How do you revise a whole novel?
Advice on revising an unwieldy mess, and what to do once you're done.
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In my last newsletter, I announced the launch of a writing-related advice column and WOW did I get some great questions! I’m excited to answer two of them today, and would love your feedback about including this as a semi-regular feature. Let’s jump in!
First: I really enjoy your newsletter. It's one of the few I always open, and I subscribe to way too many! (Editor’s note: Thank you!!!) I'm revising a full draft of a novel right now, and it sounds like you're about to do the same, and have done this before. I know how to revise short stories, but how do you approach revising something as big and unwieldy as a novel?
I’m no stranger to the revision process: I’ve written and revised three novels so far (all of them unpublished, but still!) and the second draft is by far the hardest.
I usually start by printing the whole thing out—every cliché metaphor, every dramatic adjective, every cringe-inducing line of dialogue. Does this sound painful? Good, because it gets worse. I then read the book, from messy beginning to even messier end, pen in hand to mark sections where I feel bored or engaged or particularly embarrassed or occasionally impressed. The fact that I’m reading a physical copy means I can’t pause to edit or delete; all I can do is keep reading. This is key.
Once I’ve read the whole thing (and died a little inside), I spend some time shuffling through the pages, compiling my notes, and thinking about the big picture. How was the pace? Should I move certain scenes around? Is every character carrying their weight? Do the subplots add or subtract to the momentum? Did I notice any themes or motifs, any recurring images? What can I pull forward, and what should I let go? At this stage it’s all about interrogating your choices, especially the ones that seem obvious!
Finally, when I feel ready to start my next draft, I open a fresh Word document, keep my printed pages beside me, and start typing the whole entire thing all over again. This is time-consuming, but literally rewriting your book forces you to think about every scene, every sentence, every word. You can’t just skim over the parts that are so-so. You have to either commit to them or ruthlessly delete them. Instead of a mental decision it’s a physical act, and for me that makes a huge difference.
I usually repeat this process two or three times, and each time I learn something new. Each time, the book gets better. I think the main thing when revising something as big and unwieldy as a novel is to think about it in pieces. Maybe focus one revision on plot, another on character, another on dialogue. These pieces all influence one another—crystallizing a character will often shift the plot—and you can certainly revise multiple aspects at the same time. But narrowing your focus makes it feel less overwhelming, more possible.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!
I have a completed novel, but no connections, no previously published work, etc. What are my next steps? Where do I start?
Congratulations on finishing your novel! Too often, we forget to celebrate the wins along the way because it feels like publication is the only prize that matters. So before we talk about next steps, a round of applause for your accomplishment!
As for next steps, I’m going to assume you’ve revised this novel multiple times, gotten feedback from one or two trusted people, and feel strongly that it’s the absolute best book you can write.
You now have two options: self publishing or traditional publishing. Personally, I’m pursuing traditional publishing, so I’ll assume you are, too. This means you’ll have to convince an agent to pitch your book to editors.
When I graduated from my MFA program, I had a finished novel and some connections, but no idea how to actually sell a book. (My MFA was great for many reasons, but demystifying publishing wasn’t one of them.) For my first novel, the one that landed me an agent but did not get me a book deal, I had to learn to write a query letter.
Luckily, I discovered the website Query Shark, which was incredibly helpful and instructive. I read dozens of posts, especially the critiques of real query letters and the explanations of how they could be improved. Agent Kate McKean also has a great publishing newsletter that you should absolutely subscribe to, and offers a helpful how-to-query series—here’s part one. Recently, I got a lot out of a workshop with writer Leigh Stein, who taught us how to think about the concept of our book in a way that will resonate with agents and publishers.
Writing a book is one thing, but selling a book is quite another. You have to shift your thinking from masterpiece to marketplace. What kind of readers will be drawn to your work? Which writers are your contemporaries (even if they don’t know it)? Where would your book be shelved in a library? How can you sum up your book in one intriguing sentence? All these exercises will help you stand out in the slush pile, and they may even help you think about your work in a different way.
Landing an agent is a huge accomplishment, but it doesn’t guarantee publication. (Proof: I’ve had an agent for six years, and still no book deal!) You, however, asked about your next step, and writing a compelling query letter is it. Start there, and see where it takes you.
Friday was my husband’s birthday! Unlike me, he doesn’t make a big deal about his birthday, preferring to celebrate the occasion quietly. Can you imagine??? I did my best to honor his wishes, and instead of throwing a big party or blasting his best qualities across social media, I gave him some thoughtful presents, bought his favorite beer, ordered a bunch of vegetarian sushi, and baked these walnut brownies. As it turns out, quiet celebrations can be pretty great, too.
Happy birthday, Nathan! I love you! ❤️
🏡 How to Want Less, The Atlantic
“It makes no sense in modern life to use our energies to have five cars, five bathrooms, or even five pairs of sneakers, but we just… want them.” Recently, for a variety of dumb reasons, I started to wonder whether my house (which I love!) is too small. This essay was a good reminder that the ability to be satisfied is incredibly powerful.
😫 Write it in Garamond*, New York Times
“There’s a stereotype associated with the sort of person who loves Garamond: The Garamond Guy, if you will, is irritatingly uptight, so certain of his own profundity that his words must be conveyed with the weight of a 500-year-old French typeface.” As someone who writes all her fiction in Garamond: ouch.
💸 Financial Advice for Artists Who Think They're 'Bad with Money,’ NPR
I’m actually pretty good with money these days, thanks entirely to YNAB, but this article had some good tips to think about when considering the monetary value of your art.
🚨 What Our Obsession with Inventing Anna Tells Us About the Age of the Personal Brand, The Week
“We are all simultaneously scam artists and sleuths, cropping our lives and careers online for public consumption while at the same time becoming increasingly skeptical that the stories our feeds tell us are anything more than fiction.” As someone writing a book about a pair of scammers, watching Inventing Anna is basically novel research. Have you seen it? What did you think?
*NYT gift link—no subscription needed, and clicking won’t count toward your free articles!
Thank you to Cassie L., Emily M., and Carmen R. for the coffees last week! The best advice I have is to find readers (and friends!) who support you. 💛
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Hi, thank you for this 🙏 Interesting and helpful q and a!
This comes at exactly the perfect time as I'm just starting to revise a longer manuscript. I love the idea of re-typing the whole thing, and will definitely do that. Thank you!