Revising Your Novel

 by James Scott Bell

It is said that Michelangelo, when asked how he had sculpted his masterpiece, The David, replied, “I looked at the stone and removed all that was not The David.”

Not a bad description of the novel revision process. From the mass of words you have created, you will take away all that is not your novel. You’ll chisel and add, touch up, and cut, but in the end what you want is your story in its purest form.

And only you can decide what form that will be.

Depending on the writer, you’ll get different answers to what re-writing is, such as:

Re-writing is hell.

Re-writing is fun.

Re-writing is dull, because all the delight was in the creation.

Re-writing is like getting to take a final exam again, only open book and with your old answer sheet for reference.

And so on. What all writers do agree on (or at least 99 percent of them) is that rewriting is essential to the production of a great novel.

Robert Heinlein had two rules for writers:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

Before you can revise your novel you’ve got to have…your novel.

So write it.

With a few revision principles in mind. Very few, because the object of the first draft is to get it done. Only then will you take a long pause to get it right.

Revise as You Write?

I don’t recommend that you do major revision during the writing of your first draft. The temptation to stop and make major changes is constant, and it can drive you bats. And most of the time these changes aren’t the best thing for the story that’s trying to bubble up from your writer’s mind.

You only truly get to know your novel when you’ve finished it. So consider your first draft an exploration into what’s really happening in your story. Some of your best stuff will come into focus later, as you look back at what you’ve written.

Still there are two exceptions to this rule that I’ve found quite helpful.

1. Revise Your Previous Pages

Look at what you wrote the day before (or during your last writing stint), and do a quick edit. This practice puts you back into the flow of your story and gets you ready to write the new material.

I like to print out a hard copy of pages and mark them up. Of course, you can do all this on the computer screen. I just find that the act of reading physical pages more closely mimics what a reader will be doing, and I catch more things this way.

Mostly I’m editing for style. The way the sentences flow. I want to make sure what I wanted to convey has actually happened on the page. If a major plot or character problem emerges, or I get an idea for something to add, I just make a note of it and get to my day’s writing quota.
Write as fast as you comfortably can on your first draft.

2. Try the 20,000-Word Step Back

Whether you're a NOP (No Outline Person) or an OP (Outline Person), the 20,000-word step back can be a tremendous step.

After 20,000 words you stop, take a day off, then read what you have. By this time your story engine should be running. You’ve done enough of the novel to know pretty much what it’s about. You then take some time to make sure you like the characters and the direction.

If you don’t, make some changes now.

This is a good point to make your lead characters richer by adding background (whether you include this for the readers or not), behaviors, quirks, strengths, flaws, and tags (speech, dress, etc.).

You can also make a decision about the tone and feel of your novel. It may be wanting to take on a different emphasis than what you had planned. A better novel may be asking to be released.

The First Read-Through

Bobby Knight, one of college basketball’s greatest (and most volatile) coaches, once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Quite true. If you practice the wrong things, you are not going to be better player or team.

So the old saw Writing is rewriting! needs a little tweak. Good writing is re-writing with know-how.

That’s what this book is for. To give you both the tools and the strategies for approaching every aspect of revision.

And the first big moment is when you have a completed manuscript.

This is a crucial time, fraught with peril. Okay, perhaps peril is a bit much, but fraught is certainly applicable. What you must avoid is any temptation to stop and do wholesale revisions before you have read the entire manuscript once.

Think of this process as GoogleEarth. You want to get a complete overview of your “earth.” Your novel. Your story as a whole. You can spin the earth a little here and there to get a better view, but stay up top. You’ll tag a few places to visit later, to zoom in on. That’ll be the nuts and bolts of revision.

But to start, you need the big picture. You want the feel of the story, to anticipate what the readers will pick up. Here are the steps to follow:

1. The Cool-Down Phase

It’s essential to give yourself a break from the first draft. At least two weeks. Three is better, and if you can spare it go for a month (but if you’re like me that seems like an eternity. And if you have a deadline you may not have that luxury).

During this “cooling phase,” try to forget about your book completely. Some writers use this time for a weeklong refresher and don’t do any writing at all. Others, myself included, want to be working on something all the time.

If that’s you, work on another project. Pour yourself in into it. If it’s another novel, get cracking. If not, write an essay or a blog post or do writing exercises (such as those you’ll find in The 3 a.m. Epiphany).

Or journal.

Or write opening chapters for novels you may never write. Just start with an intriguing opening line and write without any pre-planning. Who knows? You may just get an idea you’ll want to develop.

The main thing is to get all of your concentration focused on writing that is not your first draft.

