I’ve read a lot of writing craft books in my life, but until recently, none of these were about revision.
The reason being because, until recently, I never had a completed, novel-length work in need of revising.
Never being the sort put the proverbial cart before the horse, I always wanted my education in writing to occur in an orderly sequence, comprising only those aspects of which I’d have immediate use. This way of thinking served me well for the past 16 years, less the six of those I temporarily gave up writing altogether.
But recently, it came time to augment my knowledge as a writer. For although I was able to intuit a process to rewrite the first draft of my historical fiction WIP into a second draft, I was finding myself at a loss as to how to proceed after that.
So upon completing said second draft back in March, I spent the entire month of April and partway into May reading about revision.
Which, I have to say, felt a whole like not writing – something I was previously used to doing every day. For years.
It also felt like reading the same advice over and over again, which was a new experience for one only used to reading about how to create your first draft.
When it comes to drafting, there are seemingly as many different pieces of advice out there as there are people offering it.
It’s as if there’s an infinite number of ways to write a book, but only one or two ways to revise it.
Ultimately, this dearth of revision advice has proven a welcome change for me. It’s meant I could restrict myself to only three short books plus a series of blog posts on the subject.
From this limited amount of reading, I more than once encountered the same three valuable concepts that have shaped my plans for continued revision.
1) Analysis by scene
Working and revising at the level of the scene was one of the first notions expressed in every item on revision that I read, seemingly making it the closest thing to a fundamental of revision that there is.
Admittedly, thinking in terms of scenes was a bit new to me. Even though I’ve always known that chapters in novels are entirely arbitrary in how they progress, they are still the division I most commonly operate in.
Most likely, this is because I was a reader long before I was a writer, and chapters are the division most readers operate in.
However, it is scenes, not chapters, that are the base elements of novels. Scenes are quantifiable in that there are specific components they need to contain to be properly called scenes.
Because of this, an analysis of the scenes in your novel – most commonly through the use of a scene chart, whether in Excel or on notecards – is regularly recommended to help reveal how your novel fits (or doesn’t fit) together as a whole, as well as and whether everything you’ve written really needs to be in the story at all.
This is related to scenes and the scene chart. The goal, motivation, and conflict – which is then usually followed by a disaster of some sort that sets up a subsequent scene – are the key components of an action scene (reaction scenes have different components) and the criteria by which a scene’s effectiveness is assessed.
As part of your scene chart, according to the revision resources that I read, you should list the goal, motivation, conflict, and disaster for each scene in your novel.
There’s no denying that this is a huge undertaking. The average novel may have upwards of 100 scenes in it, each of which will need to be analyzed individually.
Two obvious benefits of doing this are 1) To ensure each scene in fact has a goal, motivation, and conflict, which gives a scene – and hence a novel – its drama, and 2) To ensure that most scenes end in a disaster, which gives a novel its sense of cause and effect.
Beyond these, though, scene analysis also enables you to check your scene GMCs against the GMCs (both external and internal) of each major character to ensure there’s congruence amongst them all. This type of character assessment was also mentioned more than once within my reading on revision.
Many writers find outlining to be a useful tool prior to writing their novel.
These so-called plotters will start the writing process by devising the skeleton of the story. This way, at each stage of the first draft, they already know where the story is going and what they need to write next to keep it going, regardless of how religiously they end up following this plan.
For many plotters, though, once the first draft is complete, they never look at their outline again.
I am guilty of this, particular since my WIP’s “outline”, such as it is, was a 39-page brain dump of every plot point, bit of dialogue, and backstory explanation that I could come up with ahead of time.
It was more so an incredibly messy zero draft than an outline in the conventional sense, despite it being formatted in bullet points.
Many revision resources, recommend rewriting your outline to reflect the changes that occurred between its initial creation and the conclusion of your first draft.
(For those who never had an outline to begin with, they are advised to create one now based on the story in its present iteration.)
The point of doing this is to give you a quick, up-to-date index of what actually happens in your novel, which in turn makes it easier to plan moving parts of the story around to places where they’ll have more impact and make the story stronger.
Bonus: Writing problems vs. storytelling problems
This dichotomy has been immeasurably useful in helping shape how I conceive of my WIP, both as it currently stands and where I want it to end up through subsequent revision.
Simply put, some of the problems with it are writing problems – problems with the way words and punctuation are arranged on the page, including thinks like poor word choice, run-on sentences, too many sentences that begin with subordinate clauses, run-on sentences (yes, I included that twice on purpose), unnecessary adverbs, on-the-nose dialogue, and filter words.
Meanwhile, some of the problems are with the story those abovementioned words are trying to convey. This includes considerations such as character arcs, setting, exposition, showing rather than telling, point-of-view, proportion, and author intrusion.
By separating the two categories of problems, not only are you given a clear direction in which to proceed with revisions (story problems first and writing problems afterward), it’s also a good way to still feel like you’re making progress.
Because even if the writing itself is still a bit crap at the moment, ultimately, the story is getting closer to where it needs to be. All the beautiful writing in the world can’t make up for a weak or poorly-conceived story.
A/N: The books and blog posts on revision I read are as follows:
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King
- Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft Into a Finished Novel, James Scott Bell
- Rock Your Revisions: A Simple System for Revising Your Novel, Cathy Yardley
- Blog posts by Chuck Wendig:
- How Chuck Wendig Edits A Novel
- 25 Steps To Edit The Unmerciful Suck Out Of Your Story
- How To Karate Your Novel And Edit That Motherfucker Hard: A No-Foolin’ Fix-That-Shit Editing Plan To Finish The Goddamn Job
- Edit Your Shit, Part One: The Copy-Edit
- Edit Your Shit, Part Two: Editing For Content
- Edit Your Shit, Part Three: The Contextual Edit
Writers, what are the most valuable revision tips that you follow? Let me know in the comments.