I’ve been writing novels for 8+ years. (wow I have been doing this for a long time and am getting old) and there are specific problems I have ALWAYS when revising. But, I think I have FINALLY created a revision system that actually FIXES my story EFFECTIVELY.
I did a poll on Instagram, and the general consensus was that you wanted to learn more. So I present to you: MORE. (Buckle in)
When revising, I struggle with:
- Making the story appear “woven” and smooth — I usually have a chunky mess that results from trying to solve overarching problems with a few paragraphs here and there
- Taking A MOUNTAIN of a printed manuscript, figuring out what needs done, and then executing these fixes on the computer screen
- An overwhelming amount of, well, overwhelm — I know what needs to be done, but I have no clue how to start except maybe go through chronologically and hope I remember all the problems I have.
This is going to be a long post, so let’s just get this show on the road already.
THE COLOR-CODED SYSTEM
I already laid down the basics of this in my December Coffee Talk, but incase you missed that (and also for the sake of having all my advice in one place for when I become even older and forget how the heck I did this writing thing back when I was a youngster) let’s rehash.
- Setting and world building — pink
- Character — orange
- Plot — blue
- Lines/snippets I liked — yellow —this wasn’t really necessary to revision, but it was necessary to my moral because I can’t hate the entire book … right?
There is no reason I chose these colors other for the fact that I had a pink highlighter & pink sticky notes, an orange highlighter & orange sticky notes, and a blue pen & blue sticky notes.
I did, however, break it down into these 3 different categories (world building first as the foundation, characters second as that thing to stick on the foundation, and then lastly plot to hold them all together) because these 3 categories are — in this particular order — important to me.
01. PRINT OUT MANUSCRIPT AND READ IT
I printed out my whole manuscript and then sat down to read it, armed with my highlighters and sticky notes.
How I used the color-coded system to organize my thoughts during the read through:
- I HIGHLIGHTED any fact, observation, description, explanation, etc. that pertained to one of my 3 categories (setting and world building, character, plot)
- If I needed to make a little note in the margins, I did
- For each chapter, I jotted down ON A STICKY NOTE any bigger problem I was seeing (inconsistencies, logical problems, reactions to what was happening on the page). What color sticky note I jotted this note down on depended on which one of my 3 categories (setting and world building, character, plot) it pertained to
- AT THE END OF EACH CHAPTER, I usually had 3 different colored sticky notes all with notes on them. I wrote the chapter number at the bottom of each sticky note and then on the last page of every chapter, I stuck these sticky notes into three different piles — pink, orange, blue.
- If I had a chapter that ended up with a certain sticky note blank, I still wrote down the chapter number at the bottom of the empty sticky note, and I still gave it its own pile.
- (this was so there wouldn’t be any confusion in the next step)
02. AFTER READING: GET ORGANIZED
After I read, I decided to organize my sticky notes so instead of being grouped in their own little color piles at the end of each chapter, I would be able to see ALL the pink sticky notes at once, ALL the orange sticky notes at once, and ALL the blue sticky notes at once.
How I organized my sticky notes:
- I grabbed several pieces of paper (I used looseleaf)
- I went through my manuscript and flipped to the end of chapter one.
- At the end of each chapter one, I removed the pink sticky note. (Or sticky notes if I needed more room to write)
- I stuck this sticky note(s) on the pieces of paper I grabbed in step 1.
- I then flipped to the end of chapter two.
- I removed the pink sticky note and stuck this one on the piece of paper right next to chapter one’s pink sticky note.
- Repeat until the last chapter — only grabbing the pink sticky notes.
- Start again on a fresh sheet of paper, this time removing the orange sticky notes.
- Repeat the whole shebang with blue sticky notes.
So, after going through this process, I had 3 master lists. I had a master list (in chronological order) of all the setting and world building problems, a master list (in chronological order) of all the character problems, and a master list (in chronological order) of all the plot problems.
Instead of saying “oh, here are all the problems with chapter one”, I could now say “oh, here are all the character problems in the ENTIRE WIP.”
Frankly, this was invaluable.
03. TAKE THE ORGANIZED LISTS OF PROBLEMS AND TURN IT INTO SOLUTIONS
This part is a lot more messy because it involves going back to the drawing board and brainstorming.
But, by the end of this processes, I knew there were about 5 different conceptual/high-level problems with my overall story. So I set out solving them.
I wrote a whole post about how I solve “plot holes” and other problems with my plots. But for me, my brainstorming process looks like stream-of-conciousness typing and talking through my problems and mind mapping.
So, in Scrivener I have a document where I offer solutions to these bigger problems. It’s not the document that matters as much as the fact that I now understand my story on a deeper level.
And with a deeper understanding, I believe it becomes easier to manipulate, shape, and control the story.
