Wednesday, October 14, 2015

When Should You Stop Revising?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I revised my first novel for nineteen years. I'd gut it, rewrite it, cut it some more, edit profusely, write some more, change the plot, add characters, cut characters, combine characters.

You get the idea.

I was convinced I could improve it every time I revised it. But you know what? It didn't help. I was only making a mess.

I've come a long way since then, but that urge to keep revising has never fully gone away. I still want to revise The Shifter, and it's been on the shelf since 2009. But there comes a point when you have to let a book go.

(More on a revision pre-flight checklist)

How do you know when a novel is done? When do you stop revising?

Quick and easy answer is when you've stopped making significant changes, and all you're doing is tweaking a word here and a comma there.

What qualifies as minor changes varies. One or two tweaks per page suggests one last proof-reading pass won't hurt. One or two tweaks per chapter suggests it's probably good to go. One caveat here: If the tweaks are errors, keep proofing until you get them all. I'm talking about word changes and minor rewriting. Style, not substance.

(More on when revisions go astray)

What if you still feel that something is wrong?

Make a judgment call, which can be hard because it's so subjective. Being tired of the manuscript can easily make you feel that it's "done," when it really isn't. Several factors can affect that "it's not right" feeling in your gut. Ask yourself:

What about the work feels wrong?

If you can pinpoint specific problems, then odds are you're not finished, even if the text is polished to perfection. The issue is likely a macro problem that has nothing to do with the quality of the prose, but structural or story issues. Such as, the pacing is slow in chapter nine, or, the goal isn't very clear in chapter six, maybe the front half is too long or the stakes are too low overall.

If you're just scared it's not good enough, you're probably done revising. That's a normal fear, and self-doubt about a new project happens to pretty much everyone.

(More on mentally preparing for revisions) 

Does it feel boring because it is boring, or just because you've been looking at it forever?

There comes a time in every book I write where I'm sick of it. Usually right before I send it off to my agent. If you're tired of looking at your novel, could be an indication that you've done all you could and it's ready to go.

On the flip side, if the story is boring you, that could also indicate the story is, well, boring. Be objective and determine if this feeling is due to those countless re-reads, or if that scene has always felt blah. Be especially wary of scenes you tend to skip over during revisions because you feel they're good enough and don't want to deal with them anymore. If you're skimming just to get through it, you might want to reconsider if that scene is working.

(More on trusting your writer's instincts)

Has that scene ever bothered you before?

Some scenes I always knew in my gut weren't right, but I ignored the warning signs. Often it was because I liked the scene, and wanted to keep it, even though I knew deep down it had to go. Listen to those nagging suspicions that you "ought to do something." Ignore that whisper that says "no one will notice" or "I can get away with it." That's a red flag you should fix it.

(More on salvaging half-finished manuscripts)

Uncertainty about a manuscript's readiness is normal, so don't fret if you have doubts. But also know you can cross the line between improving your manuscript and just editing the life out of it. Stop before you change things just to make it sound new.

When do you know you're done revising? 

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. That makes me feel so much better that you say there comes a time with every book when you're sick of it. I'm beginning to feel that way and have been trying to decide if that the story/ms is bad, or I've been looking at it too long. Thanks!

  2. As always, this is a great post! I would also add that doing a synopsis can be a good indication of what works and what does--it really shows if the plot holds up. :) Thanks for the thought post!

  3. Thanks for sharing this. You're making me feel not so bad as to how long my first book has taken to get to the point of being finished.

  4. HCRaglin, when I reach that point, I usually just walk away from it for a few weeks. Then I can gain perspective and look at it with fresh eyes and decide what to do with it.

    Heather, absolutely. I like to go through and craft a chapter by chapter summary to make sure I have all my story points lined up. The synopsis really does shove those plot holes to the surface.

    Natalie, first books can take forever. I called mine my starter novel, because I taught myself how to write with it. I was always learning something new so it never finished, lol. Don't worry about the time it takes. :)

  5. This is a very informative post. Thanks for sharing and best of luck in your own writing.

  6. Thanks so much for this post! The problem I've had with my last two manuscripts were sending them out too early, so I'm trying not to do that with my current one. Of course, that means it's harder to tell the difference between the 'this is as good as you can make it so send it out' voice and the 'I'm sick of revising and too lazy to tackle any more problems so send it out' voice.

  7. Thanks for this. I'm just at the stage where my work is almost there but not quite, and I need the pointers on how to tell when I'm done.

  8. Hi Janis,
    I'll know when I'm done when I follow your awesome advice!
    Ninteen years? Has it found a home?
    Have a Happy Weekend :-)

  9. I've always been a determined person, so I didn't want to walk away from a book until it was DONE. The problem is with a first book there is so much to learn.

    My first book still isn't DONE, although early on I thought so many times. There is that nagging feeling Janice talked about where you know something is off.

    I will go back to it eventually, but I needed to write something else. It was okay to give myself position to leave it behind and move on with my writing.

  10. Sheena, thanks!

    Rebecca, I've found time away helps with that. Give it a month, then look at it again. You forget enough that it feels new again :) It'll either sound ready, or you'll see the things you still need to fix.

    Chicory, a lot of it is a gut feeling. Trust your instincts, but give yourself time away from it so you can look at it objectively.

    Tracy, aw, thanks! Nope, never found a home, but I do have an idea on how to rewrite it now. Not sure it's worth it, but I do love the idea.

    Rubianna, sometimes moving on is the best thing we can do. A new project can teach us the things we might need to learn that the old project wasn't able to do.

  11. In the midst of my absolute final (really!) edit of a 96,000 word manuscript, I recall some years back when, in an early brutal revision, I was satisfied to have chopped a few thousand "unnecessary words" from the fray. It gave me a lean, mean story that was suddenly dry and lifeless. Yep, I was so proud of trimming away fat I hadn't noticed how much meat I'd cut, leaving a meal of mostly bone.

    There's an infuriating balance between glorious, reckless, seat-o-da-pants, indoor-opened-umbrellas inspiration... and a well-considered, smart final draft that's... well, infuriating. There ain't no stove top formula. By itself, fat is unhealthy, but it can sure add flavor if the meat is cooked right. And I'm sure there's a vegetarian version of this principle.

    1. Your fat analogy is perfect. Love it. It's so true, and a great thing to keep in mind when revising. It's so easy to cut away all the flavor trying to make a "healthy" book.

  12. You've given me hope. Ten years ago I had the fourth draft of my novel professionally assessed and they said it was excellent in places and that I was in the top fifty but that to get in the top three I needed to do a fifth draft... it took me years to get back to it.. I'd already been working on it for ten years. I'm nearly done... I've got unwritten novels I can't wait to write!

  13. You've given me hope. Ten years ago I had the fourth draft of my novel professionally assessed and they said it was excellent in places and that I was in the top fifty but that to get in the top three I needed to do a fifth draft... it took me years to get back to it.. I'd already been working on it for ten years. I'm nearly done... I've got unwritten novels I can't wait to write!

    1. Oh good! Some novels just take time to percolate :)

  14. Thanks for helpful tips, Janice. I suffer from all of these symptoms! Pinned & shared. :)

    1. Most welcome :) Hope it helps with your revisions going forward.