Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Revise a Novel (or other work of fiction)

I hadn't planned on this post, but it needs to get written because I see too many potentially good writers get bogged down in revising. Too many writers go into revisions with the idea that they need to polish text when that is the last thing that they need to be doing. What they really  need to be doing is asking critical questions about their work in a structured format.

To revise a work of fiction, you need a goal. What EXACTLY are you revising for? Pick, then hold that lens up to your work and look through it. Here are some of the questions that I ask. You will certainly want to add to this list.

  • What parts aren’t you interested in? Cut them or revise them into something interesting.
  • What parts interest you? Keep them, and keep any items that support that interest.
  • How does the pacing go? Do you need to move scenes up or back?
  • Do you need to split any chapters apart? Do you need to combine any? Does it work as an organic whole?
  • Ensure that every chapter ends with some aspect of the story hanging in uncertainty.
  • What themes or analogies do you want to run through your manuscript? Put them in. Remove the themes or analogies that don’t work with that.
  • How would normal humans react your situations? Ensure that the ordinary course of humanity shows up.
  • Are there any characters that can be combined?
  • Does a different character work better in the same scene?
  • Is character dialog sufficient differentiated so that your readers can better tell who's talking?
  • Do characters have sufficiently differentiated motivations and do they follow those motivations to their logical conclusion?
  • Is there anything at all that you are irrationally unhappy with? Cut those bits and fill in the gaping holes later. You’ll think of something better once those unhappy parts are gone. Embrace the gaps and the uncertainty.
  • Are your facts in the most effective place? Especially in the beginning, are there any facts that can be safely pushed deeper into the story? What facts can be left out?
  • Does the work feel like you want it to? What do you need to add/alter/change to make it feel more like your intended work?
  • Does this meet the quality of the best in your field? What will it take for you to match their quality?
  • How quickly do your important sections read? Important parts should take up more lines. Don't be afraid of taking time on important events.

The good thing about using this method is that you do the same thing repetitively and that forms a habit. You begin internalizing these skills. You soon spend less time spinning your wheels and more time actually identifying and addressing problems before you send your work to readers, editor, or submission.

After you are done a good set of revisions, save off a copy of your manuscript, then start over again on revisions, looking for issues and improving polish. Do this as many times as necessary. As you iterate through this, your revisions will go down and your polish will go up.