Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stages of Revision

I love my readers—you guys ask such fabulous questions! Thus saving me the stress of coming up with my own posts. Several of you asked about what kind of revisions I do, so today I'm going to attempt to break down my process.

Please note that during all these phases I attempt to clean the text, removing typos and such, but it's not until the end that I really dig into that. Also, there is some overlap. Oftentimes in later plot revisions I start refining characters. Sometimes in line editing I see some minor plot issue I missed and I have to tweak it. It's not an exact science.

Stage 1: Plot Revisions
If I have plot issues—which I often do—I like to tackle these first. Mostly because they are usually the Big Problems, the ones that cause cuts and moving and additions and rewriting. Really, why spend time refining prose when a whole section could go? Why spend time bringing out a character's emotional arc when the events could change? And thus their reactions to it?

The plot is your base—your story relies on this as a firm foundation. If you have weak areas, you risk readers putting down your book. Because of that, my first revisions always revolve around tightening the plot.

How do you revise your plot? Actually, it's something I learned this year, and it improved my writing so much. In my greener days, I didn't think I could change plot without changing the whole story, but that's completely untrue. In fact, I wrote a whole post about my epiphany. Basically, you have to ask yourself one thing:

Is that the best way for this story to unfold?

Other questions to determine "best":

• Is this passage repetitive?

• Is this information necessary?

• Does this passage propel the story forward?

• Is the story focused on the most compelling parts?

• Does this happen in the right order?

• Can this plot arc be drawn out? Should it be shortened?

• Is the action happening on the page? If not, how can I make that happen?

• Do all the plot arcs continually build in intensity?

• Do all the arcs climax at/or close to the same time?

• Can this information/action be folded into another area of the book?

• Does every scene work overtime? (i.e. You don't write one chapter just to explain a character's back story—there should be more than one reason for every scene.)

• Does this seem plausible? Does the action ring true? Will readers see plot holes?

• Are things overcomplicated? Not complicated enough?

• Are there actual stakes? Or does the danger feel false?

I usually go through several drafts where plot revisions are my main focus. Since Void was one of my greener attempts, I feel like I've just finally made it out of major plot revisions. And I'm on draft 8. Though with some of my newer work, like Transparent, I was able to solve my plot issues by draft 3 (though I still have some serious character development things to address).

I wish I could tell you exactly how to refine your plot, but it's extremely case sensitive. As I've improved my writing, I've been able to curb many plot issues, but they still arise. Betas are very helpful in pointing them out. Yet in the end, only the author can decide what is best for their book.

Stage 2: Character Revisions
After I feel like I have a fairly tight plot, I turn my focus to characters. Often when you mess with plot, your characters' reactions might have to change as well. Or maybe you haven't quite represented them properly.

It might be hard to "change" your characters, but I've learned it's not really changing. It's more like "representing" them more accurately. I don't know about other writers, but my relationship with my characters develop a lot like real relationships. I don't really know them at first, but I know I like them. As the story progresses, sometimes I learn something about them that I didn't know at first—something that drastically changes what I'd previously written.

I'm constantly having to line up character emotions as I get to know them, and I think that's easiest to do after the plot has settled. That's when I start focusing on questions like this:

• Is that truly how the character would react?

• Am I making their emotions clear enough? Too clear?

• Is that really what the character would say?

• Am I hedging their true emotions because I don't want readers to hate them? (I'm often guilty of this one—I don't let my chars get mad enough or rude enough or jealous enough, etc.)

• Would my character really do that? And if it's unexpected, do I properly explain it to my readers?

• Do I have too much back story? Not enough?

• Do my characters all have their own unique motivations and stories? Do I make them clear when needed?

• Is my MC compelling? The secondary characters interesting? The villain a true conflict?

• Are all my characters necessary? Are there some that can be combined or cut?

• Do my characters propel the story forward with their actions/words?

Character revisions, overall, can be tricky. They are easy to miss if you're not paying attention. They're usually very subtle things that might look like line editing. A small reaction there, and a quick change of a description there. But they make all the difference in the story—they can make your characters pop right off the page.

