Revision methodology

On February 13, 2013, Requien wrote, I was wondering if you have any advice on self-editing. This past NaNoWriMo, I cheated a little and finished my previous manuscript. After deleting my midnight-German rants that ended up just being word count boosts, the novel is hovering around 92-94k words. There are several passages that need expansion, and some details must be added in. 

However, I’m not really sure where to start: do I add in the passages and lace it up, or edit the strange, awkward layers first? As an extended note, I have three different perspectives from the third person omniscient- would this be considered acceptable in a writing community, or strange?

First off, congratulations on finishing your NaNoWriMo novel, whichever year it belongs to! This is a big accomplishment. Kudos to you!

Let’s start with the last question. I don’t know of any monolithic writing community that rules on acceptability. Writers worth their salt know that each book is unique; each book demands its own treatment and requires of the writer whatever approach is best for the story.

I’ve said this before on the blog: the primary writing objective is clarity, unless we’re writing experimental fiction. I don’t mean instant clarity. We can blow smoke in the reader’s eyes now and then. We can write an ending that’s open to interpretation. But the reader should finish a book believing that it was coherent, that he understood what he read. (Careful attention to grammar and punctuation will help this along.) If three different perspectives are needed to tell the story clearly or interestingly, then that’s the right way to go.

I’m a little confused, though, about three third-person omniscient perspectives. Omniscient means all-knowing. When we write in third-person omniscient, we can dip into the thoughts of any character. The god of the story is narrating, and I’m not sure how there can be three of them. However, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, maybe… Sounds fascinating.

We can certainly have three non-omniscient third-person perspectives. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings trilogy adopts this approach throughout. By turns we see events unfold through the eyes of Samwise, Frodo, Pippin, Aragorn, even Gandalf, and I’m sure I’ve left out a few. I’m alternating third-person perspectives in Stolen Magic, and I’ve done so before in my Princess Tales.

Requien’s question comes at a good time. I’m more or less close to finishing the second complete first draft of Stolen Magic, and I’m thinking about how to approach revising. But before I talk about me, let me say that people revise differently, and you may find your own method as you go along. Some begin with a plot edit; then maybe a character edit; a dialogue edit; a setting edit; and, finally, a word choice, grammar, and punctuation edit. There’s no right way.

Usually I just start at the beginning and work my way through, fixing everything at once. And then I do it again. And again. But I’m going to go about the process a little differently this time. I have edits from my editor on the middle section, which I haven’t addressed, because I wanted to get to the end first. So I plan to start with her notes.

(If she had objected to anything structural, anything that would have called for a complete overhaul, I would have stopped my forward momentum, and addressed her issues.)

Then, I have notes and line edits from my critique buddy, the terrific middle-grade and young adult writer Karen Romano Young, biding their time in a pile in my office. My second step will be to review her big-picture notes and then address her line edits as I page through the manuscript, making my own changes and those of hers that seem to fit. (I don’t do everything that either my editor or Karen wants, although I take their comments very seriously; most of all, I need to please myself.)

So, Requien and anyone else who’s reached this point, it may be helpful to show your rough first draft to someone you trust, preferably another writer, who will know how ungainly a first draft can be. That person’s comments may help direct your revisions.

But even before that, I’d expand whatever needs expanding and add the required details, so that your reader gets the full story.

If you feel the manuscript is too much of a mess and allowing other eyes to see it will reduce you to a trembling, anxious jellyfish, I’d suggest listing the issues you see as major and keeping the list visible as you revise. For example, Requien’s list might start with “strange, awkward layers” and continue on to other major problem areas.

Then, when you get your manuscript into more acceptable shape, consider letting some trusted other take a look.

One thing I always always always do when I revise is delete. To me, good writing is succinct. As my book goes on a diet, it gets tighter, clearer, and more pleasurable to read. A great resource to help you toward concision is Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a short book that packs a potent punch. And when I say “delete” I don’t necessarily mean whole chapters, although sometimes I do cut that much, but more often I’m snipping within sentences, excising a word here, a word there, that doesn’t add anything to meaning or rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Take a page of a current story or an old one. Cut fifty words, more or less.

• Take a page of the same story or a different one. Find a spot that you can develop more or in a new direction. Turn your one page into three.

