Maybe you’ve waited to type those word for thirty days in November, or maybe you’ve been waiting for several years, adding words to your novel whenever you could find a spare minute.
Either way, you’ve finally completed your first novel. You call your friends and update your Facebook status and your non-writer friends are like “Yeah! Break out the champagne. When do you get rich?” and your writer friends are like, “eh, whatever,” but all you can think about is what comes next.
Query letters, cover art, book release parties. Or even better: Phrases like “Best seller” “Movie rights” and “red carpets.”
Of course, none of that stuff takes place next. What comes next is a torturous, grueling process, in which you will learn to hate your book. You’ll learn to hate writing. You’ll learn to hate reading. You might even start hating yourself. It’s called revising, and all of that is true–if you’re doing it wrong.
Revising your novel doesn’t have to be the worst experience of your life
So after you’ve finished patting yourself on your back, you need to get to work. Writing the book was the fun part. Now it’s time to hand your manuscript over to the adult side of your brain.
Let’s be honest here. Your book is probably pretty good. You’ve most likely put a lot of work into it. You may have planned it out well in advance, or you may have written the whole thing on the fly. Either way, your novel lived and grew inside your head before you transferred it to your computer. Like I said, it’s probably a pretty good story.
But that’s where it stops. Your first draft is riddled with grammar and punctuation errors. It’s full of flat characters with even flatter dialogue. It’s got more holes than Mission Hills Golf Course.
It’s going to be hard to fix. It’s going to take a lot of work, and you’re more than likely going to have to delete parts of it.
So why am I telling you that this experience doesn’t have to be terrible?
Think of it this way: What are some of the most rewarding things you’ve ever done? Were any of them easy? Nothing that is important comes easily, but in the end, the reward is worth the work and time you put into.
I’ve got two small kids. Days can be long and stressful. I wake up tired; I go to bed tired. I’m tired all day, and sometimes it’s pretty hard. But at the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than my kids. The reward is worth the work.
You can say the same about stuff like exercise, sacrificing to save money, cooking a good meal, painting a picture, perfecting your dart game…whatever it is that makes you happy. Put in the work, enjoy the reward.
First, find the good stuff…
So back to writing, if you let your novel sit on your computer for a week or so after you’ve finished that first draft, the bliss of finishing it will wear off. It’s important that you do just that. And then open it up and start reading it.
You know what you’ll find? Mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes. But don’t worry about mistakes in this run-though. Highlight them if you want, or ignore them completely. They’re not what I want you to look for right now. What I want you to look for is the stuff that you’re proud of. The stuff that is so good you can’t wait to show it to people. The stuff that makes you proud to have written it.
Mark it in some way as “good.” And then…
Find all the terrible stuff
This might not seem like a lot of fun on the surface, but it’s a necessary step. Read through your manuscript again–yes, you’ll read this several times before you rewrite it. And yes, you will rewrite it.
As you read it this time, mark all of the terrible parts. These are the parts that you can’t believe you wrote. Stuff that would make you cringe if another author wrote it. Stuff that you would be embarrassed to show anyone.
Mark it in some way as “bad” and move on.
Now, we outline.
I’m not a fan of writing a detailed outline beforehand because I find it difficult to create once the idea has left my head and got on paper. I need that word dump as I write. If you do prefer to outline before you write, more power to you. You’re story will probably come out of that first draft with a more structured plot than mine.
But put that outline aside for a minute.
What I want you to do right now is take a blank page and write an outline of your novel from memory. After having read it twice already, you should be able to do this with little trouble.
Here’s where you get to be a little creative again. You know how it is when you finish watching an episode of your favorite show, and after it’s over you say, “They should have done this instead…”
Do that with your outline. Study it and figure out ways to make the story better. Try figuring out why certain things happen, what if certain scenes took place in a different order or with a different outcome. Show your outline to a couple of people you trust and see what they think.
Rewrite the book
Once you’re relatively happy with your new outline, it’s time to start over. And by that, I mean rewrite the book.
No, I don’t mean literally rewrite every single scene, but you will have to rewrite a good chunk of it.
Start by looking at the big picture stuff. Re-arrange, scenes to match up with your new outline. Remove any scenes that no longer seem relevant to your overall plot. If there is anywhere that you need to add new material, just put a comment in its place and write it later.
Once everything is organized, start reading. Read the whole book again from start to finish, making very minimal revisions. This read-though is just to make sure everything fits in the right place. Afterwards, go back to the comments you left in place of new scenes and fill them in.
Now move on to the “final” stage of revising…
Go back and find all of the parts you marked “bad.” Fix them. Rewrite them until you are no longer embarrassed to read them. Do this until they’re perfect.
Then go find all of the parts that were marked “good” and read them again to make sure they still fit.
Finally, do some copy editing.
While editing isn’t the focus of this post, and I will probably do a full post about editing somewhere down the line, I wanted to touch on just a couple of points.
This is the part where you check your manuscript for grammar and punctuation errors. Use some text analyzing software to check that you’re not overusing the same words or phrases. Count the number of explanation marks and make sure they add up to zero. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but just don’t use too many.
Also pay special attention your style. Stay consistent with your point of view. Don’t head-hop. And don’t use any adverbs. Okay, one or two adverbs might be okay.
You get the point. Do all that stuff good writers are supposed to do.
And that is it.
Actually, it’s not. This is just the first step.
The next step is to find a good group of readers and get some quality critiques before moving forward.
What about you? Feel free to share your revision process.