When we complete a first draft of a novel, we often jump right into revisions, perhaps initially driven by the desire to add or change things we know for certain need to be added or changed.
But then we start tinkering. Maybe just here and there at first. Then maybe starting at the beginning. We’re in a hurry to put our magnifying glass on the words and the sentences and the paragraphs. And in doing so, we often smother our novels with a pillow and kill them.
The reason is because we forget two things: one, we’re now thinking like an author and not like our protagonist; and two, we don’t know the full story yet.
This Heading Highlights the Danger of Thinking Like an Author
When you go into a blank first page, you’re exploring the reality you’re creating as you create it, and so is your protagonist.
When you jump back to that beginning to revise, it’s easy to come into it with a knowledge of the future that your protagonist lacks, or a wider view of the landscape than they have, or awareness of the fact that the killer is behind the door.
Here’s an example:
As an author, you come to a scene, at random or perhaps in sequence, that you find to be sparse in its description, so you add some beautiful, Pulitzer-worthy imagery, because who doesn’t love beautiful, Pulitzer-worthy imagery?
But the protagonist has been to that location a thousand times before and isn’t in the state of mind to be waxing poetic at the sky. As it turns out, too little description actually worked better than too much description in this instance, and maybe the scene only needed one or two specific details, ones directly related to where the character would logically focus their attention given the context of the moment.
As an author, you come to a dialogue between two characters: your protagonist and the killer. Your protagonist knows the killer is the killer, and now that you–someone who knew the killer was the killer for months–have returned to the scene, you think up a bunch of cool one-liners that’ll really let the reader know that the protagonist knows the killer is the killer, and that the killer doesn’t know it.
But now you’re making your protagonist too clever. He only figured it out a chapter ago. How is this quiet, gruff, morose guy so witty all of a sudden? Besides, maybe it would be more compelling if the reader actually gets to see the protagonist realize the killer is the killer. Wouldn’t that be killer?
If we’re not careful, we can revise our novels to the point that we’ve effectively and arbitrarily flattened out the tone, pace, mystery, and tension–all the things in a book that need to be in constant flux, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, evolving and devolving.
It’s easy to take out all the “show” and replace it with well-worded “tell.” It’s easy to forget to live in the head of your protagonist.
Which is why you need to commit your story to memory.
This Heading Reinforces the Importance of Memorizing Your Story
I have a question for you. Let’s say you’re hanging out with a friend and they ask what your book is about. We’ll even allow that they’re genuinely interested and willing to sit and listen.
Can you, from memory, tell your friend the story from start to finish?
If not, don’t touch it, I beg you. Leave it as it is. Walk away from the manuscript for a while.
When you’ve recovered from your desire to revise and trust yourself not to implement a single edit outside of a glaringly obvious typo, you should sit down and read your book.
Then read it again.
And again if necessary.
Memorize your story so when you’re reading it for the purposes of revision, you have an instant recall of all the ways the current scene or chapter connects and relates to all other scenes and chapters. Don’t go into revising your novel when you’re disengaged from the plot, disembodied from the characters, and not fully immersed in the fantasy of the thing.
You’re just making more work for yourself later.
Go write something new instead, and come back to it when you’re in the mood again.
3 thoughts on “How You Can Kill Your Novel With Revision | Writing Advice Nobody Asked For Vol. 327”
Very good points, and something I’d never really thought about too much given the usual talk about writing is edit, edit, edit.
I don’t think there’s enough advice out there on how to approach a revision, and I am always looking for ways to improve my revising through techniques like this. Thank you for the very helpful advice.
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Thanks Cate! I hope it’s helpful!