Every writer knows that their story has to go through its edits and revisions, just as a parent knows that their perfect child will become an adult only after he has struggled through the torturous and horrifying scenario of adolescence. With that surrender to the certainty of your fate as a writer, I have collected some of the fundamental guides uncovered through my exhaustive research into how to revise a novel. Here they are in no specific order:
A writer or an editor be, never the twain should work in your head at the same time. The writer is a positive, sensitive, creative sort who tells stories about people (fictional or non) who he loves. An editor is a critical, heartless and unsympathetic person who finds flaws. The two cannot work together.
Your idea and story are just right – now change them. Love your story at the concept stage; love it while you’re writing the first draft. Then rewrite with no attachment or emotional commitment. If you can’t clear your mind and look at the manuscript with fresh eyes, put it away.
Rewrite the entire manuscript. After reading, making notes and suffering through feedback and critique, avoid the temptation of merely “editing” the text on your computer. The typical error of finding words, either out of place in a sentence or missed, is a phenomenon of the word processor. This error will be less likely to happen if you are rewriting from scratch. This also forces you to read and hear every line as opposed to the skimming we tend to do over the text when we already know it.
Edit backwards. Read and edit the text of a manuscript paragraph by paragraph, or bit by bit from the end of the story to the beginning. This avoids getting caught up in the story and helps you focus on the text.
Understand the critique. I received some scathing comments from critics about my story, which hurt because I had built up a following and had many supporting comments. I did not want to place one critic’s opinion over the praise of many but I wanted to understand what he didn’t like about the story, so I asked. As it turns out he was angry at something else and my story was how he vented it. He apologised and offered me some constructive comments, which I took to heart. Ultimately, I benefited from something I was initially going to blow off and resent.
Don’t be afraid to start further back. If your story needs a major rewrite, go back to the outline and work forward from there. You have the convenience of knowing what is happening in the story so your characters and plot are less likely to change on you.
Nothing is sacred. Your novel/story is made of people, cities, cars, planes, buildings, money, emotion, pain, the Earth, the Universe, other worlds. Yet it is all clay, everything is changeable to better suit the story. Don’t be afraid to alter anything unless it is an historical fact (event, date, person) or it is the central element of the story.
Don’t do don’ts. Watch for anything that is dishonest or borrowed, either from cliché or from popular culture unless you want to pin the dialogue to a certain era. Don’t avoid contact or conflict; make the argument and friction real, no euphemisms. Don’t lie, do your research. If you are telling a story about university professors or taxi drivers, find out what they do and how they talk and don’t pretend to know anything unless you have checked it out. Fiction is only enjoyed when it is believable. Don’t be redundant: illuminating lights under the dark, night sky next to the noisy loudspeakers and the wet water.
Search for weak words. This can be rough. After you have finished writing the draft do a Control F or Command F for Mac users, and type in “had”. Notice how many times the word shows up. If not “had”, then “would” or just “ly”. Get rid of as many as possible. Every passive word or adverb you use makes the whole thing weak.
Watch for inconsistencies of tense and Point of View. One thing I noticed is how hard it is to do a third person limited POV from a child’s viewpoint. The narrator can’t be too smart but can’t talk like a child either. This is why most stories involving child protagonists tend to be narrated by an adult speaking from memory.
This list can go on but this should help. I would add two things to this list:
- Revision is a key part of writing your story where you can discover or rediscover the depth and quality of your characters.
- The first revision is never the last.
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About the Author
By day, Jim Sellers is a mild-mannered academic writer and project manager in a Canadian university. By night, he writes fiction, short stories and records his own songs. His professional writing career began in the 1990’s with the acceptance of his first screenplay by a broadcaster. Since then he has worked on television series and documentaries, written for magazines and websites, and managed communications for several non-profit organizations.
His current project is a series of short stories, which will be published later in 2012, and he is completing work on two novels. You can read examples of Jim’s writing on his website: Jim's Short Stories.
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