Revision Tips and Tricks

So you’ve completed a novel. First, let me say congratulations. You have accomplished what many people never will. Take a little time to celebrate. Open that bottle of prosecco. Eat something pickled. Or, you know, do whatever it is you normally do to celebrate an amazing feat. Pickled foods and bubbly wine are not necessities. Although, if you don’t like them, I’m not sure we can be friends. Celebrate now, because you are about to embark on a new journey that will have a whole different set of tribulations, and there will be no time for pickled tomatoes or asparagus once you begin.

In your excitement, it is tempting to race out and show your manuscript to everyone. You just wrote a freaking book! See how I didn’t cuss there. Go me. But seriously, please don’t give that manuscript to just anybody. The last thing you need at this stage is for some jackass to call your writing esoteric and purple. It is a rough draft, and as such, it is imperfect. There are a whole host of problems you need to work through in the next five to twenty-eight revisions. At this stage, it really isn’t ready for other eyes.

If you really must give your manuscript to someone before you edit it, please proceed with caution. This is the part where most new writers get discouraged. They give their work to someone else, the person rips it apart, and they abandon it–and sometimes writing altogether–because they incorrectly believe the person. But the problem isn’t your writing, it’s the person you gave it to and their failure to understand what stage your writing is at. If you have to have someone else’s opinion, you need to find someone who knows that you basically just bled your heart and soul onto those pages and it is messy.

At this point, I would argue that your manuscript isn’t ready, even for a critique partner or writing group, although, hopefully, they would understand the messy gore and provide constructive, gentle criticism. But your writing group’s time is valuable, and you don’t want them fixing things you can fix on your own. Thus, I recommend you spend some time with your manuscript alone and clean up some of the blood smears and stains before you give it to anyone else.

But first, take a break. You need to give that manuscript some space. You just lived and breathed it after all. If this is the first novel you completed, spend a little time reflecting on your process. The chances are good that you consumed a LOT of advice, often conflicting, while trying to write your story. Now you need to figure out what worked for you and what didn’t. What aided your creativity and what impeded it? The reason why there is so much conflicting advice out there is that writing is a very subjective process. The only right way to do it is the way that works for you, and that takes time, experimentation, and patience to figure out.

If this isn’t your first novel, and you have your writing process figured (or mostly figured), there are a couple of other things to do while you let your story breathe:

  • Do some reflective quick writes about your story. What are your instincts? What do you feel might need more attention? What are your favorite scenes? Are there parts you don’t like? Spend some time focusing on how you feel about your manuscript.
  • Work on editing a finished story. I rotate my stories. I write a story through to the end and then put it away while I edit the first draft of another story. Then I put the revision of story number 2 away and work on a second, third…twenty-seventh edit of a 3rd story. This provides me space and keeps me from dwelling on the story I just finished. I try to give my manuscript three to six months of breathing time, but that is a personal preference thing.
  • If you don’t want to give your story any space, that is okay too. Do what feels right to you. I find that I can get a better feel for what works and doesn’t when I’ve distanced myself.

When you are ready to start your revision process, begin with a basic read through. Take notes, but don’t make any changes (correcting typos is okay, but this slows you down. Try to read it like you are reading someone else’s novel). I do three initial readings like this:

  • Reading 1: On my computer. I put my word processor on reading mode so that it is harder to make changes. This keeps me from the temptation of editing as I read. I jot down my thoughts in a notebook as I read. After I have finished, I do a reflection identical to the one I perform when I have just finished writing the novel.
  • Reading 2: On paper, usually a week or two after the first. I get my manuscript printed and spiral bound at the local copy place. I make sure it has wide margins. I take notes in the margin as I do this second reading. Questions, ideas, concerns, worries, excitement–it all goes into the notes.
  • Reading 3: On my computer. I break my story up into editing sections for my writing group (usually 4ish chapters at a time). For each section, I complete focused read-and-reflect sessions on setting, character development, mood, tone, subplot, depth, plot, and pacing. I also chart my book during this time (I will post more on charting at a later date).
  • Once I have completed my read-throughs, I spend some time with my notes, highlighting, reflecting, and analyzing my next steps. I try to distil those notes into a 1-2 page action plan of what needs to happen next.

Once I have done a thorough reread, I set to work on my first revision. This edit is about cutting and trimming, and it usually goes pretty quickly. I eleminate unnecessary scenes or spots where I wander off plot or away from the story line (IE: sometimes we narrate things we don’t have to–the character’s shower, getting ready, waking up, eating breakfast. Eliminate these if they don’t add to the plot, reveal something important about the character, or detract from the tension you are trying to create). I sometimes eliminate or combine characters who aren’t active or essential. A couple of tips as you cut:

  • Make sure you keep an original copy of your manuscript so that if you cut something you shouldn’t have, you can easily correct the mistake.
  • Update your charts as you go, making a note of scenes, characters, chapters, and anything else you removed or changed.

Often, after I finish cutting, I will reread my notes and identify any areas I am unsure about. For example, in the fantasy novel that I am working on right now, I am not sure how I want to handle magic, especially magic battles. I am reading through other authors to see how they take care of it. If you feel like your dialogue isn’t strong, read authors who are renown for their dialogue, and not just authors in the genre you are writing either. Spend some time looking at all the ways you can handle the elements of your story so that you have a full toolbox for revisions.

Next comes what I call the developmental edit. This can be the most time-consuming revision. Take your book section by section. Rewrite to deepen what you kept and increase the power of your storyline. Some things to think about focusing on:

  • Character relationships: Do you give the characters enough breathing space together for the relationship (good, bad, or otherwise) to seem genuine. Do their interactions make sense?
  • Characters: deepen their backstory and personality. Make sure you allow opportunities for them to shine through and really show what they are made of.
  • Setting or World Building: Is the world your character exists in vibrant? Does it seem real? Is it consistent?
  • Character Arch: Does the character grow and change? Do their actions make sense? Are they too predictable? Are their actions inconsistent with their character?
  • Showing versus telling: Do you have entire sections where you tell the reader stuff, instead of showing them? Work on turning that telling into action and dialogue. Remember that telling isn’t always bad, it has a time and a place, but it can pull the reader out of the narrative and should be used with due diligence.
  • Mood: does the mood fit your action? What do you want your reader to feel as they read that section? Can you deepen the mood or make it more intense?

Finally, I move to a line edit. In this revision, I move section by section. I go through my story and look at wording, descriptions, word choice, sentence structure, fluency, and telling. If you need more guidance on this, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. His section on revision goes into detail on perfecting all of these elements, and he gives excellent examples and works in lessons on sentence structure that even the most grammatically inept can understand.

Once you feel like you have made all the changes you are capable of making, it is time to find others to look at your work. Also, it is time to break out the pickled food and prosecco. You did it again! You made it through another writing hurdle. I would like to say it gets easier from here, but it doesn’t. However, if you have survived to this point, you can do anything.

As you work through your revisions, you might find the following articles helpful:

Also, check out the following books for more on writing and revising:

  • A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham
  • Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch
  • The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott