How to Revise a Novel
copyright Holly Ingraham
"Oh, master, how do I make a
statue of an elephant?"
"Get a big block of grey stone, then chip away everything
that doesn't look like an elephant, especially the elephant you're
Revision is often done holistically rather
than linearly. While one could go through correcting just one
thing, like passive writing, then make another pass just for
dialog, most people carry a whole swarm of things to look for
on any one pass. Also, when you change something late in the
novel because it makes your lip curl when you read it, you may
need to go back and start changing things to meet it. So consider
"making a pass" with actual rewriting to be an "all
over the canvas" thing rather than starting in one corner
and working sections in a neat geometric pattern.
In short, while you start at page one and
read through to the end to catch pacing, when you're actually
correcting and revising, expect to flip back and forth a lot.
Go through the manuscript looking for summarized
scenes or other gaps left which need new writing. It really isn't
a finished draft yet until you do these. Of course, if you've
already decided you probably aren't keeping those scenes because
of revision, don't bother.
Remove everything you struck through or otherwise
already marked for removal at earlier time but didn't want to
lose the wordage. (The BIWers and NaNoWriMos know what I mean.)
Print the whole thing out. It's different
on paper, and you need more markup than on-screen offers.
The High-Level Pass:
Go through as a reader. This is why you want
to be cold to the manuscript. If you've forgotten the story a
bit, it's even better, as you might something that's been in
the bottom drawer a while. That's what the manuscript and your
notes are for. At this point, try to be amnesiac and distant.
Let it surprise you. Let yourself not know anything the manuscript
doesn't tell you.
Print it out and just read it. This may mean
you would be more comfortable with it printed out single-space
like a book page. Keep a marking device in one hand to write
your reader reactions in the column convenient for your writing
hand. These include:
Don't open that!
How did this happen?
I love this!
Why did he do that?
Who is she talking about?
Not again! (bad)
Not again! (good)
Where did this come from?
In short, any brief notes when you get a strong
reaction or confusion.
Any time you start to skip forward, halt just
long enough to mark where you started to skip, then make another
mark where you picked up again. Don't analyze why: you just want
to record your reactions as a reader.
This run will identify pacing and character
problems, as well as information gaps (you forgot to share with
the reader something necessary to know) and some of the stuffing/infodump
problems without your having to think of them as such.
Sit down with paper and a pen afterwards.
Think about what you just finished reading without looking back
at the actual pages. What do you want to change this minute?
Did you wonder whatever happened to some story thread that petered
out? Does something still stick in your memory as extraneous?
Would you like to change a character's personality or motivations?
Write it down, simply and succinctly. Doing it by hand encourages
If the Manuscript is Too Long:
(The markets can have length limitations.
We need to fit them to make a sale. Practically speaking, 80,000
to 90,000 words is the range for f/f/p and historical romances.
100,000-150,000 words is for fantasy and science fiction.)
Now, pick up your colored markers. You need
four distinguishable colors. They can be highlighters, marking
pens, or colored pencils. Sort them so you use the lightest,
least notable color for the "A" scenes, and the most
violently "jump in your face" color for the "D"
scenes. "Wha' scenes?" you ask. Keep reading.
You now begin the editorial passes.
As you go through, now that you remember the
story, mark in the other margin (the one without reader reactions)
a long vertical line of color for each scene, delimiting it from
the adjacent scenes with short horizontals. Make your judgements
on the fly. Don't ponder. Don't triple-guess yourself. Is this
A: Absolutely vital: set-up, gives the clue,
is a major plot pivot, boots the action forward, whether by helping
or hindering (and by "action" I don't mean hoo-hah:
it can be the scene where two people talk and come to terms without
any screaming, weeping, or jumping through windows). This should
be the least notable color so you ignore it in the future. These
are the bones of the book.
B: The novel is better with these (necessary
scene set-up, characterization that moves the story forward at
least some). The second quietest color.
C: Questionable scenes. Consider the main
line of the plot and the necessary sub plots. Is this really
important for the reader to experience? Could it be better condensed
as a Tell or the vital stuff moved into another scene or put
across in another conversation that already exists? Don't decide
what to do with it just now, just decide that something
could or ought to be changed. Make a note to yourself if you
have an idea.
D: Who put this in here? You know this is
pure padding at a glance. Use the loudest color for these so
you see them fastest. Also use this color to X through anything
larger than a couple of lines that you see is pure padding. If
it's short, line through. This includes repetitions of material.
Wherever you see anything in the marginal
notes regarding skipping a section, look at that scene or section
really hard. It's putting even you to sleep.
Is it one of the "D"s? No problem:
it won't be here long.
Is it one of the "A" scenes? You
are looking at some rewriting. If the scene bores you, and readers
are more easily bored with something than the author,
you need to figure out what it needs to be more interesting,
because you cannot just drop an "A" scene. Is it too
talky? Note that in the margin: "Cut the chatter down."
or "Point the conversation." Does it ramble and spend
too much time and verbiage getting in scenery when most of that
is padding? "Prune the history/description/whatever."
Maybe it needs to have some conflict on a subtle level rather
than being unalloyed unconditional love or pure infodump.
Is it one of the "B" scenes? Analyse
it like an "A" scene. If you have to prune it, this
may move it up to an "A" scene or down to a "C."
Recolor outside the original color to indicate this change.
One of the "C" scenes? Consider
making it a "D" if it's a "C" and boring.
Circle any important information in it that needs to be moved
Back to the Machine.
Take your marginal notes, your after-read
handwritten list, and your color coding to the machine. Save
a copy of the version you have now just so your Inner Alarmist
will know you can always go back to it.
Go through and remove all the Class "D"
scenes. This gets rid of a lot of problems in one blissful swoop.
Do the things on your after-read list. This
may actually change the vitalness of some scenes, so that you
change the color-coding in the manuscript. You may also have
to do some whole new scenes. These should all turn out to be
"A" or "B" scenes.
Go through and rewrite the "A" scenes
that need it. Also write any new segments (they should not often
be whole scenes) that you need to add missing character or motivation
(often a thought of a POV character or a change of voice in a
dialogue can do it). Could you manage to smoothly work in info
given in "C" level scenes so that some of those could
become "D"-level and get removed?
Also ask yourself as you read, is this too
much story for a novel? Do I need to hack off the front or back
and repoint a new climax? Should this be a trilogy or series?
(S. A. Bolich tended to monster novels with big time and
location breaks in the middle, indicating they were nearly two
If the Manuscript is Too Short:
(This never happened to me in
my life, so I only know what the flaws are from when I've seen
it in others.)
You still need to go through and mark A-D
scenes, just as above, especially the "D"s.
Shortness is no excuse for padding. Once you cut "D"s
and the degraded "C"s, you may find your story's real
length as a novella or novelette.
Is this too little idea for a novel? Should
it be a series of shorts or a novelette? Is it too clean-lined,
unlike the tangle of real life? You may need to develop subplots
and secondary story lines.
Are you writing too baldly? Do you need to
write for richness?
Are there Tells you should expand into Shows?
Should some things happen on stage instead of off-stage?
Are you starving the reader for setting and
anchoring? Are you making too many assumptions about what
they will know or assume? Are you treating too many characters
as spear-carriers, and not creating important secondaries to
interact with your one or two main characters?
Is the action too simple? Are there places
they could or ought to get into difficulties but don't? Take
away their carefully planned equipment in a disasterous accident.
Have them get separated from their guide and guardian. Can you
insert some spats? Give them a rougher time.
In short, make more story, make more interesting
story, and show it happening in rich language. But don't pad
just to make wordage.