• Your main character acquires a magic revising wand – you decide how. Excited, she applies it to her story, and the result is a masterpiece. As she’s rereading it and marveling, her dad calls her to dinner. She brings the wand with her to show everyone. After she’s shown it, dinner progresses. Her brother says something annoying. Her mother reminds her she has homework due without even asking her if she’s already finished it, which she has. Her dad tells a truly dumb joke. Believing that the wand revises only the written word, and to express her irritation, she waves it at her family. Everything changes. Tell the story. You can take this beyond the family and explore the effects of the wand on the family dog, people at the supermarket, the supermarket itself, the local park – wherever you want her to wave it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Requien, finishing a previous year's project isn't cheating! It makes you a Rebel. There is even a category on the forum for people like us. Seriously, check it out! Plenty of Wrimos do it.

    I personally print everything and read through the manuscript, editing and making notes with pen and highlighter. If I want to rewrite something and I know what I want to say, I do it then (in pen — be sure your manuscript is double-spaced and printed on only one side of the pages, so that you have plenty of room). Then I go back and put all the changes into the electronic file, in order. That way I'm technically going through it all twice, and I often catch things the second time around that I didn't the first (or don't like the changes that I made after all).

    If I were you, I would do this. Don't think about it as fixing awkward layers or adding stuff first, but do it all at once. By reading through the novel, you will be fully immersed in the story — chronologically — and will be able to feel what's awkward, and to have a better sense of what needs to be added!

  2. Way to go, Requien! I haven't finished a NaNoWriMo Story yet, but I'm working on it.

    I like the prompts, 'specially the last one.

    Speaking of POV's, I have two MC's, and I tell one in the first person in one chapter, and then the other in third person in the next chapter. Is that okay, or do you think that would be confusing?

    Ha ha, I just had to go through and revise my comment.

  3. Great post as always Gail!!!!! You rock.

    I have a question for all bloggers. Please answer if you can.

    I have a mermaid princess in the story that I am working on, and I wanted her to have a magical curse, so her character can be a little more interesting. Does anyone have any ideas? By the way, she is half human, and has a brother who is half mer, half human.

    Also, I'm not sure of how she should look like. Should she have reddish-brown hair and green eyes, or blonde hair with streaks of blue or pink and blue eyes? What colour should her tail be? (preferebly the same colour as the streaks in her hair). Should her tail and hair colour change daily? Please share your thoughts on this.

    Thank You

    • I have a mermaid in one of my stories as well, her eyes constantly change color like the ocean, but other than that she is pretty humanish besides the fact her hair is a really dark almost black blue.

      What is it with mermaids and curses? If there is a mermaid story there seems to be almost always a curse. Not critiquing you, mine is cursed as well, just wondering. Anyway, how about a curse that makes her seem stupid or hateful to people she loves. Her family could understand this but prospective beaus could not! Another good one is that every night she transforms into a horrible monster and devours ships, the human bro could try to stop her without knowing its her…. that could be interesting.

      Personally, I prefer the blonde hair with blue streaks, they could also change color based on her mood like a mood ring! the tail should coordinate. having the color change based on time I think is too… random, maybe?

      When you say half human do you mean that she can change her form at will or what?

    • I"m still working on that, since I just started my story; but I think she should be able to change form into a human at dawn, sunset, or midnight. And maybe noon. I'm not sure how, though. Maybe a brief chant/spell or a magical stone?

      I like the idea of her changing into a monster at night,and sort of destroying the mer kingdom. Maybe not on her own will. Maybe she was blackmailed by a pirate or something that if she didn't, she would loose everyone she loved.

      Thanks sooooo much Bibliophile. I'm still open to more opinions and suggestions!

