The Craft of Writing

How to REALLY Revise Your Novel

In Which I Come Face to Face With Real Revision

As a freshman in College Writing 101, I wrote a narrative essay that my English professor thought was pretty good. It was exciting, about the time I popped my trail motorcycle off a log blocking the trail. So when it came time for the step of revising the rough draft into a more polished piece, I figured I didn’t need to do much more than check my commas. My story had everything it needed to earn me an A.

“So what should I do for revision?” I asked my professor, expecting to hear something like, oh, your paper is perfect. You know all there is about writing (*cries tears of laughter at innocent hapless freshman self*). Instead, she told me how important revision is—true revision: the critiquing and re-envisioning of a piece of writing. Instead of saying your paper is perfect and you don’t have to do any further work, she said, “Why don’t you write your piece from the point of view of another thing in your story? The log, maybe?”

I smiled, but inside I was thinking um excuse me I need to do what??

“Umm…I need to do what??” (Yes, I’m totally using this as an excuse to show off my baby.)

I knew I’d be spending at least two hours at the math tutoring center later to get help with my remedial algebra class. And now my teacher was saying that not only did I have to revise my paper, I had to rewrite it? From the point of view of a log?

Well, I took her advice. And I learned one of the most valuable tools a writer can have in her toolbox: real revision, in which you look at what you wrote in a first draft and imagine it through another point of view. Or in which you set aside the first draft, open a new document, and start typing the same story all over again without looking at the first draft even once. Or when you give your piece of writing to a critique partner/professor/agent/editor and she sends it back all marked up with fat comment boxes and you take a deep breath and rethink your work through another’s eyes.

Revision is crucial to the making of a good book. So how do you do it? How do you tear into your precious prose and rework it with a critical eye?

I Can Show You!

You know how I’ve written two full first drafts and I figured that qualified me to write last week’s post? If we use that logic, I am super-extra qualified to talk about revision. That’s pretty much what most of my writing time has consisted of in the last three years. To help visualize this process, I’m going to use an excerpt from the first page of my own middle grade manuscript, LUCY RUNNING, to show you how—and why—it changed during the two years I worked on it.

Revision: a whole new view.

Let’s begin!

First-Ever, Very Rough Draft

For this exercise I’ll be using the first paragraph of the story proper (there’s a prologue by a barn, but we won’t get into that).

High in the hills off Primrose Canyon Road, Lucy sat on the hard cabin floor and listened. She had to work harder to detect small noises than the other dogs because of her ears, but she still heard Mr. Cofrancesco’s truck gurgle into the driveway before Bluey did. Mr. Cofrancesco, your new owner, she thought to Bluey. Sometimes she thought thoughts, and sometimes they got to him. Sometimes they didn’t. But that day he heard her, because he stopped chewing his tennis ball and looked at her and whispered, “The table. Now.”

Lucy scratched Katrina’s wood floor with her paw. She shook her head. She tried to make her ears stand tall, but they stayed folded, two useless jumbo-sized tortilla chips bent in half.

Okay. Let’s talk about the issues here.

  1. The first sentence is boring. Sorry, Rough-Draft Laura, but it just is. All this character’s doing is sitting on a floor. Why would anyone read on? Don’t you know how important first sentences are??
  2. Okay, in the second sentence we get that something’s wrong with her ears. And that she’s a dog. Good to know.
  3. Whoa whoa whoa—telepathy? She can communicate with other (dogs? people?) using only her mind? Why does it only work sometimes? And what dog knows the phrase “jumbo-sized tortilla chips”???

After asking myself these questions that readers would definitely ask, I re-envisioned (aka revised) this paragraph. It got a little better.

Second Draft (Still Rough)

Last Girl Dog sat on the dusty cabin floor and mustered her sharpest hearing powers, and when she heard the dreadful gurgle, she turned to Bluey.

“He’s here,” she said, pawing at his shoulder. “Mr. Cofrancesco’s truck just rolled up the drive. Do you hear it?”

Bluey stopped chewing his tennis ball and looked at her and whispered, “The table. Now.” Last Girl Dog, who wished everyone would just call her Girl because it didn’t sound as ridiculous, scratched the floor. She shook her head. She begged her ears to stand tall, but they stayed folded. Carter said Girl’s ears looked like two tortilla chips bent in half. Girl, who didn’t care for those brittle corny crisps, always thought about her ears that way anyway. She could constantly feel their useless tips dangling toward her head.

Good, we have some positive changes!

  1. The first sentence now has more action and some words that tip the reader off to an urgent situation: sharpest hearing powers. Dreadful gurgle. This dog is not happy, and we want to know why. But the first sentence? Kinda long.
  2. That first paragraph, though, is much shorter and now there’s dialogue. Yay! We get a feel for Last Girl Dog’s character and we know for sure that Bluey is a dog (that tennis ball gives it all away). Obviously Last Girl Dog hates her name. There’s definite tension here.
  3. Still confused about tortilla chips and ears. But at least they’re now “bitter corny crisps,” not just jumbo-sized tortilla chips, you know, from Costco.

Third Draft

Last Girl Dog sat on the dusty cabin floor and mustered her sharpest hearing powers. When she heard the dreaded gurgle, she turned to Bluey.

