I've got a mini-door stop, now how do I revise it?
September 26, 2007 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I've just finished my first novel, now how do I revise this thing?

I've spent the past three months furiously writing my first novel. I was quite inspired, and managed to put down a little more than 90,000 words. The book is a true rough-draft.

I believe in the plot and am attached to the characters--I really think I have a good book here--but every time I sit down to start revising, I end up quitting after an hour feeling defeated. The process I've been using so far is to simply go through, one chapter at a time, and take a red pen to the printed copy before sitting down at the computer and making changes. This just doesn't seem to be cutting it. I'm bogged down and frustrated. The sheer size of what I've written overwhelms me, and though I'd like to polish it, I'm unsure how to continue.

What are some other methods that successful authors have used to revise their novels? I'd love to hear any tips or suggestions, personal or from the greats.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a trusted friend/spouse/etc. that would take a nonbiased read for you? That might help you get started.

Also, congrats - lots of writers would be envious of your situation!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:59 PM on September 26, 2007


When I wrote my first novel, I had one of my good friends / fellow English majors take a look at it and start to make global changes. I made those, and red-penned it myself. Then I had him red-pen it and go over the nitty-gritty stuff. Then I did a final re-read.

One thing that may help: in Word, do a find-replace on each of your main characters' names and change them to something completely different. Makes things seem a little less familiar and fresher, since it breaks up the narrative in your head that you had when you were writing it in the first place.

Good luck. The editing bit is tough.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:04 PM on September 26, 2007


Now, put it in a drawer, and don't look at it for a couple of months. You're too close to it right now, and you'll have a very hard time telling forest from trees.

Also, yes, ask a friend etc. to be a reader. I've done this for several friends - most recently, a friend whose novels I've read in rough draft published one of the novels - I first read it almost three years ago, I think. I was also not the only draft-reader - my friend has been a writer for a couple of decades, and has several friends and a couple of writing groups from which to draw draft-readers. Having more than one perspective can be really valuable.
posted by rtha at 1:13 PM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Since you've got your first draft--and that's terrific accomplishment--first ask if the piece is architecturally sound. You don't need to start tweaking little things until the overall structure works. Are you happy with the plot? If not, identify the weak areas and work on them.

One of the most common areas I've noticed where authors don't go far enough, is their treatment of conflict between characters. What's at stake? In every scene, is there something vitally important that one or more characters stand to lose? Make sure every outcome has been taken to its extreme. Fiction has to have verisimilitude, obviously, but it does deal in heightened, compressed experience. Make sure you're focusing on the most intense moments in your characters' lives. Extend, deepen, intensify in every scene. If two characters are fighting, don't end the scene until one of them throws a punch. Don't afraid to let your characters kill each other if that's where things are tending! You're creating problems for your characters which have to be resolved, and the process of resolving them is what your story consists of.

If you've already worked through this process of deepending and intensifying, and you're happy with your story's structure, then all you need to do is a little polishing. Look at transitions that are clunky, places where you need more description in order to make a setting come alive (don't forget taste, smell and touch), a character who isn't as visually present as he or she could be, etc.

Good luck and hope you'l update us.
posted by frosty_hut at 1:16 PM on September 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

Yes and Yes! I second rtha’s suggestion.
posted by doorsfan at 1:16 PM on September 26, 2007

Congrats! That's a huge accomplishment :)

But at any rate, what I find really useful in terms of editing is really, seriously, just forget about it for a bit. I don't think you need a few months, necessarily, but take a week or two to veg out. Watch some mindless TV. Watch movies in a completely different genre from that in which you're writing, that kinda thing.

Come back to it two weeks later, and yes, do the find-replace-names thing suggested. Then sit down and read the novel as you would a normal book. Don't focus on changing it, pretend you've picked up this promising looking piece at the local library and you now want to give it a shot. Read it from beginning to end in as little time as possible, and then think about the impressions. I find that after I finish a book I'm generally left with a sense of what I would've done were I in the writer's position, in terms of structure/pacing/etc. This will be helpful for looking at the big picture for your story. And since you actually are the writer, you can do all those things that feel 'just a little off'.

