NaNoWriMo starts in a few days. Thirty days later, it will be over. Once you’ve finished your first draft, then what?
This blog post is for those brave souls who have completed their first draft and face the daunting task of transforming this rough draft into something that someone else would want to read.
Let me state that I’m a novelist by inclination, not a short story writer. Therefore, these items are drawn for my novel writing experience. For revising a short story, some of my advice will apply and some will not. It is obviously true that the longer a fictional work is, the more revision it will require.
- Put down your manuscript for a day or two and do something else. Anything else, really. Make a costume for next year’s cons. Organize a closet. Go shopping. Clean house. Read a novel or short story anthology, not necessarily in the genre you’re currently working in. Or even work on another story or novel. The point is to make yourself forget about the work for a couple of days, so that when you begin revising you can take a fresh look at it.
- Over time, you’ll learn what you tend to omit from first drafts. In my case, it’s what my characters are feeling. When I revise, I’m careful to put those feelings in.
- Use the notes you took during your first draft. When I say this, I mean you should create a file of notes summarizing all the things that you suspect will need fixing in revision. If you’ve just finished your first draft and haven’t done that, read your first draft again without changing a word, just to accumulate those notes. I keep a Revision Notes file for every draft of every novel I write. I don’t have to fix all of them in every draft I write. During the course of revision, I not only cross out notes, I also add new ones, so my Revision Notes files grow and shrink throughout the revision process. I said “cross out,” not “delete.” I use the MS Office Word strikeover feature to document the notes I’ve fixed. This way, I don’t waste time thinking I need to change something I’ve already changed.
- Revision is also a good time to revisit what characters you’re going to need. Your plot tells you what characters are necessary to move the plot. Therefore, if there is a character that has little (but something) to do with the plot, delete all scenes with that person except those that deal with the plot. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy where there’s a hunter who helps your party of adventurers navigate a perilous mountain trail, and if at the end of that journey he either dies, gets eaten by orcs, or emerges unharmed to bid the adventurers farewell, then you don’t need any more chapters about him. Don’t waste the time of future readers with his backstory or how he gets along with his wife and children.
- Revision is a good time to revisit the names of your characters or of fictional places. This is especially true of minor characters, which I don’t even have names for at the beginning. My early drafts are full of minor characters with names like ROOKIE-COP-IN-CHAPTER-2 and place names like PROVINCIAL-CAPITAL-OF-UPPER-ZAMPO. As a part of my Revision Notes file, I mention all the characters and places that need a name assigned. Once I create a name, I use find-and-replace (the writer’s best friend) to replace them.
- Keep your eyes open for plot holes. If the ending you want to have doesn’t necessary follow from your character’s actions, then you’ll have to change it. Some plot holes can be fixed with a single sentence. Others involve rewriting the climax of the plot. Some involve altering the limits of your character’s magical powers (in a fantasy) or revising the capabilities of some future technology (in science fiction). One thing that often happens is that there’s a much easier solution to the plot than the one which the author has chosen, because one of the characters is too “high powered.” As a result, logically speaking the story should be over in a few thousand words, leaving no need for a novel. Revision is the time to fix that sort of thing.
- You probably will have to do more than one revision. That’s okay. My first book, Discarded Faces, took more than twelve end-to-end drafts to finish. I say “more than” because I lost count after twelve. My subsequent novels have needed about six or seven drafts,
- How many revisions do you need? I used to wonder about that, but the answer is quite easy. You revise until you can’t think of anything else to revise. Then you turn it over to a critiquing buddy, or hire a free-lance editor to read through it. If they want money for it, it will be worth it, because having another person look at it is invaluable feedback. As a result of the feedback, you’ll need to do more revising, but it’ll feel like a fresh start because your critiquing buddy will give you things to think about.
That’s what I have to say about revising novel manuscripts. Good luck to all writers who read this.