive voice?
- Setting—As mentioned, are we solidly in the world? Can we see, hear, taste, smell, touch the environment? Be specific to be universal.
- Truthfulness—Especially in memoir, a draft pass is a great time to evaluate each sentence for veracity. Even if you’re piecing together memories and recreating dialogue, ask yourself if each scene is honest, to the best of your ability.
- Humor—Some writers don’t write humor easily. If you feel your book is too dark, go back and inject levity where you naturally can. It’s odd to do it this way, but you might be a person who writes sparely in the first draft and expands in the second draft.
- Seriousness—Same as above, but flipped. Too much light? Add some dark. It’s about balance.
For example, if you’re injecting humour because you feel you should, you might come across something like this:
It was snowing, the air frozen and bitter, the day we lost Pat.
After your humour pass, it might read like this:
Snow fell from the sky like cold, white confetti that morning. The air made my snot congeal, and when I wiped my nose with the back of my mitten, I could almost hear my frozen nostril-hairs crunch. Pat wasn’t even our dog, he was borrowed. The three of us kids were pet-sitting him, which meant that we all forgot to fill his food bowl. When we realized it, we fought for the right to feed him, elbowing each other out of the way. Pat was bemused, patient, and then, very suddenly, gone.
You can do this with each pass. It’s labor-intensive, and honestly, it’s also lots of fun.
I know, you thought you were done. I’m sorry, not quite.
After you get your scenes in the right order, after you include the things you want to include and toss out what you don’t, now you finally get to make those sentences sing.
This is why I haven’t been nagging you to make gorgeous sentences until now: if you make each sentence or paragraph perfect, you’ll find a “need” to use it. That won’t serve you well. It’s hard to throw out lines you’ve slaved over, lines that are truly beautiful.
But now that you’re at the final stage, you finally get to go through each sentence and make it a little better. I like to imagine I’m putting each sentence into a Twitter box (sad but true). Can I take out words? Can I use better ones? Can I make this sentence funnier, or more poignant, or happier?
You also finally get to worry about typos (but not too hard—you’ll need to hire a copy editor, or if you sell the book traditionally, the publisher will hire one for you, and they’ll help you with this. No one can see their own errors. Trust me on this).
The Second Draft is Complete.
It is? You are amazing.
Celebrate. This is always my favorite celebration, even better than writing “The End.” Having a clean draft to send to my editor or agent is the best feeling in the world. It’s the “truck draft,” which is what Jennifer Crusie calls the version of the book that’s not completely perfect yet but could be published if she got hit by a truck.
And holy crap on a popsicle stick. What next?
Rachael Herron is the bestselling author of the novel The Ones Who Matter Most (named an Editor’s Pick by Library Journal), as well as more than twenty other novels and memoirs. Her latest non-fiction is Fast-Draft Your Memoir: Write Your Life Story in 45 Hours. She received her MFA in writing from Mills College, Oakland and she teaches writing in the extension programs at both UC Berkeley and Stanford. She’s proud to be a New Zealander as well as a US citizen, though her Kiwi accent only comes out when she’s very tired.