Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ponder, Polish, Perfect: How to Successfully Revise

As I've been promising for some time now, I'm finally getting around to posting my talk from the SCBWI Newport Beach Agent Day on revision. And yeah, I totally stole some snippits from previous posts. Deal with it.


When I had planned to give this talk, I'd originally titled it re-Invision. One of the conference coordinators, Beverly, was smart enough to call me out on that and double check...did you mean re-Envision?

She showed me the definitions for Invision and Envision:

Invision: noun (and possibly also a made-up word) Want of vision or of the power of seeing.

Envision: verb. to picture mentally - used with an object.

I promptly changed the title of my talk, because she was absolutely right; I did mean Envision (and not just because Invision is quite possibly made up) because revision is an action. A process. An ongoing development. Not a WANT, not a THING in itself. It it USED with the thing. NOT the thing. It is a MENTAL RE-Imagining of your work.

I come to the topic of a revision having experienced it from both the writer and agent's perspectives. I started as many in the industry do - thinking I was going to write historical romance bestsellers (wait, that's just me?...). As an author my agent would send me notes and I immediately snatched them up like some sort of test. I thought the goal was to get them done as QUICKLY as possible; I wanted to be the BEST author EVER who POWERED through revisions in no time at all!

As an agent, let me step back now and say: revision is not a checklist you can power through.

If I had a client who had a turn-around as quickly as mine was, I'd seriously take pause. Because, like I said, revision should be a RE-IMAGINING of your work as a whole - not individual bits and pieces. It isn't a process of "receive notes and execute," but rather a process of "receive notes, mull, brainstorm, tweak, and execute."

This is a good thing to keep in mind when you get conflicting advice. Not every agent thinks the same; not ever reader will have the same notes. If you ever find yourself as a writer with two sets of day and night notes - don't panic. Mull. Think how EACH set helps YOU to RE-ENVISION your work AS A WHOLE (can I say this enough?).

Now, onto the good stuff:

I'm going to go over a few ideas, which I certainly hope you will take and expand on and adjust for your own use. These aren’t things that will work for everyone, just tools to help you re-envision your work. They are certainly not comprehensive (this was a blasted 50 min talk, give me a break) but below and throughout are links to some very in-depth checklists and step-by-step processes you can go through and look at later.

1.Take a break - and start with fresh eyes
-brainstorm, mull; don't TOUCH it for at least three days after getting notes (or two weeks after you finish). Scribble down ideas if you must, but take a break!

2.Start from the beginning
-GET fresh eyes on it - use your critique partners! See where your weak spots are per reader - any similarities?

-Think of the WHY not the WHAT: tackle the REASON behind the emotional impression.

Pro tip: Cheryl Klien, an editor at Scholastic (who has, by the way, the BEST post on revision I have EVER seen), says:
I read through the manuscript and make notes of my impressions every step of the way.
o I’m bored
o Love this
o Where is this going?
o Hmm
It allows her to pinpoint exact spots that work, don't work, and might need tweaking.

-create a story-board, scene by scene. Then start taking scenes out. See what you can do…with cutting. (This will help you write a synopsis, too). Post-its are a must.

-play the "what-if" game - for example, take a problem your character is confronted with. Come up with possible outcomes, including completely outrageous and bizarre ones; it'll help you think outside the box

one of my favorite examples has absolutly nothing to do with publishing. A husband and wife were having problems because the wife was tired of doing taxes every year. They brainstormed all sorts of outrageous ideas: Not file and go to jail. Run away to the Bahamas. Etc. In the end, they hired someone to do it. Maybe not the most dramatic solution, but the point is, it opened up an dialogue between them to find a solution.

You can do the same with your plot. Where do these outrageous ideas lead? How does that change the outcome of your story? Is it more dynamic?

-cut first three chapters – keep a scrap document, an original, etc. Just play.

4.Focus on voice
-One of my favorite recommendations on voice revision comes from Kim Griswell of Boyds Mills Press: highlight all the sensory details in your manuscript a different color. See what you’re doing, what you may need to add. Too much dialogue? Enough sensory details? Too MUCH of one sensory details (like sight)?