“He’s here,” she said, pawing at his shoulder. “Mr. Cofrancesco’s truck just rolled up the drive. Do you hear it?”

Blue stopped chewing his tennis ball. He looked at her and whispered, “The table. I have to tell you something before I go.” Last Girl Dog, who called herself Girl because it didn’t sound as ridiculous as Last Girl Dog, scratched the floor. She shook her head. She begged her ears to stand tall, but they stayed folded.

  1. Yay! The first sentence is now shorter and easier to read. And while Last Girl Dog is still sitting, she’s clearly waiting for something—something bad.
  2. Whew—all mention of tortilla chips is gone. But we have some clunky explanation about the Last Girl Dog/Girl situation, and the ear thing is confusing. Is it needed now? What’s the relevance to the dreaded gurgle and Bluey going somewhere?

Fourth Draft

Last Girl Dog sat on the dusty cabin floor and mustered her sharpest hearing powers. When she heard the dreaded gurgle, she turned to Bluey.

“He’s here,” she said, pawing at his shoulder. “Mr. Cofrancesco’s truck just rolled up the drive. Do you hear it?”

Blue stopped chewing his tennis ball. He looked at her and whispered, “The table. I have to tell you something before I go.”

“Do we have to go under the table? Tell me here. Tell me now.” The sooner the two of them trotted under the table, the sooner Bluey would have to leave.

  1. Definitely getting better. The chunky second paragraph has been turned into dialogue and action, revealing Blue’s solemn, secretive nature and Girl’s desire to keep him with her—clearly this guy in the dreadfully gurgling truck is here to take Blue somewhere Girl doesn’t want him to go. But why does it feel like Bluey is still part human? Maybe the “looked at her and whispered” part isn’t doggy enough?

Fifth and Final Draft

Last Girl Dog sat on the dusty cabin floor and mustered her sharpest hearing powers. When she heard the dreaded gurgle, she turned to Bluey.

“He’s here,” she said, pawing at his shoulder. “Mr. Cofrancesco’s truck just rolled up the drive. Do you hear it?”

Blue stopped chewing his tennis ball. He raised his ears and tilted his head. “The table. I have to tell you something before I go.”

“Do we have to go under the table? Tell me here. Tell me now.”

“No, no, Girl,” Bluey said. “Privacy.” He turned to cross into the table’s shadow, and Girl followed, her paws lagging.

A-ha. Blue now raises his ears and tilts his head instead of the too-human looking and whispering. And instead of explaining that the sooner Bluey tells her that important bit of information, the sooner he will have to leave, we see Girl following him to the table’s shadow, paws lagging. Shadow, lagging—these words indicate sadness and tension. Good job, Revision Laura! You now have a much more readable first portion of your novel. Clearly both Girl and Bluey are dogs. And there’s something Bluey needs to say to Girl before he gets taken away from her—something important. Readers would be much more willing to dive into this novel than the one that constituted the rough draft.

Takeaways

  1. Rough drafts, while hard to read, are important. They are your starting point!
  2. Revision is where you really find your story’s strengths. It took five tries before I got LUCY RUNNING’s first page right. In each revision, new questions sprouted that hadn’t been there before. I had to go deeper into my characters, tug harder at the strands that create my story’s tension. The very first draft of this novel is me telling myself the story, but the final draft is my characters showing it to you through their eyes. And that’s what makes a novel or story immersive and unforgettable.
  3. The spirit of the story is the same in each draft; it’s the writing that gets taken away or added or shortened, not the original idea. Yet the text looks completely different. This is the epitome of revision: stripping away the clunky writing that muddies your bright, beautiful idea and re-crafting the words so that the spirit of your fiction shines in every sentence.
  4. Be brave. Be like Bella in this photo and charge into the waters of revision. I promise you’ll come back with a nice, crunchy stick/amazing novel.
Bella, the German Shepherd dog who helped inspire LUCY RUNNING.
This is the epitome of revision: stripping away the clunky writing that muddies your bright, beautiful idea and re-crafting the words so that the spirit of your fiction shines in every sentence. Click To Tweet

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through my revision process. Next week we’ll talk about literary agents: what they are and how to get one. But before you go, let me know what revision is like for you! Do you love it? Hate it? Deal with it because you love what comes when it’s all done?

8 Comments

  • Jennifer

    Love this post Laura, I enjoyed the journey of your process & the progress of each draft!

    It takes me a week to write & revise each post! Although I could keep going in my revision process but have to tell myself enough! Or I won’t meet my self imposed deadline! Lol!
    Glad I am not alone in this practice!
    Jennifer

  • Lila Diller

    It’s funny. I used to enjoy revising in school. But now I hate it! I don’t know if it’s the difference between fiction/creative writing and nonfiction/technical writing. When I write nonfiction, I have no problem revising and editing. But my fiction is so different! It’s hard to keep switching from creative idea mode to honing mode, I guess. I’m in the middle of revisions for my third novel, and I’m finding it harder than ever. Seeing the examples helped. Especially the questions/problems in between each draft. Thank you.

    • Laura

      I’m glad the post was helpful, Lila! There’s definitely a difference between creative and not-as-creative revision. One’s pretty cut-and-dry, and the other isn’t. Thank you for reading.

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