A few months ago I said I was writing a teen paranormal suspense novel, and I was. But I was having a lot of trouble finding the time and brain space to create something totally new. So I decided to put the new novel on the back burner for now (maybe until my baby is better at napping??) and focus on revising a novel.
About a year ago, right before my daughter was born, I finished the first draft of an upper-Middle Grade manuscript and, like an idiot, I queried agents with it. (I’m notorious for not following my own advice.)
The novel was written in diary format – a style that has a lot of challenges. I got several manuscript requests, but in the end no takers. I was lucky, however, to get positive feedback and revision suggestions from several agents. They all seemed to agree on three things: increase the pacing, age the characters up, and lose the diary format.
So now, as I sit down to revise my novel, at least I have a place to start.
I’ve also been asking myself the following questions. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you as well if you’re in the process of revising a novel.
1. Where does the story really begin?
It’s not uncommon when revising a novel to look at your manuscript and realize you don’t really need the first twenty, fifty, hundred pages. Maybe in those pages you were getting to know the characters, or setting the scene, or playing with voice. The real story, you might realize, doesn’t start there.
Usually a novel (especially YA, Middle Grade, or genre fiction) should start very close to the inciting incident. This is the event that changes everything for the main character and sets them on a journey of some kind. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, and it happens in Chapter One. In The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, the inciting incident is when Starr witnesses her friend getting shot in Chapter 2 – less than 10% of the way into the novel. (Yes, I read The Hate U Give on my Kindle.)
Judy Blume, YA and Middle Grade author extraordinaire, is a master at jumping right into the story – her inciting incidents are nearly always in chapter one, and often on the first few pages.
Of course, you might want to show what life is like for your protagonist before the inciting incident, but the longer it takes to get to the story catalyst, the greater chance of losing readers, who will start to wonder “what is this story about?” and “when is something going to happen?”
And if you’re not sure you even have an inciting incident, or if your inciting incident is too small, that’s another issue. You might need to ask yourself question #2.
2. What is this story really about?
A difficult but extremely important question. Maybe you have too many B stories crowding the main narrative. Maybe your story meanders without getting to the point. Maybe there’s a theme you’re trying to explore, but you never quite get to the heart of it.
Do some free-writing in which you answer questions like these:
- what is this story really about?
- how could I summarize this story in just one sentence?
- what is the inciting incident that changes everything for the protagonist?
- what do I want readers to take away from this book?
- what is the most important plot line?
- what is the climax of this story?
- what is the overall theme?
- what is the one biggest way the protagonist is different at the end of this story?
- what one symbol or word could characterize this story?
3. Do I need to do a complete rewrite?
Normally, when I’m revising a novel, I tweak what I’ve already written. I delete and add chapters. I move things around. I work on certain scenes. But I’m beginning to think that’s not enough. Oh sure, maybe when revising a second or third or fourth draft, that’s all you need to do. But more often than not, the revision of a first draft means major changes. And it might be easier to do the major overhaul if you start from scratch.
I have a writer friend who starts every revision from scratch. She knows the characters and the basic story, so instead of tweaking her old draft, she just starts writing the story anew. It often comes out quite different… and usually better. I’m beginning to think this is what I should be doing, too.
I’ve heard some writers say they write a first draft then throw it away and start writing the second draft. That’s a bit dramatic, but I get the idea. In the first draft, you are telling the story to yourself – you are getting to know the characters and figuring out what happens. In the second draft, you are telling the story to your readers. Which means you might write it in a completely different way. You don’t want to feel too married to what you’ve already written. You want the freedom that comes from starting over.
With the revision I’m doing now, I’m splitting the difference. I started my revision on a blank page in a brand new word doc. I’m writing without looking back at what I wrote before… But from time to time I go back to my old manuscript and do some copying and pasting into the new doc. I don’t feel married to my old draft, but I also feel like I can use certain parts.
4. Whose story is this?
The answer, of course, should be “the protagonist’s.” But sometimes, as you revise, you realize, “oh wait, this story really belongs to the mom or the friend or the sister.” Or maybe you think, “wouldn’t it be cool if this story was told from a different perspective – or multiple perspectives?”
Who is the most interesting character in your novel (or who are you most interested in)? If the answer is NOT “the protagonist,” that might be a problem. On the other hand, it might not be. (In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is clearly more interesting than Nick, yet it’s Nick’s story). Still, it’s worth asking if this story really belongs to someone else.
