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REVISION: Trouble-shooting Your Novel

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Okay, so after being pretty relentlessly abstract in my ramblings about my revision process so far (post one here) (post two here), I think it’s time for me to start talking about nuts and bolts. It’s strange to talk about it as a predictable process, because it’s not really. It varies wildly from book to book and some books will need a lot of a certain sort of attention and then other books will need a totally different plan of attack.

So I think the best way for me to take this basket of snakes and lay them straight is to pull out individual revision snakes that I look for in any given book and talk about what I do to fix it. These are in no particular order, no particular facet more universal than others. There is no cobra macdaddy of revisions snakes. We all have our own little foibles and bad habits and so what’s a huge problem for one writer might not even be a blip for another.

PACING. For me, pacing is the first thing I tackle, only because it’s the first thing I notice with my particular revision process, which is to start rereading from the beginning. Pacing is how well scenes flow together. It’s how fast or slow a novel or a section of a novel reads. It should be intentional. If your book is not a page turner, you sure as gravy better have planned it that way.

Pacing is something that you definitely need objectivity for. I have three things I’ll do to revise pacing.

1. A spreadsheet with each scene listed in a table. I’ll have the page number it starts on and I will color code it for what day it takes place on. That way I can see right away if I have just dedicated ten scenes to one day and one scene to the Tuesday after that day.

2. Format. I reread from beginning to end, no distractions, to check pacing. Different font or page size will often help job my brain into objectivity, and if I have time with my deadlines, I will always pay the $6 to have bind the manuscript in paperback book form (always marked to private, of course). Seeing the paragraphs on an actual book page is very helpful for judging how long a scene “feels” since often a scene will feel long to me just because it took me a long time to write it.

3. Index cards. Oh, index cards, how I love thee. I found an old one last year that said “kill grandma.” Yes, they’d love me on Criminal Minds. Anyway, I will often write all the scenes on index cards and lay them out in order. Sometimes a pacing or plot problem can be solved as easily as bumping the mattress fire from Chapter 12 to Chapter 4.

This is such a broad one that I could do an entire week’s posts on it. There are a bunch of different things I’m looking for when I revise at character level.

1. Perception. If a character is meant to be a sexy bad boy, is he coming off that way or are readers perceiving him as a constipated bastard with in Hilfiger attire? This is really why you need more than a week off and why no novel can come out of the faucet perfect. You can’t see how a character really comes off without distance (this is where crit partners and editors help, too).

2. Consistency. Does the character always behave according to her personality and background? Is she being motivated by his desires and fears, or is she going into the cave because there is a plot point there waiting for her and Amazing Coincidences have led her there? Do you know what kind of shoes she wears? You don’t have to know everything about your main characters, but you should be able to fill in the holes easily if prompted, based upon the rules you’ve set up for their personalities. This is the reason why I was able to tweet with confidence that Sam doesn’t wear skinny jeans. Sorry, skater-boy fans.

3. Voice. This is consistency’s prettier twin sister. Especially since I write largely in first person, the voice of each character has to work. That means word choice has to be stared at (a copyeditor noted, for instance, that Sam was the only one allowed to say ‘amongst’) and all events have to be seen through that character’s lens. I shouldn’t be able to pick up any given paragraph and put it in another character’s mouth, for instance, and have it still work. If a box of nails falls on the ground, the way one character views it should be wildly different than another. And if it’s not, either I wrote it wrong, or I need to think about making my characters more opposite to each other.

4. Arc. Every narrating character has to have an arc. They need to end the book a different person than when they started. If I’m doing it right, they should also exit every scene a different person than they entered. I’m not talking about them learning to be Great People or tucking Life Lessons under their belt. I’m talking about consequences. The old James Bond is a great example of a character that never changes (well, in the movies. In the books he grew). Every James Bond movie started with the exact same James, emotionally unchanged by what came before. You can write a book like that but your plot better be first class and your prose amazing and be prepared for it to be popcorn, because that’s what the James Bond movies were. If you want to stick with your reader, you need consequences and a changed main character.

PLOT. Tessa, my crit partner, calls this “story” and I think I like that better, because plot sounds like it can be divorced from character arcs, and I don’t think that is a good idea, unless you are into inhumane experimentation and global warming. It’s just unethical and ill-advised. Don’t do it. Anyway, when I’m revising plot, I want logic and I want inevitability without predictability. Each scene should feel like “oh, of course this had to happen next” without the reader saying “oh, right, I knew that was going to happen.”

This is also where I start deciding whether scenes are pulling their weight. They need to be either furthering the plot or furthering the character arc, and preferably both. If they aren’t — for instance, if they’re just funny? They’re outta there. Needs to be funny and useful. Or beautiful and useful. But if it’s not serving a purpose, be cruel. Better to err on the side of merciless hacking. (brief aside: when I reread this for typo search, I thought that said merciless baking, which is also a good revision tip to remember).

Plot also goes hand in hand with pacing. When I’m deciding if a scene has to die, I often pull out those index cards from my pacing days and see if it is not wrong in general but just wrong where it is.

EDGES. WARNING MORE ART METAPHORS AHEAD. One of the things that I learned while doing my painting-a-day thing was that it didn’t matter how great the colors were, how solid the contrast, how great the composition — you were shooting blanks unless you nailed the edges of objects. It’s something that no one in their right mind would ever point out (“look at the fabulous way she lined the edge of that face. It really adds depth and dynamism to an otherwise ordinary painting! I <3 edges!!!11”) but it makes a huge subconscious difference. It’s the difference between good and finished. It makes things look On Purpose. END ART METAPHOR

I think of my books this way too. The beginning and ends of scenes are edges. The beginning and ending of chapters, too. And of course, the whole book. Zombie goddess Carrie Ryan wrote that she couldn’t start her book without the perfect line, and I know how she feels. That line is your thesis statement. The first line of every chapter sets the scene. The last line tells you the meaning of what you just read. Transitions will make your pacing works, sell your timetable, make it a book instead of a draft. They are your edges, and when you do them right, no one will notice them but they’ll be there, invisible, working hard to support your plot and character arcs.

I think this thing has gotten giant enough for one post, and it hits the big points. I’m going to be hitting up specific questions in the next one, I think, and then doing an example of revising in the last one. If I am glossing over anything you want unglossed, bring on the questions, as always!

ETA: Now with 100% more screenshot added, as per request! With blurring of spoilers!

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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