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Major Revision in Novels

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Mon Jan 31, 2011 6:05 pm
canislupis says...



In the past, every time I finished a “novel”(quotes intentional), I seemed to be left with a giant mass of completely unusable material. Which would have been ok if the plot was solid, (I have no problem editing for line by line stuff) but I was nearly always overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work to be done before I would even consider letting someone else read it. Since I had no idea how to even begin, I usually gave up and started the Next Shiny New Project. Surprise surprise, five or six 60,000+ word ‘novels’ started piling up in my documents. So, I checked my email a few times, wrote some reviews, and pretended that the Next Novel would be the one I edited.

It took me forever, but I did finally figure out an editing strategy that works for me, and I decided to post it here along with some basic tips and ideas, in case they might be helpful to any of you.

1. Finish a rough draft. I can't stress this enough—if you don't have the starting blocks before you start editing, you'll never finish. Save the edits for later—I mean it. Resist.

2. Let it sit. You'll find this bit of advice pretty much everywhere you look online. It may be hard to do, especially if the idea is still fresh, but it will be much easier to be objective if the whole thing feels fresh. Write some short stories, journal, poetry, whatever.

3. Read it through once, without touching it (works best if your word processor has a “read-only” function). When you have an idea, or see something that has to be changed, write it down in a notebook. In fact, create a few pieces of blank paper right now. Call them “edits for later” and write down everything you think of. This is very useful for the actual novel-writing process itself as well—every time you change something, like the MC's eye color, or the date, write it down to fix it later, i.e: Pg. 45: Jessica's eye color changes. Pg. 207: make the weather forecast be for a storm, not sun. These are rather weak examples, but you get the idea.

4. Create a “bird's eye view” of your novel. Whether you're an outline person or more of a seat-of-the-pants writer, now is the time to figure out what's actually happening. You can do this by chapter, or just in one giant paragraph—but don't get too specific. Write what happens to or around the character, their reaction, and how they change. It may look something like: “Chapter 1: Character learns Y and does Z.. 2: Character nearly dies and X happens.” etc.

Do this for the entire thing, until you have a one or two page mini novel. Now, evaluate it. Did you accomplish what you wanted to? Are there any parts that don't make sense? Once I finished a 70k word draft only to find out that there was no conflict. Not fun. How have the characters changed? This is the time to think about the book in terms of large scale changes and developments. Most major problems appear here, and since an edit only involves a few paragraphs, it feels a lot more manageable. When you have a story arc you like (you may want to let it ferment in your brain for a few days) move on.

4.5 Write down every New Novel Idea as you get it. Take a day or so, and write down whatever's hammering at the inside of your head. Even an entire outline is ok. Then put it away and get back to revision. Discipline is the key here.

5. Break down your Mini Novel into chapters or scenes. For each one, ask yourself the following questions:
  • a). Does this scene do something to further the development of the plot?
  • b). Does this scene do something to further the development of the characters?
  • b). Is/are the character(s) consistent? Is this scene/chapter the logical continuation of the previous?
Now, make any major edits necessary. Take it scene by scene, and focus on the bigger issues like plot and character. Do not do line by line edits now. I'll say it again: Do not. Do. Any. Specific. Edits. Now.

It's hard not to, especially when you find that “it's” that should be “its,” the “their” that should be “there,” that run-on sentence... But as tempting as it is to polish everything up, resist. You'll only have to change it all later.

6. Now, you've gone through the whole thing. Hopefully some of your subplots have been ironed out, the plot arc is looking a little smoother, your characters are changing. Do step four again, maybe with a little less detail, and see how you like it. If it's good, proceed to step seven. If not, you may need to adjust again. This is draft two.

7. Go through your “later edits” sheet(s) and do all the edits that are still relevant. Now is a good time to add details about the setting, background, and aesthetic type stuff as well. At this point it's probably a good idea to print the whole thing out. For whatever reason, we read differently on paper vs. on screen, and it becomes ten times easier to pick out errors when they are printed. Besides, I find it fun to sit with a large pile of paper—that I wrote on—and a pen. It's inspiring. I like to make the margins small though, to save printing costs, and just write on the back if I have notes.

