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Lesson 1 An Introduction to Revising

Getting Started

You’ve written a novel! Congratulations! Erm…now what? You know you’re supposed to “revise” before you start seeking an agent or sell your book online, but what does that actually mean?

Never fear, dear writer. I am here to assist you. (Cue: super hero music.) As daunting as revisions can be, they don’t have to be. In fact, I love revisions. They’re my favorite part of the press and always have been!

For some people, it’s a skill that comes naturally. For others, it requires lots of practice, lots of determination, and oftentimes, outside help too. I’m here to be part of that outside help—as well as give you a scaffolding for practice.

How am I going to do that? By breaking down the different things you need to consider when you revise: plot, character, setting, and beyond. Once these components of story are cut into bite-size pieces, then you can feel less overwhelmed about the task before you.

In other words, you are going to go into your revisions with:

  1. A very clear, specific end goal in mind. This is your “perfect book” target.

  2. And a means for breaking your entire novel into small, manageable chunks.

So let’s get started, shall we?

Lost in Translation

Maggie Stiefvater teaches an excellent workshop for writers in which she describes writing as “an act of translation.”

In other words, we are translating the “perfect book” that is in our head onto the page. No translation is perfect; it’s impossible to capture all the nuances of a language when you translate it into another—and it’s just as impossible to capture all the nuances of your story.

However, as authors, we can revise our books until we get them as close to that “perfect book in our heads” as possible.

Rarely does a book come out even close to perfect on the first try. And for some of us (🙋‍♀️ me!) it can take many, many revisions before we reach the “almost perfect state” that we’re aiming for.

Of course, you can’t know what to aim for if you don’t have a clear target. This is why I always—always, always, even now many years into this whole publishing career—come up with a vision for my perfect book. 

Your Perfect Book

There are a few things that go into imagining the Perfect Book. And your criteria might be totally different than my own. It also might take you several rounds of revisions or several books before you really settle on the criteria you need for defining your Perfect Book.

But here is what I do to establish mine:

  1. I imagine a book cover for the finished product. I don’t make one (though you’re welcome to, if it will help you!), but I do jot down the general image and style I’m imagining.
  2. I decide on  the overall vibe I want the book to have. The general mood, the sensations the reader takes away, the final message they have when they close the book—I can just feel all of that in my chest. So the goal is to translate that feeling onto the page.
  3. I decide what my genre is. There are genre conventions that are required (yes, I said required) in order to satisfy different audiences. A cozy mystery has a vastly different shape than a noir detective thriller, and readers of those genres will pick up books with expectations. If you don’t meet those expectations, then you’re basically missing the point of writing in that genre—and you’re probably going to leave readers dissatisfied.
  4. I decide who my target age group is. Similar to genre, if I’m writing for a middle grade reader, then the book will be vastly different than if I’m targeting an adult reader. This is both from a content standpoint as well as a voice standpoint. 

Here’s an example I wrote recently for my longtime Work In Progress, Screechers. This is literally taken from my notebook!

  1. Book cover = This is a dense book. We’re talking a thin paged, mass market paperback with a very traditional soft cover. I see it almost like the old Dune covers where we have a desert and a figure, and the colors are all sandy, umber, ochre.
  2. Vibe = It is rich and moving and possibly even award winning. It has mystery, romance, and this epic, sweeping feeling. It blows through and by you, whispering its story on the wind. It’s very character driven and very dependent on their arcs. The setting is a character, possibly more so than any other book I’ve written. It is ultimately hopeful and shows how humanity can be good, even when there is so much work to do.
  3. Genre = Epic fantasy
  4. Target reading age = Adult with some crossover into YA potential

Small Goals, Bite-size Pieces

I don’t know about you all, but I get easily overwhelmed by big projects. Spring cleaning, training for a marathon, raking all the leaves in my yard every fall…

So I always break things down into smaller pieces. It don’t clean the entire house at once; I go room by room. I don’t run 26 miles; I slowly add miles over time. I don’t rake all the leaves in one go; I make smaller piles all around the yard.

And when I’m revising a book, I don’t tackle everything at once. I instead look at each individual component of story: plot, character, setting, pacing + scene level conflict, and line edits.

Of course, all of these things are ultimately inseparable (character creates plot, and world creates character), but it’s helpful when revising to try to tease them apart as best I can. That makes the actual act of making changes to the text more manageable.

And hey, it lets us color code! Who doesn’t love using highlighters and post-its and pens to stay organized? (I mean, probably some of you don’t. But hey, you also don’t have to color code. I just like to because I find it helpful for my own brain.)

Tools and Supplies

To get ready for the next lesson, there are a few things you’re going to need. Now obviously it’s up to you if you want to get as “physical” with everything as I do, but I do think there’s something extremely beneficial for our brains when we work with our hands.

We process the information differently than when we work on a screen.

But again, if you’d rather try to do every step that follows in a Word doc or Scrivener or a PDF on your iPad, that’s totally okay. Do what works best for you!

But if you do want to follow the next lessons exactly as I lay them out, you’re going to need the following:

  • A printed copy of your manuscript
  • Index cards
  • Pens or pencils in four different colors
  • Post-its in four different colors
  • Print-outs of the upcoming worksheets in Lesson 2
  • A notebook or extra paper (or an empty digital document works too)
Again, it’s all optional. Work in whatever way you like best, though I do urge you to try working entirely by hand at least once, if you’ve never done it before. It can unlock a totally different part of your creative brain!

That’s the end of our introduction, and you can click onward to learn how we will take stock of what we’ve written in our pursuit of a “perfect translation.”