By Lisa M. Lilly
You’ve finished a first draft of your novel. Now what?
If you’re like most writers (including me), your draft includes points that require more research, scenes that trail off, plot holes, or all of the above.
Addressing every issue at once is overwhelming. The five steps below can organize and speed up your revision process.
Step One: Start With The Story
Once you’ve let your novel sit for at least a week, read it all the way through. Focus on your plot, asking yourself:
- Is there conflict on page one?
- Does the plot turn in a significant way at each quarter point in the novel?
- Is your protagonist actively pursuing her goals?
- Does your antagonist strenuously oppose your protagonist?
- Does tension increase as the story progresses?
- Do the events logically flow from one another?
- Does your climax resolve the major plot issues and pay off emotionally for the reader?
Revise until you’re fairly confident the story is solid. Don’t aim for perfection, though, as you’ll likely make more changes in the next stage.
Step Two: Characters
Now look closely at your characters.
First, ask yourself if you need each one. If your protagonist has three best friends, for instance, does each serve a different purpose? If not, consider combining one or more characters.
On the other hand, if a character acts one way in one scene and behaves completely differently in the next without a strong reason, you may be forcing him to play too many roles. Consider splitting that character into two.
Examine whether you believe the things your characters say and do. If not, rework the characters so their actions and words fit the story or change your plot so the characters are authentic.
Make sure your characters’ motives and emotions are on the page, not only in your mind.
Finally, be sure you’ve chosen a distinctive name for each character. I didn’t look carefully at this in the first book in my Awakening series. As a result, I spent the next three books working hard to differentiate the protagonist’s sister Kelly from her close friend Kali.
Not a mistake I want to make again!
Step Three: Scene-By-Scene
Now look at each scene individually. (Avoid doing this earlier, as you might spend hours revising a scene you eventually decide to cut.)
- Each scene should move the story forward and/or significantly develop the characters.
- Use all five senses, not solely sight and hearing. How does that shag carpet feel under the character’s bare feet? Does the room smell of mothballs or firewood or musty drapery? Does the coffee taste bitter? Oversweet? Burnt?
- People speak differently and talk about different things depending on their ages, professions, where they live, and their interests. Tailor your dialogue to each character.
- Omit dialogue that doesn’t move the story, such as characters saying “Good morning” and “How are you?”
Step Four: Incorporate Feedback
It’s time to seek feedback from a story editor or outside reader or readers, often called beta readers. You’ll want someone who understands the genre that you’re writing, who is good at giving criticism, and who will be honest. (For a different view on the value of beta readers, check out this post by Dean Wesley Smith.)
Take a fresh look at the novel yourself before reviewing your readers’ thoughts.
If their comments match yours, revise. Also make changes if you see a criticism or question and think, “Oh, I knew it. I knew that was a problem.”
If you disagree with a comment, think about it for a day or two. If it still doesn’t feel right, ignore it. It’s your story, so only you can decide what to change.
Step Five: Line-By-Line
You’re almost done!
At this last stage, look at each sentence and paragraph of your novel and make it shine. A wonderful book that guides you through this process is Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, but here are a few tips:
If your sentences are long and complex, see if you can shorten them. Do the same for paragraphs.
Whenever you can, change passive voice (the car was hit by the truck) to active voice (the truck hit the car), which is easier to read and creates a more vivid picture.
Use stronger verbs rather than adverbs. For example, walked quickly can be replaced with strode, hurried, rushed, or trotted, all of which create more urgency.
Correct any grammar errors that confuse your meaning or will distract the reader.
Finally, find a careful reader to proofread your novel, and do your own last proofread as well. (Check here for tips on proofreading)
Congratulations! You’ve successfully revised your novel.
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the four-book Awakening supernatural thriller series, which includes The Awakening, The Unbelievers, The Conflagration, and The Illumination. She is also the founder of Writing As A Second Career, an organization devoted to aiding authors who work full time in other jobs or professions. Lilly lives in Chicago, where she writes, practices law part-time, and teaches legal writing and research. You can contact her on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.