Memorize Your Story Before You Revise | Advice on Editing a Novel

This post is a revised version of my previous post. I thought it fitting to explore the topic of revising a novel by actually revising something I’ve published on this blog.

This post also explores the practice of memorizing your story for the purpose of revision. Like all writing advice, it’s ultimately subjective and by no means a necessary tactic. This practice might not be useful, or accessible, to many writers for a variety of reasons, but I hope you can find a bit of inspiration in these words that will help you successfully revise and edit your book.

When we complete a first draft of a novel, we often jump right back in and start editing—driven initially, perhaps, by the desire to add or change things we know for certain need to be added or changed.

But then we start tinkering. Maybe here and there, or maybe we start at the beginning. We put our magnifying glass on the words and the sentences and the paragraphs. And in doing so, we run the risk of creating more problems than we solve.

When we revise too early, it’s easy to 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.

Revisions you can make immediately.

Before I get into this, I should point out that there are plenty of things you can do to improve your story right off the bat if you can’t resist the urge. I generally agree with the common advice to step away from your manuscript for a while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes, but the basics can be tackled as soon as you type THE END without the risk of showing up too early. For example, you could:

  • Read through to improve hiccups in the general sentence-by-sentence flow.
  • Identify places where you’re bringing the reader to a setting or location for the first time and make sure you’ve properly set the stage.
  • Identify blatant inconsistencies.
  • Make notes where you know you need to revise.
  • Highlight obvious info dumps.
  • Identify scenes or chapter openings that are repetitious.
  • Proofread (if you want to torment yourself)

Basic, no-brainer changes like these aside, I believe you should resist the urge to tinker with your manuscript. You should walk away for a bit. Bask in the glory of having finished the first draft. Make your antsy fingers type away at a different project for a while.

Revising too early can create more problems.

When you go into a blank first page, you’re exploring this new reality as you create it, and so is your protagonist. (Even if you’re a plotter, bridging the gaps in your outline is still discovery writing—and so is outlining itself.)

However, when you jump back into the story to revise—especially at random—you run the risk of being in author mode and not in protagonist mode.

Example: You come to a scene that’s sparse in its description, so you add some beautiful, Pulitzer-worthy imagery. But you forgot the protagonist has been to this location three times already, and they’re not in the state of mind to be waxing poetic at the sky because they know the killer might be right around the corner. Not enough description actually worked better than too much description in this instance, and maybe the scene only lacked one or two specific details to remind the reader of the atmosphere you established earlier, or details that mark a change in atmosphere, or details that arise simply from where the character would logically focus their attention in this situation.

So now the reader will come to this scene and your beautiful descriptions will bog down the pace. You’ll get accused of purple prose when you wouldn’t have if those descriptions had gone in the right scene.

But there’s a solution to this problem, and it’s simple:

If you know your story inside and out, you can jump to any given page and know what came before, what comes after, how this scene connects to all others, and what the scene needs.

Before you revise your novel, ask yourself how well you know the story by heart—and if there’s a more complex, more riveting iteration you haven’t imagined yet.

Where should your story go from here?

A great story is immersive. It’s complex. It’s subtle. It reads as if the author knew what they were doing from the moment they typed the first line.

*screams internally*

Because by the time the work is truly complete, the author does know what they’re doing all the way through. A great story is often one that readers return to for a second experience, or sometimes over and over. There’s hardly anything more satisfying as a reader than to notice new, subtle details you missed the first time around. Foreshadowing. A metaphor. A poignant detail. A cool moment you didn’t realize was so cool because you have to know that other cool thing that happens later in order for its coolness to be fully appreciated.

It’s so cool when that happens.

If you want your story to be that complex, detailed, sophisticated, entertaining, badass—however you conceptualize your goals—you have to take your time with it. You have to weave in those layers without turning the book into a jumbled mess. 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.

Instead, develop the ability to fall head-first into your fictional world on demand. By memorizing it.

Memorize your story.

No, I don’t mean word for word. I mean memorize your story well enough that you could sit with a friend or go on a podcast and ramble through the entire plot start to finish, with plenty of frantic derailments into backstory and the occasional stand-out quote.

Of course, not everyone has the same capacity for memory retention. Some writers might only be able to memorize the broad strokes of their plot, while others will be able to rattle off long sequences of dialogue verbatim.

Again, you don’t have to memorize every detail. Just enough to have an instant recall of the story’s major steps, which will allow you to see how one little change will impact everything that follows. Or how two elements of the story can be combined with a new third element to resolve a subplot, generate a twist, inspire an epiphany, or give the reader a fist-pump moment.

How to memorize your story.

Once you’ve finished your first draft and taken a solid break, the first thing I recommend is to sit down and try writing out a plot synopsis from memory. This will show you two things: how much of your story you know, and which parts might be forgettable.

The parts you remember probably mean something to you, or you’re confident that they’re important, or they contain something you believe will be exciting to readers.

The parts you don’t remember, I recommend identifying by skimming through your manuscript with your outline-from-memory for comparison. Print out the outline double-spaced so you can jot down the plot points you missed, scribbling them in where they go in the outline. These might be parts that don’t drive the plot forward, or parts that are boring, or parts that play on a trope but don’t bring anything fresh to the table.

Which means they might need to go. Or they might need sprucing up. Or they might be missing something crucial.

But at least you’ve identified some potential weak points.

Another option is to try telling the story to a friend start to finish. If there’s something wrong with the story, you’ll know it immediately, because you’ll either skip over a detail for fear of embarrassment or realize something doesn’t work as you’re saying it.

So now that you’ve memorized your story and identified some problem areas along the way, what next?

Daydream about your story.

It’s hard to know what’s missing in your book, or what shouldn’t be there, but a great way to explore the possibilities is to daydream about it.

Try sitting in the quiet, or with some music, and playing out your story in your head.

Imagine it like it’s a movie.

Imagine what the movie trailer would look like. Which scenes stand out enough to make the cut? What is it about those scenes that make them worthy of being highlighted? Can you find ways to make less exciting or meaningful scenes more exciting or meaningful?

Daydreaming can not only help you reinforce your memory of your story but also help you take your story in new directions. If you meditate long enough, you can enter a lucid, semi-conscious state, at which point your characters will go off script. They’ll do things you didn’t expect. They’ll show you how to merge a subplot with the primary plot. They’ll show you missing pieces in your story arc. They’ll lead you to new and better—and more complete—ideas.

And sometimes those new ideas connect dots you didn’t even know could connect.

But it helps to know all the dots first.

With love,

Tory

I am a freelance editor with a focus on manuscript critiques, developmental editing, and prepping query letters, synopses, and sample pages for submission to literary agents. You can find my full list of highly affordable editing services here.

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