Revising Your Novel

Drunk Cat, © 2005 Ibrahim Owais CC BY-SA 2.0

As a writer, I often get asked, how do you revise a novel? Actually, I don’t get asked that. Someone does often ask me what word he wanted to use, as though I as a writer should have a command of words. (I don’t. But that’s a different post.) Of course, if I knew what word he wanted to use, then he would have already put his his thoughts into words for me, and he would already know what word he wanted to use, all by himself, without me telling him.

But no one ever asks me how to revise a novel. Yet it’s a process every great novelist needs to master. And as I happen to be in the middle of revising my latest upcoming novel, I thought I’d spend a little time today demystifying this essential process for you. Fortunately for all budding authors, revision is as simple as 1-2-3, if you just follow the following steps.

1. Finish the manuscript

This is harder than it sounds. First of all, when you sit down to write, something else will always be more important, such as surfing the web or playing FarmVille. (Hey, those cows won’t milk themselves!) This is especially true for people like me, who work at my computer, typing my novel directly into my word-processor. One solution to this problem is to write with pen and paper, but that leads to a whole other set of maladies, such as writer’s cramp and trying to read your own writing.

Another way you can finish your manuscript is to participate in NaNoWriMo (pronounced ËŒnanōˈrÄ«mō), or “National Novel Writing Month” for short, which happens every November. NaNoWriMo is when thousands of writers and wanna-be writers all sit down at their computers at the same time each year and put words on virtual paper. The goal is to write 50,000 words by the end of the month, including Thanksgiving, using any means necessary. Through NaNoWriMo, you can learn numerous tricks for increasing your word count, tricks such as:

If you’ve done these things well, you’ll be ready for he second step in revising your novel…

2. Print it out

Once you have your manuscript completely typed into your computer, you’ll need to print it out, because all real editors work with paper and ink. Seriously, though, it can make the revision process easier, and it’s an editing style that all writers should try at least once.

So you need to connect your printer up to your laptop, install any one of a number of obscure drivers to get it to work, and then discover that your kids used up all your paper making flyers to pass around the neighborhood about Snuffy, who is little Emily’s lost turtle. But you didn’t have the heart to tell little Emily that Snuffy had died, and now you’re regretting it.

After returning from the office supply store with a new ream of primo discount paper, you are now ready to print your manuscript. Of course, you’ll only get about 50 pages in before the text on the page begins getting light, and then almost so that you can’t see it. So it’s off to the office supply store again, this time for a new ink cartridge at $15 a pop.

Now, by the time your printer reaches page 150 or so, it will begin to get tired. Seriously, my printer gets tired in the middle of a large printing job. I almost always print in “draft” mode, because it uses less $15 ink and it goes much faster. The printer will be chugging along, spitting out pages— and if I’ve forgotten to set the paper catch, it literally will spit them out halfway across the room. And then at some point, it will slow down. Its printing will begin to sound more laborious, and it will begin to make loud groaning noises as it pulls in each new page, and as the printing head slogs back and forth, squeezing out ink along the way. And it will get slower and more tired, until it finally gets its second wind. Then all is again right with the world.

A bit of warning, something they don’t tell you in the printer manual: never leave a printing printer unattended! You’ll need to sit there, watching it, taking each chapter off as it finishes (because your cheapo printer isn’t designed to work with a 1-inch-thick stack of paper), always being careful to keep the pages in the right order. You’ll also need to refill the printer with more blank sheets when it runs out, and it will, over and over again. You’re printing a novel here, remember, not the Three Little Pigs!

By the way, when you print your manuscript on your cheapo inkjet printer, you should probably click on the “reverse pages” option. That way the last page will come out first, at the bottom of the 1-inch-thick stack of finished pages. I did check the “reverse pages” option. I hope you remembered to as well. Otherwise, now you have to reverse 250 sheets of paper manually. In the middle of doing that, you’ll no doubt accidentally drop or bump your manuscript, causing papers to spray all over the living room floor. (By the way, you did include page numbers in your manuscript format, didn’t you?)

Then, after you finally get all the pages in order, you’ll realize that you could have just reversed them while you were actually reading them during the actual revision process.

3. Mark up the manuscript

Last but not least, you need to read your manuscript, making notes on the pages where you need to make changes. There are many kinds of changes you’ll need to watch for, and I don’t have time to go into them now. But it hardly matters, because as soon as you begin reading, you’ll see how boring and pathetic the story actually is, and you’ll give up, go get a tall glass of something alcoholic to drink, and get smashed.

So there you have it, revising your novel in three easy steps.

As for me, I need to get back to my own latest. I’m missing page 172. It’s gotta be around here somewhere…


P.S. In all seriousness, I’m very satisfied with what I’ve written so far. Yes, I’m making lots of scribbles on the manuscript, issues to address, including some broad issues of story and theme. But I’m actually finding it a joy to read. They say that you should write what you would enjoy reading, and I think I’ve succeeded in that.

P.P.S. I’m using Holly Lisle’s one-pass manuscript revision process, exactly as she describes it. I’ve always used a variation of that process, going from first to final draft in one pass, but this is the first time I’ve done everything she recommends, exactly as she recommends it. I’m finding it workable, but the jury’s still out on whether—for me—it’s really necessary to print out the manuscript and work on paper, as she recommends. So far, I haven’t done anything that wouldn’t have been easier to do right on the computer. That may have something to do with how I write, or maybe with my preferred working style. Don’t know for sure yet.