Welcome back! Sorry for the delay. I’ve had a lot going on and didn’t have time to sit down and give this blog post the attention it deserved. I might have bitten off more than I could chew by committing to two blog posts a month and am considering reducing it to one here in the future, but we’ll see.
Without further ado, here is the third step in the novel writing process (according to me): revising.
Revising – Improving the content (story, themes, tone, etc.). This often also means rewriting.
Editing – Correcting the structure, words, and grammar.
Editing and revising are often spoken of together, but I am separating them as they are actually two distinct steps. You want to do as much revising as you can first, and then edit after, and here’s why:
Mary had a litle bull. it had black fur. & everyplace that Marie went, that bull went w/her.
Oops! I made some mistakes. Let’s edit it.
Mary had a little bull. It had black fur. And everywhere that Mary went that bull went with her.
Perfect. Or…wait…is it? It would be pretty dangerous for Mary to have a bull. I should probably make it an animal that’s nicer. A lamb, maybe? And since lambs normally have white fur, I should change that. The second sentence also doesn’t really work with the flow/rhythm/voice of what I’m going for. Come to think of it, neither does the ending. So, lets revise!
mar had a little lamb. it’s fleece is white as snow. nd everwher that mary went that lamb was sure 2 go.
There we go. Oh wait, I made a few more mistakes. Let’s edit again!
Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went that lamb was sure to go.
Probably would have been easier to just revise and then edit after, so I didn’t have to edit twice, right? And when it comes to an entire book, you’re likely going to be revising a lot. If you edit after every single round well… you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you. Better to get the content right first, and then worry about the writing.
How to Get Started
When I finish a first draft, the first thing I like to do is an initial revision. I go back through the book and fix all the things I already know I messed up or already have an idea of how to improve. I do this right away, while everything is still fresh, and I’m still thinking about it. It just makes everything that much easier when I come back to it later. “Come back to it” being a segue into the next part of revising…
Put the book away. You’re too close to it at this point to see its problems. Some people will say to wait a week or two, but I don’t think that’s long enough. Wait a month. Longer if you can manage it. Read books in the meantime. Maybe start another book. Fill your time so you’re not itching to jump back on the story too soon. You want to distance yourself from your manuscript as much as possible, so when you come back to it, you can see it for what it is, and not what you intended it to be.
Once you’ve reached adequate distance, you’ll be able to identify areas that aren’t quite what you wanted. Things might stand out that didn’t before because your brain isn’t filling in the missing information.
So What Are You Looking For?
Here are some things to look for based on mistakes I have made in the past and problems I have seen in other’s works as a beta reader.
Have a prologue? Take a look at it. Why do you have it? Why is it needed? Think about it carefully. If you have it because you want to explain the history, structure, or rules of your world…cut it. You don’t need it. World-build within your story. No one likes prologues that are long explanations of something, and those are the prologues that often get skipped and why prologues have a bad name.
Additionally, prologues often come across as “extra.” In other words, something that is interesting to the writer, but that doesn’t really improve upon or is necessary to understand the story at all. Would your story make perfect sense without the prologue? Would you really lose anything if it wasn’t there (be honest)? If so, cut it.
Let’s look at Act I. Act I should contain the setup of your story. It should set up the stakes, introduce your major characters, establish setting, and give your readers all the information they need to understand the rest of the story. It should include the inciting incident and all the motivation your character needs to make the decision to enter the main plot.
You’ll notice I said “make the decision.” While there’s no rule against having your main character forced into the plot against their will, generally speaking, it is better to give your characters agency. That means, giving them control over what is happening to them and letting them make choices and decisions that lead to consequences. It is harder for readers to stay invested in a character when the plot is happening to them and not because of them.
If you have multiple POVs, each individual character must be handled as carefully and deliberately as all the others. You must draw in your readers equally well for every single POV character you write. Otherwise, they will either skip over certain chapters, or they’ll stop reading.
Let’s look at Act II. Act II, the middle, is often the hardest thing to get right. Since the middle should take up about 50% of the book, that’s whole lot to wrap one’s head around, so I like to break it into two parts.
Act II pt 1 is all the stuff leading up to the midpoint, plus the midpoint. It is very, very easy to fall into the trap of just filling this space with random things. The popular Save the Cat! beat sheet (outline template), even refers to this section as “fun and games” which I believe is misleading. Everything that takes place in this section of the book still needs to have purpose and still needs to drive the story forward. I like to think of these chapters as the rising action to the midpoint, and the midpoint as being the climax of the first half of the book.
