Saturday, May 2, 2015

Now what?!: How I revise my manuscripts

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Yes, I did it!!
So you wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo or CampNaNoWriMo or whenever, and now you need to revise it. Confused? Overwhelmed? Unsure where to start? 

Yeah, I know how you feel. Revision still strikes fear in my heart, but I’ve revised a few novels now, and I’ve learned a few things that might help you out. Here’s how I revise, with a few tips along the way. 

My first draft

I'm the sort of writer who needs a lot of revision, because I write my first drafts most effectively when I lock my internal editor in the trunk at the back of my closet, trussed and gagged. Once she’s dealt with, I usually start with an idea, and build in my structure as I go (you can see an explanation of my pl-antsing approach here); I don’t write in a linear fashion. When I realize I’m going to need a scene or a set of scenes, I create pages in Scrivener as a placeholder for them; I give all my scenes names/descriptions and assign them Scrivener ‘labels’ to indicate which scenes are finished and which are still in progress. As I finish the draft, I check my labels to make sure I’ve gone back and written all the scenes I was supposed to write.

I change my label when I finish the scene...
In corkboard view, the color of the pins quickly tells me which scenes are done (yellow). 

Then, I set the manuscript aside for six weeks; nary an eyeball nor a fingertip shall molest it during that time.

First revision pass

My first pass consists of three parts: read-through, prep, and revision.

Read-through: The first thing I do is read through the manuscript as though it were any other book. I print it out with font, spacing and formatting that gets it as close to a printed paperback as I can get it, grab myself a cup of coffee, and read. I keep a pencil at my side, but not in my hand because I don’t let myself edit; I only make broad notes at this point. I’ll mark where the pacing it too slow or too fast, where I need more introduction, where I need to mention some crucial point earlier in the plot; I’ll note where characters are coming across flat or inconsistent, when I need additional scenes, or when I need to move scenes or cut them completely.

Speaking of, there's an excellent tip I’ve seen several places, including K.M. Weiland's podcast: know what your weaknesses as a writer are, and focus on them during revision. One of mine is too much narrative summary, and this is where I call myself on that tendency; you’ll find ‘NS’ generously decorating the pages of my first read-through everywhere I find summary that needs to be developed into an action scene. If you don’t know yet what your weaknesses as a writer are, keep your eye open as you do your first read-through, and/or ask your beta readers if they can identify any when they read your manuscript. This will helping you knock out some problems quickly the next time around.

Prep: Now I pull up my manuscript in Scrivener, and create an associated spreadsheet in excel. For each scene I’ve written, I create a row in the spreadsheet with columns for the name, description, and revision goals. I consult the notes I made during my read-through, and add any new scenes I decided I needed, both into Scrivener and into the spreadsheet. I will use this to track each of the changes I need to make, and to track my future revision passes:

For each of these in Scrivener...

I create a row in my spreadsheet.

Revision: Now I'm ready to go through and make all of the changes I noted during my read-through; I do this in order, so I can keep track of information flow and pacing as much as possible as I go.

Second revision pass

This pass consists of three parts: read-through, pacing, and revision

I do another read-through at this point to verify that the changes I made in my first revision pass did what I hoped they would do, and that my basic structure and storytelling is sound. I make notes as needed; hopefully there are far fewer of them this time.  

Now that I'm pretty sure I have my basics organized, I check my pacing. I check my overall pacing in my spreadsheet; I note where I have action, backstory, climax and resolution scenes, and rate them on a 0-9 scale for tension:

I track the individual story arcs for any sub-plots directly in Scrivener. This was particularly important for my first book, Hazel-Green, a family saga; each generation had its own story arc in addition to the over-riding arc for the book. Scrivener allows me to pull out all scenes that have a given character (or anything else you want to select for), so this is easier to track and work on directly in the program.

If I feel my pacing is off anywhere, I will tinker with my order or add/remove what I need. Once I’m satisfied with that, it’s time for more revision; this time I’ll revise for several specific problem areas. I generally do this mostly scene by scene, and track what I’ve done in my spreadsheet (see above). I go through and make sure my characters are consistent and distinct. I do a setting check, to make sure I’ve adequately set the scene as needed (place, time, and any other relevant aspect). I check my dialogue to make sure it reads authentically.

Why use a spreadsheet for this? When I'm checking my characters, for example, I go through and work on one character at a time; this means I'm not working in a strictly linear manner. The spreadsheet lets me mark off each scene as it's finished for each character, etc., so I know where I need to go back and do what.

