Tag Archives: first novel

Novel Revision Strategies: “Hit List” of 6 Things to Edit Now

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. Classic: either move this with a happy star to the next chapter — or cut it and pillage for single words/details to keep. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

If you’ve read my last several posts, you know that I’ve been sharing the varied processes I’ve been going through in daily revisions to my novel.  If you want to read other posts in the series, a list of links is at the end, below.

As I’ve said before, my novel draft is in mid-process revisions. That is,

  • I am no longer drafting the novel: the full story is written from opening through final scene, including external conflict, internal conflicts for key characters, settings and the major scenes, and all the research is completed.
  • On the other hand, I’m still making decisions and answering questions about what I’ve written, addressing inconsistencies, moving large sections around, or deleting, and rewriting.
  • Just as I’m no longer drafting, I’m also not editing at the sentence level, yet, as I will during final revisions. I may correct word choice, sentence structure or punctuation as I notice them, but I’m still in a more “construction” phase than the final process of polishing to send to an editor.

I say this to recognize that there is a point between mid-process and final revisions, where it helps to be able to run through a series of steps to test for common errors — and that is the point of today’s post.

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A Hit List of 6 Steps to Apply to Target Weaknesses in a Draft

Finishing the middle process and approaching final revisions is a good time to consider some common errors that editors, agents and other pros report finding in novel drafts submitted as “finished.”  One of the reasons this stage of revision can be such a concern is that a writer may have a blind spot to errors that editors and agents find obvious.

The hit list below offers 6 practical steps that can help you target and fix weaknesses remaining in your draft. Inspiration comes, in part, from the advice for writers posted on the submissions page at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s prize for fiction, but also from resources like “query tips” on Twitter, other articles from editors and agents, and my own experience.

1. Run Spell Check

This one sounds obvious. Of course: check for misspellings or errors in capitalization. But also watch for inconsistent spellings of proper names you invented – spell check won’t catch these unless you add them to its dictionary. Did you ever change names of characters or locations? It’s a common error to not catch all inconsistencies before submitting.  Read for misused homophones, which spell-check might not catch. Yup, we all swap out there/their/they’re, etc., when typing fast. Beyond spelling, check grammar and punctuation — use the best spell-checking tool available to you. For example, if you have both Scrivener and Word, use the spell-checker in Word. It’s smarter. Lastly, the skimming nature of bouncing through your document with spell check can also help you notice other subtle issues — for example, consider “overused words,” below.

2. Bad Phrasing and Passive Tenses

Use your software’s search tool to target lame word usage.  You can target passive word choice by searching “there is,” “there are” and “there was/were.”  Search helping verbs and -ing to avoid overuse of vague or passive verb constructions.  I’ve heard at least one pro say it’s a newbie error to use constructions with “become”/”becoming.” For example, “He became scared,” rather than, “Fear ran through him.” An odd example of stilted/passive wording mentioned by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society was overuse of the word “the.”  They say (link below) that one non-winning novel submission to the Society’s contest in 2012 “used the word ‘the’ 10,001 times. At least half could easily have been eliminated.” To make the point, they revised sample lines to show how wording could have been more vivid. Searching any of these words might help target where the usage is fitting or where it might be written more effectively.

3. Overused Words or Images

We all have certain words or images we overuse — do you know yours? Skimming during spellcheck may increase your awareness. If not, listen for them as you reread or ask a beta reader to notice them for you. Often, these can be unexpected. For example, I was surprised to find I’d used “horse” 47 times in this draft which is not about horses. Only 4 scenes required a horse and the random mentions took their power away (why all the horses? It’s an autobiographical misfire as my family has horses in our background – while my characters do not).  If you have a particular mood or image in mind as you write, you could find it overly pervasive. Some of my overused words, for example, were dark, silver, memory, shadow and light. They are key mood words, but I needed to use them in the most powerful moments, not, um, everywhere. Overused words create vagueness rather than meaning, so targeting them is an opportunity to seed more powerful detail. “Sitting in darkness” is one thing; “sleeping in the cold shadows of a hedge along the drive” moves the story and conflict, not just mood.

4. Is it Over-written?

In early drafts, it’s easy to write reams of words that aren’t yet anchored in the specifics of story details you didn’t yet know. There and in other places, if you suspect a sentence or paragraph is too wordy or not serving a purpose, use a highlighter to mark only the words that matter. Could you edit to just those? What if someone asked you to post a line to Twitter?  If you were limited to 140 characters, what words would drop out?  At the same time, highlighting key information can help you avoid deleting an important detail. Let’s say it’s tempting to delete a cringe-worthy scene from a early draft — highlighting any key information revealed by that scene (“a gun was stored on the top shelf”) will help you make sure to save and relocate it to another scene, so you don’t create an inadvertent hole in the story.