So, review these chapters. Are they pushing the main character toward the midpoint, or does the story remain stagnant? What about each of your chapters is important in driving the story? If you cut any of them, would the story still make sense? If so, snip snip.
Snip snip, is a generally good practice for the entire book. Look at all of it. Every word, every sentence, every scene, every chapter. Does the book need it to work? If the answer is ever “no…” Well, snip snip.
When it comes to the midpoint, to me, the most telling thing about whether you’ve done it right is to point to it. Where is your midpoint? If you can’t find it… you may not have one. The midpoint is the turning point in the story where things should change, a new goal should come into play (even if it’s just an addition to the old goal), the stakes should rise, and your character should begin hurtling toward the climax.
Act II pt 2 is all the stuff leading up to the climax/ending. This is actually where I tend to lose my way a bit when I’m writing and have a hard time not just filling up the space with unneeded scenes/chapters. Like pt 1, all of these scenes/chapters need to have a purpose and drive the story forward, allowing the main character to pursue the new goal set for them at the midpoint.
Review these chapters, point to each one, and determine why it is needed and what you were trying to accomplish when you wrote it. If it feels random, it probably is. As I said before, this is the section of the book where I tend to struggle the most. It’s hard for me not to just want to jump straight to the ending, and I fight to find relevant content to put in here. This is a very common area to get lost in for writers, so don’t feel bad if it needs work.
For notes on Act III, visit my blog post on drafting. Section title: The Ending.
Throughout the whole book, telling versus showing is a big thing. Telling versus showing was hard for me to get right when I first started writing. I could write a whole blog post about it alone, and maybe I will do that some time. For now, what I will say is: avoid telling wherever you can. Always make an attempt to show. That means not explaining things to the reader. If you find yourself explaining, stop, go back, and write something that shows your reader what you want them to know through action and dialogue (but also avoid over-explaining through dialogue; just because a character is saying it doesn’t make it not an info-dump).
Where I think a lot of writers misstep here is wanting to get as much info across to the reader as they can, as fast as they can, for fear the reader won’t understand what is happening. Give your reader some credit. They only need enough information to understand what is happening in the moment. The rest, they can figure out over time.
There is much more nuance to telling and showing than just what I’ve mentioned here and in my post on drafting, but as I said, that’s a post for another time. I’ll also touch on this in pt:4: EDITING. Until then, Google can help you out.
Another thing to look out for: déjà vu. This is not only a mistake I have made (fairly recently if I’m honest), but one I see a lot as a beta… So, ask yourself this: Does your character visit the same place more than once in your story? Do they do the same thing? Why? What happens in between that actually matters (be honest)? Could you combine those scenes together into one to keep the character from having to go back/repeat something?
To be clear, I don’t mean having the story begin in your main character’s childhood home and then, near the end, having them go back to reflect on how things have changed or something of that nature. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Here’s an example of what I actually mean:
In one of the books I’ve beta read, the writer had included the same inciting incident not just once but, no kidding, three times. It happened once, some stuff happened, and then it happened again, some stuff happened, and then it happened a third time. I guess third time’s the charm because at that point the main character finally responded to the call. All three times the event happened were nearly identical, save a few details, and it drew out the opening scenes of the book all the way through chapter fifteen (each about 2,000-3,000 words long). As you might guess, I recommended combining all three times into one. The writer agreed, and the second version was much better (and reduced those fifteen chapters into only five).
Think You’re Done?
Great. Now put the manuscript away for while and then start again. Maybe the second time, focus on something else.
Pacing maybe? Do any sections feel rushed or do they go on too long?
What about the dialogue? Read it aloud. Does it sound natural or stilted? Are there conversations that don’t drive the story forward? Are they interesting or do they feel like small talk?
Check the voice. “Voice” is a tough concept for a lot of writers. My trick to perfecting the voice is this: Give your narrator an identity. If your book is written in first person, your narrator’s identity is your main character. If it’s in third, you’ll have to give your narrator an identity appropriate for your book. Once you have an identity for your narrator, read the book as if your narrator is telling it to you. Adjust to account for speech mannerisms, turns of phrase, etc. so it makes sense, sounds natural, and flows.
Rinse and repeat until you’re happy or as happy as you’re going to get. Once you think the content is ready, it’s time to edit!
Pt.4: EDITING coming soon!