My Top Five Pitch Wars Revision Lessons

February 1 marked the end of the Pitch Wars revisions period for the 2020 cohort. After two and a half months of hard work, I had rewritten about 70% of my manuscript, eliminated at least five minor characters (RIP) and three unique settings (subsurface ocean planet, someday I will return to you!), completely reworked two out of three main character arcs, and cut my total word count from 120k to 117k.

WHEW.

I haven’t worked this hard on anything over such a short period since I studied for the bar exam, and when it was over, I felt a similar way. Elated, giddy, relieved I had made it, and EXHAUSTED. Ren, my mentor, imposed a 48 hour mandatory break period–she figured out early on that I am awful at giving myself breaks–and I spent most of it napping.

Fuzzy yellow duckling shakes her head and slowly falls asleep on a spiral-bound notebook.
NOPE to being awake.

Now that I’m a bit more rested, I want to share the top five things I learned during my Pitch Wars revisions.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to make big changes

When Ren and I met initially to discuss my book, she had a ton of fantastic ideas for how to bring all the elements of my plot together. Her suggestions included merging secondary characters, relating unrelated plot threads (what a concept!), and further developing some of the cool parts of my story that had gotten short shrift in the draft I’d submitted to Pitch Wars. I knew she was right and I felt excited to dive in but the level of work required seemed overwhelming.

As a result, during my first round of revisions in November and December, I tried to only change what I absolutely had to and adapt existing material to the new plot points and structure. I thought this would reduce the amount of work needed to implement the changes. Unfortunately, this caused a lot of continuity issues, and during my second round I think I did more work going over those “adapted” sections than I would have if I just rewrote them on my first round.

A grid containing extensive red (deletions/additions) and green (moved text) lines.
A snapshot of changes on my first 100 pages (taken after my second round of PW edits) shows just how extensive my revisions turned out to be.

However, the biggest changes I made during that first round absolutely transformed the book. I completely restructured my second act around a brand new barnburner of a plot point. When I first came up with this idea, it felt like a huge, scary left turn that would potentially blow up my plot. But the scenes that resulted ended up being some of my favorites in the whole book, and added a whole new level of drama, stakes, and emotion to my act 2.

So now I would say: don’t stay stuck in what’s on the page, even if it’s “good enough,” just because rewriting seems like too much work. Be willing to throw it all out or throw a bomb into the middle of it–your book will likely be better for it.

Tahani from "The Good Place" stares into space as Jason says, "Anytime I had a problem and I threw a Molotov cocktail, BOOM! Right away, I had a different problem."
I stand by my new Jason Mendoza theory of plotting!

Lesson 2: Spreadsheets are awesome!

As a “pantser” slowly evolving into a “plantser,” I have always resisted making detailed outlines prior to drafting. In the past, outlines felt restrictive and sapped the joy from my preferred mode of discovery writing.

The first thing Ren had me do when we started our revisions was make a reverse outline, and this process was a revelation. It turns out there is a part of me that loves seeing every scene laid out–it’s just that doing this AFTER I have a draft works way better for me! I used a reverse outline template from this great post on revision tools by Jenny Howe. I also used a scene by scene outline adapted from this Master Outlining and Tracking Tool. In addition, I tracked “Save the Cat” beats and percentages to ensure my plot was moving along and hitting the right beats.

A scene-by-scene spreadsheet showing chapter, scene description, POV character, setting, purpose, active/reactive, expected and actual word counts, and anxious author notes.
A snapshot from my scene by scene outline of my first act.

I also used focus tools like the browser extension StayFocusd to keep me off social media when I was on deadline! I hate them and I hate that they worked but they do. 😡

Lesson 3: My feelings on writing don’t predict its quality.

This is a big deal for me. I deal with writer’s block a lot, mostly because I’m a rank perfectionist. An ongoing lesson for me in my writing practice is that inspiration and “the muse” are great, but they aren’t necessary. Sometimes you just have to write the next thing even if you aren’t feeling it. I had to do this a lot over the last few months, given Pitch Wars’ tight deadline, as my country tried to tear itself apart and the pandemic ground on like the worst kind of white noise. However, I discovered that even if I had to force myself to sit down and put words on the page, I could still access my creativity and produce good quality work.

Feelings aren’t facts. Much like the effectiveness of StayFocusd’s nuclear option, it’s annoying, but true. With that said, stuffing down your feelings is not recommended, but they’re more like weather than signs and portents. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge them and move forward.

Eric Draven of the Crow says: it can't rain all the time.
It can’t rain all the time–but words have to be written, rain or shine.

Lesson 4: Writing doesn’t have to be lonely work.

I’ve written here before about how important the writing community has been for me this year. The pandemic magnifies the importance of online communities, but I feel incredibly lucky to have connected with my awesome CPs and the larger writing communities I’ve found on Twitter and Discord, including the Pitch Wars 2020 mentee group. My fellow mentees are so talented, funny, supportive, and kind. I’m lucky to have them as my cohort and I’m so grateful for the sprints, rants, memes, social media prompts, and mutual cheerleading I’ve found with them!

I’m also incredibly grateful for my mentor, Ren Hutchings, and the support of her other mentees from AMM and previous years. Her dedication to mentoring other writers is amazing and I don’t know how she does it all. I’m a better writer than I was three months ago because of her, and GALATEA’S PARADOX is so much better for her insight. It’s such a gift to have someone in my corner who loves my book as much as I do!

I used to think writing was a solitary activity, but Pitch Wars has taught me that it isn’t. It takes a village to turn a manuscript from a draft into a book. And though I’m a natural introvert, when I’m hanging out with a bunch of writers, I feel very much at home.

Diana Barry and Anne Shirley say, "Kindred Spirits forever."
Writers are my kindred spirits. 💜

Lesson 5: Cultivate detachment

Dissociation - is this a coping skill?
NO, NOT LIKE THAT

I started out my PW revision period feeling protective of my words at times–clinging to certain plot points, dialogue lines, scenes, and turns of phrase out of sentimental attachment. I resisted some revisions Ren suggested not because I believed the words couldn’t be better, but because they were mine–and in some cases, because the story had always gone that way.

Ren was extremely patient and respectful of my choices–she never forced any changes on me. But about midway through January, something clicked over. Maybe it was the deadline bearing down on me or just really learning to trust–the process, my mentor’s insights, my ability to improve on my last draft. In my last revision round, if I couldn’t tweak a sentence or a scene and make it work to my satisfaction, I just cut it. Pretty soon, I even started to enjoy myself. It felt oddly freeing, though it also resulted in me rewriting my entire final battle scene last weekend.

A blonde woman (Blake Lively) in a double-breasted jacket says "Erase it" - from A Simple Favor
It’s fun to be ruthless sometimes.

In drafting, you have to smear your heart on the page, but in revisions, it’s important to cultivate a little healthy detachment from your beloved work. Kill your darlings, cut the chaff, however you want to say it: if something doesn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, it has no place in the best version of your book, and there’s a better scene/line/plot point waiting in the wings to replace it.

(Just save the words you delete somewhere–you never know when you might get to recycle them later!)

Anyway, there you have it–my five Pitch Wars revision lessons. Next week, February 10, is the start of the agent showcase, and a whole new set of lessons awaits.

But for now, I’m going to go back to my intense schedule of memes and napping.

Brunette with bangs and bright blue eyes says, My favorite thing to do is sleep. (Zoey Deschanel)

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