Writing My Novel: Revision is a Go

My wife is a freelance editor and literary scholar, so I asked her to be my novel’s first reader. I figure that her comments might not be quite as marred by the “friends and family” bias as others because she of her experience working side jobs as a freelance editor. Hopefully, that experience would allow her to read it with above-average objectivity.

If it doesn’t, then I’m afraid to see what my manuscript would look like otherwise. She recently finished the book and ripped me to shreds.

 

Not just on line edits, either. Whole sections, events, characters, and chapters are marked for major structural revision.

That I now have to actually do.

Which gets me to the point:

 

Starting to Revise is Harder than Starting to Write

I made a ton of notes for revision based on various issues I saw when I was working or things I’ve thought of since finishing. I have dozens of bullets and paragraphs just waiting to be addressed. Add to those the 300+ pages of line edits and marginalia from Jenn and my other readers, and I’m scared.

Sitting down and staring at a blank page is one thing. It’s daunting and intimidating, but once the words start flowing, the fear subsides and the narrative takes over.

With revision, though, the complete opposite happens. You sit down, and instead of a blank page that gets filled up, you have 86,000 words that you have to read, sort, edit, revise, rearrange, and generally manipulate. It’s not like creation. This is the nuts and bolts of it all, the moment when writing becomes actual work.

The first 10-12k words of the novel are what need the most attention–at least immediately–so I decided to jump in and start there. I always knew they would have to be reworked. I wrote the first part roughly two years before I settled down and made myself finish it. It was a foundation.

Between writing that foundation and finishing the novel, I learned a few things about writing fiction, and two of the most important are the importance of chapter length and just what “show, don’t tell” means.

My process is simple: I read the chapter of my manuscript on which Jennifer made her comments, see if her comments are structural, thematic, or line edits, then I check my notes to see if any of them are directly related to this section, and then I dig in, while keeping chapter length and “showing, not telling” in mind.

By focusing on these two issues at first, I’ve been able to get myself used to revising such a long document.

 

On Chapter Length

I don’t like long chapters. I don’t like writing long chapters, and I don’t like reading long chapters. Longer chapters don’t keep me reading more; they make me feel as though I am not making any progress in the book. So when writing, I wanted to make sure that I kept the chapters short and easy to get through.

The problem is that 500 words is not a chapter. I didn’t really understand this a few years ago. So my first job in revising was to merge the short chapters together and separate them into scenes where the old chapters broke (using thehandy dandy, time-skipping mark: ###).

I tend to like chapters between 2,000 and 4,000 words each, so my first six to eight chapters now exist as Chapters 1 and 2.

Unfortunately, even something that sound as simple as a few line edits really isn’t. I love Microsoft Word, but it doesn’t handle long documents very well. So I downloaded Scrivener. I love it. LOVE IT. I spent some time separating each chapter and section of notes into separate documents (Scrivener can later compile them into one), and now I can just view and manipulate any single part of my novel I want in isolation. The freedom is remarkable.

 

Show, Don’t Tell

For the life of me, I had no idea what this meant until recently. I would read columns about it, and I would think, “I do this already.” When people read my fiction, they follow the characters around and see what they’re doing. I’m showing them my story.

Nuh uh.

That might be true part of the time, but when I went back and read the beginning of my manuscript, most of it was narration explaining how things worked. It was quite literally storytelling.

For example, I have two characters in a previously forbidden hallway. The new area is remarkably different from what they’re used to. Instead of rustic decor with lots of wood, low light, and warm earth-tones that make them feel comfortable, the new area is exactly the opposite. It’s stark and sterile, and has strange statues lining halls, which are made the sandstone walls and steel floors. It’s a whole new world.

The problem with the scene is that I wrote about it in the novel almost like I did here. I was conveying the basic idea, but neither the characters nor the reader experienced it.

So in revision, I deleted the vast majority of narrative paragraphs and now the duo walk through the hall and discuss their reactions to the area as they happen. I have them talking about the unknown statues and what they could be. I have one character touch the wall and comment about it being cold and ugly instead of just having a narrator mention that’s what happens.

That’s what it means to show and not tell. Just within the first two chapters, I’ve revised a lot of telling into showing.

