Daily Archives: August 17, 2011

Approaching a Big Revision by Johanna Harness

Not long ago, a Twitter friend said she needed to jump into a major revision and the enormity of the task made her feel defeated before she started.  She asked what I would do, so I’m sharing my recipe.

First, gather ingredients:

  • Notecards:  I like a mix of blank cards in different colors
  • Pens that provide the right sensory experience for jotting bold ideas. Ultra fine point retractable Sharpie markers do it for me.
  • A clothes line or a blank wall. I have an IKEA dignitet curtain wire strung along the top of my bookcases for this purpose. (See the picture at the top of the page?  That’s mine.)
  • Paper clips, binder clips, clothes pins—something to afix note cards to the line or wall. I find aesthetically-pleasing supplies make the process more enjoyable.
  • Some sticky notes in a variety of colors
  • A manuscript (no need to print)

Start with one note card per chapter.  I usually start with plain white.  Skim through your manuscript and observe key elements in each chapter.  Jot them down.  You are not judging or evaluating at this point.  Judging and evaluating take too much time.  Observe and jot.  That is all.  Get it done. String up your cards.

Look!  It’s your book.  How cool is that?

With a few notes jotted down from each chapter, you should be able to work from memory now.  One by one, take down each card and evaluate the chapter like it’s a short story.  I know, It’s not a stand-alone short story. It belongs in a series.  It may even have a cliff-hanger before the next story in the series, but each chapter should have a beginning, middle, and an end and it should have a purpose.

Pick up another note card.  It can be a nice bold color this time. As briefly as possible, write down the point of that chapter.  Why does that chapter exist?  If you’re not sure, don’t agonize too much. Put a big question mark on the card.  Paper clip that card on top of the first one and hang it back up.  Move to the next.  (If all or most of your cards have question marks, it’s okay, but you’ll need to do another run through before you move to the next step.)

Now take a look at your novel again, with all the main points.  Identify the chapters with the following information and hit them with sticky notes.

  • It becomes clear what your character wants
  • Your character hits a point of no-return (Impossible to say, “Oh forget it.”)
  • The critical turning point when all the action starts to move toward conclusion
  • The darkest point for your character
  • Resolution of the central problem in the story.

Now check out where these things happen in relation to the whole. If it doesn’t become clear what your character wants until 1/3 of the way through the book, you might be starting with back story.  The point of no-return should be fairly close to the beginning too.  Turning point?  Top of the story arc & middle of story. The darkest point is probably toward the end. If resolution happens too early, you might have forgotten to shut up when the story was over. (Oh yeah–did I mention?  One of the best parts of self-critique is that you don’t have to be polite with yourself. You can also laugh at your own jokes. It’s kind of awesome.)

So now you’re looking at the story arc. You know where the story begins, how it ends, and what the point of the whole thing is.

Now you go back to each note card and see if the chapters belong in this story.  Do they contribute to your overall story arc?  If not?  Take them down.  If they contain one or two tiny plot points, but they don’t really pull their weight?  Add sticky notes to surrounding chapters, reminding yourself to insert tiny plot point there–and then take the weak chapter down.

Remember:  you are not evaluating whether that chapter is fabulous.  It probably is!  After all, you wrote it.  How could it not be fabulous?  All you’re considering is whether that story fits in this particular book.  If it doesn’t fit, you can save it for a different book–or actually write it into a full short story.  It is fabulous, after all.  Just take it out of this book.

Next?  Use your notecards to revise the remaining chapters.  Now that you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can aim more accurately for that target.  Your working time will be much more efficient and your writing time will be more satisfying too.

Now go!  Get note cards!  It’s time to play.


Posted by on August 17, 2011 in Revising, writing


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