Stage 3: Prose Revisions
After I feel like I have a decent grasp on the plot and characters, I face the dreaded prose editing. The nitty gritty stuff—the stuff that takes your story from good to great. While plot and character revising can be overwhelming, prose revision can be just plain tedious. This is when your eyes start crossing, when you want to give up because you've looked at the book so many times you'd prefer never to see it again.

And yet, you must press on.

First comes the line edit, which is not copy editing. Line editing is essentially making sure all those plot and character changes you made are consistent. And after that, it's making sure you're using the best possible words.

Things I focus on while line editing:
• Showing not telling

• Varying description/improving it

• Ensuring my details are consistent throughout (i.e. character have same eye color as beginning, and other stuff like that)

• Smoothing out plot transitions

• Refining dialogue/reviewing tags

• Tightening chapters/making sure they break properly

• Any other other plot/character tweaks I missed

Then comes the even more nit-picky copy edit, which focuses on grammar, punctuation, repetition, paragraphing, etc:

• Correcting run-ons, fragments, and other grammatical faux-pas

• Correcting improper comma, semi-colon, and other punctuation misuse.

• Curbing overuse of punctuation such as the dash, ellipsis, semi-colon, etc. (I'm a dash-a-holic. I have a personal rule a chopping down to one a page at max.)

• Changing repetitive words/actions. (Eye rolls, sighing, and gasps don't pack a punch if they're on every page, or every other.)

• Cutting unnecessary words (i.e. personal ticks, "to be," progressive, excessive prepositions, etc.)

• Varying repetitive grammatical structures. (Sometimes I go overboard on rhetorical questions in one chapter, and then go crazy with the gerunds in the next.)

Once I've done all that, I read it aloud to see if it flows. Awkward phrases or inauthentic passages really jump out when I do that.

So that's the long version of how I take "Small Bites." As you can see, this list would be pretty impossible to swallow in one pass. Or even 2 or 3. I swear revisions constantly stews in the back of my brain. I don't think it'll end until the book is published.


  1. Thanks! You have no idea how much it helps to hear other people's processes. : )

  2. This is an awesome post, Natalie. I'm working on revisions now, so it's great to see how someone who's made it work does it. Thanks for sharing your process!

  3. I like how you said it stews in the back of your brain. That's what I do too, and I find myself "writing" lines in my head. I got one this morning when I dropped my daughter off at school. And now I just need to go put it in the document where it belongs. And yes, I have the MS memorized and know which page it goes on. Le sigh.

  4. What an insightful post! Such great tips to guide the rest of us in revisions. I especially like the section on character revisions. I have a feeling that's going to be the most challenging part for me as my characters tend to come out fairly cardboard-ish the first few drafts.

  5. My brain hurts now, and I want to cry. I guess that means you did another great post. Thanks for sharing your process!

  6. Thanks for the info! I bookmarked this post so I can remind myself of the kinds of questions you ask yourself. I think it'll help me a lot.

  7. I bookmarked this one too. It's a keeper. Thanks.

  8. Groovy. You put into words a lot of the things I try to keep in mind while editing.

  9. This post was soo inspiring as I stare down my own painful revisions. Thanks for describing your revision process in the last few posts -- these are really helpful.

  10. I just thought I'd let you know that I did a shout-out to this post in my weekly roundup of good stuff in the writing blogosphere. :) No quotes, just referred people here, because I thought your post was really helpful.

  11. You Rule in a big way. Thanks, so much. I'm two-thirds through my first draft and I'm starting to get worried about the whole editing process. This helps a lot ... now I feel like I have a clue about how to do it.

  12. This is excellent! I'm bookmarking it to read it in more depth later.

  13. Thank you very very much for this, Natalie. I am making an incredibly valiant attempt to dig full force into my writing starting tomorrow (since today I failed MISERABLY, haha).

    So, I will definitely take each and every one of these points into account whilst I create. :-)

    Word verification: ingeous

    Dang, so close to ingenious! haha.

  14. Wow! What a fabulous post! So thorough and so helpful!

    Plot is tricky for me and I ask myself many of the questions you have mentioned... but you've given me a few new questions to ask myself as well, so thank you!

    As much as we hear it and know it, revision, revision, revision is necessary - and leads to a better final product.

    Cheers, Jill

  15. I couldn't star this in my reader fast enough.

    Thank you so much for such an informative post! I can't wait to come back to it in a few months.

