Revising & Rewriting Your Novel
To those of you who partook in NaNoWriMo last month, congratulations! Even if you didn’t reach your goal, you made considerable progress on your WIP, and that amount of dedication deserves a round of applause. Today’s post is about what happens after you write that first draft. Whether you wrote all, most, or none of it during November, if you write a book, you’re going to need to rewrite or revise it (or both).
Rewriting vs Revising
Your first draft is not your last draft. That’s non-negotiable. However, the extent to which you change your first draft varies by person and story.
A lot of authors completely rewrite their novel once or twice (or more times) after the first draft. They take their previous draft and read it over before deciding not to look at it until their next draft is done. Then, they open a new document and start from chapter one all over again. Others (myself included) read each chapter or scene of their previous draft individually, and then decide whether it needs revising or rewriting (or deleting).
Whatever the case, you will need to revise your entire novel multiple times, until you find yourself satisfied with the way your story comes together. Some sections of your novel will require more rounds of revising than others. You might keep coming back to your beginning and ending to make each stronger. Maybe you’ll return to your climax multiple times to change the pacing. Some scenes in the middle of your book might feel dry. That’s normal. It takes time to make your novel look and sound the way you want it to.
Assessing Your Work
Looking at your writing with an unbiased view or from the perspective of the reader is difficult and can seem impossible at times. You know exactly what you were trying to say in that convoluted sentence, you are well aware of how your character’s contradicting motives come together, and the entire backstory to your world is in your head. How are you supposed to know what your plot is missing and whether a scene makes sense?
The truth is, you can’t know for sure, but you can take steps to revise your novel with a fresh eye. The most important thing is taking a break between drafts. Especially right after you finish your first draft, you should close your document (after saving it, of course) and resolve not to return to it for a set period of time. I’d suggest waiting between two weeks and two months to come back to your work and begin revising.
Why? Well, that break gives your mind time to relax. Working on other writing projects or focusing on other hobbies can improve your creativity and improve the quality of your ideas when you return to your novel. Additionally, after your break, your storyline won’t be at the top of your mind. When you reopen your document, it will be much easier for you to point out plot holes or unclear language, because for all intents and purposes, you will be reading your writing like any other reader—as much as possible, at least.
When you do return to your novel, try reading your entire manuscript without making any edits. You can take notes on what you think needs work, but don’t make any changes. This also helps you feel like a reader, not the writer.
Aspects of Writing to Focus On
Writing is an accumulation of many different things, and a lot of them require changing when revising. While the following list is flexible and non-exhaustive, focusing on the below aspects of your novel in the given order can help you revise effectively.
Main Plot & Characters: Plot and characters are the two most important literary elements. They are the reason readers stay with your story. Your main plot is the overarching storyline. It’s the one that starts with the first word and ends with the last. Your main characters are the ones that have the most to lose, narrate the story, or are most closely followed. Does the plot change the characters? Do the characters drive the plot? Also make sure that each scene is told from the POV that best suits it and gives the reader the most insight into the events taking place.
Subplots: From the character arcs of your minor characters to the relationships that form and grow over the course of the book to the secondary problems that linger in the back of your narrator’s mind, your novel undoubtedly has many subplots. Identify and analyze each subplot individually, and keep an eye out for unintentional loose ends and plot holes. Make sure each subplot is there for a reason. If it does not support and intertwine with your main plot, you might have to make changes for it to belong in your plot (or cut it out entirely). This is also when you start thinking about word count. If you need to remove or add subplots to meet the industry standard length for your genre and audience, do that now.
Setting: If you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, check your worldbuilding. Make sure your rules of magic or technology are consistent from the beginning to the end. See if your cultures are logical. If your novel takes place on Earth, do your research about the time and place you are writing in.
Pacing: Pacing is the speed at which your events take place. Short sentences help speed up your climax. More complex sentences make your descriptions more interesting. You can increase suspense by adding a well-placed flashback in the middle of an action scene, or you can annoy your reader and destroy the moment. See if your scenes are paced naturally and are smooth to read. Also, check your timeline in this step. If one character ages two years over the course of your novel, every other character has to do so too (unless magic is in play). Make sure a five day journey doesn’t take a character one.
Scene-by-Scene: Look at each scene or chapter individually and see how it plays into the novel as a whole. Each scene should, in some way, contribute to the main plot or develop your main characters. If it doesn’t, think about how you can make it more consequential. If you find yourself unable to connect a scene to the overall plot, you might consider cutting it entirely. Also, think about whether each scene makes the reader want to read the next. Until you reach the end of your novel, there should always be unanswered questions in the back of your readers’ minds.
Now, if you want to change the above list in any way, go for it. The point is, you will need multiple rounds of revisions to address everything that makes your novel unique and an enjoyable read.
However, you don’t need to focus on sentence structure or fluency just yet. If you find an edit you want to make, go for it, but you can worry about typos and syntax when you edit your novel later. Yes, editing will require multiple rounds as well.
Revising is not the end, and you should be grateful for that.
Once you finish revisions, you might think your story is perfect or you might second-guess your entire novel. Either way, an opinion from a reader other than yourself will make it clear what you actually need to work on and will quell some of your other fears. That’s what beta readers are for! (Stay tuned for a later post on that.)
Writing is rewriting. Variations of this quote have been said by many famous writers in history, including Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway. Revising is a crucial step of the writing process. Without this part, books would be full of plot holes and always too long to read or too short to entertain you. Don’t try to rush through revisions. Be patient with your words and creativity, and enjoy!
For me, revising is the hardest aspect of the writing process. Deleting and rewriting large chunks of my story is painful, though I know it will be worth it in the end. Do you enjoy revising? Let me know in the comments!