Last month, we talked about developing a dynamic plot and making sure that all elements for successful fiction were in place before starting to write. You’ve finished your first draft-now comes the fun part, the revision and editing.
One of the first bits of advice I received about the writing process was: “If you’re in love with your own words, get over it!” Why? Because #1 Everything you write is not perfect, and #2 You can make it better. Intellectually, I could accept that but on a practical level, I hadn’t the faintest clue where to begin. Thanks to some good writing teachers and excellent resource books, the blurry picture became clearer and, with practice, the process even became enjoyable. So now I’m passing along to you a step-by-step plan for approaching the revision process.
Start with a Fresh Eye
The word revision means just that-redefining the vision. So your first draft is done-the vision. Now what? It needs to incubate. This is a crucial step, one that most beginning writers don’t do. You want to finish that book and get it off to a publisher or to the printer if you’re publishing it yourself. Don’t rush it. The passage of time is a critical phase. Set the manuscript aside for a few weeks or even a few months.
Now that you can look again at the work with a fresh eye, what do you do next? Many beginning writers rewrite simply for the sake of doing it. But there is more orderly way to approach this. First comes revision, then comes polishing.
Make the Major Changes First
Initially you want to look at the big stuff, the overall picture. Does the beginning grab the reader? Does the story flow? Have you filled each of the criteria we mentioned in plotting (Character, Situation, Objective, Opponent, Disaster)? Are there gaps or inconsistencies in the story? (There will be if you truly let your writing flow in the beginning-that’s normal.)
In looking at the big picture, feel free to move entire chapters, delete big chunks of text, fill in gaps in the story. Be careful not to chop indiscriminately-you must keep your original plot premise in mind and be sure that the changes you make are helping to further that idea, not to butcher it. For now, don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and the little stuff. Just get the big picture.
Move on to the Fine-Tuning
On the third draft, you’ll polish. Read carefully sentence by sentence and analyze the words themselves. Have you painted vivid word pictures? Have you used action verbs? Cut furiously when you find passive-voice words like: had, is, was, and the ever-dreaded had been. Rewrite sentences in the active voice and look for compelling and descriptive words.
English is a marvelous language because we have so much variety to choose from. Why use a word like “hat” when you can say Stetson, beret, bowler, cap, or derby. Bring your writing alive with exactly the right words. Avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs, which tend to create purple prose.
Use motivation and reaction units, as Dwight Swain describes in his wonderful book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. Set the scene, give the motivation, then show the character’s reactions: A child cries, the mother runs to him; you hear a noise in the night, you sit up in bed; a bomber flies over, the man in the foxhole ducks. Swain breaks the techniques of writing down to the very basics. If you write fiction and do not have this book in your tool kit, get it now.
Have an Expert Look Over the Manuscript
Once you’ve completed these steps and believe that you have the best novel you can write, have someone else look at it. Find someone with editorial experience-not your mother, your best friend, or your spouse. No matter how worthy or unworthy the book, these people will tell you they love it. You need an impartial outsider, someone with experience in your genre. Look to publishing organizations, to local writer’s groups, or to a nearby college or university. My book, Publish Your Own Novel, lists freelance editors and book doctors. Talk with several and find out if they are experienced with your type of fiction.
Send a few pages of your manuscript as a test. Most will edit a small sampling for free or charge a very small fee. Look over their suggestions to be sure the two of you are on the same wavelength.
Be willing to take criticism. If you find yourself getting defensive about the suggested changes to your work, put it aside for a day or two and look again. Chances are that the suggestions are valid. If you find yourself explaining why you wrote something a certain way, keep in mind that every reader who picks up your book won’t have you there to explain it.
Be Self-Published & Professional
Self-published novels have always been met with suspicion from reviewers and professional writers organizations. It’s up to all of us to be sure that the fiction we write and publish is top-notch if we want to be taken seriously. Give your book a pretty cover, yes, but don’t let the writing inside brand you as an amateur.Connie Shelton is the author and publisher of the critically acclaimed Charlie Parker mystery series, the third of which will be released this spring. Her company, Intrigue Press, publishes mystery, suspense, and adventure fiction. Shelton is also the author of Publish Your Own Novel, a Writer’s Digest Book Club selection which details the process of publishing and promoting fiction. Order by calling 1-800/996-9783. The book sells for $18.95 + S&H.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.