Writing update | into the unfamiliar waters of revision

Over the years, I’ve written several first drafts of novels. I even think that I’ve gotten pretty good at writing first drafts – not at writing good drafts, but at pushing through even when it feels terrible. But I’ve never gone back and seriously worked on revising any of those drafts.

Usually, by the time I finish I draft, I’m so sick of it that I never want to look at it again, let alone dive back in with the intent of picking out its flaws and making it better. But this year, I want to change that.

Last year, I wrote the first draft of a new adult urban fantasy novel involving dragons. And despite the fact that it’s 80-something thousand words of messiness, I’m not tired of it yet. I went into 2020 determined to attempt revising a full-length novel for the first time and turn this messy first draft into something that I could actually imagine showing other people. The only problem was that I had no idea where to start.

I majored in creative writing in college, which you would think would give me plenty of resources for starting out the revision process. But most of what I learned in college was either writing about ideas or editing on a sentence level. Nothing I wrote in college was more than 5k words, so I have no experience with making big, structural changes to a longer piece.

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So I looked at what I had. First, my most valuable writing resource: my notes from Maggie Stiefvater’s writing seminar that I attended last year. I still refer back to these notes whenever I’m stuck, so I checked what she had to say about revision. Essentially, she advised going through the editing process in layers, prioritizing bigger problems over line-edits. First, read the manuscript through and see if you’ve written a book in the “shape” that you wanted. Move things around to create the desired shape, and then work on making the prose evoke the feelings you’re going for.

Helpful, but I like to have steps when I start out on a new endeavor. So I turned to a new resource, Susan Dennard’s Revision Guide (which was first brought to my attention by Caro @ bookcheshirecat – thanks Caro! ❤️). I’ve never read any of Susan Dennard’s books, but she has tons of incredible writing resources on her website. Her six-step revision plan is detailed and just what I needed – go check it out if you’re interested, because I’m not going to explain it all in this post!

I went through the revision guide and made my own plan with a few slight changes, based on what I think will work best for me.

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And then I got started! Currently, I’m on step three of six in this process. My progress is slow, but it’s progress nonetheless! Now let’s talk about what I’ve done so far…

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Step 1

First: print out my manuscript. Done! And wow, it was cool to hold a physical representation of my work in my hands.

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Second: read the manuscript all the way through and mark problems with plot, character, setting, and other. 

This was a slow process that I wasn’t able to complete all in one day like Susan Dennard advised. But I was able to pinpoint some of the major issues with the manuscript and generate ideas on how to fix them. As I read, I marked down everything that needed revising (which was…a lot), and ended up with some notes that will be incredibly helpful going forward.

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Step 2

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Summarize each scene on an index card and identify scenes that either do too much or too little. 

These were originally two different steps, but I combined them since I could do both at the same time.

This was another lengthy step, since it essentially meant reading the manuscript again. It ended up being illuminating, though, since I found a lot of scenes that had unclear goals or felt unnecessary in terms of plot. And now I have a list of every scene of this book!

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Step 3

This is the step I’m working on currently. My mission at the moment is identifying plot holes. 

I’m going about this a little differently than how Susan Dennard’s guide suggested, but I’m doing it in a way that I think (I hope) will be best for me. The revision guide says to separate the notecards into plot threads, making piles for each main- or subplot, then identifying spots where each plot thread is weak.

My method is a little more involved (because I just love making things harder for myself). What I’ve been doing is creating tables for each plot and subplot in Scrivener (because yes, I’ve started using a free trial of Scrivener and now I’ll never be able to go back) and tracking its development through the book using my plot notecards.

For example, for my primary plotline, I note each scene where it makes an appearance, then write down anything that needs changing (even if I don’t have the solution to that problem yet).

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And I do that for every subplot in the story, even the small ones…which is really fun and not confusing or time-consuming at all. 🙃

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What’s next?

Next up: finish Step 3.

Finding plot holes is only the first part of Step 3. After this, I have a few more things to do:

  • write a 1-page synopsis
  • evaluate my characters and their development
  • evaluate the setting
  • summarize the perfect book (so I know what I’m working toward)

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After that, I move on to – you guessed it – Step 4! This involves fixing all these problems that I’ve been identifying, trying to get from where I am now to the perfect book that I’m imagining. I’m sure I’ll be talking a lot about this as I actually start on this step, so stay tuned.

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So…I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but at least now I have a plan. That doesn’t mean that half the time that I’m editing, my face doesn’t look like:

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bUt StEeL’s hEaViEr ThAn fEaThErS

I’m trying not to get discouraged, but honestly, this is a really tough process, partly because I have to keep reading and rereading my own terrible writing. It’s not the most fun. Still, I live for the moments that I have a eureka moment and finally solve a problem that’s been plaguing me.

In the meantime, I’ve started working on a short story on the side set in the Wild West involving ghosts OOPS.

Revision isn’t easy, especially since this is essentially my first time revising a project of this size. It’s slower than I hoped it would be and often discouraging. But I’m not giving up! I can almost see the book I want, and now I just have to get there. 

