A Forest Full of Trees

devonmonk_magicintheblood1701 by Dame Devon

You’ve got an idea for a novel. You’ve worked on it in stops and starts ferverishly for a few years months, and the first draft is finally done! Congratulations, you’re a novelist! During your moments of deep depression coffee breaks on the veranda, you also researched agents and editors, and cruised web sites and blogs to scream in despair perfect your cover letter, synopsis, and outline skills.

But the thing that’s stopped you dead is getting the novel draft cleaned up for submission. Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded rewrite.

Some writers don’t like to rewrite. Some writers don’t like to stop rewriting. Neither affliction is beneficial to a lasting career in this biz.

I see rewriting (or revising, if you prefer the term) as a very important tool in the writer’s tool box. When you are under contracted deadline and are asked to cut ten thousand words, or get rid of a character, or add more action, or slow down the scene, ore completely change a plot line, and it has to be fixed and beautiful and back in your editor’s hand in two weeks, baby, you’re gonna want a toolbox bristling with every rewriting trick in the book.

But how do you know what needs rewriting? You bled your soul into wrote the thing. You know all the back story, you know what the setting looks like, you know where the characters are running to and from and why.

But you may not have put any of that on the page in a way the reader can clearly see and experience it. Since you’re the author, your mind automatically fills in the missing bits with the info only you have. That’s a problem.

One way to address that problem is to shove your ego in a carpet bag and look at what you’ve written through the eyes of a reader.

Yes, you, the writer, stop being a writer for a second and look at your book as a reader. Print it out and sit down and read your book as if you just pulled it off the shelf. Read it out loud. If you trip over the sentences, likely the reader will too.

Another way to spot what needs rewriting is to critique other people’s work. Over on her blog, Ilona Andrews did a terrific series of line-by-line edits (and suggested rewrites) for opening scenes. Check it out. Read through what she thought should be changed, and why. Then look at your story and see if you can apply any of those principals to it.

Frankly, there are many, many things that make a novel or story work, and many, many ways to approach rewrites. Some people do a one-time  read-through to catch typos. Some people pull off deep structural changes. Some people strengthen dialogue and tighten scenes and add characters and secondary plots. The goal of any rewrite should be to make the book the best it can be. And it’s hard to know what the “best” is, since writers are some of the worst judges of their own work.

But when you’re ready to pull up your sleeves and clean up the novel, the big-picture revision question list is a good place to start.  This list is just one way of looking at the trees while still seeing the forest.

Big-picture revision questions:

1. Is the first sentence interesting and engaging?
2. Does the first paragraph and page(s) set up the character, the world, the problem?
3. Does the first chapter promise the reader what kind of book they will be reading?
4. Are the senses fully employed? (Sight, smell, touch, taste, sound)
5. Is the last sentence of the chapter interesting and engaging?
6. Is the first sentence of the next chapter interesting and engaging?
7. Are the characters interesting and engaging?
8. Can the reader tell where the characters are, or where the scene takes place?
9. Is the dialogue flowing smoothly and realistically?
10. Is the dialogue working to move the story forward in ways the narrative can’t?
11. Can the reader tell how the characters are feeling?
12. Do the characters (good & evil) encounter more external difficulty as the book goes forward?
13. Do the characters (good & evil) encounter more internal difficulty as the book goes forward?
14. Do the characters (good & evil) do everything in their power to handle the situation?
15. Do the characters (good & evil) behave realistically/logically.
16. Does the tension build, with small breaks, before building higher?
17. Is something at stake if the good guys lose/win?
18. Do the conflict scenes forward the story?
19. Does the ending answer the questions first encountered at the beginning of the book?
20. Have the characters/world/situations changed by the end of the book?
21. Is there a cantharis/pay-off/feeling of satisfaction/resolution by the end of the book?

If anyone wants these points explained in more detail, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer there, or I’ll blog about it in two weeks when it’s my turn to post again. If you have a revision technique/list you’d like to share, don’t be shy. I’ll be getting editorial revision notes on book 4, MAGIC ON THE STORM any day now, and love to steal add some new tools to my toolbox!


