Questionable: Things to Look For in Revisions

Susan B said:

Top ten helpful tips would be wonderful [for]
Things to look for during revision.

I don’t know if these are the top ten, but these are good ways to revise, in no particular order:

1. Read your first scene. Read your climax. Does your first scene set up your climax so that the reader has a sense of inevitability, that it was always going to end here? Are there elements repeated (theme, setting, dialogue, event, conflict, whatever)? Or are they completely unrelated? Rewrite the first scene to set up the echo.

2. Do a search for “ly” words, followed by searches for “just” and “very.” Delete 99% of them, making the verbs they modified stronger if necessary.

3. Print your story out. Find the ends of your turning point scenes and separate the ms into four piles (or however many acts you have). Treat each act as a story in and of itself. Does each act have its own structure, rising in tension to its climax/turning point, as if it were a novella on its own? Does the beginning of the next act start with the protagonist in a new place, revising plans as he or she realizes the stakes are a lot higher and it’s a whole new ballgame?

4. Still looking at the act stacks from your paper print-out, do the act sections get progressively smaller toward the end? If not, start cutting pages from the later acts so that they do.

5. Look at your protagonist in the first scene, the turning point scenes, and the climax. Is his or her arc clear at those five points? Does she change in important ways at each point? Is she a different person at the end of the story than she was at the beginning, to the extent that she wouldn’t have been able to handle the climax at the beginning in the way she handles it at the end?

6. If you have subplots told from the POV of a supporting character, go through and read only those scenes. Does the character arc? Do the subplot events arc? How does this subplot echo/mirrow/reverse the ideas of the main plot?

7. Track each main and supporting character through the story, reading only the scenes in which she or he is present. Are there scenes in which he or she isn’t doing anything when he or she would be saying or doing something given the situation? Fix that. Are there scenes in which he or she is not doing anything because there’s nothing for him or her to do? Cut the character from the scene. Look at where he or she is at the beginning and ending of the book. It’s all right if the character hasn’t arced, not all characters do, but the character should have been affected by the events of the book unless he or she is terminally clueless and have sailed through the events without noticing (some characters do).

8. Is there a word, event, object, phrase, etc. that repeats throughout? That’s a motif. Figure out why it keeps turning up and what it means, and then go through and sharpen and focus it so that it serves the story in subtext.

9. Read the book through from the beginning. Are there parts that you’re skimming? Cut them. (Really. If you’re skimming them, imagine what the reader’s doing.)

10. When the book’s the best you can make it, give it to beta readers and ask for their emotional response to the story: what parts they loved, what parts were slow, what threw them out of the story.

Then revise again.

21 thoughts on “Questionable: Things to Look For in Revisions

  1. Wow–this is fabulous. And dammit, now I have to go revise the current WIP again. *shakes fist at Jenny*

    1. I’m going to take this holiday weekend for numbers 7 and 8…when I’m not poolside with a pre-Autumn pina colada. And I’ll probably take a whack at number 2 as well. I don’t want to be the ‘just very justly verily’ author 🙂

  2. Excellent advice. Thanks!

    I also do searches for “was” and “were.” And then wonder how writers managed before computers.

  3. I am such a geek for revision checklists and methods. Every author has a slightly different take on it. Terrific suggestions, thank you.

    I’d much rather revise than write the initial draft.

  4. This is great. Thanks Jenny! For number 1, when you say the climax needs to echo the beginning is the climax the same as the black moment or is the climax the final scene? Sorry if this is a dumb question, I just did 5 hours of karate and am exhausted.

    1. It’s a good question. I think it can be either; it’s easier to echo a slow open in the resolution (last scene, not climax), but I think it’s really helpful to foreshadow the climax in some way in the beginning scene. If you think of the beginning scene as a promise to the reader–“This is the kind of story this is, this is what this story is about”–then using the beginning to set up the climax, even if it’s just in a really small way, can help unify the story.
      Example: Tell Me Lies starts with Maddie finding her antagonist’s underwear under the front seat of her husband’s car, has a climax where Maddie fights (literally) her final battle with that antagonist, and has a denouement that features her own underwear. Contrast that with Faking It which starts in ENTIRELY the wrong place and promises nothing. I like the first scene in Faking It, but it does nothing for the unity of the story. The original first scene was Tilda meeting Davy in the closet, and the climax is that clown-car scene where they all come out of the closet, literally and figuratively (Hi, I’m Scarlet). Shoulda stayed with the original opening scene.

