Revising Your Novel

(I swear this is not going to turn into another how-to book on writing. But I do have a couple technical points about revision that I want to say.)

Writers have a blind spot when it comes to revision. It’s difficult to learn, because it’s a different skill set from writing.

Writing is creation. It involves you sitting at your desk and pumping out the words. You’re telling a story, and that involves creation and imagination. Stephen King calls it “writing with the door closed,” and it’s such an effective metaphor that it’s been used ever since.

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Revision uses a different set of muscles. You’re approaching your work as a reader would be seeing it for the first time. That’s the first obstacle. Since you wrote it, you already know what is there, or what you think there.

Did you catch the missing “is” in the previous sentence? If you did, congratulations! If you didn’t, you just learned a lesson about how people read. They tend to read the first half of the sentence, then skip over the middle and absorb the end. The middle of the sentence is where mistakes hide. It can also be the place to hide facts, such as important clues in a mystery.

But before you begin the revision process, I want you to do something.

Spell-check that sucker.

I can anticipate your eye-roll from here, like a 14-year-old girl (“DA-AD! Of course I know how to use spell-check.”) I’m not talking to you, unless you aren’t doing it; in which case I hope you can envision me face-palming myself.

Yes, spell-check is not perfect; neither is grammar-check, although I think you should use that, too. But it’s your first line of defense against 1-star Amazon reviews. Not using it is also so common a mistake that even experienced copy editors like myself forget sometimes. I have to put it on my production to-do list. So if I can forget, so will you.

There are valid objections to using grammar check. Most of the time, you’ll ignore its suggestions. It can’t determine whether you’re using a word correctly or not. It hates fragmented sentences.

revising your novelTough; use it anyway. Because what grammar-check does is educate you as to why you’re making choices. Do you really need that fragmented sentence? Should it be was or were there? If you don’t know, educate yourself. Pull Fowler’s off the shelf and look it up. Learn proper grammar, and next time you’ll know the right word to use.

So run the manuscript through the checkers, and if you think it’s a weakness to admit you use it, don’t tell anyone. I won’t tell on you.

Back to revision.

The first thing you need to do is give yourself enough time to forget the work. Put it away and pull it out later, maybe a month if you can afford it. This will give you the distance you need to see the story as it rests on the page and not in your head.

If you don’t have the time, there are other ways to distance yourself from the manuscript. Here are some of the methods I’ve used:

1. Alter its appearance by changing the font, text color, and text size. If you didn’t write it in Courier, change it to that, bump up the text size, double-space the manuscript and print it out. Courier looks similar to what would come out of a typewriter. It is also unique in that it is a monospace font. That means that each character occupies the same width on the page. Most fonts adjust the size of the letters so that thin characters—i, t, 1, and ‘—take up less room than wider characters such as W, O, and Q.

2. Convert the story into an ebook. While I wouldn’t recommend creating ebooks to sell—we’ll get the whys of that later—it’s perfect for revising your work. Seeing your manuscript turned into something approaching the finished product gives you a fresh way of evaluating your work.

Years ago, I changed the first chapter of my book into the same font and page size seen in paperbacks. I even cut out and stapled the pages so it looked like a minibook. This made it look as if I had pulled it off the shelf at Books-A-Million and was flipping through the pages. Did this read like something I’d want to drop six bucks for? Turned out the answer was “oh HELL no!,” which is why you can’t buy it today.

It’s a lot easier today to make an ebook. Programs such as Calibre, Jutoh, and KindleGen let you quickly format an ebook that can be read on your e-reader, smartphone, or computer. You don’t even need a finished manuscript or a cover; just the text will do. The line spacing might look odd, and it won’t have cool stuff such as artwork or drop caps. But it will look and feel different. Plus, you can highlight text and attach notes you can refer to during the rewrite process.

3. Read the book out loud. Harrison Ford was famous for telling George Lucas, “You can type this shit but you can’t say it.” A sentence may sound perfect on the page, but if a reader laughs when you want them to cry, it doesn’t work.

Hearing your words will let you take a fresh look at your prose. Your ears will tell you if you’re pacing the dialog so it works, and if your characters suddenly turn mush-mouthed and awkward.

4. Beta readers. Call this crowdsource editing. Some authors form a team of volunteers to read a book before publishing it. Their job is simply to tell the author what they think. Spelling errors, grammatical problems, plot weaknesses, what they hate and what they love. Simple.

The best use of this I’ve heard of came from Michael Anderle’s interview on The Author Biz podcast. The procedure, which was created by Stephen Russell, consists of sending the book out in groups of three or so chapters at a time, collating the results, and running them by the author, who makes the final decisions. Anderle doesn’t have to use every suggestion, but he knows that if he gets the same note from several of his beta readers, it would be worth thinking about it. (If you want to check out his books to see if beta editing helps, check out his books on Amazon.)

revision for writers5. Editors-for-hire. If you sell your book to a publishing company, you place your work in their hands. They assign the book to an editor, picked from the pool of people they’ve hired. You don’t have a say in it, and you hope that they’re qualified and interested in revising your work. Assuming you want them to revise your baby.

In the world of indie publishing, the power and authority is in your hands. You have an Internet full of editors to choose from. Many of them used to work for the big publishing houses. They’ll do the same amount of work, but if you don’t like a change they’ve made, you can change it back.

Heck, you don’t even have to hire an editor if you don’t want to, but you need to have someone read your work. No matter how good a writer you think you are, you will missing things. There will be gaps in your knowledge. I’ve seen this in my own work; no matter how many times I’ve edited my work, no matter how many times I’ve had other people look at it, I still find mistakes after it’s gone out into the world.

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So if you decide to hire an editor, what should you look for?

1. Genre Fit and Expertise: How well do they know your genre? Are they a longtime reader, or did they start picking up books in that area recently?

2. Experience: How long have they been editing? Have they worked for the big publishing companies? Small presses? Indies?

3. General Education: High school? College? What degrees?

4. References: Who else have they worked with? Will they give you references? If so, email them and ask. If they don’t feel comfortable putting words on paper, ask if you can call them. What was the turnaround time like? Did they obsess over certain grammatical changes that you might not like, such as hanging prepositions, Oxford commas, or fragmentary sentences.

5. Turnaround time: How long does it take for them to edit a manuscript? How far ahead of time do you need to reserve a spot on their list (some editors have enough work for several months; you might have to wait).

6. Price: Welcome to the part of capitalism that can really make you nervous. How much do you value their work? How much do they value their time? If they’re new to editing, their rates should be lower, but the quality of work might as well.

7. Do They Edit Samples: Some editors are willing to work on a page for free or a reduced price. This lets you see how they operate and whether they’d be a good fit. Most editors have a lot of work coming in and can pick and choose.