Ten Eleven Ideas for Revising a Novel

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about how get the first draft of a novel completed, and now I’m writing about how I and some other writers go about revising that draft. I’m talking about working on the big changes – those whopping great plot holes or characters that disappear half-way through. A post on polishing is also now available to read. And please do comment below with any other ideas.

  1. Give yourself a break from the manuscript. If you’re working to a deadline or you’re a very impatient person like me, this is easier said than done. I often don’t manage more than a couple of weeks before I’m back tinkering. But Vanessa Lafaye, author of Summertime has it right: “When I finish my first draft I’m so immersed in the story that I’m myopic. I have to walk away and leave it, ideally for about 3 months, before I can return and revise. It’s only the distance that gives me the clarity I need to see what works and what doesn’t. It has to become unfamiliar, as if it was written by someone else.”
  2. Print out and read. I don’t print my manuscript until I’m much further along – really at the polishing stage, because I probably wouldn’t be able to see the text for red pen, but lots of writers print it out after the first draft is complete, to look for plot holes or to add in new strands. Terry Stiastny, author of Acts of Omission says, “I have to print out the original draft in hard copy, it doesn’t work for me, looking at it on screen. (Top tip: take it to a copy shop to print. Cheaper and less stressful than using dozens of printer cartridges at home.)”
  3. Print out and physically move scenes or chapters around. I often have to move scenes and chapters, but I do this on my laptop, whereas plenty of writers do it another way. “With my first novel, A Brighter Fear,” says Kerry Drewery, “I ended up printing the whole thing off, stapling the chapters together and physically moving them around.” I’m sure this is a good way of seeing the novel in its entirety.
  4. Summarise and justify each chapter. As I work my way through the manuscript I write a summary at the start of each chapter or scene. This not only includes what is happening in the chapter, but what the point of it is: how it moves the story along or what it reveals about a character. The chapter has to justify its place in the manuscript. If it can’t I revise it or cut it. Author, Sarah Jasmon works in a similar way: “I make lists with a brief description of each chapter so I can keep track of what is going on. With The Summer of Secrets, I went through a lot of structural changes in the first proper edit. The original draft had many scenes where a character was remembering, and I was able to re-shape and move them so these things actually happened, rather than just being recalled. Writing out a chapter by chapter overview, by hand, helped me connect back with the book as a whole.”
  5. Plot each beat. This is a similar point to the one above, but rather than writing a summary above each chapter, Jo Bloom, author of Ridley Road, plots every beat on a separate card and pins them to a cork board. “I can then see sequences,character development etc and know what I need to work on.”
  6. Spreadsheets or Word documents for plot lines, flashbacks and timelines. Most writers seem to work with lists for checking details, whether these are the colour-coded sophisticated spreadsheets loved by Jason Hewitt (author of Devastation Road) or one of my simple tables in Word. “I give each major bit of scene or beat a brief name and put it all in a spreadsheet table,” says Jason. “I then colour code the different plot lines or ongoing flashbacks. When I print this off I have the whole novel on a single sheet of paper (albeit in very small font) and I can see quickly which plot lines need spreading out a bit more or reshuffling. I love a good spreadsheet!” For my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I created a timeline table in Word with dates down one side and characters along the top. Then I could keep track of what age they were at any given date, as well as making sure I remembered birthdays, Christmas and even any world events that might affect them. Alison Layland, author of Someone Else’s Conflict works in a similar way: “When I was rewriting my novel I moved a chapter from the middle of the book to the beginning and although all the elements were still there it was amazing how it affected the continuity on so many levels. In the end I created a table in Word with a row for each chapter, including dates, times and events, as well as point of view, so I could make sure I maintained a good balance, and see better where to put in the flashbacks for best effect.
  7. Write a To Do list. As simple as this sounds, it is the thing I work most closely with when I’m revising. I create a Word document of all the issues I find as I come across them. And then I start working through those issues, adding to the list as I go, because each change will always have ramifications elsewhere in the manuscript. For my second book, I started with ten major points I needed to work on, and as I went through these, I added to the bottom of the list, so that in the end there were over 50 major changes I had to make.
  8. Separate edits for different things. My second novel is set by the sea, and there are lots of descriptions of the water and the landscape. I did a separate edit just for these – to make sure they were spaced evenly and didn’t repeat themselves. You can do this for any element in a novel. For example, Jason Hewitt does a separate edit for each of the main characters in his books. “I find that this is easier than trying to juggle the motives and characteristics of each character at the same time.”
  9. Lift out one narrative strand and work on it alone. One step further than the point above, is lifting out a strand completely. Our Endless Numbered Days has two time periods – the time in the forest, and the time when Peggy, the narrator is back in London. The London chapters come in between about every two forest chapters. At one point I was getting so confused with the London timeline that I lifted out all the London chapters, put them in another document and edited them as one sequence so I could be sure they worked consecutively, before slotting them back in.
  10. Seeding mis-directions and clues This is a really good tip. It’s usually only after the first draft is finished that you can go back and drop in hints, foreshadowing and clues. Martine Bailey author of The Penny Heart says, “Once I’ve decided how the novel ends I go back and I seed the clues and mis-directions.”
  11. What to think about. Okay, so point eleven isn’t really a tip on how to revise a novel, but here are some of the major things I try to think about during the revising stage: plot holes, character motivation, character arcs, justifying chapters and scenes, bringing out themes and motifs, building tension and pace, managing the passing of time, making sure plot lines are tied up (not necessarily neatly, but don’t leave them hanging), foreshadowing, clues and mis-directions, character and location names.

