Revising your novel in 10 easy steps
Writing a novel is hard work, but for many aspiring authors the much harder part is revising that first draft into something fit to send out into the wide world. Since I’ve just finished revising The Merchant of Dreams, I thought it might be useful to document how I went about it.
[Note: the process I describe below is distilled from what I've learnt through the online workshops and courses given by fantasy author Holly Lisle, particularly How to Revise Your Novel. However this is my own personal take on the process, based on what works for me. YMMV.]
N.B. Since this is rather a long post, I’m hiding most of it behind a “more” tag…
Step 0: Solicit feedback
This initial step isn’t really part of the revision process itself, but you need to do it before you’re ready to revise. Having written the first draft, you’re undoubtedly too close to it to see its flaws clearly. In an ideal world you’ll have an experienced agent or editor to bounce ideas off, but if you don’t (and, honestly, even if you do), it’s a good idea to seek feedback from others. How to find good alpha/beta-readers is a whole topic in itself, so I’ll just say this: find some, and make sure you let them know how grateful you are!
Even (and especially) if you can’t get hold of any beta-readers, you’ll need to let the book rest before you try to revise it, so that you can come to it with fresh eyes. I recommend a week at the bare minimum, preferable a month or longer. You can always work on something else in the meantime – like your next novel.
Step 1: Preparation
I use a mixture of electronic and paper-based editing, as I find that switching between the two keeps things fresh, but you can adapt the mix to your personal preference.
Here’s a comprehensive list of supplies:
- Notebook – I like to use spiral-bound reporter’s notebooks, but choose whatever size and format you’re most comfortable with
- Pens – plenty of black ballpoint/gel pens for note-taking, plus coloured pens (especially red!) for editorial markup
- Index cards – coloured and white, lined
- Hole punch
- A binder ring or treasury tag, to keep the index cards in order
For the initial steps, I use my iPad, but if you don’t have an ereader that allows annotation of documents, I recommend printing out your manuscript, so you will also need:
- Enough printer paper for the whole draft (probably the best part of a ream)
- Lever arch files to store the processed draft (at least two)
- Sticky notes
Step 2: Novel summary
On the first page of my notebook, I write a one-sentence summary of the plot – what Holly calls The Sentence. It needs to include the protagonist and antagonist, the conflict between them, and the twist – what makes this plot cool and interesting. Note that this is not quite the same as your pitch/tag line. You’re not trying to sell the book, you’re trying to capture the essence of the story to use as a yardstick against which your manuscript will be measured.
Next, I re-read the synopsis that my editor approved, and make a bullet point list of the main elements that I want to carry through into the final draft. I put asterisks against the “candy bar” elements – the really cool stuff that I’m sure helped sell the synopsis (and usually the stuff I have most fun writing) – because they’re the elements I want to protect most fiercely from changes during the revision process.
If you don’t have an editor or agent guiding you, do the same with your beta-readers’ feedback – but make sure you don’t let them influence you too much. It’s your book and your ideas, so if any of their suggestions chime false, do feel free to put them aside. (Even with editor’s suggestions, I’ll try and negotiate. I don’t think you should ever put out a book you’re not happy to have your name on.)
Step 3: The Read-through
Next you need a reading copy of your manuscript. I prefer to do this on my iPad, as it’s closer to the experience of actually reading a book. If you do it this way, you’ll need an ereader that allows you to annotate a document, and preferably a dedicated app – I’m told that although you can use iBooks, for example, it tends to slow down horribly once you have more than a few dozen annotations in there. I use iAnnotate on the iPad – with a stylus, it’s almost like working on a paper manuscript.
If you don’t have an ereader or prefer to switch to paper at this point, print out the whole book. You have two choices: print it out double-spaced so you can use it again when line-editing, or print it single-spaced to save paper if you intend to line-edit in your word processor. Your call! However if you’re going to do the former, I recommend inserting page breaks between scenes if you can, as it makes rearranging them a whole lot easier!
Either way, you want to sit down with the manuscript and your revisions notebook, and start reading at page 1. In this step, please resist the temptation to fiddle with the prose (that’s why you’re using a reading copy, not the original document). Holly Lisle, who is an ex-ER nurse, likens the revision process to hospital triage: you have to make sure your patient is a) breathing and b) not bleeding out, before you worry about splinting broken bones and patching up scrapes and bruises!
What you’re focusing on with this step is the story. You have to read like a reader, not like a writer. Every time you find yourself being pulled out of the story by anything other than clunky sentences, make a note. Mark the manuscript with a number, and add a similarly-numbered explanation in your notebook – or use sticky notes if you prefer. You’re looking for:
- Plot holes
- Coincidences and too-convenient leaps of logic
- Poorly developed or extraneous characters
- Characters who act out-of-character without any prior hint of changed motivation
- Long, rambling conversations that don’t advance the plot or reveal character
- Pacing that’s leisurely when it needs to be breakneck – or vice versa
In other words, all the things that tick you off when you’re reading someone else’s book. (Confession time: I’ve found all of these in my own rough drafts. It’s easy to commit storytelling sins in the rush to get the ideas down on paper.)
Step 4: Identify your plots and subplots
Pretty much every novel has subplots – without them, your story is going to feel thin and under-developed. You might have a romance subplot, a character story arc that’s separate from the main plot, or a parallel plot that is linked thematically with the main plot. All of these will add richness to your story. However you might discover that you have a subplot that’s completely unrelated and keeps dragging the story off course. These will need to be either cut or changed.
