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.