The Duchess, Her Maid, the Groom & Their Lover

Some Notes On Revising a Novel by Victoria Janssen

Coherence and Storytelling

On a first read of a completed manuscript, it's a good time to check for overall coherence and storytelling.

Check for skipped time and space. It helps the reader if you cue each one. The cue only needs to be a sentence or phrase: "Ginger's flight to Sri Lanka exhausted her, but the next day she journeyed to meet her contact."

Check for logic mistakes or gaps; make sure Ginger isn't in Vancouver one day and London the next, with no explanation.

Check to make sure each scene has only one point of view character, and that the character whose pov you're using is clear to the reader.

Check for unnecessary transitions. You don't always have to show people going into and out of rooms, walking across rooms, getting into their cars and driving places. If something else is happening, or the movement's important to the plot or characterization, good. If not, consider cutting.

In a related matter, is every scene change necessary? Each one can be an excuse for the reader to stop reading. Especially if you take too long about it, or change too many times.

Check for scenes that could be acted out instead of narrated, or vice versa. Showing is usually better than telling if you're really trying to get something across; but telling or summarizing can also be useful, especially for transitions. Note that if you tell too long, the reader is more likely to skim.

Alternatively, if you show too much--if the descriptive details go on and on--the reader is also more likely to skim. It helps to integrate the details into action, and scatter them throughout the narrative.

Check the beginning and ending. If you started later in the story, would the novel's narrative drive be more intense? Does the ending reward the reader in some way? Does the beginning of the story prefigure its ending? Now might be a good time to edit a little and make that happen.

Look at flashbacks. Would that information be better presented otherwise, if at all? Does the information you give relate to this novel in particular, or is it just general information you had in your notes? Just because you made it up, doesn't mean it has to go into the story. (Ditto for research--just because you researched it, doesn't mean it has to go into the story.)

Finally, keep an eye on your characters. Sometimes there are too many, which can confuse the reader. Is it possible to combine two characters with the same role into one? For example, in Moonlight Mistress I had a character who was the younger brother of the heroine's next door neighbor. The next door neighbor served no other purpose. The younger brother of the heroine's next door neighbor worked much better, and was more emotionally significant, as simply the heroine's brother.

Refining the Prose

Refining the prose is best saved for last; you don't want to spend time polishing something that will later be cut.

If any words don't support the plot or characterization or tone or mood, they should be changed or removed.

If you repeat descriptions or thoughts too many times, the reader is more likely to skim, so you might want to cut some, or change them to make them more interesting.

It's usually better to have strong verbs than to have too many adjectives and adverbs. For example, " John went shakily down the steps, almost losing his balance" can be edited to read, "John teetered down the steps." This goes along with avoiding the passive voice, which in most cases distances the reader from the story.

Paragraphs each address a single main idea. An additional way to create paragraph breaks is to look for the most powerful sentence, and either end or begin a paragraph with that sentence. Ends and beginnings stick in the reader's mind more than middle sentences. Don't waste them.

Look for words you tend to repeat over and over, either dull, bland words that can be cut, or really distinctive words that will begin to grate on the reader. Keep a list of the words you overuse, and when you're done with other revisions, use the search function to see if you can change any of them. Note that these words change over time; as you conquer one, another will crop up in its place.

Read dialogue out loud to check the rhythm and see if each character has her own distinct speech pattern. Can you tell them apart without attribution? If not, consider making at least one character have more distinctive speech, for example always being curt or always being wordy.

This is what I look at while revising. It sounds like a lot, but some of these line items are instinctual now, and I'm generally addressing more than one of them at the same time. It just takes practice.

Kate Elliott, a science fiction and fantasy writer whom I respect very much, works on one new craft problem with each novel she writes. I think that can be applied to learning revision, as well.

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