Let me know your tips for revision in the comments below.

40 thoughts on “Ten Eleven Ideas for Revising a Novel

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Tips for Writing a Crappy First Draft | Claire Fuller

  2. Claire I’ve been stuck revising for way too long, but I guess I’m learning the craft this way. So your summary was really helpful as it made me feel less alone and it motivated me to continue and hopefully make this my final draft ever!!! Appreciate your wise thoughts, especially with justifying chapters, I get told all the time this one doesn’t move the story, but you emphasized that character development is important as well, so you supported my thoughts. Really appreciate this. Good luck with ‘Swimming Lessons’!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great. I’ve revised line by line and it doesn’t really work, does it? Great tips. Someone recently suggested writing scenes on index cards, pinning them up – and moving (or eliminating). I’ve been really good at the ‘leaving it’ part but I think it’s time to get back to work…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would call the revising line by line polishing (for another post), you’ve got to deal with the big stuff first, otherwise that line that you rewrote until it was perfect, might actually get chucked out. Good luck.


  4. Something I have found very helpful in the middle stages (and don’t always remember to use) is to read each chapter as if it were a short story. So each chapter should have an opening hook, a development and an end that reaches further into the story, but also satisfies by itself. With my first novel, bearing this in mind, the first sentence of each chapter became a major writing excitement.


  5. These are wise and generous words – thank you!
    Years ago in a career break I wrote a children’s/teenage book that grew and grew. My daughter and a few of her friends read it and definitely connected with the characters, but it was way too long and baggy. I’d spent ages polishing instead of trimming – I couldn’t be cruel to be kind and ended up with a monster! Wish I’d had better advice!
    Have you ever written for Mslexia? This post would sit well there.


  6. This couldn’t have come at a better time! I finished the first draft of my book earlier this week. It’s resting for a month now and I’ve already got it printed (my boyfriend has hidden it so I can’t be tempted to start editing early) and started a to-do list, and will have to bookmark the rest of this list for November, too! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Flash fiction: One or Two Words | Claire Fuller

  8. Hi Clare
    I edit a magazine for emerging writers. I would like permission to reprint this list as I am sure our members would benefit. Please advise if this would be OK


  9. Hi Claire Thank you
    I will include in current issue Scope magazine of Fellowship of Australian Writers (Queensland)
    and yes I will include your contact details with the article
    thanks again


  10. Pingback: Eleven Ideas for Revising a Novel | theprimewriters

  11. Pingback: Polishing a Novel | Claire Fuller

  12. Pingback: Inspiration. | Charlotte Luxhoej.com

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