Revision Strategies (You’ll Thank Me Later)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In just two weeks, many of you will be engaged in word wars, fighting the NaNo battle to get that novel completed by the end of November.

It will not be pretty.

You will bark at your children (and I don’t mean “bark” in a figurative way. I mean that you will literally bark at your children—and any other person who gets in your way.) But many of you will, at month’s end, stumble across the finish line, clutching a manuscript to your chest.

And that, too, will not be pretty.

But cheer up! It’s only a rough draft. You can revise it into something beautiful! And thanks to the SCBWI conference I just attended, I learned a ton of revision strategies from agent Courtney Miller-Callahan. I don’t think she’ll mind if I share a couple of the strategies with you, as she (and every agent I know) would much rather see your revised NaNo manuscript over the rough draft. So hold on to these tips and pull them out at the end of November. Or better yet, wait till January.

Strategy #1:

Give yourself a month or so before reading a finished rough draft so that you will have fresh eyes on the manuscript. You’ll see the story much clearer, given a little time away from the novel immersion experience, whether it took you thirty days or three years. And after you have read through the entire manuscript (even the parts where you banged your head on the desk while mumbling, “The butler did it? Really, Cathy? Really?”), you can move on to the actual work of revising.

Strategy #2:

One technique I’ve used in my middle grade rewrites—and found especially helpful in plotting—is this next strategy: Create Dickensian chapter titles. If you’ve read David Copperfield, for example, you know that ‘ol Charles pretty much told you exactly what to expect in each chapter. (Chapter 5: I Am Sent Away From Home, Chapter 19: I Look About Me and Make a Discovery.)

I don’t leave my detailed chapter titles in the finished manuscript, although you can. In Catherynne M. Valente’s recent novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the first chapter is “Exeunt on a Leopard, In Which a Girl Named September is Spirited Off By Means of a Leopard, Learns the Rules of Fairyland, and Solves a Puzzle.”

And the author delivers on that chapter title. So when you start revising, think about each chapter as a story within the whole story. Do you have conflict, action, a story arc? I put my chapter titles on small note pages. Then I can arrange the plot to make sense, maybe chuck out whole scenes. On the back of the pages, I’ll add notes about revision, and sometimes, I’ll put the last sentence of the chapter. This trick helps me see whether the reader will need to turn the page to find out what happens next.

After the race to make 50,000 words, you deserve well-paced revision time. So good luck with your not-so-pretty first draft, but better luck with your sure-to-be-lovely rewrites!

~Cathy C. Hall


Renee Roberson said...

Cathy, I really love the idea behind strategy #2--I do that in outlines but it seems like it would work really well within the manuscript, too!

On a fun side note, I think I found something like this buried in an actual Elin Hilderbrand novel that probably didn't get removed in editing. In the middle of dialogue, the line said something like "scene where Adrienne defends her roommate's decision to share a hotel room with another man." I was like "huh?"

Joanne Roberts said...

Fantastic tips. Thanks, Cathy. Anything that gets my mind a bit more organized goes into my writer's toolbox. 'Can't wait to testdrive #2 on my current chapter book manuscript.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Yep, will try the chapter names with my WIP. I've been on chapter 1 for three weeks *sigh* so maybe this will help get things chugging. I'll let you know if this works for me.

Margo Dill said...

I am NaNoing, and when I bark at my children, husband, and dog, I will let you know. :) Thanks for the tips for December.

Jane Heitman Healy said...

Thanks for strategy #2. It can work, and it is so doable!

sally said...

I love strategy number two. Very cool idea.

Debra Mayhew said...

I actually AM going to try Nano for the first time this year, and after reading this, my chapter titles will be ala Dickens. That is a pretty simple, yet brilliant idea. Thanks for the just-in-time tips!!

Sioux Roslawski said...

NaNoing. I love that term. I hope Debra's chapter titles are not as bleak (pun intended) as Dickens'.

Thanks for the tips, Cathy. I haven't decided if I'm doing NaNo, since I would be starting with 20,000 words. However, I desperately need to work on it, so perhaps being a NaNoWriMo rebel would be enough of a kick in the butt to get some results.

Linda O'Connell said...

Ridley Pearson once spoke to our writer's guild and said after his editor (or was it agent) read his book, they wanted him to revise 75% of it. They wanted him to redo the only non-fiction part about underground Disneyland. Go figure. Thanks for the tips.

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