Revising a novel can be almost as big of a challenge as writing it if you don’t have a plan of attack. Once you’ve finished a first draft, chances are that there are so many things that need attention that the whole prospect of working on it can overwhelm you. But I’ve come to love the process of revisions, sometimes more than writing the first draft. It’s always awesome to see the story really come together. And I’ve learned a few things about how to approach revisions along the way.
Last week I talked about the first step in revising a novel: the Read-Through. It’s important to read quickly through what you’ve got so that you can get a sense of flow (or lack thereof), what the big issues are and what needs to be done about them. I always do a read-through with a pen and pad of paper nearby, making notes as I go but not changing anything yet.
The next step is to look at those notes and tackle the problems you’ve found one at a time.
This can mean different things to different people. It’s all about knowing what your main weaknesses are. Every writer should be self-aware and willing to admit that there are mistakes they make every time. These are the big, obvious problems that will get in the way of making your novel into what it was meant to be. Because they are so obvious, they’re like the low-hanging fruit that you can pick without having to stretch too hard.
For example, one thing I am notorious about doing in my first drafts is what I call “editorializing”. It’s like exposition gone bad. I have a wretched habit of stepping back as an author and writing a lot about what the characters feel about the action of the story. It’s telling instead of showing on a microscopic level. I can fill entire paragraphs where the verb of every sentence is some incarnation of “felt”, “thought”, or “believed”.
I’m not saying you should never talk about how your characters are feeling or what they think of the situation they’re in, but with me it gets excessive. So out it all goes! And how can I tell when I’ve fallen into these horrible editorializing sections? The action slows down to a crawl and I drift off. As soon as that happens, the proverbial scissors come out. I’m particularly bad about starting each new chapter with a paragraph of editorializing.
That’s my big thing. For you it might be something different. Maybe you over-describe things or write too many dialog tags or have thousands of run-on sentences. Everyone’s major weaknesses are different. You’re not going to do yourself any good if you don’t dig out those weaknesses though. Your job as a writer is to seek them out and eradicate them! If you aren’t sure what your big weaknesses are, find some honest beta-readers to tell you. If you aren’t completely honest with yourself about the faults you have as a writer, you will never be able to overcome them.
This second pass through your novel is going to take a lot longer than the read-through. If you’re doing it right, there will be a lot of things to clean up. Remember all of those continuity issues and extraneous details and plot points that you changed your mind about? Those are low-hanging fruit too. I usually end up writing entire new scenes or removing scenes that don’t work in this second pass through. It’s time-consuming, but worth it.
I’ll tell you what I don’t do in this pass through though. I don’t correct the tiny, picky things. Some of them you can do as you go along without interrupting the harder work you’re doing. But unless it helps to fix a bigger problem, I don’t remove adverbs or rephrase sentences or paragraphs for flow and pacing yet. I save that for the next read-through.
Yes, there’s more than one! You have to move the big pieces around and take care of the major problems first before you can start to fine-tune. My first novel, The Loyal Heart, had gone through about eight drafts by the time I published it. And I’m sure I would revise it again if I wasn’t working on the next big thing. But I think that the more you write and the harder you work on your writing skills, the fewer drafts you’ll need to do before ending up with the final product. We learn as we go.
In the meantime, when you’re just starting out, you can’t have too many drafts. Yes, it’s time-consuming and most of the time you just want to be done and submit or publish the thing, but the more time you spend on it the better chance you’ll have of creating genius. Each pass through the book is like adding another layer to a great painting. You find things you missed each time you dig in.
So in a nutshell, after doing your read-through and writing down your observations about the story, go through the novel and tackle the biggest problems first. Those big problems are going to be the issues you found in the read-through and made notes about and the glaring, obvious problems you know you have as a writer. It will take time, but once you’ve banged the bigger pieces into shape you’ll be able to break out the finer brushes to make magic word-by-word.
So what are some of the weaknesses you know you have as a writer? Please share so that other writers who might not know what to look for can begin to get an idea!