2. The Preparation Phase

Try to work up a little excitement as you come to the first read-through. A good mental outlook helps generate insights. Make it fun.

One thing I like to do is create a cover for my manuscript. I do a simple design, and then I put a critic’s blurb on it. Like this:

Try Dying
By James Scott Bell
"Bell just keeps getting better.
Yes indeed, the suspense never rests!"
New York Herald Tribune

The New York Herald Tribune, by the way, is long dead. But it was alive during my favorite period for crime fiction, the 1950s.

No one is going to see this, so lay it on thick.

The fun is about to begin.

If you’re having some trepidation about the whole process of revision—which many writers do—you might want to do up a little list of positives that you can refer to as you go:

  • This rewrite is going to make the book stronger, better

  • I have the tools that will make the book better

  • Great Writing is Re-writing with Know How, which is what I’ve got

  • Re-writing with know-how is the mark of a pro, and I am a pro

Add to the list as you desire, but give yourself every possible motivation to dig and get to work.

3. Print Out and Prepare a Fresh Copy

Get yourself a clean, crisp copy of your manuscript, with that cover on top. Should you print it out on one-sided pages? Double spaced? Courier font?

All of these questions are up to you. Double spacing and one-sided printing allows for notes, but since I don’t advocate copious notes for the first read-through, this isn’t a major concern for me.

I like to use Times font, single-spaced, double sided, because I want to create the feeling of an actual printed novel. I want to be like a reader, looking at it for the first time.

I like to three-hole punch my manuscript and put it in a binder I can fold completely back.

4. Get Ready To Read

Where do you like to read a brand new book by your favorite author? I don’t read for pleasure in my office. I have a nice soft chair by my living room window where I like to settle in with a nice cup of Joe.

Whatever your ritual is, replicated it with your manuscript.

The only difference is you’ll have a red felt tip pen (or whatever you like to jot with) and note pad.

5. Read

Try to read the manuscript through in a couple of sittings. Three or four at the most.

What you want to create is the feeling of being a fresh reader, getting into this book for the first time.

Don’t stop to make changes at this point. You may jot a few things down, notes to yourself and the like, but keep going to get the overall impression of the book.

I do use some shorthand markings the first time through.

  • A checkmark for pages where I feel the story is dragging.

  • Parentheses around incomprehensible sentences.

  • A circle in the margin where I think material needs to be added.

  • A question mark for material I think might need to be cut or changed, or that otherwise doesn’t make sense.

Using Outside Readers

Some writers like to give their drafts to trusted readers. People who know what they’re doing and can offer an objective viewpoint. Readers like this are extremely valuable. Show them their value by treating them to an opulent meal (or something analogous) every time they help you.

You might want to include a simple response sheet along the following lines:

  • What did you think of the overall plot?

  • What did you like/dislike about the main characters?

  • Were there places where you got bored? Please explain.

  • Any suggestions for improvement?What did you like about the book? (Take as much time as you want with this section!)

6. Analyze

After the first read-through, begin to make notes. Answer the following questions.

  • Does my story make sense?

  • Is the plot compelling?

  • Does the story flow or does it seem choppy?

  • Do my lead characters “jump off the page”?

  • Are the stakes high enough?

  • Is there enough of a “worry factor” for readers?

  • Write yourself a short essay about your book, as if you were a critic. How would you, objectively, rate your story?

Do not be too hard on yourself.

Don’t expect this first draft to be perfection, or anything close to it. All first drafts are lousy, many professional writers believe. That’s part of the point. You need to get it off

And don’t be too soft on yourself. You are not the exception to the rule that all first drafts are, at least, not ready to go.

At this point, you can go through your manuscript as you wish, looking for those spots that need work, marking up the pages.

The Major Stage

Now you're ready for the all important "dig in" phase, the major re-write. Here, you will benefit from a "systematic" approach to the task of revision. A checklist.

In Revision & Self-Editing I have provided what I call "The Ultimate Revision Checklist." I put this together after years of compiling the main questions I ask myself on every book.

That's really what re-writing is.

First, ask yourself questions.

Second, answer them in the best way possible.

The Ultimate Revision Checklist provides those key questions. You provide the genius.


Final Word

James Scott Bell is the best-selling author of suspense novels, and two books from the Writers Digest series "Write Great Fiction." The first of these, Plot & Structure, has become one of the most popular WD titles of recent years. The second, just released, is Revision & Self-Editing. This article is adapted from that book. Get yourself a copy!

And if you missed any of our other special features, including works by Ted Dekker, Jerry Jenkins and Tosca Lee, you can find them here.


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