“Jimmy didn’t sleep well” is telling. “Jimmy rubbed his neck. He scribbled ‘new pillow’ on his shopping list as he gulped black coffee” is showing. And it’s hard to do when every base instinct of me as a storyteller is to explain in minute detail what is happening.

But I’m getting the hang of it.

Just another 80,000+ words to go.


Comments

  1. YES on the Scrivener comment!

    I resisted for so long, and the tiny act of being able to break my giant documents into smaller, more manageable chunks was akin to waking up in technicolor Oz.

    I am absolutely tickled by your chapter length stuff, too. I write in different-sized chunks.

    I can force myself to 250 if I want to be cryptic and leave the reader wondering.

    I can write 500 and at least feel like I got a complete idea across.

    1000 nets me a mini-scene, with a more complete feel.

    But 3,000 is my “chapter” – I still have the 500 and 1,000 word building blocks within it, but I fully cover a writing goal in 3,000.

    I have a choose-your-own-adventure webserial and I began writing at 500, then settled in at about 1,000 for a little over a year before the readers finally clamored enough that I offered them the vote – 1,000 word installments or “keep going till I’m done” (with a warning that that’d be closer to 3k).

    Unanimous voting for the longer chapter ensued.

    I’ve not heard many authors give numbers on chapter length (and reasons behind them) so I’m tickled to hear that your assessment falls right about where mine does (and those of my readers).

  2. I think of a chapter as a short story. I want it to encapsulate, at the very least, the movement of a character or a significant turn of plot. Sometimes a short chapter will suffice, and sometimes a longer one is required.

    However, as a reader I understand the struggle with longer chapters. One way to make them more manageable is by breaking them up into shorter sections. I’m a big fan of sections. I like having plenty of space to “breathe,” to set something down and digest it for a bit, or to pull in some fresh fuel for the flames of an all-night read.

    On the other end of the spectrum, look at The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville — some chapters are a half-page long!

    You’re lucky, Beej, to have a literate and accomplished editor for a first reader. She’s getting right to the stuff that really matters: character, events, structure. Another thing to ask about: the narratorial voice. Who is narrating the events? What meaning does that choice of point-of-view convey to the overall text? Is that “voice” consistent?

    Here’s the difference between the first manuscript and the second. The first requires talent. The second requires skill. You can learn how to go from the first to the second, but getting the first done comes only from within. Congratulations on that! Both of them are work, but it’s *different* sorts of work.

  3. With long chapters, I like little breaks in between. Helps when I have to stop.

    It’s ok to tell sometimes. There are moments when the narrator just has to tell the reader something to get it over and done with. Some detail that helps move the story along, but not so significant that the reader has to share in the experience that the power of “showing” can do.

  4. Yes yes YES to Scrivener. I could not have written my book without it. Absolutely LOVE Scrivener. Every author should know about it!!

    Your comment that “500 words is not a chapter.” Who says? Rules are there for a reason, sure, but the thing is, once you know the rules, THEN you can improvise. If there’s a good reason for a short chapter, then have a short chapter. You could have a one-word chapter if that served the book. A good book isn’t a cookie-cutter book. A good book makes its own rules.

    The thing I noticed needed the most attention in my own book, and in so many other books I’ve read for fellow aspiring authors, is the need to “tighten up” the book. I didn’t know what that meant, really, until my second round of edits. I was re-reading, having been away from the book for a while, and there were parts that just bored me. Reading was slogging through mud. If I wasn’t interested, how could my reader be? And don’t do what I did: I got to the end of the book and it still needed more tightening, but I saw the word count going down down down and I got nervous. I didn’t tighten as much as I needed to. I JUST heard a comment from a friend that that particular section was a bit slow for her. I knew it was and I didn’t fix it. Lesson learned: Don’t get lazy, it’ll show!!

    Good luck, it’s worth all the work!!!

  5. Ness

    I don’t really think it matters how long a chapter is. Take James Patterson for example. He has produced countless best selling novels and many of them have chapters that are only a few pages in length. I recently bought his Witch and Wizard, The Gift novel and I must say it is quite good. But most of the chapters are only three pages in length, bare in mind the book does have one hundred chapters but that’s beyond the point. As long as the chapter is able to convey what you need it to to the reader, I believe length is not an issue. I know for this reader, it’s not.