Revising a novel gives me the same dread I felt when writing the saggy middle of my story. I was standing at the beginning of an unending cracked desert and had no idea how to get to the other side. Mouth goes dry. As does every impulse.
But in order to get from a crappy first draft to a polished manuscript, you have to go through the storm—the parts that hold your story together, the big stuff.
Luckily, I've pieced this process into three steps that keep me sane. Maybe this will keep you sane too.
Step 1: Play the Reader
Spend at least two weeks away from your completed first draft. You've just written The End so... Get drunk. Take that shower. Feed the cat. And get fresh perspective. Then forget that you’re this fabulous writer orchestrating your story’s destiny.
You heard me. Forget it.
Take a backseat to your story and simply be a reader, settling into your book as if for the first time. And read your entire story from beginning to end.
Sometimes it’s easier to print out the entire document and read on paper or upload it to your kindle reading device. Whatever helps you settle in and see your story with fresh eyes.
And when you do this, make time. You want to read, if not all at once, then in big chunks. Don’t take long breaks. This will allow you to keep the entire story in your head in a short amount of time and really give you that broad view of the plot, characters, and overall flow.
Step 2: Take Notes, Notes, Notes
You’ve stepped back from all the details to see what you’ve really created. (Ahhh, my trainwreck.) There were some jewels, but maybe it's not as good as you thought it was.
Don't despair. Resist the I’M A TERRIBLE WRITER AND WILL DIE ALONE IN A DARK ALLEY WHILE CATS EAT MY CARCASS feeling. And take a deep breath.
Any story problem can be fixed. Trust me, I’m a professional.
Plus, you have a lot to work with here. You wrote a full draft! Most people haven’t even done that. They were binge-netflixing House Hunters instead. (I should really quit that show.)
The good news is: while you were reading, you were mentally gathering first impressions.
And with all the pens at your disposal, or highlighting tool, or commenting tool, now's the time to jot down these impressions—any big story elements you found problematic. Ideas and areas that strike you as odd or not yet right.
You may discover these areas the same way you note a chocolate stain on your shirt. (Happens every time.)
Sometimes it’s a big idea that’s causing many little problems. Or general loose threads that need to be tightened. Maybe too many unnecessary scenes can be combined or deleted to tightened the pacing. Or the major turning points are way off. Character goals weren’t clearly stated. The plot is like an unmanned airplane taking a nosedive. The middle is dragging, sagging, lagging. Things feels too safe and boring. Or maybe an idea needs further exploration and time in the story.
The BIG stuff.
When you take your notes, make them on a separate page/document/wall/whatever. By doing this, you resist the temptation to go deep into your manuscript and lose your way.
Step 3: Re-imagine, Rewrite, or Search and Destroy
This is where you’ll do the most heavy lifting in your manuscript. Think of it as fixing the holes in your ship before picking out the window treatments.
The good news is:
When you made all of your notes, you were giving yourself a map to follow.
But what might some big issues really look like?
I love examples. Examples save lives.
Maybe you’re noticing your hero, Kevin, lacks integrity throughout his journey. He’s declared to the reader he’s a nice guy. But in the next chapter, he’s impatiently banging his fist on a door to a lawyer’s office, and when a lowly clerk shows him in with a stuttering apology, Kevin thinks you idiot! You notice things like this are happening from scene to scene. And Kevin isn’t schizophrenic. (I see this too often in romance novel alphas.)
Maybe your heroine Lisa keeps running into all sorts of trouble (late to a meeting, forgets a baby shower gift, gets stuck in traffic) and while there’s all these difficulties, you realize there’s not one moment of real conflict driving the story. Then you get to the Saggy Middle of Doom. And somehow the story, broken pieces and all, coasts to the HEA ending.
Maybe there are dumps of information scattered throughout the book. And backstory seems poorly timed, but you don’t know where to put it. Or the info isn’t directly relating to the plot, but you like it. Or there’s too much info and it’s repeating everywhere.
The thing with big issues is: they’re easy to see.
With Kevin, he simply needs to be straightened out, where he makes kinder decisions (kindness through strength), where the telling and showing need to match up better. You can follow his thread from scene to scene and make the necessary adjustments. All of this may affect his character arc too.
With Lisa, poor Lisa, she has no antagonist creating obstacles or pushing against her. OR she doesn’t know what she wants. What’s motivating her? What does she want that the antagonist keeps dangling just out of her reach? You may have to do some rewrites to make sure that conflict is prevalent in every chapter. That she is making it harder for the antagonist and that the antagonist is making it harder for her (like a seesaw). And sometimes, the antagonist is the protagonist’s inner conflict AKA she is her own worst enemy.
As with info dumps and fat lumps, we’ve all got them. Paragraphs of backstory and narration maybe aren’t fitting the way you want them to because the info isn’t prompted by a character’s thoughts or actions. It just feels random. Once you supply those prompts and triggers, and clear away repetitions, the story will flow in a natural way.
Ta-da! After the big stuff is fixed, you can focus on the emotional cues, adjust the smaller beats, pretty-up the setting, play with words—the FUN stuff.
For more story-fix guidance, see Novel Revision Checklist.
If you feel completely lost in your manuscript, don’t miss out on The Developmental Report to take back your sanity. Because the worst thing ever (other than running out of chocolate) is realizing you have a big story issue after writing your query letter or paying a copyeditor to fix all the grammar.
As for the fat lumps, I’m still convinced wine is the answer.