Revising Your Novel in Seven (Rambling) Steps

When you finish a manuscript, first you must cheer, cry, turn cartwheels and/or eat a pound of chocolate. Celebrate it any way you want, because it’s a massive achievement. The next step is to submit the book to a publisher or agent, right? No, very, very wrong.

• Step away from the book. (Oh, okay, you can read it for fun, but then you have to leave it alone.)

• Allow the book to marinate for no less than one week. Some authors don’t even peek at their mss for an entire year. There are certain luxuries to being unpublished. If you’re not expected to have the polished ms on an editor’s desk ASAP, you can take as much time as you want before revising. Just don’t do it too soon.

Why wait? When you’ve just written the book, you’re still inside the characters’ heads. You’re head over heels in love with your work and can’t see the flaws. You really don’t know what you’re missing – like a gap in the plot, for instance. When you can no longer anticipate what’s going to happen in every scene of the book, then it’s safe to go back inside the pages.

• Now, if you’re a pantser and don’t write an outline before you write, read the book and briefly summarize each chapter or scene. I recommend you do this step even if you’re a plotter. Not only will this help you get a bare-bones synopsis down, it’ll show you where you might’ve killed off Aunt Dora twice, etc. Identify scenes that need more emotion, less narrative, more dialogue, continuity and pacing tweaks, for example.

Observe how the story “hangs” overall. Is there enough conflict? Are the characters likeable and interesting? At which points did you skim the words or let your mind wander? It takes practice to see the imperfections in your own work, but put aside your ego and this gets easier.

• In my case, I had to ditch a ludicrous subplot and clean up the debris associated with that. This left my manuscript considerably shorter. Before despair set in, I did a little brainstorming and wrote a new synopsis, expanding on other parts of the story. Then I was able to jump back into the story and make the necessary changes.

• On the next pass, address issues like awkward phrasing, redundant speech tags, repetitions (make use of your thesaurus at this point rather than at first draft stage), spelling mishaps, typos, punctuation, paragraphing, and verify names of real people, places and products, etc. Check your use (or overuse) of adverbs and adjectives. If you ever get published, your copy editor will love you.

Try to have each chapter start and end with a hook. It doesn’t have to be explosive, just intriguing enough to keep the reader eager to turn the pages.

• By now you’ll be thoroughly sick of your book. Pass it on to your critique partner. I also have my two amazing teen readers give me a reality check too.

While you’re waiting for the verdict, work on a knockout synopsis and query letter. You’ll need a blurb for your query, no longer than 250 words. Cover all possible requests and write synopses of varying lengths – one, two, three, and up to five pages. I’ve no idea why, but no-one has ever requested four pages. Not that I’m complaining. The shorter the synopsis, the better, if you ask me. If you’re outside the US, order international stamps for your SSAEs from USPS now.

• Fix any problems flagged by your crit partners. Read the book again. If you’re sure the book is the best it can possibly be, check your ms’s formatting (one-inch margins, 12-point Times New Roman or Courier font), take a big breath and submit it.

There’s some debate about the value of entering writing competitions. My view is that you’ll get an unbiased opinion of your work, it toughens you up for inevitable rejection and you might win some pocket money. Even better, the final round of most RWA comps are judged by an editor or agent, giving you an opportunity to leap over the slush pile.

Quick fixes:
Slow pace – ditch routine tasks that have no bearing on the story (making coffee, uneventful car journeys, shopping for Lindt Bunnies…); subplots or characters that go nowhere.

Unsympathetic hero/heroine – show them doing something that requires strength of character, something readers can relate to. Like rescuing helpless cats from cruel owners, or single-handedly saving the planet from blood-sucking aliens.

Cookie-cutter villainsMost people aren’t all evil or all saintly. Give the bad guy some human qualities too. By the same token, give your protagonists a shortcoming, preferably one that could come back to bite them (a fear of snakes, for example.)

So this method of revision worked for me. What are your revision tips?

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