Third revision pass

At this point, I polish the writing itself; here’s where I go through and do my line-editing, tighten the writing, and make it as beautiful and compelling as I can. Why not before? I find it's much easier to cut a scene when I need to if I haven't spend days and days polishing it to perfection, so I leave this part for when I'm fairly certain what I'm polishing is going to stay in the book. In my spreadsheet, I highlight the name of each scene in one of five shades of purple, dark for scenes I think are well-written, light for those that need lots of work, with shades in between as needed. I keep working until all the scenes are the darkest shade.

Also at this point I print out a calendar for the time period covered by my book, and track out the exact timing of everything that happens. This lets me make sure I haven't made any stupid errors that will undermine my plot (like having a full-term baby appear only four months after the couple consummates). 

Final pre-beta revision polish 

Why do I need another polish if I’m happy with all my scenes? Because I can’t trust my own eyes, that’s why. This pass is for silly little things I know I shouldn’t do, but still manage to miss, like passive voice, weak verbs (‘walk’, ‘go’) annoying constructions like ‘started to’ and ‘began to’, and unneeded adverbs. I compile my manuscript so it’s all in one document, and use the search function to pull up all instances of these trouble makers, then I fix them directly in Scrivener. 

Last but most certainly not least, I read my entire manuscript out loud to myself to catch typos and anything else that doesn’t read right. In one of K.M. Weiland’s podcasts, she mentions that if you have a kindle, you can also have it read your manuscript to you; Scrivener can compile into a .mobi file for you, so I’m definitely going to try this with my current work-in-progress.

Off to beta readers!

This is where I’ll send the manuscript off to beta readers. I’ll certainly need to revise more, but at this point I'll need their help to show me the way. So for now, my revision is done, and I can go and do my double-chocolate happy dance!

So there you have it. I hope some of this has been helpful for you. Stay tuned, in the next few weeks I hope to review a few of my favorite revision advice books. In the meantime, if you have any revision tips, I'd love to hear about them!

Happy revising, 



  1. Wow so cool to be able to see what happens on the other side of the book world. So proud of you!

    1. Shhh! I could get thrown out of the club for showing you! ;-) <3

  2. Thanks for this, Michelle. I am currently in revision H*** myself right now. I've also been taking some courses at Writer's Digest using my story for the assignments so I have some scenes written that weren't originally part of the story but now might be. My head is swimming at this point, but I promised my writer's group something to have in their hot little hands by June 1 so I do need to keep going.

    I like your spreadsheet idea a lot. Scrivener does a lot for us, but that added checklist would really help me at this point.

    1. Congratulations on your book! How are the classes, I've considered doing some of their stuff. Deadlines are such a great motivator; I always hate myself right before the writing is 'due', but then I'm so happy right after. :)

      Agreed--Scrivener is great, but nothing can be everything! I've worked with spreadsheets for years, so it's a very intuitive way for me to look at any sort of data, and I love it. :)

      Btw, please share any tips you discover! I'm always looking for anything that will help. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing your revision tips. I'm still learning the revision stage, so reading any tips is great right now. So thanks for sharing.

    1. I'm glad something there was helpful! If you have/learn any cool tips, please share. I'm always looking for better ways. :)

  4. My internal editor is stronger than I am. Can I borrow some duct tape and that trunk in the back of your closet? I'm just starting the revisions on something, and I'm glad I waited long enough to change my first draft from "my precious" stage to something I'm not so worried about slicing and dicing. Thanks for the tips!

  5. I know how you feel. Mine has a support team she deploys to help her--an entire panel in my head, staring at me with disapproving laser eyes...

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I don't think I'll be adhering to the letter, but definitely the spirit. There's a lot of great and useful tips in here. Also nice to see Scrivener can handle .mobi compilations! (Speaking of, I'm sure there's 1.42 million other things it can do I'm just not aware of).

    Please keep churning out on this blog - I've got a lot of catching up to do with it, but there's plenty of coffee left in the world...

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement! I've been on a temporary hiatus while finishing up my thriller (it's done, yay!), and will be back hopefully next week. And I'm right there with you--I'm sure there is a ton of wasted potential I have yet to discover in Scrivener! I wouldn't be surprised to discover there's a feature that will do my laundry for my while I write, lol! ;-)


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