Here’s a timeline of how my book has unfolded:
Graduate school, spring semester, 2013: idea begins
Spring 2013 - winter 2014: idea builds
Spring 2014 - winter 2016: write 120,000 word novel
Spring 2016: revise novel and send off to agents (*note the small revision window, in this case, three months)
Summer 2016: receive kind feedback from agents saying no thanks, here's why (retreat into poor-me, I'm doomed, blah blah blah)
Fall 2016 - summer 2017: first novel, the 120,000 words, becomes 40,000 words and four chapters; add 120,000 words of new content
Fall 2017 - winter 2017: radically revise this new content (more on this below)
Spring 2018: add yet more content (40,000 words)
Summer 2018: constructive revision and line editing (see below)
The writing process can be broken done into five stages: idea conception and elaboration; material genesis; radical revision; content revision; and line editing. This process is NOT linear, or not usually, especially with a long project like a hundred-thousand-plus word book. As a new novelist, I learned this lesson when I sent the first draft of my book out to agents. What I thought was The Book actually was a second, maybe third draft of a book.
Revision involves three stages: radical, content, and line editing. Radical revision is what happened for me the fall of 2016 through summer of 2017. I cut cut cut material from the first draft, expanded where I needed more, changed timelines entirely, changed genres, created a whole MF world and spent a few months drawing maps, dreaming up cultures, languages, and histories. This was radical revision and it was an essential part of turning meh material into stronger work.
Content revision happens once the main part of a story--plots, characters, place, themes--have been solidified. Now we ask the book, are you cohesive? Does everything make sense? Do the characters act and relate in believable ways? Does the dialogue feel natural? I can set down the scissors and glue from the radical revision stage and pick up a thick red pen.
Line editing is the glorious sprint to home base. The hardest of the hard work--years of work, in most book-writing situations--has been done. Now we're talking syntax, diction, punctuation. The red pen grows thinner and we can circle where a comma needs to be a semicolon, where an adjective begs for a stronger verb.
In the first draft of my book, I created a goal to submit the spring of 2016. I was so set on reaching this goal I skimmed over the revision process. I knew not what radical revision asked of my work. I jumped right into content revision, and even then for only a month or two.
Looking back, this was a necessary learning experience in its own right. I learned as a creative, you can't rush the work. You can have goals and intentions, and use these as motivation to push through the more-viscous moments of writing. But sometimes content revising will push us back to material genesis. Sometimes radical revision has us deleting entire chapters and adding new ones. Like most things in life, the writing process isn't linear.