And then get a friend to read it through again. The fine editing in terms of paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence combing comes much, much later. Right now, you want the story to flow, the pace to work, and - this is a big one - you'll want to look for continuity mistakes. This is also where your friend can help loads more.

frosty_hut definitely has some good advice in terms of tweaking character development and suchwhat. Listen to her. Best of luck, and come back and update us when you're published! :)
posted by Phire at 1:24 PM on September 26, 2007

It just so happens that metafilter is some kind of internet nexus for professional book editors. Throw a few bucks their way and let them work their magic. Ask around as see if anyone will bite.

Generally, I wouldn't worry about correcting your 'which's to 'that's until the structure dialogue, and substantive text is set. The nitpicky grammar spelling stuff should probably be the last part of it.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:57 PM on September 26, 2007

To ping off what rtha said, put it aside for a couple of months, but don't put it aside for much more than that. There's a curve there: it's brilliant, deathless prose for a few weeks, one can look at it with a critical eye after a few months, but after a couple of years it becomes unpublishable juvenalia.
posted by solid-one-love at 2:28 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Congratulations. I'm so jealous...

I'm no pro, but I'll 2nd what others here are saying; leaving things to stew in their own juices is a rock-solid idea. I'd let it sit for about a month, though, and not a lot longer. Your mind might start to wander and your enthusiasm wane.

Good luck, and keep us posted.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:40 PM on September 26, 2007

Douglas Adams had this to say about P.G Wodehouse:
"When he was writing a book, he used to pin the pages in undulating waves around the wall of his workroom. Pages he felt were working well would be pinned up high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall. His aim was to get the entire manuscript up to the picture rail before he handed it in."
posted by buriednexttoyou at 3:55 PM on September 26, 2007

I agree with everyone that you should let it wait a month or so.

What I did: went back to it, redpenned a chapter, but then, rather than make changes in my existing file, I typed the whole chapter in again, revising as I went. I think it's psychologically easier to redo a paragraph the way it really needs redoing if you're going to have to type the thing again _anyway_, and the only question is whether you're typing the bad version or the good version. Also, this way it feels more like writing (fun) and less like editing (not fun.)

If you're like me, you're going to find out on that second read a month from now that there are some major structural changes you need to make. Your revision is probably going to involve thousands of words of new writing, and thousands of words cut loose from the first draft.

Also, if you're like me, you're going to find that going through this whole process once is not enough. I did it twice; each version of the book was about 30% longer than the previous version. And I think plenty of people go through more iterations than that.

If it gets depressing, just keep in mind that you have _not_ actually finished your first novel. You've just started it. Revising isn't copy-editing; it's part of writing the novel, probably more important than the part where you feel inspired. Lots of people have ideas; fewer, but still lots, write lots of words about their idea; many fewer work on those words enough to make them into an novel.

As for the greats, you might think about what Trollope did: he wrote every day for a fixed time period, just as if writing were a job. Because it is. If he finished a novel at 10 in the morning, he went ahead and started his next novel. Routine is helpful.
posted by escabeche at 4:04 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Definitely, definitely put it aside for a little while. It gives you time to breathe, but it also gives you time to think. The further away you get, the more likely you are to get those staircase wit moments- fortunately, a month after the fact is not too late when it comes to revising a novel.

On top of that, before you revise, go back and read the whole thing. You may have written it, but you haven't read it. Things that you had in your head when you were crafting the story may have never made it to the page; necessary things may be part of the experience of the novel to you, but may be missing from your exposition. Go back and read it, and make sure that everything you think you said, you actually said. Then fix the places where you didn't- there will be plenty of them.

Finally, you do need someone else to read it. Preferably, not someone who loves you and doesn't want to hurt your feelings. (Likewise, not someone who wants to hate you and longs to destroy you.) Ask them to be completely honest with you. Then, get really, really mad when they don't understand the book at all, walk away for a few days, and come back and rewrite so that they *do* understand the book.

