Random Thoughts on Revising a Novel

I just received editorial comments and a marked-up manuscript of the current novel from the editor. It’s such a joy to work with a professional who “gets it” and offers intelligent, insightful feedback. Editorial comments are quite different from critiques, by the way. At least, in my experience. While both can be valuable, the critiquer is essentially outside the story, jabbing at its shortcomings, whereas a good editor gets inside the story with the author, rolls up her sleeves, and says, “Let’s work together to make this book its best self.” And I have a great editor.
Next comes the process of working with the notes to formulate a revision plan. Yes, there is such a thing! Every author approaches revision a bit differently, and in my experience every book requires me to approach it from a slightly different angle. Sometimes the only way to grapple with a structural flaw is to take the whole thing apart, rewrite entire sections, and then put them back together in a different order. Think of it like a Christmas tree, where you’re going to keep only half the ornaments but must replace the others as well as the tree itself . That pine tree just won’t do—we need a noble fir! For other books, the basic structure or armature is sound but all the ornaments and branches are out of balance. There may be problems in pacing, for example, or characters that need to be more fully developed.
The first step is to read through the notes not once but several times, deciding firstly what comments are spot-on, which ones miss the mark—revealing how I failed to convince even a careful reader—which ones I have questions about, and so forth. From there, I make a problem list. By this time, it’s usually clear how much rewriting (as opposed to tidying up, minor shifting around, tightening, emphasizing, weaving in themes, etc.) I’ll have to do. Since it isn’t a good use to time to just dive in, willy-nilly, I also create a priority list or diagram, sometimes a flow chart. Novels can be like spiderwebs, where a tug on one thread affects the whole. Rather than have to go through multiple rounds of revision, I develop a sense of the order of changes. That said, I usually do a round of revisions and then a “jeweler’s polish” read-through to spot typos and inconsistencies introduced by the changes.
I love to revise and often fine myself immersed in it for long periods of time. This is a good thing because it involves keeping the entire story in mind—all 100,000-150,000 words (which is my typical novel length) of it.

One thought on “Random Thoughts on Revising a Novel

  1. There’s nothing better than a good editor who understands what you want the book to do and provides guidance on doing it better. I have been blessed with such an editor as well, one who took a great deal of time with me on my first novel in particular.

    With both my novels, the editor pointed out something that made me delve deeper into what I was trying to do with the book. They are both better books because of it.

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