04. CREATE A STORY BIBLE
As a detail-oriented person who often forgets details (oops) I found it EXTREMELY helpful to make myself a Story Bible.
I filled out Rebecca K Sampson’s Story Bible. It was like a big pdf containing a lot of worksheets to help me a) figure out basic facts like character eye color and Hogwarts house and b) organize all the important information about certain topics (characters, locations, etc.) into a page or two I could glance at quickly to refresh my memory.
I also found that filling these out made me dig deeper and solve some more problems. Because chances are, if I can’t explain “it” simply (whether “it” is character motivation or magic system or whatever), then I probably don’t understand it well enough.
All right, things are going to get medical here. Our stories are like people, right? (Or an ogre because they have layers lol get it?) There’s the skeleton (the bare bones), and then the organs, and then the flesh and physical characteristics.
I found my story had some broken bones — some were completely missing — but quite a few were cracked or crooked or not really where they were supposed to be.
To fix this, I added back in new bones.
AKA, I went back into my draft (THE ONE ON THE COMPUTER, THE ONE I KEEP IN SCRIVENER) and rearranged scenes or chapters that needed to be rearranged. (Scrivener makes this SOOO EASY.) If there was a new part that needed to be added, I made a note in the MS roughly where the new part needed to be.
I DID NOT flesh these bones out. I just left them as little notes sprinkled in my manuscript. Which may seem unnecessary (but hey this is my revision process you can’t tell me what is and isn’t unnecessary) but hang tight. This madness may make sense in a second.
06. START THE 3-LEVEL REVISIONS
You might be thinking that I’ve done a CRAP TON of work to basically just organize my story and solve a few high-level problems. (Also, bones? I started talking about bones?)
BUT here’s where things get REALLY EASY FOR ME PERSONALLY.
Now that I’m very enlightened about my story, I’m ready to return to the printed out MS and carry out 3 passes (or levels) of revision on the computer.
The first pass will be setting and world building. The second pass will be character. And the third pass will be plot.
How these revision passes will work:
- I will go back to my printed manuscript.
- Any time I see a pink highlighted bit, I’ll stop and ask myself:
- Is this correct? Does it follow my Story Bible?
- If the answer is yes, I move on.
- If the answer is no, I consider HOW this little highlighted bit is adding to one of my big conceptual problems. I then GO TO MY COMPUTER, FIND THE LINE, and rewrite it/rework it/maybe even delete it until it is correct and it follows my Story Bible.
- REMEMBER: I’m only looking for pink. Also REMEMBER: I’m looking at the highlighted bits in the physical, printed out manuscript, and then fixing these bits in Scrivener.
- Once I’m done fixing all the little setting and world building details, I will repeat 1-3 with orange (character) and then blue (plot).
The reason WHY this works so well for me is because I’m weaving a story.
I have 3 strands, and I’m making sure each strand is strong and braided (not just plopped) into the narrative in the most effective way possible. This also works because I’m finding the problem on PAPER but then FIXING it on my computer screen so there’s no unnecessary back and forth (like fixing on paper and then having to go back in and fix it again on the computer).
07. FILL IN THE BLANKS
In order to make sure that I was focusing on each level AND ONLY that level during passes, whenever I reached a note to myself that said I needed to add more (remember the bones from step 5?), I would either a) add more notes to that note or b) just pass it by.
And after doing all 3 revision passes, I plan on going back in and fleshing out these little notes.
Why am I doing this after? Personally, I just thinks it makes sense that I fill in the blanks AFTER the rest of the story surrounding the blanks is as solid as possible. Also, for full disclosure, I’m still in the pink part of the 3-level revision. So I haven’t actually filled out anything. But, that’s the plan, and I think it will work well! (Again, work well for me personally.) *shrug*
*BONUS* THE BENEFITS
The WHOLE reason I wrote this post in the first place is because I had a mini-break through this morning.
I’m currently doing the revision pass on setting and world building.
And I came along a pink highlighted area in my story and I knew I needed to change it. So I changed it, right?
But then I realized that changing this detail affects how a certain character (orange!) acts.
Then I realized that THIS changes how my main character (orange again) REACTS.
Then I realized that THIS changes the plot (blue!).
Well, anyways, guess what? The change to this plot FIXES this scene. And it doesn’t just fix THE scene — it fixed everything leading up to the scene.
IT’S A DOMINO!! Getting in deep like this allows me to make the RIGHT changes that set off a domino of other changes.
(Okay, so far I’ve used weaving, braiding, human anatomy, and dominos as metaphors) (And also, I’m going to unceremoniously end this big rambling in-depth post. But really, seeing things from other writers helps me SO much. THIS process is bits and pieces from other writer’s processes that I’ve collected in the 8+ years I’ve been writing.)