  1. says

    There’ve been a couple of good posts on revision in the last few weeks. A really big one from Nathan Bransford: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/06/revision-checklist.html and a short and sweet one from Editor Unleashed: http://editorunleashed.com/2009/07/08/5-evergreen-editing-tips/.

    I’ve been writing for more than ten years now and believe it or not had never revised anything. I think because I was writing for fun and never thought anything would come of anything I wrote. I’m currently deep in rewrites and am actually enjoying it quite a bit. Previously, reading my own writing just made me cringe, now I start looking at ways to tear it apart and rebuild it better!

  2. says

    Thanks! Working on my rewrite this and the link to Ms. Andrews’ posts are very helpful.
    I do hope you and your cohorts know how much we appreciate and value your advice.

  3. says

    Meg–thanks for linking those lists! I just dashed over and looked at them. Good stuff there!

    And I agree. Rewriting is one of my favorite parts of the process. I love it when a little fiddling will make the story even stronger.

  4. says

    Great post, Devon. I’ll be saving that list for future reference. One item I found particularly intriguing is #10:

    “Is the dialogue working to move the story forward in ways the narrative can’t?”

    I understand what you’re saying but have frankly never thought about dialogue in exactly those terms before. Interesting…

  5. Irene says

    Good blog! Perfect timing, too. Just one question (and this might be me just being stupid) but what do you mean, exactly, by internal and external difficulty. I get where it’s going, but I wanted to make sure I understood it properly ’cause it might help me. :)

  6. says

    I’d love to put these tips into practice alas, I haven’t even finished my first draft :( right now I’m trying very hard to ‘write through it’ as I’d re-write/edit the first chapter forever otherwise. Thanks for the links Meg – off to save those pages.

  7. says

    Great revising advice Devon. I’m going through that process as we speak right now. Although I don’t have a deadline yet, I would love to have some tips on massive edits, since I overwrote two novels and have to cut out a lot to get 90K. I’ll be linking this website right now.

  8. says

    Irene–not a stupid question at all. Might be worth a full blog post, but the basic is this: characters will have outward challenges (external conflict)
    1.she’s late to work for big meeting.
    2.running from a killer.
    3.leaping a pit of snakes.

    Characters should also have inward challenges (internal conflict)
    1.doesn’t want to face ex-boyfriend who is new boss.
    2.fears she’s going insane since killer is ghost hamster killed in lab accident.
    3.wants to save the man she really loves, but if she leaps, everyone will find out she’s a robot.

    Um…I’m not sure if that quite expresses it, but basically, the characters need emotional risk and investment in what is happening in the story and how the external conflicts work out. That emotional risk and investment (hopes, fears, faith, sanity, love, obsessions) should be tested more and more as the story progresses so that the character is forced to make choices and change…or make the choices to not change.

  9. says

    Ban–you’re smart to keep pushing! Get through that first draft, then tackle the rewrite. Good luck!

    Kristen–Congrats on getting the novels done! I might tackle giant rewrite techniques in another post. But basically, when you have to dump thousands of words, you’ll need to dump a subplot or character or condense chapters. :(

    Firewolf–you’re welcome! Glad they’re useful!

  10. says

    Wow. What an excellent post. Thanks, Devon!

    One thing I’ve come across in my own writing lately is that I sometimes don’t spend enough story energy on the really important scenes — some major reversal will happen and I’ll kinda just gloss over it :) The characters don’t get the chance to react properly, because I whisk them away too fast, and the reader doesn’t get the emotional payoff they’re waiting for.

    So another item might be: have you given the really important events the time and emotional intensity they deserve?

  11. says

    I like your list. It covers most of the bases very well.

    I would add one little note as it is a problem area in my early drafts.

    8. Can the reader tell where the characters are, or where the scene takes place?

    I would add, or WHEN the scene takes place.

    This is especially important with multiple POVs who are not all joined at the hip because how the timeline builds is important.

    Thanks for sharing.