    • I, as well, have mermaids, in one of my stories-waiting-to-be-written. So, for the hair the streaked hair is good. I like the blue the best, but maybe put a few green streaks too. Same colors in the tail. With my mer-people, I debated and debated about that, but in the end, I left the streaky hair out. As for a curse, does she absolutely have to be curse? I mean, like Bibliophile said, it is kinda clichéd; although, who really cares? If she must be cursed, so be it. My ideas of cool mer-curses: She could fall in love with some man on land, but her curse is that she can't speak while on land, which, if she is the-little-mermaid, would make perfect sense. Also, she could be cursed to wander a certain beach singing, all night when the moon is full, you can work out why. Or she might be cursed to never speak in a man's presence, or to sing sailors to death, even though she hates hurting people. Curses are fun to work with and the types are literally limitless. Side note: Originally (In Scotland I believe this belief was started) mermaids had human legs hidden under their tales, so that if they wanted to walk land, they could just reove their tales (Don't ask me how they did this). That might help with your wanting her to have legs scenario. Maybe have her visits to land be prohibited, so that the reason she can't go at night is that she has to sneak off. It's just an idea. Hope this helps!

  4. Revision was overwhelming for me the first time I tried to do it. I felt like I kept tangling myself in worse and worse knots instead of making things better. For me, it's easiest to go from beginning to end fixing everything, like Ms. Levine said. I also think before doing that it's good to read the whole thing through and take notes with a pen and paper (no editing!) so you can really get a feel for it before you start.

    Critique partners/groups are also amazingly helpful! It's scary to let people read your work if you've never done it before, but I've gotten closer to publication in a year with my critique group than I ever could have on my own!

  5. Hello! I have been reading this blog for several years, and I love it! Everything and everyone is so helpful!

    I have a problem that I just can't seem to fix: I can't write dialogue. Period. I know how and where to put it into my story, but I just can't think of the words my characters would say! I think this is because I'm pretty quiet in real life, and I can never think of anything to say in normal conversations. (A big weakness of mine!)

    I was wondering if anyone has any advice. I've read the posts on dialogue, which are fantastic, but they don't quite seem to address my problem… Does anyone else have the problem of not being able to come up with dialogue? If so, what do you do to overcome it?

    I would welcome any thoughts from anyone! 🙂

    • I used to have that problem, or at least a similar one. I was actually kind of scared to put in dialogue, I think because I was afraid of it sounding unrealistic. I'm somewhat quiet too, particularly in groups of more than three people. I'm much more comfortable with dialogue now, but I still usually have to revise mine heavily, including, as Mrs. Levine said, a lot of deleting after I've blown everything down on paper.
      I'd suggest, first, just writing, blowing down anything you can think of without judging at all; you can evaluate later. Second, it might be helpful just to listen to other people speak, and take notes when you can. Since you're quiet, notice people who are talkative–what do they talk about? and why? And pay attention to yourself–do you have a pet subject that can get you to talk even though you normally don't, or a confidante with whom you are more comfortable talking? How do you speak during those times?
      Mrs. Levine has talked about speech mannerisms before (and as a result, I've started noticing when people have them. It's a lot of fun to see all the different ones there are!) I think those are helpful in figuring out how a person would talk. I have a character who often cuts off the subjects of his sentences and start them with the verbs. I try to use that to help me remember to make his speech in general terse and short (unlike this comment). 🙂
      Hope this was helpful in some way. Good luck!

    • Sometimes I do. I feel like my characters either aren't saying enough, or, when they are, their comments are just not realistic. Sometimes it helps me to imagine that I am my character, and try to figure out what I would say. Sorry if this didn't help much. 🙂

    • Can you try putting some of your narration into dialogue? For example, your MC is in danger of falling. Instead of writing, The terrain was uneven, and Sarah worried she might fall, you'd write, "It's all up and down. What if I fall! Aaa! I'm going to fall." Then she can fall or not fall.

    • Thanks for all the suggestions! I'm so excited to try out some of these ideas. I'm confident they'll help my dialogue a lot! I think turning narration into dialogue will be especially helpful, since I'm pretty descriptive in my writing. 🙂

    • Morwen Cider says:

      I once took a writing class where thy had us interview a classmate about themselves (their family, their hobbies, their hopes and fears etc.) and take notes on the way they spoke- frequently used words, sentence length, filler words etc. Then we wrote a scene where that person and another person you know both want something specific from each other. People who claimed not to be good at dialogue got good results.

