Lessons for Beginning Novelists: The How’s and Why’s of Revising

This is the third installment of my series designed to help beginning novelists.

Writers have come up with startling graphic images to describe what producing the first draft of a novel looks like. One compared it to crawling on a mud floor nose first. The point is no one’s first draft is good enough to be published––not if you’ve gone about it the proper way, which is to get the job done quickly without stopping to do a lot of revising.

With a rough outline to guide you, you should be able to get a first draft done in less than a year’s time, assuming you’re able to devote a minimum of 5 to 10 hours a week writing.

When you finish that first draft, pour yourself a glass of your favorite celebratory beverage, and get ready for the revision process. Revising a book is like sculpting. You want to chip away large pieces first and then gradually get to where you can focus on the finer aspects of your creation.

To that end, at first focus on the story, plot and characters. Don’t worry if the writing seems stilted or flowery or sentences are too long or run on. Are all the elements of your story in place? Are your characters consistent in voice and action? Does the plot evolve at the right pace, reaching key moments at approximately one-third and two-thirds through the story? You may need to go through your document several times or to re-write one section three, four or a dozen times.

Once you are confident the key elements of your story are in place, you can begin to focus on the writing––on style and form. This is where reading your manuscript out loud can be very helpful. If you’ve been editing on a computer, print out a copy. Take my word for it, you’ll hear things like using the same word twice in the same paragraph that you missed when reading silently off a computer screen.

Having completed a few rounds focusing on style (cleaning up typos and grammatical issues along the way), you’ll want to find qualified readers to provide comments and feedback. You can find qualified readers through a writers group or online. I strongly recommend that you share critiques reciprocally. In other words, offer to read for others while they read for you. Reading critically is very different from reading for pleasure. It allows you to see things that will not only help your critique partner, but will also seep into your own writing.

I combine getting feedback with taking a break from my manuscript. Not working on it for a couple of weeks will help you see your story with fresh eyes.

When the feedback is returned, make those changes you agree with, understanding you don’t have to do everything a beta reader suggests. This can result in a new version for each person who reads your draft, but that’s okay. You’re likely to end up producing a dozen or more versions of your novel before all is said and written.

When you think your manuscript is ready, pay a qualified editor or editing service to copy edit. They’ll find things like names spelled inconsistently, overuse of certain phrases, clichés, typos no one else saw, and grammatical issues. Shop around to find someone who fits your budget.

After incorporating the copy edits into your manuscript, you have a decision to make. If you honestly feel your book is ready for prime time, either send out query letters to agents or self-publish (that decision is a subject for a future column). If you have the slightest doubt that your story is as good as it can be, the best course might be to find additional beta readers. This time pick out people who are the likely target audience for your novel. What you want to know from them is whether the story moved them if not, if they identified with the characters as well as if it lost steam or got off course.

To borrow someone else’s metaphor, writing well is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. The reward of not skimping on the essential steps during the revision process, can be the kind of success in reader satisfaction and sales that you always dreamed it could be.

P.S.: Although I originally conceived of this as a three-part essay, I’ve decided I ought to share my thoughts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Stay tuned.

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