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Rivi... Rive... Revision (Or, How to Love the Red Pen)

WritersdontcryRevision? You might say, In the romance month? What are you, crazy? But I tell youRevision truly: as an author, editing is the greatest act of love you can perform for your book, your characters, your editor, and your readers. And, of course, I make no secret that I am an editor--and that I LOVE editing. So, think of this as my funny valentine to that most unpopular of tasks--revision.

When editing a book, it helps if you review it three times: once to find the heart of it, once to find the bones that give it structure, and once to smooth the words that clothe it. These three anatomical passes should be done in this order, as each step builds upon and is more detailed than the last, starting with the essence of your book, and diving down into the details of how that essence is expressed on sentence and even word level.

By the time you are done, you will understand your story front to back, inside and out. Your words, scenes, and twists will fit together like puzzle pieces, and your character and plot arcs will sing seamlessly throughout your story, echoing and building until they sweep your readers off their feet. But the path to all that glory is paved in the dark arts of the red pen. So, if you’re not afraid to get a little detailed, let’s dive right in.

The Heart: What Is Your Story About, Anyway?

The first thing you have to do is to find the heart of your story. It may sound silly, but figuring out what your story is actually about is the single most important question you can ask yourself . . . after you finish your book. I mean, I’m sure you had some idea of what you were about when you started to write the whole thing, but books are a funny thing. Like living creatures, they grow of their own accord, twisting and taking in everything that you feed it--consciously or not. And in order to polish and cut your story to best show its brilliance, you have to first identify what makes it sparkle.

This means coming up with your version of the daunting “elevator pitch.” An elevator pitch is a one-sentence version of your book that captures its essence. This is unbelievably difficult, especially when you have been so close to your book for so long. I mean, if you could express your book in one sentence, you would have done so, and cut all those extraneous sentences that make up your book! But remember--you just need to grasp the heart of it, the thing that makes it compelling, the thing that tugs at your soul. Not the thousand little darlings that make it glitter.

Try It At Home: As an editor, I’m almost as immersed in a work of fiction as the author. But one thing I’ve noticed is that as soon as I write the copy that goes on the back of the book--an act which forces me to really think about the heart of the story--I suddenly have a much deeper grasp of the book. This, I’ve found, improves my suggestions tenfold, as I can keep the beating heart of the manuscript in mind while I read. So here’s my challenge to you: before you do your first revision, force yourself to write imaginary cover copy for the back of the book. Here are some of my favorite examples of cover copy that I feel really capture the essence of the book: Divergent, Tithe, The Hunger Games, Delirium.

The Bones: The Prologue’s Connected to the . . . First Chapter

After you have identified the heart of your story, it’s time to take a look at your story’s bones. The biggest misstep I see new authors making is being afraid to go big with their edits. But being afraid to take some chances means your final draft will essentially end up the same as your first--and you could miss out an opportunity that would make your book exponentially better, if only you knew. This is not to say you should make radical changes willy-nilly, cutting and tossing chapters without a care. It’s saying experiment. Write multiple versions. And save each version you play with in a separate file. You never know when something you cut will come in handy later, or when you want to reverse an edit.

This is also the stage where you can notice some of the beautiful turns and twists that came out of your draft, entirely unexpected, and devote some time to developing them further, pulling out themes and capitalizing on the sparks that brought them into being. For instance, in one book I edited, there was a brash captain who had an uncanny ability to see what people needed and when, for all his gruff nature. It was incredibly humanizing, and pulling that aspect out of him brought that spark to all of his relationships with the other characters.

Try It At Home: One of my favorite things to do to make this stage easier is to make maps. Information maps that trace the reveal of information to different characters; pacing maps which lay out action, suspense, and restful periods in a book; and character maps for the internal (emotional development) and external (plot development) arcs for each character. It’s also useful to go back and ask the purpose of each chapter and scene. Think about what each chapter and scene adds to the whole of the book, and also, whether anything is missing. And, of course, check for broad-scale continuity, making sure characters don’t suddenly change their opinions, beliefs, abilities, possessions, life-or-death status, or physical location.

The Flesh: What’s In a Word?

Having identified the heart and bones of your story, the final step is to take a look at the flesh itself, or what most people call “words.” This is the stage most people are familiar with, as it is looking at writing on a paragraph and sentence and even word level.

The thing to keep in mind here is that reading should be effortless. Once a reader picks up your book, they should be lost in your world, not thinking about printed words on a page. As such, word choice is paramount. You want to avoid words that risk breaking the spell of the book--be it because they sound anachronistic or because they simply don’t fit. You also want to avoid using complex words in contexts in which they cannot be intuitively understood, as having to stop to look up words every paragraph is frustrating and ruins any chance you had at an immersive reading experience. And of course, you also want to avoid using any word too often--something which word clouds can be incredibly helpful in identifying.

This is also an excellent stage to consider the dialogue-to-exposition ratio, making sure you both avoid talking head syndrome and the trap of endless exposition. Try to make sure each character has a strong voice, identifiable both by dialogue and style, and tweak as necessary to make sure each character sounds like him- or herself. Do the same thing for actions--and watch out to make sure characters aren’t doing any one action too often (running, blushing, sighing, etc.). After that, consider the flow and the pacing on a paragraph and scene level. Tweak the sentence structure to reflect the content it describes. And, of course, always be on the lookout for small-scale continuity errors, making sure characters’ eye colors, clothing, positioning, tastes, and such don’t change without explanation.

Try It At Home: If you can, read it aloud to someone else, both so you can listen to the sound and flow of it and so you can gauge their reaction to see where the story breaks for the reader. It is also useful, if possible, to have someone else read it aloud to you, so you can hear how they interpret your writing and see what works and what falls flat without the author’s voice to guide it.

15 Things to Consider When Making Big Changes:

Editing your novel means being willing to examine every aspect of it and ask why it is the way it is, and if it wouldn’t be better if it were different. It is only once you are satisfied that every element you need in your book is there--and not jot extra--that you know you have done everything in your power to make your book as good as possible. Here are a few things to consider when eyeing the big changes.

  1. Add/remove a character, plotline, or scene
  2. Changing the point of view character
  3. Changing the relationship between two characters
  4. Changing the internal or external goals of a character
  5. Changing the resolution of a plotline
  6. Adding/removing a framing device
  7. Change the way the character are introduced
  8. Kill/”pardon” a character
  9. Change the starting/ending point of your story
  10. Choose different scenes to tell your story
  11. Rearrange the order in which you tell your story
  12. Change the pacing
  13. Change the reveal of information
  14. Change/add/augment a theme
  15. Add/remove a prologue or epilogue


Happy Writing!

Read more Writers Don't Cry
Follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris



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