I get asked about revising a lot.
I have been asked about the process so much that I crafted a workshop out of it. I can’t give the same workshop every month, but it’s a fairly vital topic.
Writing and revising are not easy. First, there’s the writing part, which is as arduous as it needs to be. You pump out your zero draft, molten and messy, then you have the raw material needed to revise.
Some people do not “do” zero drafts. Some people revise as they write. Hats off to you if you’ve figured it out. I myself have yet to finalize anything below four drafts.
Revising is necessary for a creature like myself. Here are my notes on how to stay sane throughout the process, fellow tender morsels.
HOW TO REVISE YOUR BOOK
So you finally got to “THE END.” You persevered through all doubts, reservations, and fears, all to arrive at those two golden words.
But are you finished?
Oh, my friend, you have only just begun.
What do you mean, I HAVE TO REVISE MY BOOK?
Remember how teachers asked for rough drafts? Y’know, you’d be assigned some enormous research paper, and teachers would set due dates for the entire process: thesis statement, introduction, outline, rough draft, and final draft. In all likelihood, this was to ensure they didn’t receive messy, incoherent, hastily-written papers.
Oh, my lovely. Listen: that 400+ page beast you’ve just finished is a rough draft. It is not ready for querying. It is nowhere near close to a final edit. Under no circumstances should you pay someone to “edit” it. Immediately hiss and swat at any evildoer who suggests otherwise.
This is not to undermine the glory of your achievement. You have accomplished an amazing thing. You’ve written a book.
But it is not ready.
And the only thing you should do when you understand this is SAVE and CLOSE the file.
Let it rest for at least a few days. Your eyes must be fresh and unclouded by hate when you come back to your pages.
The initial pass serves two essential functions:
Clean up the document for readers. Be your own spell check. Eliminate basic typos and wonky formatting.
Note what you need to work on. Jot down what pops out at you—clunky dialog, plot holes, verbal crutches, weak characterization, inconsistent point of view—and compile a list. I separate problems by whether they’re global (manuscript-wide changes) or local (scenes).
Once you have a list of potential issues, turn your focus outward. You’re going to need more eyes. Remember: verify before you vivisect. What you consider a flaw might be your novel’s finest aspect.
Start searching for critique partners and beta readers. You’ll want to work with someone familiar with your genre and its demands. Not sure where your book would be shelved? Start with who you imagine reading it. Where would they go to find your book?
Write a summary. Readers and critique partners will want an idea of what they’re getting into. A good rule of thumb for what to include (per the wondrous Nathan Bransford) are CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and QUEST. Pretty much every pitch I’ve ever read follows this basic structure:
“When conflict happens to the main character, they must overcome the conflict to complete their quest.”
This applies to fiction and nonfiction of all kinds. Tossing a ring into the fires of Mordor does not a quest make. A Campbellian hero’s journey does not have to be epic in scale to be compelling.
If you’d like to go on your own hero’s journey, the next step you could take in this process would be to write a query letter. It’s certainly one way to knock out several birds with one stone, and if you’re interested in traditional publication, it’s a dragon you’ll be forced to to face. However, that particular journey is best covered in a separate workshop. Let’s refocus.
Critique partners! Where does one find them?
Feedback received. Now what?
Identify what resonates and what doesn’t.
Not all critique is good critique. It’s up to you to decide what will help your book. Cast a wide net and see what issues your readers consistently point out. If readers repeatedly tell you the voice is weak and your favorite character adds nothing to the story, you might want to reexamine voice and characterization.
Collect feedback. Bounce ideas off readers and writers you trust. You’re forming a strategy for the next draft. One could call it a…
Remember how I mentioned “global” and “local” issues? That’s the idea. Start big and work your way down.
PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
Examine your structure. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is the overarching conflict ever resolved? If you’ve woven in subplots, ask yourself whether they make the story compelling or confusing. Each thread should serve the tapestry. If it doesn’t…
Does your reader care what happens? No? Probably a good place to blow something up or burn something down.
Does it drag? Does it move too fast? Your readers will let you know.
Are your characters believable? Do they change over the course of the story? Who are they at the beginning, and who do they become by the end? Every character may not experience a clear arc, but your primary and secondary characters should be affected in some way. If they move the plot, the plot moves them.
Remember, we don’t have to like them. They just need to be interesting.
POINT OF VIEW/TENSE
What lens best serves your story? Is it an edge-of-your-seat thriller? First person present might be your friend. Third person past is a popular choice for fantasy, but feel free to do weird things with it. Turn it inside out. Make it work for you.
There are multiple voices in your book. One set belongs to your narrators. One belongs to you. Depending on how many points of view you choose, balancing the two can be difficult.
Common elements of voice include vocabulary, syntax, and description. If everyone speaks and acts like a poet, the reader will have a hard time telling your characters apart.
Get familiar with these terms. Issues with characterization, pacing, and point of view will likely show up as culprits in multiple revisions.
More than one.
Dear writer, revision is a hydra, but keep faith: your strategy will improve over time.
What about the finer things?!
Ah, those literary devices. Are there particular themes you want to work in? Maybe a character is associated with a symbol. Or you’d like to create a brooding, dreadful atmosphere. Perhaps one character acts as a foil to another. Clever motifs, foreshadowing, and shifts in narrative structure might be high priorities for you as a writer. Don’t discount these darlings when pages are on the chopping block. A minor stylistic change might save an otherwise broken plot.
Any other tricks or tips?
A few hacks I’ve found helpful in identifying problems:
- Read it out loud. Nothing susses out wooden dialogue or run ons quite like reading your own pages out loud.
- Print it out. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been stumped on a problem, only to immediately spot it on a printed page.
- Get weird. You have no idea how many times changing the font of a serious POV to Comic Sans MS saved my sanity. Give it a try sometime. You’ll thank me later.
PERFECT VERSUS GOOD ENOUGH
Advice is great and all, but…
WHEN IS IT DONE, you scream into the void.
WHEN IS IT FINISHED, you howl, hurtling your MacBook down the street.
WHEN AM I DONE?!
There is no fail-safe for this. You have to develop your own rubric. Traverse your own underworld. Rescue your manuscript from its depths. When you’ve done all you possibly can, throw it farther. Enter it into contests. Query. If problems still exist, you’ll find them.
With persistence, you will accrue enough knowledge and experience to know when it’s time to shelve a project and move onto the next.
The only way out is through, dear writer.
The “see with eyes unclouded by hate” quote is totally applicable to the revision process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EISWfdFNiUU
Nathan Bransford’s masterlist of writing advice: https://blog.nathanbransford.com/writing-advice-database
More about that godforsaken Hero’s Journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey
Upstate Creative Writers Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatewriters/
Upstate NaNo Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatenano/
The Absolute Write Critique Partner Master Thread: https://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?30-Beta-Readers-Mentors-and-Writing-Buddies&s=207dbc0de5272ad710ac3f6527ec01cb
Writer’s Block Party Critique Partner Match Up: https://writersblockpartyblog.com/2018/01/11/wbps-critique-partner-match-up/
Critique Partner Google Match Up https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup
#CPMatch Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpmatch?lang=en
#CPConnect Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/CPConnect?src=hash
Jes’s revision checklist that is, in fact, pretty ultimate: https://www.inklyo.com/ultimate-fiction-editing-checklist/
Another trustworthy list from Marissa Meyer: https://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/from-idea-to-finished-step-6-revisions/