Whether you’ve been working on your novel for years or you dashed it off during NaNoWriMo, revision has to be the next step after the cooling off period. But where do you start? Today, let’s look at how to begin novel revision. It won’t feel as scary if you have a plan.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ideas for planning your revisions.
Notice the capital “s” on the word revisionS. It hints that you will be revising more than once. In fact, unlike the notion of proofing as revision, novelists must learn to revise in layers. The point is, a novel draft is a pulsing heap of words that is alive but too disorganized to get up and walk off like Frankenstein’s monster. In order to be sure your readers have a good chance of experiencing the story as you intend, think of your novel draft this way: All the pieces are probably in there someplace, but often they’re mixed up, half-baked or too obscure to work. Maybe Frank has two left feet and no arms. You will be rewriting until Frankenstein can walk under his own power.
Start with Storyboard
While some may revise by starting again at page one, a better strategy might be to storyboard before you dive in. Create a habit of writing a one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene in the story. If you do, you won’t have to spend time writing them after your draft is done. Write each of these scene summaries on either a post-it note, a three by five card or enter them into Scrivener. Sometimes I simply list the scenes on a piece of paper. However you do the exercise, note on each card where it falls in the draft—by chapter or by page number—then set all the scene cards in order on a flat surface and stand back. As you scan through the summaries, you’ll be able to get a sense of how the story moves (or doesn’t!). With this method, you can spot plot points, holes in your plot, repetitive scenes, scenes that don’t move the story, etc. After diagnosis, I often jot notes on the cards, indicating what I’m going to do to remedy. Sometimes I have to revisit those remedies, but knowing about where the problem occurs in the manuscript helps me locate areas where I want to change things. If you’ve ever wandered around in your manuscript, looking for something specific, you know what a time waster it is to be in the forest trying to find a certain tree. Storyboarding is like dropping bread crumbs to help find your way home.
The Arc of the Story
Every story must contain certain elements that readers expect and good stories have in spades. You’ve probably heard that the story must have an “arc” to it. Some call this arc a journey, others compare it to a three-act play. As long as the crucial elements are present, the arc can journey or unfold in acts as long as it keeps readers reading. You give your character a goal or a desire—but not just any old desire or goal. The biggest part of the story arc is why the protagonist’s goal matters. This is known as the STAKES of the novel, or why the goal is important. Ask yourself what your character’s consequences will be if the goal is not attained. SO WHAT? If your answer is anything short of catastrophe, you may need to rethink the goal and raise the stakes. Be sure your character is desperate to achieve this goal, and place worthy obstacles (opposition that is not too easily overcome) in her way. Don’t allow your character to “win” too soon, and keep adding pressure. Force your character to act to overcome the worst obstacle in your climax scene (don’t let the cavalry or Mom & Dad save the day). By accepting multiple revisions are a part of novel writing, by story boarding your scenes and by evaluating your story’s structure, you will be giving your novel “good bones.” Then, as you delve further into your scenes, the story itself can stand.
NEXT TIME: More Big Picture Edits