      1. If it’s any consolation, in my memory, ‘Faking It’ starts with the closet scene. I couldn’t think why you were dissing it, until I realized that’s actually not the beginning.

      2. FWIW, I thought the opening scene in Faking It was just great: first, you learn that Tilda is well known for (and well paid for) but not happy doing murals, that there are secrets, and, most importantly of all, it introduces the dog (Spot, a.k.a. Steve). I can see where that scene was extraneous, but there was (IMHO) a bunch of essential stuff there. Of course, you most likely could have done it otherwise, but, well, how would you have introduced Steve before that???

  5. For anyone who doesn’t have an aversion to spreadsheets, you can sort of do #3-8 in a spreadsheet instead of with the manuscript itself. I create the spreadsheet before I start writing these days (and modify it as I go along in the first draft), but originally I created it after the first draft, by skimming the scenes just to get the info I needed.

    Each scene gets a row, and I use 7 columns (but it depends on what you want to keep track of): 1. page number (so it’s easy to find the scene to work on it), 2. scene # (and I make a note when the time changes, like a.m., noon, pm, evening, or when it’s a new day), 3. the setting (where the action is taking place, e.g., a house or office or outdoors), 4. a description of the action (or GMC — this is the biggest cell), 5. the scene antagonist and any other major secondary characters (my stories are all from one POV, but if I were doing two povs, I’d have another column for whose pov it was), 6. the storyline that the scene is focused on (e.g., the main mystery plot or a romance subplot or a motif) and 7. since I write mysteries, the clue or red herring that will be revealed in the scene.

    Then, it’s really easy to go down a column, and see if there’s too much repetition or if the motif hasn’t been touched on in 100 pages or it’s been used twice in two successive scenes. With the page numbers, I can tell if my scenes are getting progressively shorter as the book goes along, or if I have a scene that’s so long it should probably be three scenes somewhere. I can see if there are a whole bunch of related scenes together, all with the same antagonist or some other clumping that should be broken up, or if I haven’t mentioned one of the murder suspects in 100 pages. The column for clues/red-herrings makes me pay attention to whether I’m actually pushing the murder investigation forward, or people are just wandering around aimlessly.

    For me, it works better than the actual pages of the manuscript, since then I get bogged down in the sentences and lose the big picture. I can highlight the spreadsheet, giving a character or motif or subplot its own color, and then seeing if the color shows up fairly evenly over the course of the story. I can make sure all the clues are really in place, for when the denouement happens, or I can figure out at a glance where they belong. And I’m not always good at making my characters move, instead of sitting and chatting, so having a column for location helps me to make sure they’re moving, and they’re not all sitting around the dining room table. Oh, and once I’ve got the spreadsheet, writing the synopsis is a breeze. Basically one sentence, or part of a sentence for each line in the spreadsheet, and I’ve got all the key information right there in front of me: protagonist, antagonist, goal, action, setting and clues.

    But, as always, many roads to Oz. And probably many different spreadsheets too. The columns I use work for my particular strengths/weaknesses and genre. A romance novel, or sprawling epic fantasy would likely need different columns.

    1. Gin, this is fabulous! Thank you. I’ve been working on a novel worth a partner and we use a spreadsheet to track page count and who’s working on what, but I think I’m going to go add some columns to it. 🙂

    2. Thanks. I really do love spreadsheets. I make one as an outline to get me started, and then scribble all over it as I’m doing the draft and need to add/subtract stuff or move scenes around. It took me a while to come up with columns that work for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to change over time, but I love having the big picture on just a few pages.

  6. Makes me wild to write story so I’ll have the fun of revision. I’ve always enjoyed revising, it’s what I’m good at because it’s really playing with identification of moving (or nonmoving) parts and then making them go faster, slower, smoother, prettier.

  7. Thank you Jenny and Gin for two excellent ways back into a manuscript that is proving very hard to work on…

    I will get there. Got bogged down in draft 3, am aiming for final draft 3 to be finished this month, printed, photocopied and submitted to beta readers in time for more revisions around Halloween. Want to clear the decks for a Nano project I have going…


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