So you need to revise your novel… but how do you actually, you know, *do* that? Especially if you are allergic to outlines/a total pantser, a revision is a daunting task. In general, I do not recommend tackling too many full book revisions as that way lies total insanity. Instead, after your first full page, try the targeted revisions I discussed in part one.
But you can’t revise blind—a plan of action and tools to keep you organized and on task are key.
METHOD ONE: Super organized, stem to stern revision
In my mind, I call this the “Susan Dennard revision method,” because I pulled it from her blog and amazing writer’s resources. I’ll outline her method in brief and how I deviated slightly from it, but really recommend you follow her revision guide step-by-step when actually attempting this revision type. So here is how I did my first, whole book revision pass following Susan’s guide:
I bought a large binder, printed out my entire manuscript (make sure there are page numbers on there), separated each chapter with a tab and bought a ton of flags. I printed Susan’s worksheets and physically read through my whole book, highlighting things, inserting flags & making notes as I went. The notes were super topline–on the appropriate worksheet, I put page number and an overview of the problem. I used color-coded flags for different kinds of problems (continuity, character arcs, etc.).
Then I matched my worksheets/page numbers to my Scrivener file and tackled each thing one by one, going in groups–it was easiest to do continuity first, then character, etc. In this pass I made notes about “white room syndrome” and did a particular pass for those sections. Ditto “telling vs. showing” passages. I made note of where I wanted to add chapters or rewrite chapters, and after tackling the “easier” things (continuity, etc.), I sat down and did the new writing/rewriting needed for pacing.
Susan recommends buying a whole bunch of notecards and creating a card for every scene, noting the scene’s purpose, conflict, etc… this made my brain cry, and the little pantser in me crossed her arms, pouted and said “nope.” But I’m pretty sure this method is very smart and works for a lot of people to identify scenes that aren’t working, don’t have enough conflict, etc…
Of course, you can use the binder + flags + worksheets method for any revision pass, but I found it most useful for my first, when I was tackling the entire book. Now, you’re not doing line-editing or grammar nitpicks during this pass. You are looking for topline issues: massive continuity errors, character arcs that don’t track, bad pacing, rushed endings, etc.
METHOD TWO: Targeted problem solving…with notecards!
I did end up using my color-coded notecards, thankfully, just not for scene-by-scene dissection. Essentially, every notecard became a problem, and how to fix it. I found them invaluable to what I call “targeted revisions” (as in, from part one).
Usually after receiving notes from a critique partner or agent, I would pin-point problems by breaking down the notes into three categories: The things I wouldn’t change/thought were too nitpicky to change, the things that were a good point but I wasn’t sure how to change, and the “omg how did I not see that?” things that had to change. I looked for patterns–where there multiple notes about one character? One scene? Pacing? Dialogue? Usually 4-5 over-arching things would emerge as needing to be tackled.
Then I made one notecard for each Thing I Needed To Fix. For my focused passes, I usually didn’t have more than 15 cards–generally 4-5 “big cards” (changing plot plots, character motivation, romance threads, etc.) and then several cards with continuity/glaring error notes on them. It’s important, especially when a critique partner gives you a laundry list of things, to know what really needs to be revised, and where to stick to your guns. Save anything you’re not sure of for the next pass–see if other critiquer’s have similar comments. Every revision shouldn’t be a major one.
On the top of each card, I boiled down the issue to its core (PLOT TWIST X FORESHADOWING, ROMANCE PROGRESSION, etc.). Below that, I noted where in the manuscript the issues/things to fix were (I had a short code for every scene). And then I would scribble my ideas for *how* to fix it. It could be vague (MOAR KISSING! or Research Topic Q for scene J) or super specific (X should say Y in scene F; or ‘cut this’). If you buy a multi-pack of colored cards, you can color-code the types of issues.
And then I would tackle my revision pass one notecard at a time. I could do them out of order, as they struck my fancy, and I wouldn’t forget anything because cards! So, for example, I had a plot twist but a critique partner didn’t feel the foreshadowing was enough. I noted down scenes where I could organically work in foreshadowing, and jotted down exact ideas. Then I referenced my card, went into Scivener, jumped to each scene and inserted a foreshadowing thread.
What I liked about this method, especially as a pantser, is I didn’t have to approach the entire book every time—I could designate my revision time to a light brush pass fixing continuity, or dig in for the major rewrite cards. I tend not to have large swaths of time in which I can buckle down and revise (both because of organic schedule and because my brain dribbles out my ears after a few hours), so the flexibility was ideal, and the notecards kept me on track.
- Sometimes the best way to tackle a problem scene is to start from scratch. You know the gist of the scene, the soul of it, and you’d be surprised how fresh it can be when you wing it again. Then you can keep the new version, or merge the two to make sure you’re hitting all your points.
- For dialogue, read it out loud. What sounds good in your head may not sound natural when you speak it.
- If you write in Scrivener, try revising in Microsoft Word. Even though Scrivener is my favorite thing ever (and I can’t write first drafts in Word), I found doing rewrites and clean-up jobs off Microsoft Word–often with CP or agent comments in the margins–supremely useful. The words often flowed more easily (re)writing in that format. Then I would copy and paste the new scene or chapter into Scrivener.
- Pro-tip: if you want to do an entire pass of your novel in Microsoft Word, you can import it back into Scrivener and then break it back up into the scenes you want. Helpful for a massive, heavy revision where you’re making too many changes to copy & paste individual parts into Scrivener.
- It’s OK, and in fact natural, to start hating your book at a certain point. When you’re knee-deep in it and revising and revising, you end up way too close to the material. Write through the hate. Then take some distance and look back at what you did later. Get second and third opinions to distinguish between your own angst and what is actually bad. (trufax: I hated my book during several of my revisions, and was convinced I was a Horrible Writer)
- But pay attention to those niggling feelings about scenes, lines of dialogue, even plot points. Sometimes our gut is right about what needs to be cut or rewritten. My last revision ended up being something that had been niggling in my brain for the previous six months. In my heart, I knew it had to happen. Our writerly instincts are often right, even if we don’t want to listen to them.