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Lesson 2 What the heck did I write?

Prepping for the Read

As mentioned in Lesson 1, you’re going to need some supplies. For this lesson, I want you to grab:

  • Your printed manuscript
    • It helps if your manuscript is double spaced and the pages are numbered.
  • Enough index cards to have one card per scene in your book
    • If you don’t know how many scenes you have, just get a big stack.
  • The worksheets below, printed out
    • You can also just use a notebook or some blank paper, if that’s easier for you
  • Pens in four different colors
    • I like blue, purple, green, and orange.

Also, make sure you have time to read. While I don’t expect you to read your entire book in one sitting (though you certainly can!), I do want you to try to work in chunks of time that are not interrupted by huge gaps.

Basically, the point of reading the entire book is to get a fresh, clear picture of the story as it currently stands.The more time away from the read, the fuzzier our memory and understanding will be. So if you’re forced to wait days—or worse, weeks—between readings, then it will be harder to keep track of everything you’ve written and what isn’t working.

That said, you will also be taking notes and using those index cards. So if you do need lots of time between reading sessions, don’t fret. If you take good notes, then it won’t be a problem!

Reading the Book

For me, this is always the hardest part. I find it impossible not to make edits as I read—and that’s fine. Sure, it might all get cut or rewritten, but some of us just can’t leave a typo or awkward sentence. 😉

Do what you have to do!

Now, as you read, I want you to take notes. The worksheets below are here to help you take those notes and sort out what you have in your book as it currently stands.

Be honest!

Be brutal!

It’s better to make note of every little problem, even if you ultimately decide it’s not a problem. Later You will be glad you were thorough! Trust me!

The Worksheets

These are old worksheets, so please forgive the quality. I first made them in 2011! I do plan to update them (with all that time I have, you know?), but for now, they will do. They still serve their purpose, even if they’re not the prettiest.

  1. Plot Problems Worksheet
  2. Character Problems Worksheet
  3. Setting Problems Worksheet
  4. Other Problems Worksheet

For each worksheet, I use a different color pen. This just makes it easier when I’m later assessing my overall issues. So, I use blue pens for plot issues, purple pens for character, green for world, and orange for everything else.

You can choose what makes the most sense to you, or hey, don’t color code at all. 😉

How to Use the Worksheets

First: Start reading your printed manuscript. Then, as you read and notice problems, simply mark the margin of your manuscript with a number. Then go to the corresponding worksheet and explain the issue you have found.

So for example: Let’s say you find a gaping plot hole on page 13 of your first chapter. It’s the third plot problem you’ve spotted so far. On page 13 of your manuscript, you’ll use a blue pen (for plot) to write P –  3 in the margin.

Then on your Plot Worksheet, you’ll write the page number in the left column (p.13 in this instance). And in the right column, you’ll write the problem # (P-3, in this instance).

Lastly, you’ll describe the problem you found in your plot.

But how do I know what’s broken, Sooz?

I fear this question is way, way beyond the scope of this course. However, I do go into significant detail in my How I Write a Novel Course on the various parts of a story, as well as in my many blog posts and newsletters from the past 14+ years. And of course, I continue to put out content in my Substack on plot, character, setting, and beyond.

If you really want a deep dive on revising, I highly recommend Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course. It’s quite expensive, but it taught me more than any other course on craft when I was a beginner. In fact, I used it for my novel Something Strange & Deadly, and I transformed that book from a total mess into a book that got me an agent and my first book deal!

 Some example issues that you might see are: 

  • A character acting out of character or making choices for the sake of the plot.
  • A character whose goal doesn’t feel real or desperate enough to propel their choices.
  • A plot twist that isn’t foreshadowed enough—or is signaled too strongly!
  • Too much telling, not enough showing and deep POV.
  • Confusing action or pacing that is too slow/quick.
  • And beyond! (So…so much beyond!)

Here’s a visual example to show you what I mean with the worksheets and manuscript:

Creating Your “Outline”

The next thing you’re going to do as you read through your book is create an “outline.” I put “outline” in quotes because most people think of an outline as something you create before you write the book.

And fine. Sure. That’s a thing many writers do.

But here, we’re creating a scene-by-scene outline of the book we have written—again, as it currently stands.

To do this, you’re going to take out your index cards. Each scene gets a card, and on the card, you will write out:

  • The page numbers for the scene
  • The scene’s # in the book (so the first scene is #1, the tenth is #10, etc.)
  • A one-line descriptor for the scene
  • A more detailed explanation, including the characters that appear

That’s it. That’s all you need, and the level of detail beyond this is up to you. I like to be as spare as possible because it’s faster and easier for me, but really: the level of detail is up to you.

If you know there might be big time gaps between your reading and revising sessions, a detailed description might be helpful! That way, if you forget what you’ve read, you’ve got a reminder on the each index card.

Here’s an example:

An example of the index card for a scene in this revisions process. On the top line it reads "14: Starker arrives at the outpost, p. 89-100" Below that, it reads: "Echo's POV: she is barely surviving when an unknown character arrives"

When you finish reading, you’ll have a nice stack of index cards that summarize your book all right there! It’s easy, convenient, and it will help you stay organized as we tackle making actual changes in future lessons.

Edit as you go…or don’t

If this is your first time ever revising a novel, I urge you to try to restrain yourself from making changes as you read.

I get it: it’s hard. I always say I won’t make changes when I sit down to read my books (and yes, this is still the first step of my revisions process every time!), but then I always end up editing prose or fixing typos.

It’s fine. Sure, it’s sometimes wasted effort because I cut the whole scene or gut it completely. But sometimes it’s less stressful for us to just scratch through a typo or add in a comma than it is to ignore it.

But really: if it’s your first time revising a novel, I do urge you not to make any bigger changes on the page. Not yet! I promise we will get to that, but for now we’re really just taking stock of what we have.

Don’t forget your Perfect Book

One last thing: don’t forget that list of criteria you made that define your perfect book!

I even keep that list somewhere I can see as I’m writing. It helps me remember what I’m shooting for and search for the spots where I’m not hitting the mark…

Sometimes, I’m way off from the mark. Sometimes, it’s more subtle. But as mentioned above, I write down everything I see that sits wrong with me. No matter how small, I make note. And sure, sometimes I don’t end up changing anything. But it’s still helpful to know every little area I’m uncertain about.

I realize that while this lesson isn’t that long…the task itself is quite immense. But that’s why we’re breaking it all down! Plot, character, setting, other. Bite-sized chunks so you can assess your book as it currently stands and we can start aiming for our Perfect Book in future lessons.