Make sure you keep your angry face on the inside, though. A good beta is hard to find.
posted by headspace at 6:49 PM on September 26, 2007

What I did: went back to it, redpenned a chapter, but then, rather than make changes in my existing file, I typed the whole chapter in again, revising as I went.

Some author, I’ve forgotten who (possibly Beryl Bainbridge) writes a whole first draft on her computer, prints out a full hard copy (or maybe two, to be on the safe side) then deletes the computer file, so all she’s left with is the hard copy. She then laboriously re-types the whole thing, editing as she goes. If you’re brave enough, I think this is a great way to work. It means you’re still in writing, rather than editing mode, so are still riding that wave of inspiration.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:44 AM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

First off, sit back, relax congratulate and reward yourself in whatever manner you see fit. Writing out a novel length work is an achievement in itself and just getting to the end is something that the vast majority of people starting a novel will never do.
Now the fun starts.

I would second putting it in a bottom draw for a while - you really do need to look at it with fresh eyes. And also getting someone else to look at it with critical but not over-critical eyes (though finding a good second reader is hard), then take on board anything they say that gels with you.

If you don't like it, remember it's a golden rule that first drafts are allowed to be rubbish, and you get the good stuff out by re-writing. And it sometimes takes a lot of re-writing. I've heard of 30+ times in some cases (Dean Kootz?).

Every writer writes in their own way, and you have to find that way yourself, unfortunately. (Like I tend to edit/revise as I go, but that's no help to you).

Saying that you might find Holly Lisle's One-Pass Manuscript Revision useful. I don't agree with everything she says but I think it's got some good stuff about stepping outside of your book in order to see how you make the thing true to itself.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:08 AM on September 27, 2007

As a riff on pastabagel's comment, I'd be willing to read/revise if you want a 3rd party view. Email's in my profile, but only checked sporadically.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:28 AM on September 27, 2007

I would also be willing to give feedback. I'm not really a writer, but I'm an avid consumer of the written word, and I'd be happy to give you an opinion on anything you'd like to show me. Email's in my profile, checked obsessively.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 11:24 AM on September 27, 2007

Here's what I did a month or two after I finished my first novel (which is finally almost ready to send to agents):

I read through each chapter and separated it into scenes. As I finished reading a scene I'd take an index card and write the scene number and chapter number (so the third scene in the second chapter looked like c02s03) and then write a quick synopsis of the scene (eg, Marjie and Anna look up bus schedules, discuss routes). On the back of the card, I made notes about things the scene needed (eg, the kidnapper should seem creepier sooner and A&M should meet the mother before getting off the bus). In the upper left-hand corner I wrote how many words there were in this scene, and in the upper right I wrote how many scenes there were in this chapter. I called these 'scene cards'
I made notes on separate index cards of large problems (like, say, if a character dies and then comes back to life seven chapters later). I called these 'task cards.'

I used different color index cards for the task cards, and the scene cards were three different colors for the three different stages of the book, but that stuff isn't really necessary.

As I went through,I also made note of all the characters and settings appearing in each chapter (it's a good thing to keep track of, so you can find things later) and fixed any quick, glaring mistakes (like typos).

When I finally had a card for each scene, I shuffled all the scene cards and tasks cards together, and when I sat down to work on my book, I'd pick a card at random out of the not-done-yet pile. I'd rewrite the clunky parts, fix problems I'd written on the back of the card, etc. Often working on a scene would make me realize what needed to be done on another scene, so I'd add a note to that scene's card. Or I'd realize another, larger problem, and I'd write a task card for it. Or I'd realize I needed another scene, and I'd make a new card (and name it the same as the scene before, but with a letter at the end).

When I finally had all the cards in the done pile, I read the book through from start to finish, making any changes that still needed to be made.

This isn't a system that will work for everyone, obviously, but making the cards made the book feel less large and overwhelmingly complicated.

Oh, yeah, and, congratulations! I hope you'll tell us when it's in bookstores.
posted by smoakes at 10:54 AM on September 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

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