With my first novel, I initially started revising from page one. Logical, right? Yes, but that quickly devolved into a huge mess. If you're tempted, take my hard-earned advice - DON’T DO IT! You’ll lose the big picture. You’ll write a new scene at the end that means you have to change everything about a scene at the beginning. You’ll spend days, months, or even years perfecting words and lines to scenes that might not belong in the book at all.
What I do now.
Triage. I didn’t come up with this myself. I heard it from the editor Sol Stein, who likens revision to battlefield triage – treating patients in priority order, not first come first serve. For a book, this means tackling the big stuff first. The stuff that is most likely to make a huge overarching impact on the book.
We’re talking about things like character arc, plot, point-of-view, entirely new scenes that must be written. Once the big things are ironed out, you can address more middling tasks like improving specific scenes, strengthening weak dialogue, streamlining exposition or fleshing out minor characters. Finally, once the overall structure and story are strong, you can go back to page one to clarify each chapter opening, fine-tune each line, clean up grammar etc.
Stein suggests a very regimented order for each and every task, but personally I recommend a custom approach. The biggest problem with your book might not be the biggest problem with someone else’s.
When I give my clients notes on their novel manuscripts, I will often suggest the order I think might be easiest and most productive for them. That might mean experimenting with a re-ordered timeline. Or it might mean writing new chapters from a certain character’s point of view. I know about that one all-too well. After talking with my agent about the draft of my new novel, we realized I need to incorporate the protagonist's husband's perspective. But before I can even start writing him, I need to do something even bigger - write a new synopsis.
My own personal triage plan:
Write a new synopsis that includes husband’s point of view. (I’m almost finished with this. Not only does it address the perceived sexism, but bonus - my plot is so much stronger now!)
Write FOURTEEN new chapters from his POV. (Ugh, this will be a huuuuge undertaking.)
Write new scenes from the wife’s POV to make the changed plot fit together.
Read the whole really shitty rough draft to see how it fits together.
If it doesn’t flow, consider moving chapters, rewriting or deleting chapters or scenes that don’t fit.
Once I have a draft that more or less works from a plot and character arc standpoint, I’ll come up with a new list of smaller things to fine tune. I’m not even ready to think about those yet. Right now, I’m seriously big picture, and I won’t be wasting time perfecting anything.
I bet that puts your own revision into perspective!! Seriously though, even if you tackle it in phases, revising a book-length project can be messy. For some helpful tech, check out my two-minute Scrivener tutorials. I promise it's not as complicated as you fear and it will save your sanity.
Also, because so many people ask for help with their opening pages - obviously the most critical pages of all - I've put together a free workbook that will guide you to sucess.
Is Your Novel's Opening as Good as It Could Be?
Click the button below to get detailed examples of openings that work, openings that don’t (including my own mistakes!), and step-by-step instructions on how to make your own opening air tight. I bet you can nail this in a weekend!