I sent the complete draft of my new novel to my agent in September. When I got her editorial notes some weeks later, there were more things to revise in the book than things to keep.
I thought about tabling the project. Or even trashing it. Sometimes fixing a book means turning the whole thing inside out. It can seem daunting, or even impossible. But, once you get going, it’s actually pretty fun.
Yup. I said “fun.” And all artists go through the same process. For instance, I recently saw a great Peabody Essex Museum exhibit that highlighted Georgia O’Keeffe’s fashion style as well as her artwork. In looking at the detailed shapes and stitching of her clothing choices, it’s easy to see O’Keeffe developing—and revising—her artistic vision. To her, the spaces between shapes on the canvas became as important as the shapes and colors themselves. Here’s what she said about her painting, “Pelvis with the Moon,” pictured above:
“I was most interested in the holes in the bones—what I saw through them—particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky…they were most wonderful against the Blue—that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.”
Think about “the holes in the bones.” That’s what we want to do when we revise a novel. We want to look at the structure, of course—the bones—to “see” the book’s shape. But we must also see through the holes between the bones to understand the meaning behind the scenes and characters we’ve created, if we’re going to build a compelling, 3D fictional world.
Here are four easy revision strategies to help you do that:
1. Write the Book Jacket Copy. You have probably already written an outline. (If you haven’t, now’s the time.) Now try writing some punchy book jacket copy. Wrestling with this will help you see the book’s essence more clearly (which will help readers, agents, and editors see it, too.) What is your book really about? Keep that short, punchy summary in mind as you rewrite.
2. Change the Point of View. Maybe your book is in third person. If so, maybe you’re too emotionally distant from the characters. Try changing the book to first person. (If nothing else, this will help you weed out all of the “she thought” and “he wondered” sorts of static phrases.) Or, if your book is in first person, maybe there aren’t enough tactile descriptions or suitable action. Rewrite the book in third person and see how it changes things. Finally, try rewriting your book from a totally different character’s point of view.
3. Read It Aloud. This takes a while. But reading a book aloud will help you catch all sorts of “puffy” phrases, as Stephen King calls them, and will show you how to revise the dialogue so that it sounds more true to character—and to the reader.
4. Start Your Book in a Different Chapter. Like most writers, when I begin a novel, it’s almost always too soon in the action. There is probably a better scene to start with, one with more emotion, and impact. You can catch up on the earlier part of the book with a few flashbacks—or you may find you don’t need that stuff at all, because the pertinent information will be expressed by your character’s actions or dialogue later on, after the reader is hooked.
5. Keep Only Key Scenes. Examine each individual scene. Is it really necessary? If it doesn’t advance the plot, create a “fatty file” on your computer and stash those unnecessary bits of the book there. Maybe you’ll need them, maybe not. But trust your reader to infer and understand lots of what’s going on with fewer scenes.
That’s it! Now get revising, and let me know how it goes.