Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On Your Mark, Get Set, Edit! How to Start Revising

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A commenter asked...
I've been struggling to revise for the past couple months and don't seem to be getting anywhere. I've done very little revising and feel like I'm wandering blindly. Is there any system or particular things to look out for? Any launching pad to get oneself going?

This is a good question, and I talk a lot about revising in general (or specifically) but I've only done one or two "how to start" type posts. Those are:

First Look at a First Draft

This has a lot of advice on things to look for and should be a good first step once you've figured out how you want to start.

How to Be a Good Critiquer

This focuses on things to look for as you crit someone's work, but all the questions also apply to your own work, and are good things to double check yourself and make sure you're doing what needs to be done to tell a great story.

For today, let's take a step back and make sure you're in the right mindset to start revisions. Because I can offer all the advice in the world, but if you aren't sure where to start or what you want to do with your book, none of it will help much.

1. What do you want this book to be?

This may seem like a simple question, but it's more than just a "YA fantasy" or a "futuristic thriller." Do you want it to be funny? Scary? Romantic? A mix of several things? Do you want it to fall into a certain genre or subgenre? (Very important if you plan to submit it). Do you want it to just entertain or do you want folks to think deeper thoughts? If so, what thoughts?

What type of book you want it to be will help guide you on what aspects you want to revise. Adding humor, romance, tightening pacing, upping the tension. A character-driver literary novel will require different things than a hard-core thriller. Just as you wouldn't write them the same, you wouldn't revise them the same. Like adding spice to a meal, you want to find the aspects of your story that you want to bring out.

2. What story are you telling?

You have a core story there, a theme if you will, about something that intrigues you as a writer. I love stories that fall in the gray area, where right and wrong aren't so clear cut, and the stories I write usually involve characters in those situations. So when I start revising, I look for places where I can deeper that theme or idea. What core idea is at the heart of your story? What themes are running through it? (you can have more than one, and more on that later this week) Forget plot, forget characters, forget details specific to your story. Just think about the general underlying story.

This is important because it will likely be the unifying force tying your entire novel together. For The Shifter, it was about folks being trapped in bad situations and having to do bad things to achieve good things. Very simply, does the ends justify the means? You'll find this idea all through the book, and as I revised, I looked at every goal and choice my protag had to make and thought about it in those terms. That helped give the overall novel cohesiveness. It was "about" more than just the plot. Finding your core idea will give you a story compass that will guide you as you revise.

3. Who is this book for?

Your intended audience has varied tastes and needs, and what the middle grade romance lover wants is very different from what the political thriller reader wants. If your reader wants a fast pace, you'd look for places to up the stakes or tension, cut the fat, add more hooks. If your reader is looking for more word pictures or inner journeys, you might look for places to elaborate on setting, build deeper emotions, immerse yourself in the world.

There are also certain things that are common to a genre, that readers expect to see in a book in that genre. Knowing those helps you tailor your story so it satisfies readers wanting a good tale in a particular genre.

And even though we'd like to think our books are for "everyone who loves to read," that's not true. Readers have their own likes and dislikes, and the better we understand who we're targeting, the better we can give them a book they'll love. Trying to be all things to all readers will likely end up a mishmash of bleh that doesn't satisfy anyone.

Once you've figured out the type of book you want it to be, you'll be in a better position to go back to the First Look at a First Draft post and apply those tips to your work. You should (hopefully) have a better idea of the types of things you want to develop and what isn't as important as you first thought.

And my best tip on revising: Figure out the story first and get that right. The words are polished after. Don't worry about adverbs or clunky sentences or even slow scenes until your story is unfolding the way you want it. Once you get it right, then you can polish it til it shines. And you'll know the right words are being polished.

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Knowing who you're writing for, who you hope to address does make a difference. Sounds stupid, but sometimes we're so busy writing we lose sight of that. Thanks for the post.

  2. I don't know what "underlying" theme I have. Even though I'm almost finished with my book I don't know. That is probably why I am feeling stilted right now without a direction to go.

  3. I'll be talking about theme tomorrow, and I'll make sure to add ways to find your theme to the post :) Went to a wonderful workshop on theme at RWA, and I planned to share a few of nuggets of wisdom. Wish I could pass on everything I learned, but I think there'd be legal issues with that, LOL.

  4. Great post. It is helpful to know what to look for in revision and critique. I'm bookmarking this one! Thanks so much.

  5. It's pretty much all about story and to whom you are "telling" it. You usually don't tell blonde jokes to the 7-year-old cousins at a family reunion, do you? You'd get the perfect ostensive definition of "blank stare."

    If you're writing fiction, you're telling a story. Doesn't matter if it's "literary" or "genre", you match the story and method of telling to the audience.

  6. I am getting ready to do my first set of revisions after having removed a character and storyline. This is going to be a great resource for me. Thank you!

  7. What a great post! So many pearls of wisdom. It never fails to amaze me how helpful every single one of your posts are. You have a wonderful knack of making everything so simple and do-able.

  8. Solid advice here, Janice, and you have an awesome knack for clarity and directness! The only thing I'd add is remember to let your draft cool for at least several weeks before going back to work on it, so as to get some distance.