How to Revise Your Novel – Part Three: The Little Things Count

Okay, so you’ve written a novel. You’ve started to revise it. You’ve read through and jotted down all of the problems it has. You’ve gone back and rewritten the major plot problems. What next?

Now it’s time to tackle the little things.

Sort out all the little things

Sort out all the little things

Little things might not seem all that important when you’re trying to iron out continuity errors and issues with point of view and voice, but once you’ve got your novel pretty much where you want it, the little things are what will make or break it. This is where you have to stop seeing your book as your baby and start dealing with it as if you were a reader taking a look at it for the first time.

You guessed it, this is the part of revising that gets slow and tedious. When I hit this stage of revisions I tend to read and reread everything at least five or six times as I go through. I start at the beginning and judge each paragraph that I’ve written for how it sounds in my head, if it’s interesting, if it advances the action of the plot, and if it keeps its focus.

The way your words sound is all-important. I have some good habits and some bad habits that I do without thinking about them. On the good side, I tend to use consonance and assonance as I write. Consonance is using similar consonants within a sentence (kind of like alliteration without going overboard). Assonance is using similar vowel sounds. To me that makes for easy to read sentences and I look out for them in revisions.

On the bad side, I am horrible at repeating the same word a billion times in the same paragraph. I also tend to include way more prepositional phrases than any sentence really needs in my first drafts. This is the time in the revision process where a lot of words get cut. Again, it comes back to knowing my weaknesses and being able to see them.

Another thing I tend to do at this point is check my exposition to dialog levels. Any time I have more than three paragraphs together without any dialog I have to really question what I’m doing and why. Sometimes I need a long period of narrative. But you know what? Most of the time I don’t.

Side story…. At lunch the other day I was talking with two coworkers who are both avid readers. We were sharing the things that really bother us that writers do. Guess what? All three of us agreed strongly that when a writer in any genre goes on for more than half a page without any dialog they start to lose us. You heard it, folks! Readers don’t want to listen to you talk, they want to listen to your characters talk.

Back to revisions….

What about those sections where it’s just not appropriate to have dialog? This is where I pay careful attention to paragraph breaks. Once upon a time, I used to write really long paragraphs. Like, epic paragraphs that would have gone on for pages on an eReader. Then I saw the light.

Breaking paragraphs into smaller chunks is not only easy on the eyes of the reader, it’s a great way to suspend or speed up the pace of your writing. At this stage of revisions, as I’m reading quickly through a page or chapter, I pay close attention to whether I’ve broken the paragraphs in the right place. Most of the time a lot of cutting and pasting happens and the paragraphs of my first draft end up shorter.

Actually, these guys aren't here to illustrate a point, I just wanted to show off another vacation picture I took last weekend. :)

Actually, these guys aren’t here to illustrate a point, I just wanted to show off another vacation picture I took last weekend. 🙂

It’s all about focusing on one thought at a time. It’s also about knowing how to lead the reader on from one point to the next. Just like a page can get boring when there is too much exposition without a lot of dialog, a paragraph can get boring if it has too many ideas in it. Great ideas often get lost in over-long paragraphs.

And then comes good old-fashioned killing your darlings. Yes, this is the stage of the game where all those unnecessary descriptions, ungainly clauses, and excess adjectives go bye-bye.

I was always puzzled about the advice of cutting 10% of what you’ve written in a first draft. In my uneducated mind I thought that meant cutting story elements. But no, I have come to learn that what cutting 10% really means is trimming off all the fat from sentences and paragraphs. Like I said, I tend to write too many prepositional phrases in my first drafts. I’m really precise about things being in the shelf of the bureau on the right side of the room or the hero leading the heroine by the hand to the bed. No. Just … no!

I’m kind of just scratching the tip of the iceberg here. There are a thousand different little things that make all of the difference when revising a novel. The key is to find the ones you know are your bad habits and to keep an eye out for them. It’s not the substance of the story that counts at this stage of the game, it’s how you tell it. But you are going to get back to the substance of story, plot, and character after your next big revision step: seeking professional help. Next week I’ll talk about what to do when you get all those critiques, opinions, and editorial comments back.

But for now, what are some of your bonehead things that you do all the time … in your manuscript, without thinking, on your own?


5 thoughts on “How to Revise Your Novel – Part Three: The Little Things Count

  1. Great post, Merry. You’ve brought up a lot of little things that drive us authors crazy during the edit process. But, you’re right, we need to address them all.

  2. Repeated little actions are my vice. Characters shake their heads, shrug and run their fingers through their hair – A lot!

    • Oh! Yep, you just reminded me that – before I broke the habit – my characters would GLANCE at each other all the time! And I had a lot of people smirking too. 😛

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