How to Make Extensive Revisions Suck Less

With every novel I've ever written, there comes at least one revision (usually after the first round of CP feedback but sometimes earlier) when I have to completely overhaul my manuscript. Usually gutting 40, 50, or even 80 percent of my novel to rework some major character or plot development.

With A STOLEN THRONE, I cut a major character, added a bunch more, and scrapped an entire subplot I expected to use in book 2 (guess not!). I redid basically everything from the 25% mark all the way to the end.

During the course of revisions for THE TRIAL, I had one major revision where I had to do adjust the entire voice for one of my POVs, add characters and depth, and strengthen the romantic plot. While there wasn't a lot of cutting involved (at least not to the extent with AST), I did have to create a whole lot of new content.

And with my latest project, BURNING SALEM? I had to completely redo everything after Chapter One.

*sigh*

Despite the massive amount of work, I do enjoy these huge revisions. They take the story from broken to readable, from loose lumber to a project that just needs some sanding and polyurethane before its ready for the query trenches.

Even so, the work involved in extensive revisions like this can suck. A lot.

So I'm here to make it a little easier.

Before I get into my tips for making extensive revisions suck less, I give you my usual disclaimer: every writer is different. What works for me may not work for you. If these tips sound like they'd do more harm than good to your creative process, ignore them.

All right, let's get down to it!

Making extensive revisions suck less

In extensive revisions, you have roughly three types of scenes: brand new scenes, scenes that need a complete overhaul, and scenes that have some sort of helpful structure or correct plot points. Of course, you'll also have scenes that you'll cut outright, but I'm not going to get into those since the best thing you can do then is simply hit the delete key. (Unless of course you have some great one-liners in there you want to mine and throw in aseparate document.)

Sometimes the hardest part of revisions is decided whether you've got a scene you need to completely overhaul vs one you can wrangle into submission by marking up those printed pages with pen. Hopefully, the below tactics for dealing with each scene will help you make those determinations, but at the end of the day you're the only one who can decide.

New Scenes

When I get to a portion of my revision where I'm adding a scene that didn't exist in the previous version, I like to take off my revision hat and put on my drafting helmet. Nothing slows me down more than trying to make a new scene shine on the first try. This is what I do:

  1. Review my index card with my scene description so I know the main point of the scene
  2. Hand write a series of bullet points to pin down the flow of the scene
  3. Write the scene without too much worry about making it "perfect"
  4. Print the completed scene out
  5. Wait a few days to a week
  6. Read through the scene and line edit to catch typos, tighten writing, fix any characterization issues, etc.

The "print, cool, edit" stage is so crucial to this process. It allows me to turn off my inner editor while I draft the new scene knowing that I'll get a second look at it next week. I actually do that series of steps for every scene that gets a major overhaul.

Complete Overhaul

With BURNING SALEM, a big part of the change (in addition to adding/cutting characters) was the world building. I went from basing the whole novel on real life Wicca to adding a fantasy element with three Witch Clans. This meant that while some of the plot points in a scene might be staying the same, the actual HOW of the scene had to change dramatically because of the new magic system I created.

At first, I tried to wrangle these changes into the document by hand (with my trusty red pen on the printed manuscript). While it was possible to do it this way, I found it SO MUCH FASTER to keep the printed scene on hand if I needed to course correct and basically rewrite the scene from scratch.

You might be thinking, "Wait! How is that any different from writing a brand new scene?"

I'm glad you asked.

The main difference is that I had more than a blank screen to stare at. I didn't have to bullet point the flow of the scene since I already had that. With the printed scene by my side, I could "steal" the best lines and bits of dialogue as I went instead of having to make up all new words. Overall, this type of writing was much quicker to do than a brand new scene.

I will note that I still did the whole "print, cool, edit" thing with these scenes as well.

Salvageable Scenes

Every now and then in a massive revision you'll find scenes that are actually fairly close to what you need them to be. Hurray! Congrats! Rejoice! It was especially nice during my BURNING SALEM revision to have a day or two where I had back-to-back "nearly there" scenes. In all my previous novels, I always did revisions by hand with paper and pen. But since 95% of this revision happened on the screen via re-writes, I took a modified approach.

I still marked up the printed scene in pen, but instead of focusing on all the little details, I made big picture notes such as "Add comment about X here" or "include a mention of the Clans here" and then when I went into Scrivener I actually made those changes. (Normally I would write the exact changes on the page.)

But even so, I still (you guessed it) did the "print, cool, edit" technique on these scenes as well.

For those of you worried about the trees, I promise I pretty much only use that technique on these massive overhauls. When I got my CP notes, the changes were small enough that I only ended up printing off a couple scenes to line edit instead of the whole thing.

Bringing It All Together

I do want to note a final crucial piece to this massive edit:

Read the whole thing when you're done.

I'm going to say it again, just to make sure it sinks in: READ THE WHOLE THING WHEN YOU'RE DONE!

I like to send the MS to my kindle and read it like a book. Doing so lets me catch those little inconsistencies that sneak in when you do a huge overhaul like this. I caught a couple mentions of subplots I actually cut so I was able to take them out before anyone saw them. While no one can catch 100% of their mistakes (that's part of what CPs, agents, and editors are for), it makes a huge difference.

And that's it! I hope this is a little bit helpful for some of you. If you have your own tips for those giant revision monsters, leave me a comment to let me know!

-Isabel