Writing in itself is fun. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. I love it when my brain and my fingers are in sync. In that moment, however long it lasts, a writer’s life is in harmony with the universe.
Then you type those glorious words, “The End.” Ahh. What a feeling. That means you’re done, right? Wrong. Next comes that dreaded word, the one that makes most writers cringe:
Yes, revision is that ugly, concrete wall separating you from being published. I once heard a literary agent say, “The biggest mistake I see authors make isn’t misspelling my name or sending a bad query, although they do that. The saddest thing is when I love the premise, but the author didn’t revise enough.”
Isn’t that sad? Spending months or years on a project, only to toss it off a cliff because they just don’t want to comb through it anymore? (Oh boy, do I understand!)
This is the point I’m at with my novel (my first book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, is a parenting book…yeah, very different from my current project!). I go back and forth between wanting to hurl it out the window and wanting to rush it out to agents immediately because “the idea is so good, they’ll look past the poor writing.” Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Revising is a necessary evil. Emphasis on the EVIL part.
In case you’re struggling with it as much as I am, here’s a list of five things to check before you click that Send button. I’ve compiled this list from several books, including Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and from blogs and writers conferences I’ve attended. Enjoy!
1) Look closely at the skeleton.
When I say skeleton, I mean the bones of your story. Is there an inherent arc in the entire story? Is the conflict introduced immediately? Is the ending satisfying, tying off all loose ends and leaving the reader wanting more? Does the ending feel too predictable, or is there a twist of some kind to delight the reader? Is the pacing appropriate?
If you think your story needs more structure, Dan Wells’ video is a great one. I also like seven time NYT Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson’s lecture series, which goes into story structure in depth.
2) Look at it chapter-by-chapter.
Does each chapter have a clearly-defined purpose and setting? Does the setting change often enough to keep the reader interested? Do we feel a sense of progression and heightened conflict as we near the end? Does each chapter (and scene) have a natural arc? Sometimes combining scenes and chapters can make for better pace, rising action, and can also cut down on words.
3) Evaluate your characters.
Now that the plot is well-established, let’s examine your characters. Are they unique and consistent? Does each one have a specific purpose, or can some minor characters be combined? Do they speak and think differently from each other? Are they stereotypical, or does each one have a quirk or personality twist? Are the characters relateable, even the villian?
Does the reader get a sense that these characters have a history, a past that may or may not be applicable to the plot? Does the reader see the best and worst parts of each character’s personality? Do the characters emerge from the ending forever changed? Does the protagonist try and fail several times before getting what s/he wants? Does the dialogue seem/feel natural, like a real conversation?
4) Look at the Description.
There’s a fine line between too much description and not enough. Go through your manuscript and take out cliches, replacing them with fresh, applicable words and phrases. Think “concise and precise.” Use as few words as possible to effectively get the emotional feeling and message across. Do your descriptions use all five senses where appropriate? Is the level of description appropriate to the scene (fighting scenes vs. walking the beach, etc.)?
The biggest thing here is this: SHOW, NOT TELL. You’re allowing the readers to create your world in their heads, not shoving a real-estate ad down their throats. This applies to everything, but especially to description. Howard Taylor, a well-known artist/comic, says something like this: “You must make me feel the tree’s bark beneath my hands before I’ll believe the dragons in the distance.” Get the little details right, and the reader is much more likely to be immersed in the world you’ve created.
5) The Down & Dirty Basics: grammar, spelling, spacing, chapter numbering, clarity, accuracy
Why save this stuff for last? Because while you work on the other four, this stuff changes. I STRONGLY advise you to work with a critique group and/or an editor for this one, because I’ve personally had mistakes overlooked by a half-dozen proof-readers before. It happens. Typos and mistakes don’t mean you’re a bad writer–it’s just part of the process. (You should actually have a critique group look over the previous four things too, preferably as you go.) When you’ve done what you can, have your helpers look for point-of-view issues, verb tenses, common words and phrases, and things that just don’t seem right. If they’re really good, they’ll help you whittle sentences down. Remember, “concise and precise” is key.
You may think “accuracy” doesn’t fit here, or at least it should be done way before this point. Ideally you’d have a grasp on what is and isn’t possible in the research stage, true. But have you ever read a book where the author skipped this step? I bet that wrong detail completely turned you off of the book, right? I’ve done martial arts for five years, and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the ridiculous things people put in their action scenes. Seriously. It goes way beyond fighting scenes, though. If you have injuries or medical-related scenes in your book, check with a nurse at the very least. This is where “knowing people” comes in handy. If you offer to add them to the acknowledgments section of your book, even professionals will probably be happy to help you.
Yeah, I know, this seems overwhelming. Believe me, I understand. This is a lot of work. Take it one day at a time, one item at a time. It may require a dozen readings of your books. There’s one thing every author, agent, and editor can agree on, though: IT’S WORTH IT. Just imagine that acceptance letter and the appreciation of your future fans.
If that isn’t enough, there’s always that chocolate reward at the end. Doesn’t work for you? That’s fine. Send it my way instead.