  16. I have to let the story and all revisions stew around for a bit as well. I don't like to rush the changes.

    Thanks for the insights into your writing process :)

  17. Oh my gosh! How do you keep track of all those bullet points? I'm always amazed at the way you can break down the process so concisely. I think I need to print this post as my own personal editing list.

  18. Masterfully explained. You've definitely got it down. I'm still working out the kinks.

  19. Oops - forgot to say... I've left you an award over at my blog :)

  20. Holy Shiz. This post is like a Holy Grail of *praising you to the sky*

  21. How I love peering into the brains of other writers!

    Thanks, that rocked.

  22. I'm printing this post so I can use it as a check list for my revisions. Thank you! Thank you!

  23. Some great suggestions here - I was able to say 'yes' to a few of the questions, which is a good sign for my current wip.

  24. You are so ridiculously organized. And I am so... not.

  25. Another great post. I especially like the part about plot revision.

    Do you ever do any pre-writing excercises (snowflak method, or some other excercise that lets you explore your plot/characters before you delve in)? I find that if a do a few before i start a new piece, it really helps to cut down on plot and character revisions.

  26. Wow... found my way here via Nathan's blog, and you're now in my Google Reader. Great post!

    I'm working on revisions for my editor right now, and this is SO helpful. Thank you!


  27. Awesome post. I'm now in the eye-crossing prose revisions and agree that it's such a tedious process. I also love dashes and am re-working many of them. Thanks!

  28. Excellent round-up of editing guidelines. I'm in the midst of a rewrite (which is one of my not-so-favorite activities), and I know I'll be referring to your list as I continue on.

    I think you've convinced me that I really do need to combine a couple of my secondary characters into one. Nerts.

  29. Great informative post. Very helpful! I never thought of leaving the line edits for last and tackle the plot first, but that makes total sense...

    Thanks again :o)

  30. Excellent posting! I'll be referring to this when I do my next revisions!

    A fellow dash-a-holic

  31. Thanks! I think I'll print these out. Working on getting my third book out in the world and always need help revising. It's the part of writing I hate the most.

  32. Thanks for the step-by-step. I keep thinking my book's ready, and then keep finding more to improve.

  33. Nice insight on revisions. I know I have a dickens of a time with revisions. Then I think my work is well polished and an agent tells me my voice is uneven and my length is a bit short. Dang.

  34. Thank you, thank you!! I'm a new novelist and this was similar to the steps I followed for revisions. Nice to know it's proven!

    I agree on line edit stage. Torture! When I did plot and character revisions, I still felt like I was creating - the fun part. As I started getting close to the end, I was sad until I reminded myself I get to start all over again. By the line edit stage, though, I whined and groaned and moaned through every single line. Painful!! And I think I need to do it again. Always room for improvement until it's printed.

    Thanks again!

  35. Thank you, thank you! I am just about to begin a huge revision on my novel and have been trying to find the best way to do it. I have been reading other posts and taking notes, I found your list to be easy to follow and full of great insight.

  36. Wow, Natalie,

    Thank you for taking the time to list out your process! I'm about to dive in to revisions, and I'll for sure be checking in with this list as I go. Thanks again!

  37. Brilliant! I'm sharing it with all my students (UCLA Extension.) No one ever talks about HOW to revise. Thanks for sharing your process. I'm going to post your post on my blog :)

  38. Thi post is just... neat!

    I too like to break things/ideas/processes to have a better perspective. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    My brain is working already, and novel on full stop my surface again to conscious mind. Hmmm, thanks for that too! :D

  39. This post has been sitting in my Internet TBR for several days, but it was well worth the wait! I'm bookmarking and sharing.

    I had to smile when you mentioned not letting your characters react strongly enough. One of my readers just told me today that my characters were all too nice to each other. ;-)

    Thanks for a great list!

  40. All I have to say is thank you for sharing how you write and rewrite your work. You gave some wonderful information and perspective at looking at writing. It gives a great sense of calm that I am not going crazy everytime I look at my manscripts and find things to change that I missed the last time I looked at them! So glad my writing group published the link! Namaste!

  41. Thank you for taking the time to post this. I will be starting the revision process soon and this is very helpful.

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