Sara Grant on Ruthless Revision

Revising a novel can be wonderfully rewarding. It can make your piece better, and leave you feeling accomplished and proud. But it can also be a nightmare–frustrating, difficult, and seemingly never ending. Here with some tips is author Sara Grant, whose debut novel Dark Partiesa chilling dystopian that imagines a United States that has removed itself from the rest of the world to live, isolated, under a dome–taught her a lot about revising. Read on for Sara’s tips and advice.

I’m a born-again revisionist. I used to hate revision. The best part of writing was that initial rush of telling the story to myself. Once I’d typed “the end,” I used to think the story was finished. How wrong I was! Until you have a first draft you can’t fully appreciate what your story is about and how the drama should unfold. The first draft is only the beginning.

Revision can be an arduous and unending process. Reading and re-reading your manuscript is not enough. How do you get beyond line-editing and really dive into your first draft and make a good story great?

You have to learn to look at your novel with fresh and ruthless eyes. But that’s easy to say and really difficult to do. You must first look at the big picture then consider your story by chapter, page, sentence, and word.

The first questions to ask are: Why are you writing this story? What’s important to you? You may need to change plot, characters, setting, etc . . . but know what’s at the heart of your story and remain true to it throughout the revision process.

There’s a great book titled Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison. It’s a workbook for once you’ve finished a first draft. It’s a wonderful tool for dissecting your story. Much of my revision process is based on what I learned from this book.

I’ve given day-long workshops on revision. Here are a few of my top tips.

The Big Picture

  • Don’t start line editing until you’ve sorted out your plot, subplots, characters, setting, point of view, etc. There’s no need to worry with one sentence if you may end up cutting the entire chapter.
  • Write down in one or two sentences what happens in each chapter and why it is important to the story. Look at this bare-bones story summary and ask yourself a few questions: What is at stake in your story? Do you see any duplication? Is there enough action? Review the spacing of plot points, subplots, character arcs/appearances.
  • Create a Word Cloud at You cut and paste your entire story into this free, online program, and it generates a cloud of words based on your story. It gives you a snapshot of what you’ve written. You can see which characters get the most air time. It can throw up themes in your story. Did you intend these themes to shine through? It also can point out words you may be overusing.
  • Be a slave to your story–not to the beautiful sections of writing, characters of whom you’ve grown fond, thrilling action sequences, etc. I create a new document that I title “parking lot.” When I cut a sentence or more from my story, I copy and paste it into this new document. I feel better knowing that it’s not lost forever.
  • Read the story character by character. Use “find and replace” to highlight each character name. Use a different color for each character. By only focusing on one character’s scenes you can make sure your characters are consistent in appearance, behavior, and dialogue. You can easily see the emotional journey of each character.

Nitty Gritty

Once you’ve sorted out all the big issues, now you can line edit. Put a red line between each sentence and study each one. Look at pace and flow. Polish each sentence and make it shine. What’s the purpose of each line, each word?

I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King. It considers common errors and shares a new approach to line-editing.

The End

The hardest part about revising is knowing when to stop. Perhaps it’s when you find yourself changing things only to change them back. I think you know in your gut when a story is finished–when you can’t think of any way to improve it. Now set your manuscript aside for a week or longer and go back to the story with fresh eyes. If you can’t find much to change–then maybe it’s time to share your story on Figment.

Visit Sarah online! 
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Twitter: @AuthorSaraGrant
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