If you finished your novel during NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—you may be wondering what comes next. How do you tackle revising your novel?
Amanda posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
So, NaNoWriMo is done. I won! Yay!
I now have a fairly “complete” story of about 96,000 words that is … a big mess! Where do I start with revisions? And how do I keep from feeling overwhelmed?
Randy sez: First off, Amanda, congratulations on winning NaNoWriMo! And you won very handily. To win, you only had to write 50,000 words and you did almost twice that, 96,000. That’s a very productive month!
Your question is a common one—how to tackle revising your novel. There are several ways to do that, just as there are several ways to generate your first draft.
First, a quick note on how to revise your novel without feeling overwhelmed. My general strategy is this:
- Make a written document that tells what changes I’m going to make without actually making any changes. This gives me a chance to think strategically about my revisions.
- Once I have a written plan for my revisions, I plunge in and actually start making changes. But I do this on a copy of the first draft, so I can always get back to the original if the revisions turn out bad.
Now before we talk about how to revise your novel, let’s review some basics on how we write first drafts, because there are a number of ways to do that. The method you choose will affect how you later tackle revisions.
Quick Review of Creative Paradigms
In my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, I talked about “creative paradigms”—various methods that novelists use to write the first draft of their novel. There are many creative paradigms that work. Here are four common creative paradigms that I identified in my book:
- Seat Of The Pants—you just sit down and type your first draft without planning your story and without editing anything. You keep pressing forward until the first draft is done.
- Edit As You Go—you sit down and type your first draft without planning, but you edit each page and/or each scene many times before moving on to the next.
- The Snowflake Method—you use my wildly popular 10-step Snowflake Method of planning your story before you write it.
- Outlining—you create a long and detailed synopsis (sometimes up to 100 pages). Then you write the draft following your outline.
There’s no one best method of writing a first draft that works for everybody. I think it’s worth learning how other authors do it, because that can give you ideas on how to do it yourself. But ultimately, you get to choose the method that works best for you. If it works for you, then nobody has the right to tell you you’re “doing it wrong.”
When writing the first draft, you are mainly wearing your creative hat. But once the first draft is done, it’s time to put on your editing hat. So how do you do that?
You Have Options
Just as there’s no one best method of creating your first draft that works for everybody, I suspect there’s no one best method of revising your novel that works for everyone.
I would bet there are a number of editing paradigms that writers use. I can think of at least two, and I’m sure there are many others.
The two editing paradigms I can think of are closely related to my Snowflake Method creative paradigm:
- Work through the Snowflake Method in light of everything you learned by writing the first draft. Make a list of revisions you’ll make. I’d use this method to revise a first draft that is “not too messy”—that is, the story structure is pretty clear and the characters are reasonably consistent.
- Work backwards through the first nine steps of the Snowflake Method, again making a list of revisions you plan to make. I’d use this method to revise a first draft that is “very messy”—this is, the story structure is very unclear and the characters are not yet well fleshed-out.
I’ll say a few words about each of these in the next two sections.
Revising Your Novel Using the Snowflake Method
If the large-scale structure of your story is pretty clear, then I suspect you’d do well by working through the Snowflake Method, making a list as you go of things you want to change. (If you already used the Snowflake Method earlier to write your first draft, then this should be quick. Just make a copy of the original Snowflake document and keep a running list of the changes you want to make to the story.) I’ve done this myself, and it’s worked well for me. Here’s what I do:
I start with my One-Sentence Summary that I came up with before I wrote the first draft. Can I improve it, now that I’ve written the story? And does my revised One-Sentence Summary suggest ways to improve the story on the next draft?
Then I look at the One-Paragram Summary. This breaks down into a Three-Act Structure, with three major disasters as turning points. Can I refine my One-Paragraph Summary in light of the actual story I wrote? And after refining my One-Paragraph Sumary, can I see things in my first draft that need to change in the next?
I continue on like this through the first nine steps of the Snowflake Method. At each step, I try to tweak my original Snowflake document in light of the actual first draft that I wrote. And after tweaking the document, I ask if the tweaks I just made suggest any changes that I need to make in the next draft.
Revising Your Novel Using the Reverse Snowflake Method
If the large-scale structure of your story is not clear at all, then you might do better by figuring out your story structure, working backwards through the steps of the Snowflake.
Start with the actual manuscript you wrote for your first draft. Analyze each scene using the tools in my book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. Is the scene Proactive or Reactive? What are the main parts of the scene? Does the scene work emotively? Can you summarize this scene in a single sentence? If you do this for every scene of your novel, you will have completed Steps 9 and then 8 of the Snowflake Method.
Read through the manuscript, taking notes on all your characters. What’s their physical description? What is their age? What do you know about them, their family, their friends, etc? What drives them? You can create a separate dossier for each character in your novel. By the time you finish this read-through, you’ll have a complete “character bible” for all your main characters. This is Step 7 of the Snowflake Method.
Go back to your list of scenes and construct a long synopsis (4 or 5 pages) in which you cover the high points of all the scenes. When you complete this, you’ll have finished Step 6 of the Snowflake Method.
Think about each of your characters, focusing on their backstory and how that affects them in your story. Write half a page up to a full page on each of your main characters. Or do an imaginary interview with each main character. When you’ve done all this, you’ll have finished Step 5 of the Snowflake Method.
Try to trim down your long synopsis into a 1-page synopsis that just covers the high points. It’s OK to not cover every single scene. Try to capture what’s going on in the main groups of scenes. This is Step 4 of the Snowflake Method.
Write a short summary of each of your characters, focusing on their role in the story and their story goal, their ambition, and their values. This is a caricature of your characters where you capture only the high points. When you finish, you’ll have done Step 3 of the Snowflake Method.
Summarize your story in one paragraph. Write a sentence that sets up the background of the story. Then one sentence for each of three main acts in your story. Then one sentence explaining how it ends. This is Step 2 of the Snowflake Method.
Write a One-Sentence Summary of your story that you can use as your “elevator pitch”—in case you ever find yourself on an elevator with an editor or agent. (This does actually happen sometimes.) When you’ve got a good One-Sentence Summary, you’ve completed Step 1 of the Snowflake Method.
Now that you’ve worked through all the steps backwards, zip through them all again from Step 1 to Step 9, making notes on what changes to make. What should you add to your story? What should you remove? What other revisions should you make?
I’ve never used this Reverse Snowflake Method to revise a novel. But I’ve used essentially this method to take a huge set of research notes and turn it into the storyline for a historical novel. (The problem in writing a historical novel is that history is not structured like a story, so you have to find your plot and your character motivations from a mishmash of dull historical texts. This is extremely hard.)
Actually Editing Your Manuscript
When you’ve made a list of the changes you want to make in revising your novel, make a copy of your first draft and rename it as your second draft. That way you aren’t editing the original, and if you don’t like your edits, you can always get back to the original.
Then get to work putting in the changes you listed. Start with the first scene in your new scene list. If it’s a brand new scene, then write it from scratch. If it’s an old scene that you’ve marked to delete, then delete it. Otherwise, make the changes that you decided to make.
Keep going from the first scene to the last, following your revision plan. When you finish, you should now have a second draft that’s way better than your first. It may not be perfect, but it’s better. Repeat the process as many times as you need.
Every writer is different, and it may be that the methods I’ve described above don’t click with you. That’s okay. But I hope they give you some ideas so you can invent your own action plan for revising your novel. Good luck, and have fun!
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