-voice is the quality that allows the reader to forget about the author. It has place – a taste of where you came from, what’s shaped YOU, the author, in life, and sensory details. The best voices reveal a piece of the writer – what YOU notice because of who you are -- which, I’ll add, makes sense; as humans we’re going to connect the most to real human voices, because it allows a character to seem real, which allows us to forget that they were written.

5.Focus on conflict
-what is your central plot arc - is it clear? Is it fresh, original? Take a look at your synopsis. A lot of the time, the synopsis highlights the heart of the story, and will pinpoint exactly what the important details you should have – and what you shouldn’t have – are.

6.Focus on characterization
- I loved Nathan Bransford's take on this (and his revisioon checklist!): Does the reader see both the best and worst characteristics of your main characters? What do your characters want? Is it apparent to the reader? Do they have both conscious and unconscious motivations?

-It is very important to make your character believable and relatable (there’s a reason so many characters have no boyfriends and no lives and are so poor – the majority of us are like that too). If your character has un-likeable aspects, make sure there are still flaws, too. Sarcasm is great; whining is not. Think cheeky and feisty rather than arrogant and violent. Inner strength should shine through the voice, even if not in the action.

But I've always heard it's what you do, not what you say, that counts!

Ok. Let me explain:

Scenario one: Greg jumps the fence and slays the evil dragon.

Scenario two: Greg is afraid of heights but he jumps the fence anyway and gets close enough to the evil dragon even though he's allergic. It was easier for him to overcome his fears and allergies because he hates the color green, like the dragon, so much.

In both scenarios we understand that Greg's the hero...but we understand his strength of character from the second, because we have a voice to understand him and his conflicts and personality. Get it?

6 1/2. Focus on peripheral characters
- Avoid black/white characters

What I mean here is: avoid blanket good/bad stereotypes. Yes, sometimes these blanket characters pop up; epic stories usually have them. But the gray area is always so much more interesting and heartbreaking.

A great example of this came to me when I (re) watched (for the millionth time) Pirates of the Carribean. Captain Barbosa is clearly a bad guy…right? But that last scene, when he dies, and the bright green apple falls from his fingers…you definitely feel heartbroken for the guy, don’t you? That little detail, those darned apples, were a beautiful plot device for making him more dynamic. They were a physical representation of his motive. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad; he was in pain. Yes, he also gets a chance to explain his motive to us, but it’s the apples that really drive it home.

-Ask yourself: Are these characters just tools to an end?

Part of what may make a character seem less dynamic is if they only exist to drive forward the plot. Yes, yes; back to the epic fantasy example, sometimes it’s unavoidable to encounter these “extras.”

-Their motivations are going to have to come through via interaction with the hero and/or heroine, if you don’t have multiple POVs (which I never recommend). So go back to pivotal scenes, and give them a voice! A great exercise for this is to write a piece of the book in each of your character’s perspectives. You don’t have to include this; but see what they have to say.

7.Focus on Pacing
-First: count your adjectives and adverbs per page. Are you waaay overdoing it? Can they be cut and simplified? How about any of your sentence structures?

-This is where the earlier experimenting will help:
Cut your prologue, dream sequence, and first chapter.Why? Too much back-story upfront really drags pace, and too many tiny, unimportant, menial things like sports games, day-to-day activities, talking to mom/sister/great-aunt also really slow pace. You don’t need to tell me when your character goes pee or brushes her teeth. In other words, don’t summarize events; realize them in the plot.

-Alternately, do you jump too quickly into the action, and not give ANY hints as to what's going on?

I love to consider why people love mysteries: beacause they figure out what happens WITH the main character. But they can't do that without clues! Think of your characters like the mystery: make sure there are enough clues scattered in there to allow the reader to piece together the puzzle of their personality...without you having to actually tell them.

-Of course, the best way to improve pacing is to go back and snip snip snip from your finished manuscript; ask yourself: why is this scene really here? Does it actually serve a purpose to the plot? OR DO YOU JUST LOVE IT BECAUSE YOU THINK IT'S THE BEST WRITING YOU'VE EVER DONE AND YOU SPENT TEN HOURS ON IT?

8.Some other important things to keep in mind:
Be aware of your writing tics, such as repeated words and phrases or facial expressions (does your main character pale and purse her lips ten times a page?)