  6. Thanks for the great post Mrs. Levine. I hope someday to actually be able to use it. Now I have a question. Some of you have heard (seen?) me mention my Twelve Dancing Princesses story. I'm having a name crisis. They were all supposed to be named after jewels. But having all the sisters named in patterns is clichéd. Also, I have this other version of TTDP, in which the girls are all named after trees (LOOOOOONG story) so having them be in pattern would be a little inconvenient. So, I need your opinions on the names. In the beginning, their names were:


    The space separates the girls born by one mother from the others. So, I decided to change their names. I was going to give them names that meant the jewels they were originally named after, but I couldn't find any I liked enough to name them all that way, so I sort of mixed the ones I did like with less-common gems. So here's the new list of the girls names (nick names in parentheses).
    Saphira (Saphy)
    Chalcedony (Calla or Calsie, haven't decided)
    Alexandrite (Lexan)
    Tourmaline (Lina)
    Aventurine (Ava)
    Celestine (Celeste)
    Maret/Rheta I haven't decided which to call her
    Tashmarine (Tash/Tasha)
    Almandine (Manda or Mandy?)
    Peridot (Peri or Dot, she hates it when her sisters call her Dot)
    Emerald or Esmeralda, haven't decided
    Amethyst or Ametrine, haven't decided.
    If you all could tell me what you think of the names and nick-names I would be very grateful. Also, maybe tell me which of the names on the undecideds you liked best. It would help a lot. Also, tell me if you really hate some of the names. Or if you like any of them or the nicknames. And maybe tell me if the nick-names soften up the worst names. Thanks in advance!

    • Elisa,
      I think those are great names. For Chalcedony, I like the nickname Calsie better.
      Also, I like the name Rheta better because it seems more nick-nameable.
      Since you were trying to make them sound like less-common names I would go with Esmeralda since it's slightly less gem-sounding. For the same reason I like Ametrine-a lot of people have heard of Amethyst but less have heard of Ametrine. And for Ametrine you could nick-name her Amy, or Trina.
      Of course this is just my personal opinion, but I hope it somewhat helps!

    • I think Alexandrite's nickname should be Lexa (seeing as it's a real name)…but if you prefer Lexan, that works fine too.
      I agree with Xmay — I prefer Calsie (for Chacledony's nickname), and I also like Rheta. I think I like Mandy best (for Almandine). Oh, and I think Ametrine is good too. I like Xmay's nickname idea for that one. And I love Tashmarine's name — both her full name and nickname!
      Great names, Elisa. Good job on that! Just a suggestion… I know I would have trouble keeping track of all 12 girls (especially since they all have nicknames), so perhaps you might consider putting a list at the beginning of your book. 🙂 Make sure it includes nicknames too.

    • I like Jade, Amber, Sapphire, Pearl, Opal, and Ruby.

      From your nicknames, I like Saphira. I once knew a girl named Saphriya. I also like Alexandrite and Celestine.
      Esmerelda, Rheta, and Ametrine are the names that I prefer than the other options.

      I hope I helped! Good luck with your story!

    • Your names are amazing, Elisa! I like Peri for Peridot, by the way, and I can see how being called Dot would be annoying…I love the name Saphira. (She's your main character, right?) Good luck on your book!

    • These names are so cool! I agree with the others in preferring Calsie, and I personally LOVE the nickname Lexan. I also like the idea for Peridot. I'm gonna be different and say I like Maret, but that's just me. Is that related to the name Margaret, meaning "pearl"?
      I think Michelle Dyck's idea about a list is good. Maybe a very brief description of each girl's personality would help as well.
      Good luck!

    • Just one thing, I think the reason that people name the sisters in patterns, is that it's normally hard to keep track 12 characters, even if those are the only characters in the whole book! Having twelve related people plus who-knows-what-else,makes this even harder. Naming the sisters in a pattern helps people think of the girls as a single entity

    • Thanks everyone!!! I'm also considering calling Celestine Kitty. It's not so much of a mouthful. So far, most of my family have voted for Rheta, though, I still kinda like the name Maret. It (to me) sounds more English, which is what I'm basing their home-country (loosely) on. So far, Esmeralda is going to be sister No. 11. I'm still wondering about Amethyst/Ametrine but I'm leaning more toward Ametrine. Side note: Tashmarine used to be called Citrine (I didn't especially like that name) and her nick-name was going to be Trina, which I liked. Now Ametrine (I'm not positive, but at this moment, let's say that'll be her name) can be called Amy as a little girl, but when she got older thought it sounded too little-girlish, so her sisters started calling her Trina. Could work. Also, Michelle Dyck, I like the idea of putting a list of the girls names in the front of the book. I'll give that a try. You've all been immensely helpful! Thanks again! (Oh, and Jennaral Lee, yes, both Maret and Rheta are forms of "Pearl".) 🙂