Mark them up. Fix dull sentences and typos. To avoid burning out, aim for just a chapter or so at a time. Editing requires a different mindset than writing itself, and you'll start to miss simple mistakes if you try to do too much. You may need to repeat this step more than once as well.


Miscellaneous tips:

Don't give up! It takes months to edit a manuscript. Many published authors take years. So don't get frustrated if the ideas aren't coming easy and you just want to chuck the whole thing in the fireplace/stove/trash/shredder/lake. Instead, give yourself a little breathing room. Take a day or even a week just to think about it. Write some mediocre poetry. Take a walk. Review. As long as you come back to it, it's ok. And even if the finished product still sucks (which it won't), the experience you gain from the process itself will be priceless later on in your career. When/ if you do get stuck, try to go back to the beginning, that spark, image, character that inspired you to write in the first place. What about it made you like it? I often feel a certain mood or emotion connected to my piece, and if I can make myself feel it again, it's often enough to break through the block.

Save often, and back up your files. Date everything. This seems like common sense, and it is, so don't forget. Every time you edit, save a new version. It is so, so helpful to be able to go back to a previous revision you liked better. Make docs for “cuts,” large sections that you have to cut, but may want to use parts of later. And back it up. If your laptop/computer dies with a novel on it, you just might go insane and have to live in an asylum for the rest of your life. So back it up now. Online word processors like Google docs (or now Writerfeed Pad) are free and work well. You can also just email it to yourself—it doesn't matter, as long as you have more than one copy. And then, date stuff. It's good habit to be in, and you will want to know when you wrote things later.


Lastly, keep in mind that these specific tips are what worked for me. Don't stick to them: they're just starting points. Novel revision has many levels, and I meant this more as a starting point than a set of unbreakable rules. What works for you may take a while to figure out, but as long as you keep trying you won't regret it.

Good luck on your revisions! And if you have something you think I should add, let me know. :D Happy writing!




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Fri Feb 11, 2011 5:30 pm
tinkembell says...



Read it out loud; seriously, it works - not that I've ever finnished editing a novel :D

~Tinkem
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Fri Feb 11, 2011 7:17 pm
canislupis says...



I do find that reading it aloud helps--it's easier on short stories and poetry (because really, who want to sit around for ten hours reading a novel?) but with sections you're unsure about, it would probably be helpful.

The problem is that sometimes, when you've been with a novel for a while, entire sections are committed more or less to memory, and then you can't pick up awkwardness or inconsistencies. In this way, reading it aloud would be great. That said, I don't think it really applies to first drafts--since, for the most part, you'd only being doing it on something more establish. Maybe I (or someone else) will write about line edits for long works. :D

Thanks for reading!

Lupis




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Sat Feb 12, 2011 12:07 am
Evi says...



These are some really awesome tips and guidelines, Canis-- I just wish I had a finished novel to use them on! :P Thanks for the post.
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Sun Jul 03, 2011 4:23 pm
Carlito says...



Thank you so much! I just finished my first novel and I've been trying to figure out a plan of action for editing the thing. I was about to start nit-picking and going over word choice and plot and characters all at once but your way seems to be a lot easier and smoother! :)
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Sun Jul 10, 2011 9:33 pm
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Apple says...



I am definitely favouring this on my computer so I can zip back to it later. I know just how you feel, I've written books with 90,000+ words and when I start editting I start getting annoyed that this isn't working or that character is starting to sound like all the rest, and then before I know it I am writing another, new story only to have it join into the pile.

What I did find with my recent novel was that leaving it was probably the best thing I could have possibly ever done. It really helps because then you're fresh. I left it for three months because of school work and when I came back on the holidays I tackled it a lot easier with open arms. And it makes you feel pretty good to because when you find something GOOD it makes you think: did I actually write that? Woah, I am good! :P

Thanks for the tips, I will definitely use the next holidays!
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Sun Jul 10, 2011 10:13 pm
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silentpages says...



Great tips! I started the editing process on one of my novels, but I've kind of slipped away from it, and now I think I might try to edit one of my other novels after JulNoWriMo is over... I'll have to keep this in mind when I start the process again. ^^
"Pay Attention. Pay Close Attention to everything, everything you see. Notice what no one else notices, and you'll know what no one else knows. What you get is what you get. What you do with what you get is more the point. -- Loris Harrow, City of Ember (Movie)