Revision is my favorite part of the writing process. I’ve often heard writers describe drafting as the “magical” stage, where you can discover new things and let your imagination run wild. It’s true–magic happens while drafting. But magic also happens in revision. Once you’ve written “The End,” you have a chunk of writing to play with. You’re not staring at a blank page wondering what to put on it — you’re staring at a painting and asking, How do I make this come alive?
Revision is a process of discovery, a refining process. It’s also different for each book, and each draft. At DIY MFA, we talk a lot about iteration–about figuring out what process, what schedule, what system, works for you. When it comes to revision, what worked for your last book, or story, or draft, may not work as well for the next one. Each step of the writing process comes with its own unique challenges. This is where a toolbox can be extraordinarily helpful.
Here are five tools that I’ve found effective for helping me revise, at different points on different books. Maybe one of them will be a help to you!
1) Create Scene Cards
I use these when I have a full draft, to make sure each scene is necessary and being used as effectively as possible. The process of making these cards for every single scene is instructive in and of itself. And once you have them, you can look at the larger picture of your story, as well as the individual pieces that make it up. Here’s how I format mine.
- Brief description of scene.
- Protagonist’s goal
- Beat One
- Beat Two
- Beat Three
- Notes about subplots that are advanced in this scene
- Notes about backstory/worldbuilding introduced in this scene
It’s a lot of information, but the act of writing these cards forces me to examine if this scene is even necessary, and how I am using the action in it to advance the plot, deepen the characterization and illuminate the world of my story.
2) Write a Query
I think this is actually a good exercise to do before you ever start writing a book, but it’s also helpful to do before revising one. It’s a simple (albeit not easy) task: write a query or pitch for your book. Make it short–between 250 and 300 words. If you’ve never done this, read the backs of other books in your genre, and copy the format they use.
It can be a tough but really rewarding exercise–sometimes, I think it’s easier to write a book than a query! The process forces you to whittle your story down to its most important elements: the protagonist, his or her goal, the antagonist, and enough information about the world to feel rooted in it. Having a clear sense of this allows you to then ask– is this reflected in the book itself?
Perhaps your story is too complicated, or has a lot of antagonists, but not one clear, driving narrative. Or perhaps there isn’t a strong enough antagonist. Writing a query will bring those issues to the surface, and maybe illuminate ways to fix it.
3) Reformat Your Read Through
By the time I have finished a book I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read through it. I know every word, every sentence. And, in many cases, I’ve stopped seeing it. This is a problem when it comes to revision. You know the book so well, it’s hard to look at it critically. Taking time away from a draft can definitely help with this, but not everyone has months to step away from their work. If you can, I would highly recommend that. But another thing that can help is looking at your book in a new format.
Print and spiral-bind your manuscript. Send it to your Kindle, Nook, or iPad. Do something so you’re not staring at the same screen you wrote the book on. If you can’t do this, try putting the manuscript in a new font. Read it out loud. Stand up and pace while you do it. Sit in a new chair. Our brains are wired to put things on autopilot, when possible. A change of scenery or format will wake them up and make them look more critically, even at words you’ve read a thousand times.
4) Write a Love List
I recently attended a workshop Jennifer Lynn Barnes gave at the RWA National Conference. Barnes is a YA writer and professor of Psychology who does research on the psychology of fiction and fandom. Her workshop was fantastic, and I’d encourage any writer who sees her name listed at a conference to attend it. One thing she talked about was how, a lot of times, an author’s first book is their most popular, even though the level of craft isn’t as strong as later works. Her theory is that an author’s first book, usually written without the publishing industry or issues of craft in mind, isn’t as self-edited. And because of that, it’s full of things you love, and things that, naturally, other people will love too.
Generally speaking, if you love something, there’s a good chance you’re not alone. Look at Taylor Swift’s songs. They are highly specific, detailing particular things in her life but, because of that, they resonate on a universal level. She doesn’t edit herself, and that helps her connect with millions of people. Sometimes we edit out the very things that make our books resonant.
Barnes’ solution? Write out what she calls an “Id list.” A list of things you love to write or read about, whether that’s waterfalls, kissing in elevators, bromances, or sunsets. Even if you think it’s cheesy, or cliche. You can do this for your writing in general, but I have found it helpful specifically during revision. Revision is when we get deep in the weeds. We’re editing and cutting and being critical. It can make us start to think our books are crap. Writing a love list can help reorient your view, seeing the things that are good about your book, the things you love about it, and the things that make it sing. Keeping that in mind while you’re revising can help you to preserve those things, and also enjoy the process a little more.
5) Secondary Character Outlines
One of the things that makes a book, or especially a series, feel immersive and multi-layered, are well-developed secondary characters. A great example of this is Harry Potter, which is filled with an interesting, three dimensional secondary cast. People don’t think of themselves as sidekicks or love interests or antagonists. Neither should your secondary characters.
Write out an outline–or even scene cards–for your major secondary characters. This will help illuminate if they are being used as effectively as they can, if they are just acting as a crutch or foil for the main character, and ways to bring them more into the story and give them fully fleshed out arcs. I do this for as many characters as I can. Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it ultimately will make the main story richer.
This is a non-exhaustive list, and I’m always adding to it. What tools for revision work for you? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @besscozby!
Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of Janklow and Nesbit Associates. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website at www.besscozby.com.