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Writing music

To continue my tradition of including music that reminds me of the WIP I’m working on…

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Have you ever revised a novel? What are your revision strategies? Where are you at in your WIP?

x Margaret

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25 thoughts on “Writing update | into the unfamiliar waters of revision

  1. Ahh.. I loved reading this so much!! I have never even thought about revising a project (I mean I have only just wrote my first one but still never thought about it too hard), I will only ever say ‘that is a problem for future me’ in true adult style!
    So I loved reading about your process so much!! It does sound like a big, lengthy project but hearing how you are doing, the resources you are using and your thoughts has been so comforting and helpful so thank you for sharing this.
    It is interesting to see about the plot notecards but it is really helpful for taking plots and seeing if their our holes in it and making it as strong as it could possibly be.
    Printing out your manuscript would be fun though and to be able to physically hold it!! So that’s cool.
    I wish you the best of luck with everything and thank you again for this post, I loved it!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha I completely understand pushing off revising to “future me,” because that’s basically always been my strategy till now! 😉 I’m glad you enjoyed reading about my process, though – it definitely is lengthy and a little intimidating, but knowing that I have a plan is comforting.

      I think the notecards are going to be really helpful! And yes, getting to hold my manuscript for the first time was an incredible feeling 😀 Thanks so much, and good luck with your writing as well! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh wow, congrats on getting to this stage!

    (Firstly I’d like to say your title got Into The Unknown from Frozen 2 stuck in my head, but it’s a good song so that’s okay 😂)

    It’s so cool to see a full manuscript printed out like that! The index cards thing looks super helpful. It’s really interesting to read about this whole process. I’ve never written a full book myself but I do have plans for a webcomic so I’ll have to remember some of this when I get around to actually planning that. 😅

    I’d love to keep seeing updates on how this process goes, good luck with it all! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Revision is The Worst, but also the best at some point. I feel like no one goes into their revision super amped about their book, but at some point, several reads into the book, something just sort of clicks and even though I’ve read the same story what feels like eighty-five million times, I start to read it as a reader instead because each of those previous read-throughs have contained big or little edits that have slowly begun to shape it. So, it sucks from the start, but, like most things, I guess, it slowly starts to feel worth it.

    I don’t know, I don’t think there’s any “This is How You Revise” method that’s going to work for everyone. Just like there isn’t a single right way to write. I’m totally batshit, and I like to revise while I’m writing, but I didn’t used to do that, and it took several novels and a lot of post-finishing frustration to realize that I just work better when I can edit in the midst of creating the story. But I know that’s nuts, and it doesn’t work for everyone. So I think it’s kind of trial and error? Just like writing, the way we do it changes over the years and course of stories written, until, eventually, we come to a specific style & shape of writing that just fits us. I write best in the winter, I’ve found, and in huge bursts with big blocks of nothing in between. But it took me a hell of a long time to figure that out.

    I feel like none of this is encouraging, haha? I’M PROUD OF YOU! Writing a book is hard work, and revising is even harder, but you’re doing it, and that’s what matters most at the end of the day. I’m nearly done with my current novel, so I’m also about to dive into a revision hole, so we can commiserate together!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh thank for this wonderful advice and encouragement! 😀 I feel like I’m still flying a bit blind at the moment, but I’m definitely excited to get to the point where revising becomes slightly less excruciating…

      And yep, I think you’re right that there’s no “one size fits all” in terms of revision methods. It’s going to take trial and error for me to figure out the method that works best for me, or even just works best for this particular project.

      THANK SO MUCH! It definitely is encouraging, even just in knowing that I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing?? 😂 And good luck with finishing off your current novel and starting revision as well – WE GOT THIS.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really like the idea of note cards for scenes to figure out if it’s doing too much/too little! I struggle a lot with not doing too many Nothing scenes because those are my favorite, but then the plot gets lost, so I might have to adopt that.

        Lollllll, yeah, none of us have any idea what we’re doing. 😂😭 We’re all just staring blankly into the distance like “what is words?!”

        WE’RE GONNA CRUSH IT!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks so much for posting this and for the book recommendation! I’ve spent the last nearly 5 years (!!) revising my first novel, mostly because a) I had no idea what I was doing, and b) I had no plan to follow. I’m about 3/4 through writing my second novel, and I really, really want the revision process to go more smoothly (and quickly).

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  5. Best of luck with your revision! I’m so happy to hear that you’re finding Susan Dennard’s Revision Guide to be helpful 🥰 I love having a step by step plan as well but was also making changes to her guidelines, so the process would feel right for me. (I also didn’t read the manuscript in one day, how does one do that? 😂) It looks like you’re already getting ahead – you can definitely do it!! 💗

    Liked by 1 person

  6. First of all – well done on completing your first draft!

    This is the thing with novels and with writing *anything* actually – it’s bloody hard work. I’ve never edited major pieces of work either, mine have all been smaller pieces and possibly the largest piece is circa 10k. Because they have been short stories or *whispers* fan fiction, my editing process is mainly re-reading and re-writing.

    I haven’t read any of Susan Dennard’s books either but her writing resources and writing advice is wonderful and I’m so grateful for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! ❤ Yes, it is SUCH hard work! And working on a full-length manuscript is a different process than revising shorter works (and fanfiction 😉), so it's a whole learning curve. And I agree that Susan Dennard's resources are so valuable. I need to read her books!

      Liked by 1 person

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