Revising your Novel: When and How

In “7 Steps to a Foolproof Revision,” Don Fry, writing in the September 2012 edition of Writer’s Digest posits “complete your draft, then revise” as step #1. His logic is that if you strive for perfection, you’ll probably never finish your book, or, at least it will take much longer because you’ll be spending so much time re-writing the same sentences over and over again. He recommends “draft the entire piece…and then revise the whole thing, start to finish.”

That approach may work well for a short story or non-fiction essay, book review or blog post, but I don’t think many writers will find it works for a novel. For one, most novelists don’t write from start to finish. There are always keys sections to any novel — the beginning and end of course, but there are also chapters or sections that constitute turning points or crises in the novel that many writers, myself included, draft early in the writing process.

Fry, however, is right in warning writers not to revise what you’ve already revised over and over again until you think it’s perfect. In my opinion, that’s a clear invitation to Mr. Writers Block to come into your study and push you aside.

Let me describe a process that seems to be working for me: Every novel idea I’ve ever had starts with a character or a scene, which may or may not be how the story starts. For The Expendable Man, it was the image of my protagonist, Nick Grocchi, lying on a hospital table in the operating room, about to undergo emergency experimental treatment for skin cancer. As I developed the story, this scene takes place fairly early in the book, but it’s not the opening chapter.

That scene, however, led to the construct of the entire novel. How did he end up there? What happened to him after that treatment? How did that treatment figure in the future he created for himself?

From that construct I created an outline and from that outline I began writing the novel.

At this point Fry’s admonition to write an entire first draft might have worked except again for the fact that the flow of the novel required me to write the ending and some other key chapters early in the process.

How much revision should you do when writing a novel?

If you can envision the entire novel and have a solid outline, then go for it.

If, however, like many writers, you haven’t answered all of the questions that will need to be answered, then some revising in the process of writing your first draft may be helpful.

Near the end of writing my second published novel, Making the Grade, I decided to change the setting from an imaginary city in Connecticut to Albany, New York where I had lived for 40 years. Instead of making the necessary changes after completing the first draft, I stopped what I was doing and revised that one aspect of the story. I felt that was necessary in order to order events properly. The delay in making those changes was not great and it probably saved time in the long run.

What I’m saying is that major revisions in the story line ought to be made as soon as you make the decision that the revision is needed.

There’s another revision process that I recommend as well. When I start work each day I re-read and revise what I’ve written the previous day. That gets me going into the story and the transition to adding new material usually goes smoothly. Those revisions focus on story line, but if I find an awkward sentence or an obvious grammatical mistake I’ll fix it then and there.

Finally, I try to never end my writing for the day at the end of a chapter. To me it’s harder to start writing a new chapter than to edit and continue writing one I’ve already started. Therefore, when I come to the end of a chapter, I always start the next chapter–even if it’s only a few paragraphs–to make starting the next day go smoother.

I’ll review some of Fry’s other tips in a future post.

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