    • If you like Maret better, do that. It's your story, and it's a pretty name. (Did this take a lot of research to figure out cool sounding jewel names? Cause I've never heard of some of those. Probably because my grandmother gives me most of my jewelry…

    • Neat! I'm kind of obsessed with versions of words and names in other languages, so I looked up versions of "Margaret" on Wikipedia and found out that Maret is Estonian, with Maarit being Finnish, and Merit, Swedish. Most or all of which are probably closer to true English than Rheta, which looks Greek. Is that right? I didn't find that one.
      Fun (or not so fun) fact about amethyst: the name comes from two Greek elements that combine to mean essentially "protection against drunkenness." Which come to think of it could sort of relate to the story, because don't they give the soldier some sort of strong drink to make him sleep? (Sorry, I don't remember the story too well; maybe I'm way off.) On the other hand, it’s not exactly the nicest etymology for a name to have! Anyway, I just thought I’d throw that out. Feel free to completely ignore it; my sister’s eyes always totally glaze over when I talk about this kind of stuff, but I just thought I’d mention it.
      Great ideas! You've inspired me to go looking for etymologies of jewel names to help me name my dwarf characters. So far I've found some REALLY cool ones, much better than all but two of the names I'd come up with on my own. Thanks for giving me the idea!!! And I’m with Bug – how long did it take you to learn all this?!

    • I agree with Michelle Dyck that Lexa sounds a tad bit better than Lexan, but that's just my opinion.
      If you like Maret better use it! I liked the name, but Rheta seemed to have more nicknames (like Eta, Ray, etc). Maret is pretty too, but I think it sounds a tad bit harsher, but I think it would depend on your character. If the girl was dreamy and flighty, pretty and imaginative, I would name her Rheta. But if she was a stickler for rules, stubborn, firm and disapproved of 'gray' areas than to me Maret sounds better.
      Again, just my opinion and good luck!
      (also, I agree-with Michelle Dyck again-that a list would be good. I have read a couple versions of 12 Dancing Princesses and at times it was hard to remember which princess was which, who was older, which was the one who liked adventure, etc.)

    • Bug and Jennaral Lee, No, it didn't really take me all that long to research this. Well, not really. At first I was looking for names that had gemstone meanings, as I said before. I couldn't find enough that I liked. There were plenty, just not ones I could use or liked. I had searched on google for "girls names with gemstone meanings," but was really frustrated 'cause I kept on coming up with websites that sold the gems themselves. I accidentally clicked one, and then saw some of the odd-sounding gemstones, and that's when I decided to name them after the gems. It took me, on the whole, maybe two hours (Off-an-on, my mum kept stealing it.) and then I had to sort through the couple of lists I'd made to decide which I liked, which I could use and for which girl each would be for. It wasn't hard, and I actually enjoyed it. So, really, all you need is google. And, Xmay, thanks, I am choosing Rheta, because I agree with you that Rheta sounds softer and pearl/Rheta has a soft, delicate personality. And Jenaral Lee, again, I thought your explenations on Margaret are quite interesting. I think names are fascinating, and love odd sounding names with cool or weird meanings. Thanks everyone for all your help!

  7. I have that problem too. To help, I act out the scenes. When I act, I come up with things better, it helps me get inside m characters' heads. If you still can't figure anything out, then go to a part of the story where you already have the dialogue worked out and (I do this in the shower, where people can't hear me, nothing is more embarrassing than getting halfway through a heartfelt scene full of tears and patheticness and than have your brother call across the living room "Hey, Elisa, cut that out, I'm trying to talk to Nathan!") just say things that could work, and if what you've just said doesn't work, either push on or start over. Keep doing this until you've figured it out. This helps me a lot. Hope this helps!

    • Ooh, that was supposed to be a reply to Shay. I am seriously considering asking for a new computer for my next birthday. (Not that my parents would even half consider it.) This one glitches like crazy. Sorry!

