Congratulations! You’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel! Give yourself a huge pat on the back and go out and celebrate! Then put it away for at least two weeks while you concentrate on other things, before going back and starting on revisions.
—Yes, revisions — starting with big-picture issues, like plot, characters, point of view and pacing. It’s highly unlikely that your first draft is ready for proofreading, or even line editing yet — save that for the last step of the revision process, after any large issues are detected and dealt with. If you’re unable to hire a freelance developmental editor and/or a copy editor, this is where your critique group (online or in-person) or acquaintances who read a lot of fiction come in.
Based on my own experience and advice from writing gurus, I’ve compiled a recommended approach to the revision process:
1. After you’ve finished your first draft, put your story away and concentrate on other things for a few weeks or even a month. Let the story percolate in your subconscious for a while.
2. Meanwhile send/give the manuscript to “beta readers” — savvy people who read a lot of fiction, in your genre. For suggestions and a list of possible questions, see my blog post, "Questions for Your Beta Readers" on Crime Fiction Collective (and here). Get at least two volunteer readers, but no more than five, as too many contradictory opinions could get overwhelming. Stress to your reades that at this point you’re looking for big issues only — parts where they felt excited, curious, delighted, scared, worried, confused, bored, etc.
3. After your break of a few weeks or so, collect the reactions of your volunteer readers or critique group. Go through them and note any that you really like; perhaps ask for clarification of suggestions, or more details.
4. Change the font of your manuscript to one you really like and print it up to read, rather than on the screen. (A different medium to help you look at it with fresh eyes. Or you can save this step until you’ve incorporated some changes.)
5. Reread your manuscript from start to finish, making separate notes only on big-picture changes you’d like to make, such as plot, characterization, point of view, pacing, etc. Cross out, delete or condense any boring scenes. Don’t get bogged down on wording or punctuation, etc. at this point.
6. Update your story outline and “to-do list” or plan of action to take into account advice from your beta readers, and/or critique group, as well as your own new ideas.
7. Save a new version of your manuscript under the current date and go through the whole thing, revising on-screen for big-picture changes only. Is your opening compelling enough? (See my blog posts on your first pages: “Act First, Explain Later” and “Those Crucial First Five Pages.” Do all of the major plot points make sense? Do you see any inconsistencies in timing, setting, character or plot? Does the story drag in places? Is there enough conflict and tension? Suspense? (See “Writing a Killer Thriller,” Parts I, II and III, on Crime Fiction Collective BlogSpot.) Are your characters complex enough? Is your protagonist likeable? (“Creating Compelling Characters”) Do you have too many characters? Is your point of view all over the place? Anchor it in one of the main characters most of the time. (“Deep Point of View” on Blood-Red Pencil.) Maybe rewrite a scene from the viewpoint of a different key character? Rearrange some chapters or scenes? Or change the chapter breaks to earlier or later?
8. Now would be a good time to send your revised story to a freelance editor or to a few more volunteer readers — ones who haven’t read an earlier version.
9. Incorporate any new suggestions you like, and resave each new version as you go along, using the current date in the file name.
10.Go back to the beginning and start editing for voice, style, and flow. Slash excess wording and repetitions, or overexplaining. Streamline your sentences. Take out whole sentences and paragraphs — even scenes or chapters — if they don’t add anything new or drive the story forward. Take out unneeded adverbs and adjectives, eliminate clichés, and pump up your verbs to bring the action to life. See my blog post on fixing common style gaffes, “Style Blunders in Fiction” at The Thrill Begins BlogSpot.
11.Read just the dialogue out loud, maybe role-playing with a buddy or two. Do the conversations sound natural? Or stilted or even boring in parts. Amp up the tension and cut down on those empty phrases, overly wordy monologues, complete sentences, too-perfect grammar, etc. See my blog post called “Writing Effective Dialogue.”
12.Go through and do a basic line edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation — or better yet, hire a freelance fiction editor to do it.
13. Change the font to one you like, and print up the manuscript, double-spaced. Sit down with it and read it through out loud, crossing out excess words and sentences, and noting changes and suggestions between the lines, in the margins, or on the back.
14. Open up the screen version and type these new changes into your document; resave with today’s date.
15.Go over the whole thing again, on screen or on paper, looking for any new issues that crop up. Changes very often create new errors, so watch for those.
16.Repeat above steps as needed, until your manuscript is compelling and polished, before sending it off to a literary agent or acquiring editor, or self-publishing. This whole revision process could easily take several months. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by publishing it or sending it off too soon.
17.Better yet, at some point along this process, send it to a reputable freelance fiction editor so you can get a professional, unbiased look at it, from someone familiar with both the genre and industry standards.
18.Finally, if you’re seeking an agent, take as much care with that all-important query letter. See my blog post, “Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot” on Blood-Red Pencil BlogSpot.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, Sept. 23, 2011