the writer's arsenal: 5 tips to take your revisions further
National Novel Writing Month calls them the "Now What?" months. I like to think of them as an opportunity to direct that jolt of ambition we seem to get at the start of every year toward something constructive. Whether you wrote a book in November for NaNoWriMo or are dusting off something older, the early months of the year are perfect for revising (or finishing up, then revising if, like me, there weren't enough hours in November for you to finish a full first draft). Regardless of where you are in the process, it is indeed a new year and there's no better time to hit the ground running with whatever you're working on. This may very well be the year you take that project to the next level, but you can't get there without first doing the work, so let's talk revisions.
The great thing about NaNoWriMo, if you're able to force yourself to write this way (and I know it can be a challenge because it is for me), is that the focus is on getting words on the page. They don't have to be perfect--far from it. They just have to exist. Get that story down, even if it doesn't make sense. And yeah, often it doesn't. That's the nature of first drafts, especially if you don't outline and just let the story carry you away. Sometimes a story can take you in surprising directions that work really, really well. And sometimes it can take you in, well, in more...interesting directions, ones that you return to after a break only to ask, "What was I thinking when I wrote this?!" Never fear, that's what revisions are for.
If this is your first time revising a novel (or your 50th), it can be a bit of an intimidating process at first, but trust me, once you get into the groove, it'll be much smoother sailing. I've revised my fair share of books, and of course, I've worked with other authors on the revision process, and over the years, I've come to rely on a few key exercises to help me take that rough first draft and polish it into something much shinier.
Some people outline. Some people don't. There's no right or wrong, it's just different styles. I'm personally an outliner, though the degree of outlining I do will often depend on the type of book I'm writing, and how heavy the worldbuilding is. Regardless of whether or not you outline, when it's time to revise, I find it's always helpful to take what you've written in your first draft and look at it through a top-level lense. Basically, you want to come up with an elevator pitch (the pitch you'd give to an agent or editor on an elevator if you had to sum up your story concisely) for each chapter you've written. Then take those short one-two line chapter summaries, lay them out in order (either on physical or digital cue cards), and examine them. Ideally, this is where the problems will start to stand out. The timeline of your story should follow a basic story structure, with rising action, a climax, and then resolution. I personally like to use Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT beat sheet because it works very well for novels too. If anything you've written doesn't seem to fit or doesn't seem to serve the story with regards to moving it forward, odds are you have a structure or pacing problem. This might mean you have to move things around a bit (a scene might make more sense earlier or later in the story as opposed to where it currently is), or it might mean you have to cut some stuff entirely (more on this below). Viewing what you've already written in an outline format not only helps to shine a spotlight on these flaws, but it also helps you see the bigger picture, which should help you find solutions to the problems.
2. How bad can it be?
If you're anything like me, when you're writing a book, you tend to form something of a bond with your characters. The more you get to know them, the more you come to like them, even the "bad guys", and it's not long before you start to see them almost as friends. I think it's this fondness that often stops writers from being able to push the envelope with regards to what their characters endure. Anybody can tell you that a good story needs conflict, but how much conflict is enough? I'll let you in on a secret: first drafts often don't have enough conflict. I'd say nine times out of ten, the revision stage is where a story's conflict not only gets its legs but also learns how to run. For a story to be compelling, the characters need to be on a journey, something that moves them from point A to point B. Sometimes that's a physical move, and sometimes it's an emotional one, but it's pretty much always the result of some sort of conflict and change.
Take a look at the conflict that's driving your story. Is it all inner conflict? Outer? A mix of both? Does that fit the type of story you're writing? Now ask yourself--are things as bad as they can be? Or could you go a little harder on your characters? This is your chance to dial things up a notch. Did you protagonist merely lose something important? Or did he lose it in a house fire that's left him feeling emotionally fragile? When examining conflict and trying to find ways to elevate it, there are two things to keep in mind: 1. Good conflict shouldn't have an obvious solution. This means your conflict shouldn't stem from misunderstandings. Misunderstandings can have a place in stories, especially when characters aren't able to communicate with each other after the misunderstanding has occurred, but central conflicts can't rely on misunderstandings alone. There needs to be more at work, even if it's that the misunderstanding stirs a character's self-doubt and inner turmoil. Otherwise, it's just frustrating for the reader to be able to easily idetify the solution to a problem and then have to wait for the characters to catch up. And 2. There is such a thing as going too hard on your characters. More conflict is good, pushing the envelope is good, but you don't want to careen into unrealistic, overly tragic, melodrama territory. That's just exhausting for everyone involved. Conflict should be challenging, maybe even devastating, but never utterly overwhelming.