    • I do that, too, but I have a friend that sometimes does it with me.
      (Oh, not the considering the computer part.) But most the time I have to do it by myself.

  8. I'm writing a trilogy with 3 main characters. It goes across three generations, so a new MC is introduced in each book, but the one(s) from the previous books(s) are still present and very active in the story. So here's my question: I've been telling the story in first person from the POV of the first of the three women. I feel like this trilogy is very much her story, much more so than the story of the other two, but they're essential to the plot. The problem is that during the second and third books there are major plot developments that happen when one of the other two characters are around, but this person isn't. The voice I've been using isn't really a "I'm telling this in my old age" voice, so would it be bad to have her tell the events in the order they happened and just later say "he told me all that had happened since our last meeting" or something to that effect? Or would it be better to have her talk to a person who was present and say "He began to explain what had happened" and then launch into telling the events normally? I don't want to tell all the stuff that happens in dialogue, because there's a ton that goes on, and it would just be confusing. Or do you think none of those really work and I should add another narrator in each book? Like, in the first book I'd have one narrator, in the second I'd have two, and in the third I'd have three? I've thought about telling the first book from the POV of the first of these characters, the second book from the POV of the second, and the third from the POV of the third, but I think that wouldn't capture how it's the also story of the first character's life, and I'm not sure that my idea about adding another narrator with each story would really show that either, although it would be better than doing each book from a different POV.

    Sorry if this doesn't totally make sense, but if you have any suggestions, that would be really great! Thank you!

    • Actually, I'm not sure that comment made a lot of sense. Here's a quick example of sort of what I'm thinking of doing:

      'woke in the hospital with Eric by my side. 'What happened?'

      'It's complicated,' Eric said.

      'Ok, tell me.'

      Eric sighed and began to explain everything that had happened.

      After I'd passed out, Lily had taken charge. 'James, call an ambulance,' she'd said. 'Eric, come here.' When he knelt by me she asked, 'do you think she'll be ok?'

      …[more happens]

      Eric finished telling his story. 'Like I said, it was complicated.'"

      But instead of a few lines in the story there would be pages and pages, or maybe a whole chapter. Do you think that would be weird, or could it work? Thank you!

  9. I don't know. They do that in Prince Caspian (the book, not the movie, obviously) and after I figured out that he was talking, I was fine. (That took me a minute, but I was seven.) I think it would work.

  10. When I write, I try to write in as many details as I can. This produces one of three things: a) too much detail b) not enough detail c) just right, but this doesn't happen much. Then again, I've had people tell me there is no such thing as too much detail. What do you guys think about this? How do I avoid a) and b)?

    • Try to have your characters interact with many of the details, in order to mix the descriptions with action. (For example, one character may run her hand along the ugly, floral wallpaper, another may walk across the fuzzy carpet, and a third may sneeze at the dust on the furniture.)
      I guess balancing the right amount of detail, though, comes with practice. You have to decide what is necessary to draw the reader into the setting and what can be cut out without making the story suffer. You'd be surprised, however, how few details are necessary to paint a picture in the reader's mind. They can fill in a lot. On the other hand, you don't want too few details, otherwise the readers might feel they're floating in a featureless grey cloud.
      Not sure if that's helpful, but there you go. 🙂

  11. Mrs. Levine, I have to ask your advice on something. I am almost finished with my first novel, and I realized that something is wrong.
    In Writing Magic, you explained that subjects need to be introduced before you can use them in the story. You gave an example of a boy delivering a message on a foreign planet. He gets attacked by wulffs on the way, which is interesting; but the story has not mentioned wulffs up until now. Maybe his friend could have a wulff bite, you said.
    Well, that's the exact thing I'm having trouble with. My character finds out that she is the prophesied hero that will save the kingdom. The plot is about her and a group of knights seeking out a legendary magical Song that will defeat the villain.
    That information wasn't hard to slip in. But the character has to pass through three different trials before she can attain the Song. Each trial is complex, with original magical properties that I thought up myself. Each one needs a legend to explain it.
    So, long story short, how do I slip all those details in subtly before the plot starts? It's a lot, and I feel that the reader will get overwhelmed. But I don't know what else to do. I've been contemplating it forever with no luck, so I could really use your advice.
    Thank you so much!

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