Revision is a key process of novel writing, but to the detriment of many an aspiring author, it is often overlooked and/or misunderstood. Having knocked off that first draft of a novel – the one you’ve already spent hours, months, sometimes even years writing – you might think that the really hard work is done. But it is not done. In many ways, it’s just beginning. The reason we have a manuscript “first draft” is that there are subsequent drafts.
For some, the second draft means running a final spell check, cleaning up punctuation, and they may go as far as removing some of their overzealous adverbs and adjectives. They then declare their work a finished novel.
But not so fast. There is much more to novel revision than spelling and grammar. Much more. Revising a manuscript is a big job, one that an author cannot afford to skip.
Objectivity – the Key to Novel Revision
The new writer tends to be overly attached to their writing and is reluctant to remove any part of it. This is the first thing a novelist must overcome. Novel revision calls for objectivity – it’s not an easy thing. Sometimes we think we’ve written the perfect snappy line of dialogue, the most beautiful scene, and there’s no way you want to edit it out of your novel.
Advice: don’t be too much in love with your own writing. If something isn’t working to either move the story or reveal more about your characters – get rid of it. You don’t have to press the delete button, forever banishing your beloved words into exile. Create a new document where you keep just this sort of thing – beloved writing not yet used – just cut it from your manuscript and paste it into that new document. You may find another use for that sweet baby in another novel.
Novel Writing Tips: The new writer tends to be overly attached to their writing and is reluctant to remove any part of it. This is the first thing a novelist must overcome.
How to Revise a Novel After the First Draft
Novel revision means starting at the beginning and reading through the manuscript word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph and chapter by chapter looking at a lot of things at once. Revision is a complicated process, but knowing what to look for certainly helps.
To facilitate the revision process, start by making three lists with the following headings:
- Plot Tracking
As you go through your manuscript you will pay attention to each of these items and either make instant corrections for easy items or make notes that you’ll use to correct the manuscript at the end of the revision process when you can observe your manuscript as a whole (vs. looking at each word, line, chapter). Let’s look in more detail at how paying attention to these 3 items will help to revise a manuscript.
Novel Revision – Characters
Look at how each character is introduced – as you read it in the manuscript, not as the sketch of character traits you initially defined for the character. Using your Character List, write down how you’ve described the character’s name, appearance, primary traits, etc. Do this for each character as they are introduced.
Your Character List might look like this:
Novel Revision Character List
- Haley Cavanaugh – born 1988, 5’7”, brown eyes, honey-gold hair, a single mother of one child, whose father left without a good-bye, working her way through college with part-time jobs; determined, resourceful, organized. Mistrusts relationships and is afraid of being hurt again.
- James Burns – born 1979…
As you continue reading, make notes of anything that conflicts with that initial description.
- If a character is initially described as perky, but later in the story you’ve written scenes that show him/her feeling depressed on a number of days, that might be inconsistent with what your readers have come to know about your character. This is something you will consider revising.
- If you state that your character is 37 years old but you have a 35th birthday party for the character, you will need to figure out how old your character really is and write it accordingly.
- Point of view is another element to watch out for – make sure that the character whose Point of View you are using is only relating information that they could know through their history, sight, perceptions or discussion with other characters, etc.
It’s all about keeping track of a character’s identity and ensuring its consistency throughout the manuscript. I once wrote a novel where the character names were so similar to each other (in my mind anyway) that I had attached certain dialogue to the wrong character. Having found the error during revision, I was able to correct it. If I hadn’t done so, I would have had some very confused readers.
Novel Revision – Timeline
The second list is a timeline of events that happen in your story. You want the timeline to be clear to the reader throughout the story. I keep track of the timeline as I write but I double-check it in revision.
As your story begins, make note of where/when it begins, and keep an eye on it throughout the manuscript.
Your Timeline notes might look like this:
Novel Revision Timeline:
- Chapter 1: July 1990 in Rum River, Minnesota
- Chapter 2: First week of August1990
- Chapter 3: Last week of August 1990
Problems that you might encounter with the timeline, other than the obvious one of having the month and year wrong, include mentioning something in dialogue or a character’s point of view that couldn’t have yet happened or that they couldn’t have known about.
- If in one chapter your character mentions the fun they had on a shopping trip, but the outing doesn’t occur until the following chapter, you have a scene to revise.
- If the month is supposed to be August, but you mention that the furnace ran all night long, either you have some revising to do or your character must have a reason for running the furnace.
Novel Revision – Plot Tracking
Tracking the plot of your story means reviewing the basic plot line, the subplot(s), motivations, events, etc. I’ve found that the best way to track plot is by using the outline. This is not the outline you prepared while writing the manuscript; this is an outline you will prepare as you review your manuscript in search of revisions.
- Are the promises made to the reader fulfilled?
- Do the scenes move the story along with correct details?
- Does the plot come to a satisfactory end?
- Does the subplot(s) come to a satisfactory end?
- Have I left any events, incidents, thoughts, unresolved?
- Would a narrative be better written as a scene?
- Should a scene be changed to a narrative?
Your Plot Tracking notes might look like this:
Novel Revision Plot Tracking:
Chapter 1 – Incident at Glory Heights; Pearl attempts to meet Sonnie.
- Pearl sends a letter to sister Susan informing her of her intent to marry Sonnie.
- Susan goes ballistic and immediately enlists help from her aide, Nick Ballantine.
- Nick calls the Warden at Glory Heights to stop Pearl from seeing Sonnie.
- Sonnie loses his job (where he sees Pearl daily), but quickly finds another as a Janitor.
Novel Revision–Second Draft
Once you’ve gone through your manuscript making notes and charting timelines, you will see what needs to be revised and make those changes. But you are not yet done revising. To have a novel that really shines, you must go through the manuscript again, reading it for the changes you made, of course, but also ensuring that the novel’s pacing, transitions, clarity, and style are still working. You may have many novel revisions before you are finished with your novel.
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Also, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment about your experience revising your novel. Or maybe you have questions about revision that I can help you with. Ask away!