Revision Saved My Novel: How making major changes to plot and character transformed my first draft

I love revision. It’s my favorite part of the writing process. But I can already hear some of you guys grumbling: “Writing the first draft was hard enough, and now I’m supposed to do WHAT to these hundreds of pages? UHHHHHGGGGGG.”

I get. Revision is hard, sometimes tedious, work. I’ve been there. But now I’m on the other side, and folks, it’s glorious over here.

Revision is The Best (yes, it requires capitals). It’s a stage full of opportunity, when your novel realizes its full potential as a work of art, and you realize your fullest potential as a writer. I’m not talking fixing commas and spelling mistakes. Those type of corrections are necessary, but not what transforms your draft from what  Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft” into a sparkling, exciting work of fiction. You’ll have to edit and proofread, of course, but that shitty first draft needs to be revised first!

Facing these revisions can result in a major Writing Crisis as you mourn the book that used to be. But mourn not, writers! Those major changes you make to character, plot, narrative structure, etc… those revisions will transform your first draft into a book readers don’t wanna put down!

#1 – I cut characters

A grandma and a grandpa got cut. Some cousins, too. There were cluttering up the scenery, doing nothing. So they had to go. If I’m being honest, this didn’t hurt me much. Although, I had worked for DAYS on a conversation between one of the cut characters and my protagonist, and then I didn’t even use it. That hurt. All that time and work on the editing room floor. But I got over it. And, wonderfully, I was able to give my kid protagonist more agency in his own story once I cut the character. So now I’m really pleased! And that work that went into perfecting the conversation didn’t exactly go to waste. I spent time learning how to craft dialogue–a great learning experience!

#2 – I dramatized more scenes

20170313_092820I like the storytelling voice. Some of my favorite novels use it to great effect. So it was no surprise when I started using it while writing my first novel. However, that voice has a time and a place. When used in moderation, it can have an impact, when used willy nilly, it slows down the pace of the plot and distances the readers from the characters. And, when I got back feedback on the first draft, each chapter was filled with “show, don’t tell!”

I grumbled about it, but as I started draft two, I realized the some of the most important scenes in the novel were told and that dramatizing them would make the experiences more immediate for the readers. I must admit that I haven’t gotten rid of all my “telling” sentences, but I’ve certainly made crucial scenes much more active, drawing a clearer picture of my protagonist and drawing the reader in more than ever.

Additionally, the fewer “telling” moments means that when they are there, they are used purposefully and with reason. And that’s how we all want to use each word–purposefully and with reason!

#3 – I made my First Sentence More Active

As we’ve mentioned before, first sentences are CRUCIAL. They accomplish so much, that you should expect to revise them several times before getting it right. I KNOW all this, and yet this is the conversation I had  with my writing buddies moving into draft two:

Them: Whitney, your first sentence needs to be more active and intriguing. 

Me: I like my first sentence as it is. 

Them: Whitney, you gotta hook the readers and get the book moving. 

Me: I like my first sentence as. it. is.

Yeah, I’m a stubborn, contrary mule. But eventually I see reason, or my way to a compromise. Keeping the elements of the first sentence that I liked, I revised the rest of it, making it more active and using it to foreground the main character’s emotional state. Whereas before the sentence was, ya know, alright or whatever, now it packs a punch! Thank you to my readers for putting up with me!

#4 – I Gave Secondary Characters More to Do

Anne Lamott’s advice about writing buddies. Too true.

I had this shadowy set of secondary characters just hanging out in the background of my novel. They were really nothing more than symbols of something the main character didn’t have. They bugged me. I considered cutting them, but then decided to play around a bit more with what they could do in the plot and realized they were much more valuable than I thought they were.

So, I upgraded their status from shadowy symbol to full-fledged characters with voices, actions, fears, and desires. And now I love them almost more than I love my main characters! They’re sharp and funny and give the book a quick-moving humor it lacked before.

#5 – I cut favorite scenes

I’m thinking in particular of this one scene. I call it the “tomato scene.” The images were lovely, the dialogue was interesting, and it explored one of the novel’s major themes. I loved it. It was odd and cathartic and brought the hot summer days of childhood to life.

But MAN did it slow down the narrative. And in a middle grade novel, your word count is so stingy that there’s no room for slow vignettes, no matter how sweet and summery. So I cut it. And the plot sails along now, unimpeded by the tomatoes scene and much improved.

Don’t mourn too much over killing your darlings! Keep cut scenes in a separate file so that they can be used for other projects if applicable.

A Challenge!

I want to challenge you guys, as you write and revise, to make a list of those changes you need to make but are hesitant to. For each item on the list, write down why it works in the novel, what it adds to the narrative. Then, do the same for the change. If there are more benefits listed for the revised version than for the original version, then … well, you know what to do!

Take it from someone who doesn’t always take feedback gracefully (at first). Major revisions can be HARD, but they can also be MAGNIFICENT.

Let us help you revise!

from first draft to last-2We gals at FromNothingToNovel KNOW how difficult and daunting the revision process can be. We’ve helped each other through it as well as other academics, editing clients, and hundreds of writing students who have come through our composition and literature classes. Revision. Is. Hard. Emotionally and Intellectually.

But, in all those years of revising our work and helping others revise theirs, we’ve developed a GIGANTIC toolbox of strategies to help writers identify problems in their first drafts and implement changes that transform shitty first drafts into un-put-down-able finished works.

And we want to share them with you. 

Our online course–From First Draft to Last: THE Revision Process to Make Your Book Un-Put-Down-Able –will be live in January, but you can sign up now! Are you a NaNoWriMo winner? Join us in pledging to revise that book in January by signing up for our course, and let us help you master that most daunting but necessary of writing tasks–REVISION.

Let us know what revisions improved your novel-in-progress in the comments. And, if you enjoyed this post, check out our video about what we learned writing the first drafts of our novels.


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