Posted on January 27 2016 in writing & reading
Now that we've discussed the big picture process of revising your manuscript in How to Revise Your Novel, let's break down exactly how to approach your revisions.
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So you finished your first draft and set it aside for the recommended couple of weeks. (Trust me, friends, the distance is good for you.) You pull out your manuscript and read it. Suddenly, you understand why writers call rough drafts “rough.”
Your manuscript—if you can even call it that—is a mess. A pile of words and scenes that don’t even remotely resemble the beautifully crafted books on your shelves. That feeling of success you had when you finished your draft is a distant memory, and you start questioning your desire to write anything ever again.
Here’s the thing: First drafts are meant to be a mess. When you let go of creating a perfect story, you can explore rabbit holes and tease out ideas. With that type of writing, you need to write imperfectly if you ever want to finish.
Rough drafts are valuable. You can use a first draft to figure out what your story is about, or even who your characters are meant to be. Even if your finished rough drafts make you question your skills or sanity, they are an important part of the novel writing process.
The question is:
When you finish your rough draft, how do you craft it into the book you meant to write?
Revisions, my friend!
When you finish your rough draft, how do you craft it into the book you *meant* to write? Revisions!
I have a process for approaching revisions, but I know how daunting just that word (REVISIONS!) can be to new writers. To help make it less intimidating, I’ve broken my approach down into ten weaknesses I look for when I’m revising my manuscripts.
These are meant to be a starting point for your revisions, and once you dive into your manuscript you’ll likely discover your own approach. Just like writing, revising can be a very personal experience. Each writer will have different strengths and weaknesses. I encourage you to learn all that you can about how different writers revise, then pick and choose the methods that fit you.
However you approach your revisions, the important thing is to not quit after writing your first draft. It might seem daunting now, but that first draft is just the beginning. Revising is where you’ll truly craft your story into the novel you meant to write.
Okay, friends. Let’s go.
Take a look at my list, then jump to the comments to make any additions or suggestions!
10 Weaknesses to Look for When Revising Your Manuscript
Whether you’re a pantster (you write without an outline) or a plotter (outlines are your favorite), you likely reach The End by any means necessary - including ignoring huge inconsistencies in order to finish your story faster. Perhaps your story begins with a young boy as the protagonist, but by the end, you’ve written the young boy out and made him a teenaged girl. Oops? While drafting, that’s totally acceptable, but revisions are where you pinpoint those inconsistencies and fix them.
A technique I often use to write faster first drafts is using a placeholder when I’m not sure what to write. For example, if I can’t think of what to call a character, I’ll start with “Hero.” During revisions, I’ll search for “Hero” (using Scrivener’s find and replace function) and replace it with a real name. I’ve also used placeholders for scenes (examples: Fight scene TK or Make this steamy scene actually steamy TK). When I revise, I search for TK and address each placeholder one by one.
3. Filler scenes and darlings
You know those scenes where absolutely nothing happens? You need to get rid of those. Sorry, friend. Or perhaps you have a character who contributes nothing to the plot? She needs to go.
Revisions are where you look for filler scenes (scenes that don’t move the plot forward, up the stakes, or show character development) and darlings (anything or anyone unnecessary to the story) and delete them.
It hurts, I know.
You know those scenes where absolutely nothing happens? You need to get rid of those.
For every character, ask: Do I need this character? Are they adding to the plot, increasing stakes, or are they an integral part of my main character’s journey or growth?
There’s a chance you don’t need them, and your readers will appreciate having fewer characters to keep track of (especially if the character doesn’t contribute to the plot). Also, if you identify two characters who accomplish the same thing, you might be able to combine them into one character.
4. Character Arcs
Each of your main characters should show an arc during the story. An arc represents the change in your character from who they are at the beginning of your story to who they become by the the end, usually due to the choices and conflicts presented during the story.
Take Harry Potter, for example. In the first book of Harry Potter series, Harry starts off as a boy who lives in a cupboard beneath the stairs. He wears cast off clothes and is treated like a servant. He has no friends, no family, and no potential for his life changing. Through conflicts and choices, Harry grows and changes. The story ends with Harry leaving Hogwarts with a sense of who he is, who his parents were, friends and newly-gained confidence.
When you’re revising your manuscript, ask yourself: Does my character grow or change during the story? How?
Do I need an arc?
You might get away with having a side character or two who doesn’t show an arc, or possibly an almost flat-line main character (maybe in literary fiction?) but in general, your reader wants to see your characters growth or change. So - arcs are optional, but strongly recommended.
5. Easy solutions
In your rush to complete your first draft, you might create easy solutions to help your character. Perhaps, for example, your main character doesn’t have a driver’s license and she needs to get somewhere, so you give her an easy solution for getting a ride. Or maybe your character is facing the evil villain and suddenly she can do magic, so she defeats the villain and saves the day.
These easy solutions might help you finish your book, but they remove tension from your story. That’s not good.
Think of your story tension like a balloon. When you make things easier for your character, the balloon deflates. Take out too much tension, and your reader is the sad kid at a birthday party holding a limp piece of rubber. Boring. (And sad!)
Now, if you add tension, your balloon gets bigger and bigger. Your reader keeps wondering: “Will it pop? When will it pop? How will it pop? Oh my goodness, it’s totally going to pop. I better keep reading to find out.” All the other kids at our hypothetical birthday party crowd around the ever-growing balloon, because who doesn’t want to know what’s going to happen next?