-Read, read, read in your genre, know the expected word counts, and the standards of what is acceptable and what is not

To quote Ms. Klein again: An action novel needs a tighter plot than a coming-of-age story. A moody YA needs more character development than a middle-grade series.
• You want to figure out what your book’s personality is and how to enhance that, but, it's ALWAYS good to know what IS an isn't appropriate, regardless of if you hit the mark on your impression

For example, if someone blushes in the subway because they're reading your steamy YA, maybe that's exactly what you want...but is that appropriate for the age group?

And lastly:
-Save your drafts

-Don't cherish anything (although it's perfectly ok to be upset about having to cut anything; again, just think about WHY you're upset about it - because it really belongs, or because you're just really connected to it and don't want it to go to waste?)

-Trust YOUR gut

CC by SA 2.5 at

Check this out for a PLETHORA of other revision posts and, if you're craving another checklist, go here.

Happy revising!


  1. Wow, this is fantastic advice. I'm a sucker for voice, so color-coordinating might prove to be really helpful. I think waiting or not waiting is a personal thing. If I wait too long to start revision, I lose the soul of my story, and I feel the its foundation becoming empty.

  2. Such a good post! I read Carol Klein's book recently. Her notes on revision are so helpful, and so are these!

  3. This post is wonderful! I love the idea of experimenting and mapping out the plot to make sure everything is really the best it can possibly be.

  4. These tips came at a perfect moment for me. Just went to a Writers Conference where an agent and an editor gave me conflicting advice on the same material!

    Must bookmark this post immediately!

    Thank you.


  5. This post is fantastic! And extremely helpful. My gut has been telling me that my bad guy isn't fleshy enough, and now I know why. Thank you!

  6. Great advice! Thanks for posting it.

  7. Another great post, Natalie. I like the idea about the color coding. I'll have to try it on my next one. :D

  8. Amazing post!! I need to make this a list for myself and pass it around. After you read my query and offered a nice piece of advice, I took four months to tear up my mss and think about the possiblities. I know not every agent has time, but one or two sentences can make holes and failure clear : )

  9. Fantastic post, thanks. Gave me lots to think about, and a break from revising.

  10. I'm one of those weird eggs who loves revising as much (maybe more) than writing. I feel like when I write a MS, I end up with a big hunk of shapeless clay. Revising is kind of like scraping (or whatever it is that sculptors do) away at it until I get something meaningful.

    Anywho, this advice is fantastic. Thanks for posting it.

  11. Such a fabulous post. Thanks so much! And Michele, I'm with you about revisions. I love 'em!

  12. Gah! Perfect timing for me to read this (grumble). I WAS thinking of my agent's revision list as as something to check off and complete, and was congratting myself for almost being done. I guess I need to think more deeply and use your GREAT list and your other linkies to keep shaping the ms. Thanks. Onward!! Sniff. (LOL)

  13. Exactly what I need right now. (Which sums up the 13 comments that came before mine.) Thanks.

  14. Comforting and terrifying at the same time. I love it! <3

  15. This made me chuckle. I used to power through all revisions too--because writing IS an Olympic event, right? I mean, everyone knows the fastest reviser wins.


    Now, I take my time and make sure the story gets everything it needs. These are fantastic points--thanks for sharing!

  16. What Carol Riggs said :) So if you don't see "Amber" as soon as you'd like, don't blame me ;)

  17. I really needed this right now. Seems like I'm stuck in my line edits, but now I can call it "mulling."

  18. I'm a few days late but I have to say that this is fabulous! Wish I could've been there in person, but you've made so many good points. This is definitely a post I'll refer back to. Thanks :)

  19. Hey Natalie, I just wanted to let you know you've won the Irresistably Sweet Blog Award at my blog, You can find more information about the award there. Thanks for all the help you give with your blog!

  20. I just tried the story board idea with post-its. I moved things around with my critique partner's advice. She picked a part of the story that didn't make sense as a beginning to me. After staring at it and moving other plot points around it my story makes sense in a fresh way. I've moved from frustrated to inspired. I'm excited to start my edits. Thanks for the great advice.

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