5. What should I cut?
When revising a novel, you will definitely be using the delete button… a lot. You’ll be cutting sentences, paragraphs, entire chapters… maybe even the first hundred pages! Save a copy of your old manuscript, then get to cutting. Chances are, a lot of what you wrote in the first draft isn’t actually serving the story.
Consider cutting anything that…
- you find boring
- doesn’t further the plot or reveal character
- sounds weird
- multiple beta readers have told you to cut
- doesn’t make sense
- is slowing down the pacing
- is repetitive
- isn’t really part of this story
- doesn’t need to be a full scene (because it could and should be dealt with quickly in summary or simply cut altogether)
- doesn’t quite fit with the voice, story, characters, or theme – even if it’s really great, beautiful, poignant, etc. (That’s called killing your darlings, and you gotta do it.)
When revising a novel, keep in mind the general word count for what you’re writing. If the first draft of your contemporary YA is 100,000 words, you’re probably going to want to cut at least 20,000 of them. (For more on typical word counts, see here.)
6. What’s missing?
In addition to making cuts, you will probably need to make additions. Maybe you need to give your protagonist more obstacles before she reaches her goal. Maybe you need more clues in your mystery, or more tension-building in your YA romance.
- Could I add more tension, emotion, or excitement?
- Are there places where I tell when I could be showing in a scene instead?
- Is there anything that needs more explanation?
- Are there any loose ends I need to tie up?
- Do I promise anything (mysteries, secrets, foreshadowing) in the beginning chapters on which I don’t deliver?
- Do I need more descriptions to set the scenes?
- Do I need transitions to get the readers from one scene to the next?
7. Are my characters deep enough?
Are your main characters unique and three-dimensional, or are some of them a little flat and stereotypical? Are your character motivations clear and consistent, or are the characters only acting in service to the plot? Do your characters speak distinctly, or does everyone in your novel sound the same?
If you feel like your characters and their motivations aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, it might be worth doing some character exercises. Get to know your main characters better, then see how that influences the plot and dialogue in your revision.
Try comparing your protagonist to the other main characters in your book in the following ways:
- their weaknesses
- their desires and goals (especially their goal in the story or scene)
- their core values, beliefs, and overall attitude about life
- their physical appearance, health
- their power, status, abilities
- their behavior, way of speaking/acting
- how each character interacts with the central problem/theme of the story
8. Does enough happen (or perhaps too much)?
Are you thinking too small with your story? Is there enough tension? Does your protagonist go through enough emotional or psychological upheaval? Is your climax a dramatic and exciting turning point?
When revising a novel, ask yourself if there are ways to make the story more exciting, funnier, scarier, more emotional, more suspenseful, etc. Put your characters in real trouble, and make things happen that are larger than life. After all, this is not real life. This is fiction, and, ultimately, your readers want to be entertained.
As literary agent Mary Kole says in her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, “we don’t want to read about someone having a crummy day and then another and then, finally, a nice cup of tea and a long nap. That’s deadly dull.”
On the other hand, maybe you have written too much. Maybe your plot is too crazy and convoluted. Or maybe your story could be broken up into two books, or even a trilogy. Focus on telling one story really well. If you’re doing more than that, perhaps it’s too much.
9. What do I love about this story?
Revising a novel is hard work. You might know that the manuscript isn’t working, but you aren’t sure how to fix it. You might feel like the entire project sucks and you should give up.
When you start to feel down, it’s important to remember what you love about this story. What made you excited to write it in the first place? What scenes do you love? What still makes you excited? Thinking about that will give you the emotional gumption to push on with your revisions.
Furthermore, the parts you really love – what do you love about them? Is it the voice? The descriptions? The snappy dialogue? Is there a way to make the rest of your novel more like the parts you love?
10. What will I do when I’m done with the revision?
Here’s what NOT to do: immediately query agents. (Learn from my mistakes!) Instead, let your new revision sit for a while. Like a few months at least. Then read it fresh. You may find more things you want to change.
This is a good time to send your revised manuscript to some trusted writer friends or beta readers. Yes, you can give it to your husband or mom or BFF to read, but don’t count on getting helpful or honest feedback from them. Instead, find someone who writes in the same general genre as you. Offer to read something of theirs if they read your manuscript. You can also pay someone to give you feedback on your manuscript – like me!
And, most importantly, give yourself a giant pat on the pack. Revising a novel is often as hard, if not harder, than writing a first draft. You should be proud that you made it this far in the process. As author and editor Harry Shaw once said, “there is no such thing as good writing. There is only good rewriting.” So let’s get to revising!
What about you? Are you revising a novel? What challenges are you facing, and how are you dealing with them?