5. Target Dialogue

Personally, I write full conversations between characters during drafting, but delete all dialogue except the lines with power during revision.  Dialogue problems are a common issue to keep drafts from succeeding.  Advice for revision includes reducing wordcounts and improving story flow by removing unnecessary dialogue tags. Other advice from pros suggest editing for pompous speeches or voice that does not ring true, or excessive reliance on lengthy dialogue for information dumps. Unless dialect is key to your story, avoid overuse of phonetic spellings and spacers (“I, like, well, um, really,” she paused..). Every line of dialogue should cleanly, clearly carry its weight to activate the story; weak dialogue kills.

6. Senses Should Sing

Writer Donna Gephart recently shared the advice that 80% of the brain’s perception is related to sight (read her mini-lesson as part of Teachers Write! here). Awesome. Except that may mean that writing is overly preoccupied with details related to eyes and unnecessary sight direction. “He turned and looked toward the dock. The boat was on fire,” is a great example of unnecessary sight direction. Better: “The boat was in flames.” The reader doesn’t need to be told the MC turned and looked. Target “looked,” “turned,” “saw,” “glanced,” and other directions related to eyes, and consider whether they’re really needed. What is really revealed, and is there a better way to reveal this?  And go beyond sight details.  Where could you add detail from the other 4 senses — especially in places where you want to pull a reader deeper? Use sensory details that develop character (name 3 things the character would notice that no one else would) or move the story.  Remove details that are clichéd, assumed or reveal nothing about the character or story.

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Links to other posts from my Revision Series are at the end of this post.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Do you consider your WIP to be in a drafting stage, in mid-process revisions, or are you polishing to submit for publication?

Do any of these 6 steps ring true for you? Have you tried a similar approach, or do you have a trick of your own to share?

What “common errors” do you worry most about? Or, do you worry about having a blind spot and not be able to notice errors? (Which hints at my next hurdle: the importance of getting feedback from beta readers…)

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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Novel Revision: 5 Issues Addressed in Edits

working on ms

If you’ve been following this series, you may know I’m now 6 days in to intense revisions on the novel manuscript I printed off Friday.

Am I still that organized and cheery? Ugh! 6 days-in (full, long days of reading, marking and changing), I’m tired. No matter how organized, revisions are hard work.

I have made it about halfway through the manuscript — having accomplished close-reads in some places and more general mark-ups in others. Like shoveling heavy snow, the deeper I go, the heavier the lifting seems to get — but there have been some remarkably simple fixes, too.

In continuing to share the process, here are the kinds of issues I’ve found in this stage of the draft, and some solutions.

  • Easy: in at least half a dozen places, I found a scene that had been pasted more than one place in the draft. It’s an easy fix: I decide which location is best and delete the duplicate (ms. is shorter, yay!). If you use Scrivener, this should be easy to notice/avoid as you can recognize the same first line repeating on more than 1 notecard or binder label.
  • Scary: there’s nothing worse than knowing you wrote a scene, but it’s not there when you go to read your draft. When you write and revise in short bursts over months, especially if you use whatever media is at hand (shout out to the writer who scribbled a scene on her arm while sitting in traffic), it is scarily easy for this to happen. Of the 3 scenes I am missing, I’m looking in an old draft for one, because I know it was there before. I found another in my email folder because it was a scene I’d written using Dragon Dictation, which transcribed and emailed it to me. For whatever else is missing, I’ll be scouring notebooks to see if it was handwritten somewhere, or will wait until the next draft and rewrite from memory.
  • Whiny: it was hard not to lose confidence re-reading certain early-draft sections which I find whiny — so full of psychological explanation. I mentioned the strategy of highlighting my favorite wording — this made it easier to ignore the whiny and instead focus on the better, newer writing, which convey those emotions more authentically in scene. Still cringe at the whining, though. Ugh.
  • Wrong: using the task list I mentioned Tuesday, I’ve been tracking facts to resolve. For example, since the story takes place before and after 9/11, I can’t ignore the impact that event would have had, despite the story not being about 9/11. A couple quick choices and some research let me edit all of those details at once. The other way story details are “wrong” is where I’ve changed details as the story has grown. As with “whiny,” I mark any wording worth keeping, then scrap the older versions. Using a “search” function can help locate the old facts to edit out (see the comment about “horse” below — a search that fixed a change in backstory).
  • Careless: I’ve gotten good at “turning off that internal editor” when drafting which leaves me with lots of conventions flaws to fix, like having no quotation marks on dialogue. In many places, I literally allowed ideas to come out in comma-strung lists, to avoid having to edit out wordiness later. Good news: Spell-check quickly fixed all the issues with uncapitalized names and unpunctuated sentences. Moving forward, I only have to tidy the harder edits on scenes that will be kept. With dialogue, I draft whole conversations, but delete out all lines except the ones with power. Knowing I have at least 1 more revision after this, I don’t have to polish everything.

Revision checklist-One piece of advice I’m trying to keep in mind is to not be too rash with changes. I’m marking certain text to “keep for now,” already anticipating leaving some decisions until the next batch of revision.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Readers in prior posts have shared their own revision process and challenges. Are you revising as well?

My biggest challenge is trying to get it done — I know what I need to do, but can’t get over how much time it takes to get through it. Can you relate to that — or what is your biggest challenge or fear?

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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