3. Map that character journey
As I mentioned above, regardless of the genre you write in, your main character(s) are on a journey. I mean...they are, right? Cause if they're not, now's the time to fix that. When revising, in addition to looking at the big picture arc of the plot, you should take a close look at the journey your protagonist is on. It helps to ask some key questions here (I'll use non-gender-specific pronouns for brevity):
- Where does your main character start the story (physically, emotionally)?
- What happens to take them out of their comfort zone?
- What changes about them (physically, emotionally) as the story progresses?
- What must they do (accomplish/sacrifice/etc) before they resolve their problem?
- Where do they end up (physically, emotionally) at the end of the story? (hint: this should be different from where they started)
4. Cut scenes (and sometimes people)
This one is tough. This one is so tough a lot of people make the mistake of just not doing it, but trust me, it's always worth it. Sometimes you have to cut scenes you love. Sometimes you have to cut characters you love. It sucks. I know. But sometimes it's what the story needs. When you do that big story arc outline I suggested above, that's a good time to identify any scenes or characters who don't really serve the story they way they should. We've all seen deleted scenes from television shows and movies. Scenes that were cute or funny, but had to be cut for time or the story arc. This is no different. A scene can be utterly delightful and still not have a place in a given story if it slows the pacing too much. Fun and games can have a place in a story, but they need to happen in the right spot (usually early on as characters are established, or midway, after something harrowing has happened and your reader needs a break), and they still need to serve a purpose, even if it's just fleshing out character traits, or introducing/serving a b-plot. If you have a scene that was a lot of fun to write, but is kind of just sitting there like a piece of candy in the middle of a meat buffet, it probably needs to go. The good thing is, you don't have to delete it permanently forever and ever. Scenes/characters like this are perfect to save as bonus material, similar to those deleted scenes you see when movies are released for home viewing. One day, should your book be published, that's exactly the kind of fun bonus material readers are happy to get their hands on. And if nothing else, it's something you worked hard on, so while you should cut it during the revision process, you should always hang onto it. It might even be useful for another story you write one day.
5. Read it aloud
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Reading what you've written aloud, especially dialogue (if nothing else, do the dialogue) helps to identify authenticity, flow, and clarity issues that often can't be recognized on the page. Since I mentioned dialogue (seriously, do the dialogue), let's focus on that. First drafts often include a lot of functional dialogue. This character gives that character directions because that character needs to know where to go next. That's fine, but the revision stage is where you take a look at those directions and ask yourself, "is that how people usually sound when they give directions?" And what about the person giving them? What does their voice sound like? Do they tend to insert sidenotes, make recommendations beyond what the other character requested? Or are they usually straight and to the point? Are they annoyed? Flustered? Amused? In a good or bad mood? What does that sound like? Reading dialogue aloud is the best way to verify whether the language you're using sounds natural. In my experience, people often start out with more stiff sounding dialogue. But people don't talk like that (well, for the most part). People use slang. They stammer. They drop words. They misspeak. When you're revising text, especially dialogue, you want to make sure it sounds right, even though most readers won't be hearing it out loud. They'll still be processing it in their brains as spoken word and if anything sounds too formal, or too jarring, they'll stumble over it.
Regardless of how you revise, or what steps you take to test your work, the wonderful thing about revision is that you can keep at it until it feels right. Just make sure you don't fall into the trap of endless revision. At some point, you'll have done all you can, and if your ultimate aim is publication, that's when it's usually a good idea to find a beta reader or critique group who can help you take the final steps from revisions to final draft, ready for self-publication or submission to agents and editors. And of course, if you're looking for additional help with anything from developing your story to fleshing out the details, we can help you elevate your manuscript through a variety of editorial services. Happy revising! May this be the year you take your writing to the next level!