A plot or subplot can be identified as being a conflict between two characters (or one character and a situation) that extends over a substantial section of the book. If the conflict only takes up a scene or two, it’s probably an obstacle in a larger plotline, rather than a subplot. Identify them all, and make a list; you should end up with around 3-6, depending on the complexity of your story. Give each one a short name, so that you can jot it down in your notes later: Main Plot, Romance, Hero Arc, etc.
As you can see, a conflict doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive opposition. It could be two characters who want different things (often the case in romance), or a character in conflict with himself because he’s trying to overcome a weakness. However each conflict has to be resolved in the course of the book, or at least reach an equilibrium, otherwise the reader is going to feel frustrated.
Step 5: (Re)outline
In order to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole book, it’s essential to have an outline. Even if you never use an outline whilst creating your first draft, it’s invaluable in the revision stage, because it’s damned hard to hold 100,000+ words of prose in your head. Hence, the next stage is to go through the manuscript and create one index card per scene.
You can use index card software if you prefer, but I enjoy the messiness of real cards. It’s also very satisfying to see the “revised” pile grow, and the “unrevised” pile shrink during Step 7. If using real cards, I recommend that you hole-punch them (I put a sticker on my hole-punch to mark the ideal position) and fasten them together with a binder ring or treasury tag. If you write long, multi-PoV novels like mine, you’re probably going to need treasury tags, as binder rings can only hold a few dozen cards.
On the front of each card I write:
- The scene number (vital in case you drop them!) – if the draft is divided into chapters, then I’ll number them by chapter and scene, e.g. 2.3
- A brief description of what happens – just a couple of sentences
- Name of PoV character (not needed if you’re writing a single PoV)
- Target word count (I’m a bit obsessive about this – you can ignore it if word counts don’t interest you)
- A list of named characters present
- Which plotlines are covered in this scene
Step 6: Listing the story elements
Once the current draft has been mapped onto index cards, I go through the manuscript again, this time identifying every notable character and location (including ships, if sea travel is part of the story), and their first appearance in the book. I highlight them in the manuscript and put a number in the margin, and list these same details in my notebook.
This can be a very revealing process: I might discover that I haven’t actually introduced a significant character because I took his existence for granted or, having written the draft out of chronological order, I’ve introduced him later in the book than his actual first appearance. It’s also a good way to spot characters with similar names that might confuse the reader.
Step 7: Fixing the plot
Now comes the fun part – playing with the index cards! With my read-through notes to hand, I go through the cards and assess whether each scene is pulling its weight. Hopefully the scene is basically sound but maybe needs a minor plot-point fixed or the pace needs tightening, or perhaps it would work better in a different PoV. In the worse case I may need to drop it altogether – and if so, should I write a new scene in its place? Are the chapter breaks in the right places? Do I need other new scenes to conclude plot lines that trailed off, or to beef up under-developed conflicts (see Step 4)?
I “correct” the contents of existing cards in coloured pen and scribble longer notes on the back, and of course make out new cards for brand-new scenes. These latter I use coloured cards for, just for my own amusement – see photo, right, where I used pink cards for new scenes. You can use whatever combination of coloured pens, coloured cards, sticky notes, etc gets your juices flowing and helps you to get a handle on the story. Often it’s useful to divide up the cards by plot line and make sure that each one progresses logically to a satisfying conclusion – again, numbering your cards is vital for enabling you to reassemble them in the final order.
Personally, I tend to leave creating new scenes until I get to them, especially in the second half of the book. The trouble with being a discovery writer is that new ideas are likely to crop up during revisions, so you can’t be too rigid. If however you’re a hardcore outliner, go ahead and create your final outline now.
Step 8: Revising for story
This is the meat of the work. Now it’s just a process of slogging through the manuscript, chapter by chapter, implementing the changes you planned in Step 7. I find that occasionally I’ll have to backtrack slightly and tweak a revised scene to set up or foreshadow a new plot twist that just occurred to me, but the emphasis is on moving steadily forward.
The previous steps will only take me a few days altogether but since I also have a day-job, rewriting a 120k+ novel usually takes me 7-8 weeks (providing the book’s not disastrously broken). If, as usually happens nowadays, I’m working to an editor’s deadline, I map out a schedule on my wall calendar (see my earlier post about completing the previous draft of The Merchant of Dreams) and make sure I stick to it.
When you’ve finished this step, you probably want to step away for a couple of days and give your brain a rest (if your deadline allows) – if not, it’s back into the fray for the final pass!
Step 9: Polishing the prose
This is the editing step that most people are familiar with: fixing typos and continuity errors (like a character’s eye colour changing from one chapter to the next), rewriting clunky dialogue, cutting or expanding descriptions. There are plenty of books that cover the nuts and bolts of editing; I recommend “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman and “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King. It’s a good idea to read each scene aloud, if you can, as it really does help to highlight sentences that no normal person would ever say!
If I have time, I do a polishing pass on the manuscript itself, then a final proofread on the iPad. Tip: if you’re not an experienced proofreader, go through your manuscript in reverse page order. That way you’re less likely to get caught up in the story and can focus on the actual words in front of you.
You can (and should) run a spellchecker at this point, but be aware that even the best spellcheckers miss errors. If you’re going to submit this draft to an agent, get an eagle-eyed friend to at least proofread the first three chapters for you. Unless you have a problem such as dyslexia, however, a thorough self-edit should be enough to get your work into submittable condition. There’s “perfect enough”, and then there’s perfectionism used to justify procrastination…
Step 10: Aaand…relax!
Seriously, reward yourself for all that hard work. You now have a much stronger manuscript than when you started this process, and you deserve to celebrate it.
I hope this article has taken some of the mystique out of how to revise a novel-length manuscript, and given you the courage to have a go. Best of luck with your own endeavours!