With NaNoWriMo behind us and many happy novelists soon to be doing revisions under the Pitch Wars mentors, December (and probably also January) are shaping up to be big revision months. Revision is a key part of the process, and even if you have a pretty good book, if you skimp on revision, it could make or break your chances.
Killing your darlings–or being brutal in your edits–is a requirement for good revisions, but only one piece of the puzzle. Every revision is different and thus should be tackled with various strategy. In part two, I’ll cover actual methodology, but let’s start with what type of revisions you may face, and tips specific to them.
The most obvious type of revision is the insane one: tackling the entire book. Or:
The full manuscript revision pass
Your first should be a full revision pass, and will likely be your most brutal, since you’re starting from the messiest manuscript. You may also find occasion to do a full manuscript revision later on, but it depends on the book.
The full pass is daunting and somewhat frightening, and I recommend being highly organized. During your first major revision, you’ll want to look for the top line issues–continuity, character arcs, pacing, setting, etc. Don’t bother with the nitpicks, like spelling & grammar and awkward phrasing. You may want to note these things, but don’t get distracted. Your job on a full book revision is to assess the book and overarching issues. What are the core problem spots? What needs to be rewritten? Deleted? Plot points tweaked?
After the full pass, there are several types of revisions you can end up doing, all of which I’d consider focused revisions. Some of these include:
The pacing revision
Nothing happens for fifty pages. Your critique partner was bored. Breakneck action without enough character development/breaks (this straddles the character arc revision).
One key to seeing and solving pacing issues is to draw up an honest plot arc. (I picked up this method from Jim Butcher, who talks about it here.) Plot every scene/action/conflict of your manuscript onto a graph–one dot for every thing. Then connect the dots. A balanced plot arc should look like a bell curve. If you’ve got a huge plateau at the top? Your middle may be sagging. If it’s flat until a sudden spike halfway? You may need to introduce your inciting action earlier.
As with most focused revision passes, compiling notes from multiple critique partners is useful. You, the author, know your book inside and out, and reading through it becomes a routine. Get a fresh pair of eyes on your book and ask them where they get bored. Which parts drag. Which parts they couldn’t keep up with. Then tackle it section by section, problem by problem. Where things drag, cut or rewrite. If the action/conflicts/revelations are too breakneck, insert interludes and give your plot room to breathe.
A reading rec: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. While I have some issues with this book, the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (which you can Google but is easier to understand if you’ve read the book) is a fantastic primer for story arcs (and character arcs) and where your story beats should come. Look at “the dark night of the soul” — not enough books have this denouement which is essential for end of book pacing.
The character arc revision
Your main character is unlikable. Your character is boring. Your romance development makes no sense (intsta love & other problems). One or more of your characters is emotionally bipolar. Your characters take a backseat to action. Character motivation is missing.
Fixing characters is not easy. In fact, if you have flat, unlikeable or unrelatable characters, it could sink your book. Key one is to get multiple opinions on your character issues. If you hear the same complaints, they are probably on to something. What’s valuable about feedback on characters is hearing what your reader’s would do, think, feel in the same situation. Often character issues come from a myopic perspective: yours.
Your character, particularly your main character, actually needs to have an arc–they start in one place and through conflict, action and plot resolution end in another. A character that doesn’t grow or change is boring. Sometimes, the key to a character revision is simply doing something terrible to them and writing the consequences. Often we hold our characters as sacrosanct and are afraid to give them real problems–be mean to your characters. The book will be better. Think: where in the manuscript could something more dynamic happen to your character? Or they could have a more dynamic reaction? (like, they hear bad news and react badly) Flat, boring characters may need “dirtying” up–make them more unlikeable, give them flaws. Conversely, unlikeable/unrelatable characters may need a “nice-ifying” brush pass–cut some snark, or make sure they have a reason to be unlikeable. (see above for ‘save the cat’ — your character needs a save the cat moment)
To actually fix a character issue, you should plot out either your character arc and or map out the character plot points (if you’re trying to peg a character’s unlikeability, or fix inconsistent emotional response). Then you can spot patterns and issues, and find the ideal places to insert changes.
The problem with the ending revision
Your critique partners tell you you rushed it, or an agent flat out tells you to change it… or you just don’t think the end is working.
It’s a common problem, and probably the hardest thing to fix. A novel can fly high with no problems… until the end. A bad ending can ruin a good book, and make or break whether an agent signs you.
When it comes to a bum ending, my best revision advice is to throw out what isn’t working and start over. Try different things–a new chapter here, taking out this one, rewriting another. Read it, repeatedly, to see what does and doesn’t work.
I had issues with the end of my book, and took a multi-tactical approach to it across multiple revisions. I wrote/rewrote/deleted two “bridge” chapters multiple times (and the final product is completely different from the original). I added a chapter with a whole new thread of action, and threw in a new catalyst just to see what would happen (it solved a denouement issue & set up a great thread for book two). Sometimes you have to play with the ending across several revisions until you get it right.
The continuity pass
While you will do a continuity pass on your first major revision, you will need to do subsequent passes for continuity as you change things. Changes to any part of your manuscript ripple outward–change one thing and something your character says 50 pages later doesn’t make sense, or does 20 pages before is redundant.
But revisions can be emotionally daunting, so I recommend keeping tabs on every change, and doing targeted continuity passes after you take a short break post your other revision.
Stayed tuned for part two where I actually give constructive information on HOW to revise instead of vaguely talking about top-line topics 🙂