That’s the experience you want to create for your reader.
Tension keeps your reader engaged and curious to see what will happen next and leads to a far more satisfying ending (and we want that), so look for spots where you make things too easy for your characters. Avoid giving them an easy out, and you’ll keep your reader wondering how the characters will escape the conflicts in your story.
Stakes are your best friend, and your character’s worst nightmare. You might have gone easy on your character(s) during your first draft, but you want to fix that during revisions.
Stakes are your best friend, and your character's worst nightmare.
The stakes are what is at risk for your character, the reason why they must take action. You want these to be juicy and heart-wrenching - the bigger, the better. Things like, “She falls in love with a guy then finds out he’s the man who put her father behind bars.” Ooh! Or maybe, “If she loses this game, she’ll lose her only chance at college … and crush her family’s hopes.” Oh, no!
When you’re going through your first draft, look at what’s at risk for your character. Could the stakes be higher? Could you make things harder for them?
Keep asking: Why should we (your readers) care? If the stakes aren’t high enough, scary enough, or emotionally strong enough, why should we keep reading?
Your job is to make us care. A lot.
7. Description redundancies + story line mis-match
This is something I tend to see in my first drafts: if I love describing something, I describe it the same way over and over again. It works during first drafts, because when I revise I look for the redundancies, pick the best one, and delete the rest. But when I miss those redundancies? Ick. It means the reader gets to read the same description over and over again.
Check for spots where you are redundant and make note of them. Compare all the places where you describe the same thing (settings, characters), then pick the best descriptions and delete any repeats.
Story line mis-match
Sometimes we want to describe everything all at once, regardless of whether or not it fits the story line.
Think of how you experience a new place: How does it look the first time you visit? You might notice certain big things, like the feeling or atmosphere, but gloss over the details. Now, take that same location, but think about the tenth time you visit. Perhaps you start seeing more details, and you might notice if something were missing or out of place. Do the same, but consider the hundredth time you visit. Do certain details fade away? Is it easy for you to miss things because you’re no longer seeing them with new eyes?
This goes for how you describe characters, too. When you meet someone for the first time, you might notice bigger details or characteristics (he has a beard and wears glasses), then on subsequent meetings you pick up on smaller things (one ear is bigger than the other, he has a small scar over his lip).
When you’re revising, look for how you describe settings and characters and make sure they fit where they appear in the story.
8. Confusing story lines
While re-reading your rough draft, you might realize that your character jumps from one location to the next, or gains essential information with no explanation. Perhaps in one scene she is trying to make a decision, and the next scene shows her in a completely different place facing a completely different decision. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to be mysterious and not give your readers all the information, you need to leave your readers plot breadcrumbs to follow. They need to be able to follow the story from one point the next, or you risk frustrating your reader or losing their interest.
Look for any and all confusing places in your manuscript and find a way to help the reader follow your character. Leave those breadcrumbs!
9. Goal, Motivation, Conflict
For each scene in your book, I want you to write down three things: Your character’s goal, motivation, and conflict.
Their goal is what they want at the opening of the scene. Their motivation is the reason or need behind their goal. The conflict is whatever stands in their way, or prevents them from achieving their goal.
Scenes without goal, motivation, and conflict often fall under “filler scenes and darlings.” Before you delete those scenes, ask yourself if you can clarify the character’s goal and motivation, or add conflict. You might be able to salvage a lackluster scene and give it purpose.
If you want to delve deeper into understanding goal, motivation, and conflict, check out GMC: GOAL, MOTIVATION, AND CONFLICT by Debra Dixon*.
Big thanks to my friend Caryn Caldwell for recommending this book (and lending me her copy). :)
The most important thing you can do when revising is make sure your plot is on point. (Unfamiliar with plotting your novel? Check out my favorite plotting resources for writers.) I left this for last because it’s a biggie.
First, ask yourself if you cover the major plot points:
- Do I have an inciting incident?
- Do I have a clear midpoint?
- Does my main character experience a dark moment?
- Do I have a climax?
- Do I have a resolution?
Then, see where the major plot points occur in your novel. Although you don’t have to have them right on the nose, you want them to be close.
- Does my inciting incident happen in the first 25% of my novel?
- Is my midpoint close to the halfway point of my novel?
- Does the climax hit in the last quarter?
- Is the resolution in the last chapter or pages?
Depending on your genre, you’ll have different guidelines for the above. Make sure you read as many books (ideally popular or best-selling) in your genre as possible to get a feel for how other authors handle plotting.
In Middle Grade Fantasy, for example, I’ve noticed that authors get out QUICK after the climax. There are often only a few pages of resolution. Whereas in Adult Romance, many authors include a short epilogue showing the main characters living their HEA (Happily Ever After).
Do your homework to get a firm understanding of what your reader’s expectations will be, and find out how (or if) you’re meeting them during your revisions.
That’s my list. It know it’s lengthy, but it’s helped guide me through a number of revisions. With each round, I learn more about revising, and my manuscripts get better.
I would love to hear from you in the comments: Do you share any of the weaknesses I listed above, or do you have others that you look for when revising?
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I just read 10 Weaknesses to Look for When Revising Your Manuscript - what would you add to the list?