From mess to success: A writer’s guide to revision

A no-fear guide to revising your novel.

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Revise everything at once, or element by element?

When you revise, at whatever point you do so, should you go over your manuscript all at once, or should you focus on one fictional element at a time – for instance, character, plot, or setting? Which is the better approach?

“Every writer is different, but I prefer to revise one element at a time,” Varallo says. “That helps focus my revision.”

He found this method useful in revising his recent novel, The Lines. His editor pointed out that the overall tone of the work was problematic: “The early draft wasn’t ‘dark’ enough: the story needed more menace, more threat, more consequence.”

Initially, he wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“I didn’t know how to approach making a 200-plus-page manuscript ‘darker,’ until I hit on the idea of going through the novel, from the opening page to the last paragraph, and deleting every instance where the main characters express outright joy, happiness, or pleasure.” For instance, he says, “in the first draft, if I had written ‘the girl likes to gaze out the window at summer storms,’ the revised draft only claims that ‘the girl gazes out the window at summer storms.’”

“Those changes, although small, began to add up by the time I’d reached the end of the book. I think the novel is all the better for it,” he adds.

When Morris revises, she also targets specific elements. “It’s difficult to revise everything at once. A novel has to balance so many elements, and if you try to revise everything in one go, you might end up polishing only the phrasing.” She goes on to say: “If you have a specific narrative device, you might want to make a revision pass exclusively for that. For instance, in My Memories of a Future Life, I had two storylines that needed to balance and work together so that the reader felt they were like harmonies in a piece of music. So one of my revisions was to assess only that.”

The order of revision also makes a difference, states Morris, since some elements need to be addressed before others: “Before you even think about the phrasing, you need to get the structure right and the character motivations. In my own novels, I focus a lot on arcs. Plot arcs and character arcs are obvious, but I also think about theme and imagery arcs. Each time I go through the manuscript, I might look for one specific attribute.”

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According to Scharer, one efficient method is to read straight through your draft and make a revision list of items big, medium, and small. A big one might be: “Make her relationship with her father make more sense.” In contrast, a small one might be: “Research lamp styles in 1930.” Once you’ve decided on small, medium, and large, then you’re ready to “create three separate lists with those headers and organize the revision items under those headers.” This structured approach works well in terms of your energy level at any given point: “Sometimes, you will have the mental energy or time to tackle a ‘big’ item, and other times you may only have room to tackle something small.”

“Having your revision tasks organized this way will also make the ‘small’ items more manageable,” she continues. “Bring the list and your laptop with you whenever you think you can sneak a few minutes for work. I’ve worked my way through several small fixes during the hour I spent waiting at my daughter’s ice skating lesson – time that I otherwise would have wasted looking at social media on my phone or staring blankly at precision skating team pictures on the walls.”

Since Khadivi goes through a long, laborious process of planning out her novel, she faces only minimal revision when she’s finished drafting: “The revision at the end has more to do with moving sections, cutting the sections, or adding to the sections.”

Mostly, she continues to deal with the language itself, but her changes are not substantive, and while she’s quite meticulous, she doesn’t find this task in the least onerous. “I generally do a language revision where I look through every word and sentence and figure out if the music is right. This usually takes a month or so, and it is often very pleasurable,” she says.

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Revise the whole novel, or section by section?

Next: Should you plow straight through your novel or divide your tasks out, piece by piece? Should you go for the big picture or take on your novel’s revision in chunks, perhaps by chapters or by a novel section?

Let’s consider the big picture first. As Morris puts it, “A novel is one big machine – if you change one part, you might need to rework another.” If something changes in Chapter 1, it may very well change something in Chapter 21. For Morris, this was an important consideration when worldbuilding in early parts of her science-fiction/fantasy novel, Lifeform Three: “I made sure readers understood what was going on while not burdening them with too much information. Once I’d done that, I realized I could streamline other parts of the narrative.”

Other adjustments might be necessary. For instance, says Morris, “I might work hard on a pivotal character sequence, then realize this has deepened my understanding of their relationship, and I should adjust other scenes before and afterwards.”

Does every revision require this big-picture thinking? As Varallo points out, “If you are making a thematic or conceptual sort of change, then I think you have to go through the whole novel, otherwise your novel will read unevenly (you’ll notice that many novels, even exceptionally fine ones, read better at the beginning than the end, since the writer has likely revised the beginning of the novel over and over, while the end, discovered in the later stages of drafting, wasn’t nearly as rewritten).”

But let’s say you’re not addressing plot development, character arcs, or thematic threads. Perhaps you have much smaller fish to fry. With “smaller changes to scenes or chapters,” Varallo says, “it makes sense to zoom in and go line by line.” But even here, says Varallo, you still need to think about logical connections between chapters: “You can think of the chapters as ‘frames’ to work within, especially the opening chapters. Those need to be tight before you can get to the rest.”

For this question of whole or part, Scharer turns to the wisdom of acclaimed novelist Ann Hood – and what, for Scharer, amounts to an ordered, efficient approach. “Ann Hood recommends taking your manuscript out on a date, which is a concept I’ve always loved: just you, your manuscript, a quiet place, and a glass of wine. If, as you sip your wine and read through the draft, you realize there are giant, sweeping issues – perhaps you need to change the point of view, set the book in the 1950s instead of the 1920s, or completely delete an entire character or subplot – make those changes first.”

You will save yourself a lot of expended energy and time that way, as she explains: “There’s no point in going over one section again and again and again if you have to deal with global issues that will affect all the sections in the novel.” Once you’ve dealt with the various large problems you might face, “it’s time for another book date” where you can “tackle the book section by section or chapter by chapter.”

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