A New Year's Revision Technique for Your Novel

Meredith Sue Willis


I've been giving a piece of advice for many years to students in my novel writing classes: go through your manuscript once as a reader, sitting on your hands. This is, of course, another way of saying "Don't tinker. Don't start manipulating the sentences. Don't edit, Just read." Notes are allowed, but only at section or chapter breaks. The aim is to get an overview of plot, story, flow, and momentum.

Most of us who love to write are especially devoted to our words and phrases. We are always looking for a better way to say it. We expand here, tighten and cut there. We are often very good at the trees, but we tend to lose our way in the forest. Others of us, of course, are gifted at plot and story line. We may be natural storytellers, or we may have a clear model in mind that gives structure and momentum: a coming of age novel, a life story. Or, we might be mostly drawn to the possibilities of exploring character, slowing down time, going back and forth in time, examining moments and small details.

The best novels, in my opinion, do all these things. The writers of the best novels, however, don't necessarily do the things all at once. Thus I suggest different kinds of revisions, some fast, some slow, some focused on only a single thing. I wrote an essay about this called "Seven Layers to Revising Your Novel" that appeared in The Writer. Most of these suggestions for revision come from my own experience. I particularly like one that revises the second half or even the last quarter first. I also often do the "search for details" revision where you search through the whole novel for all appearances of a certain character (or place, or important object) to see how that element changes over the course of the novel. I also do housekeeping like checking for catch phrases or words that I tend to overuse ("shards" and "gazed deeply").

What I had never done before, however, was the straight-through read I described at the beginning. Since I'm working on a science fiction novel where story is of the essence, I decided finally to try it, and last month, I read the manuscript on my Kindle e-reader. I e-mailed it as a .doc file to my special Kindle address (if you have a Kindle, you have one of these, usually yourname@kindle.com). I kept a pencil and notebook at my side, and while I couldn't quite make myself wait for the end of the chapter, I did scribble only an occasional note, and tried hard not to copy edit or line edit. I concentrated on the story, and was horrified by various discrepancies: I had made certain revelations more than once, and the first person narrator repeatedly overheard conversations like a regular little spy.

The biggest problem, though, was the order in which the characters begin to explore the desert outside their home. I had them learn to ride the local flying aliens out into the desert before they took walks into the desert under their own steam. There was a complicated explanation for why they stopped flying to walk, but as I read, the impatient reader in me said, "Duh, why don't they just walk first and learn to fly later?"

I wrote myself a long note about what I needed to do, but didn't work on it till I'd finished reading. For me, this took a lot of self-discipline. I was glad, though, because once I got over some bumps, the story went very well, at least with the kind of speed read I was giving it, so I was encouraged and ready to get back to work.

I've now put the events of the story in a more sensible order that also seems to have the advantage of upping the ante, as they recommend in script writing--that is, the farther they go out into the desert, the more danger there is. For those of you who see yourself as artists rather than as suspense-builders, keep in mind that your first several drafts should have given full play to your instincts and inspiration. That comes first: getting out whatever it is that you are interested in exploring. Then, as you step back and begin to reshape and polish your sentences, you may also need to reshape and polish the trajectory of the story itself.

This revision technique might help.


Best wishes in your writing in the New Year!