When you write a book and decide the major plot points for your story up front, your work-in-progress (WIP) loses its overwhelming status. Same is true when you use this writing strategy with revision. Plot your big book revision steps and a seemingly huge project will become do-able. Here’s how.
Plot Point 1 Book Revision: Save the World!
Save a complete copy of your manuscript. I do this every morning and save it as it stands. Doing so gives me the confidence I’ll need to delve into the bloody book revision process on a daily basis. Even if you never go back to a saved copy (and I never have) just knowing it’s there will allow you to revise with courage. You can always “trash” all these copies once you have a perfect, gleaming, sparkling manuscript.
Plot Point 2 Book Revision: Step Away from the Manuscript!
I’ve heard this before, but the first time I actually did it, I realized the value. If you have the time (no outside deadline where you have to have your manuscript somewhere) put it away for two weeks. There is nothing as helpful as taking a fresh look after a little time.
Also, remember this point at the end of the process when you’ve revised and revised until you become nauseous when you see your WIP. Imagine a Sanity Swat Team officer ordering through a bullhorn, “step away from the manuscript!” and do it.
Plot Point 3 Book Revision: Read With No Mercy.
Like a reader (or agent or editor). Once you pick it up again, read your manuscript in one sitting. But first, arm yourself for success.
• Make sure you make time where you won’t have distractions
• Duct-tape yourself to a chair if necessary
• Have plenty of tape flags within reach
Now, read it all the way through and show no mercy. None. Zip.
Where do you start to skim the page? Tag it! Where does your mind wander? Tag it! Any time your page lets you go, tag it. Something on the page let you loose. Remember, your manuscript is work so you’ll pick your writing up again. A reader might not.
What about places where you need grounding? Tag it. Places where motivation is missing? Tag it. Seek out the weak spots. Seek out the boring or meandering spots.
Plot Point 4 Book Revision: Identify What is Essential to Your Story.
This can be tricky during book revision, but this step will help give you an objective look at your work. (By the way—have you noticed yet that being objective is key to this process?)
For each scene, write one or two lines of what happens, focusing on the essence of the scene. Keep in mind scene goal and outcome. Is this the place where your protagonist realizes what must be done (despite great harm to herself) to solve her problem? Say that. Don’t worry about how pretty it sounds, this is a tool for you to use. Keep it to one or two lines, tops.
Now you have a complete list of scenes. Highlight those essential to the story. Does the scene:
• Move the story forward?
• Show or reveal character motivation?
• Present new and vital information about the story or a character?
• Reveal a plot turning point?
• Reveal an emotional (character) turning point?
• Introduce or deepen a story problem?
• Have conflict, internal or external or better yet, both?
Scene does none of the above? Do you have a scene that has no point? It doesn’t matter to the story? Hmmm….no matter how long you worked to get it right or if it’s the best writing that’s ever come out of your fingers if it doesn’t meet the above objective criteria… (read more on Crafting Scenes with this series on the topic by Lori Devoti.
Plot Point 5 Book Revision: Kill Your Darlings.
Don’t be afraid. Book revision is no time for fear. Cut. Cut. Cut. Scenes with no point and tagged spots. Remember that saved version? If you cut too deep (and you probably won’t) you can always go back.
Plot Point 6 Book Revision: Awaken the Senses!
Now that you have only the essential scenes, focus in on what is left. You want to do this after you cut because the more you work on a chunk of writing, the harder it is to let it go.
So next, ask these critical sensory questions of each scene:
• See (enough setting description?)
• Hear (setting sounds other than dialogue?)
• Taste (if applicable)
• Smell (setting smells, other characters, stinky stuff?)
• Touch (characters feeling the setting specifics, texture, weather, etc.)
• 6th sense (even if you’re not writing paranormal…intuition, feelings?)
Plot Point 7 Book Revision: Give Your Scene Superhuman Strength.
Can you open the scene stronger, pull the reader right in with action? Is there enough grounding at the top of the scene? (Are we in Limbo?) What grounding is needed from the last scene? Or any previous scene? What about character emotion transition from last time we saw them? Does the scene end with a disaster (or twist, question, or unresolved conflict?) These are all points that strengthen and add power to your scenes that you can improve during book revision.
Plot Point 8 Book Revision: Identify What is Essential to the Scene.
With a highlighter in hand (or with the highlighting tool in your word program) highlight only what is essential to the story. See all those words in all that white space? Or did you stumble across a tag from your one-sitting read-through that you haven’t been able to fix? What to do…what to do….
Plot Point 9 Book Revision: The Return of the Killer.
Just when you thought Jason the editor was dead, he rises up, knife in hand. At least, that’s what should happen. You can do it. Cut the chunks of scene you don’t need. Your reader doesn’t need them either.
Plot Point 10 Book Revision: The Final Frontier.
Useless words. Do-nothing phrases (In fact, I saw, I felt, As you know, etc.) Habit words (was, had, were, that, just, as, still, etc.) You know what to do by now. Kill ’em!
Book revision. Some love it, others hate it. Yes, cutting is painful. Book revision is a huge amount of work. I’m on the love-it side, mostly because as a seat-of-the-pants writer, revision is where my story takes shape. When I do more thinking and plotting up front, revision is where I strengthen my story and bring the essence into focus. Lots of work, but a stronger, more compelling, better manuscript at the end.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST, THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN, and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.