Begin the Begin...Again: 5 Tips for Revising a Novel

As I begin yet another revision for yet another novel, I’m reminded of a few revision and writing/outlining tips that have always helped me in the past, and that I plan to employ in full force again. Not that I’m some sort of bestselling author passing down the key to the city or anything, but you never know what tip will make that new draft feel like a breeze. I’ve mentioned some other tips before (HERE and HERE) but here are a few of my favorites that I’ve picked up along the way, and maybe one of these will help you too.

1. Write a New Outline Between Drafts

This is something I’ve done off and on for years, but I have used this device much more often since hearing Gabriela Pereira, of, profess its benefits at a Writer’s Digest conference in 2014. Even if you had an outline before you began a first draft, and even if you feel you have a clear idea about what needs to change in draft #2 (or #14, or whatever), you'll absolutely strengthen your understanding of the current state of your book and reinforce your new ideas by writing a completely new outline before you begin the next draft. It may not have to be anything extensive, perhaps a page summarizing the major movements of your tale, but I find this step between your revision notes that you’ve jotted down and the actual book beautifully melds what you want to do with what you’ve done.

And for those who like to work without outlines at all, I certainly understand your sense of adventure, and I’ve written that way in the past as well, but I find a few road signs along the way with enough leeway for exploration and surprises has been the most enjoyable sort of journey.    

2. Write Individual Outlines For Each Character

The above mentioned Gabriela Pereira also suggested (and I fully endorse this idea as well) that writers write out individual plotlines for all major (and even some minor) characters in your novel. Seeing each character’s journey through their eyes, depicting their goals, their wants, their fears, and more, will do wonders for strengthening your big picture plot and empower you with a deeper understanding of all the little cogs in your wondrous machine. When I do this, I typically write out a few paragraphs, but Gabriela also suggested creating linear timelines for each character, noting major events pertaining to each along the line, even noting where each character intersects with another’s timeline, which can help you see how each character’s influence on the story ebbs and flows. She also said some writers use a calendar to mark out timelines for the story and/or characters. All interesting tools to keep in mind. I have yet to use the latter two myself, but now might be the time to try.

3. Leave a Sentence Unfinished

This is something I use on first drafts and revisions, and it’s something I’ve learned to use the hard way. I used to end a writing session on a transitional spot in the story (the character goes to bed, the scene switches to another character’s actions, characters begin their travels, things like that) but when you end a scene this way, it can take more time restarting that next new scene. Do you begin again with the character waking up, or partway into an action scene, or with setting descriptions, or any number of ways, but when you end your writing session partway through an unfinished thought or scene or sentence, you’re better positioned to pick up that thought, finish it, and keep rolling now that you’re up to speed. It’s easier to transition when you’re going at 60 mph than from a dead start.

4. Before You Finish, Summarize the Next Scene

This is similar to the tip above, and I often use them in conjunction with one another. As you finish your session (hopefully in mid-stride), write a few sentences below telling yourself where you were going with this next scene and where you’d like to take the story over the next few beats beyond that. Add any character notes or reminders about upcoming surprises or foreshadowing you want to remember to build. Don’t just end at a point where it’s easy to pick up again, but give yourself the tool to pick up and speed off with confidence.  

5. Name Your Chapters

All nonfiction writers do this but many fiction writers simply use “Chapter 1” or “Part 2” and so on. By giving your chapters names, titles, or adding a little phrase to the beginning of each (Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier does it in a very creative way, and so does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.) you give yourself a way to remember the chapter as your working on it, and if you keep them, you give the reader a hint about the storyline, keeping them intrigued about impending twists and turns. Note how many children’s books, middle grade, and YA novels do this. There’s a reason. Giving readers cues and glimpses about the chapter ahead, or maybe revealing clues or misleading readers with red herrings, all keeps the reader engaged and rolling with the punches.  Many parts of the novel have titles instead of chapters, like Alan Furst does in his Night Soldiers series. Part One might have a clever subtitle and all the numbered chapter that follow have something to do with that subtitle, and then you hit the next part, where there’s a major shift in the novel. It’s just one more tool to consider using in your book as you revise and shape the story into a final draft.