When Revising Your Novel, Look for These 4 Problem Areas

Today’s guest post is an excerpt adapted from The Novel Editing Workbook: 105 Tricks and Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript by Kris Spisak (@KrisSpisak).


Editing is energizing, where you take your solid creation and nudge it into brilliance. It’s taking a pile of words and shaping it into something that resembles the story you envisioned. Sometimes, a book looks mighty ugly in its early draft form, but even rough, flawed words are so much better than a blank page. You’ve already conquered the blank page. No problem, right? Now it’s time to push up your sleeves again. Here are four exercises to help you notably improve your story.

Ensure your protagonist has agency

We all want to be active players in our own life, right? Not someone pushed around by everything that happens to us. Characters are the same way. Reading a day-by-day accounting of someone is not as thrilling as reading a day-by-day, turn-by-turn, twist-by-twist story of a character taking charge of whatever situation they are in for better or worse, for guts and glory.

Do things happen to your character, or are they an active player in the story? A powerful protagonist should not only react to different circumstances. They need to make choices on their own. They need to have agency. They need to be an active player in their own story.

All of a character’s choices and actions do not need to be the right choices and actions. Sometimes a choice fits a character’s sense of self and their motivations, but this action is still something that can make your readers hold their breath. That terrible choice not only can redefine who they are as a character in a moment of struggle, but it may create a turning point in the plot of your story. Your reader might further connect to them as a flawed but relatable individual because of that terrible choice. We all try to be good people. However, if you write a perfect protagonist who is always doing the right thing, that’s not a very exciting story to read.

Exercise: Find all of the moments in your story where the direction of the plot changes because of a character’s choice. If you can’t find any, you have some work to do.

Reassess your sitting and talking scenes

Dialogue can sometimes be the best part of a book, but the story needs to lead the way, not the characters repetitively talking it out.

Discovering things about yourself, your world, the meaning of life, or the meaning of the clue that answers the murder mystery all within a conversation might be a life-changing for a person but not always for a reader. Readers are pulled into stories. Wait, let me clarify that. Readers are pulled into stories when they are transported into a moment with your character, experiencing the same hopes, fears, anticipation, and every other emotion by that character’s side.

Brilliant dialogue is something to celebrate, but remember your job as a novelist is to craft more than only brilliant dialogue, especially when that dialogue is not surrounded by anything that actually happens. If you’re writing a novel, you can’t forget the character’s story, the problem driving the plot, and the internal and external forces at play.

Sometimes sitting-and-talking scenes—in a car, at a diner, on a park bench, leaning on a pillow, or anywhere else—are either talking for the sake of talking or talking for such a duration that the story’s plot and its urgency are lost.

Actions speak louder than words. It’s true for your characters as much as yourself.

Exercise: Seek and destroy sitting-and-talking scenes. Just kidding. Well, I’m only kind of kidding. They should only exist rarely and only make the final cut if something is accomplished in that conversation more than a review of happenings or a Socratic dialogue.

Review the scaling of emotions 

Every one of us can be set off in one way or another under the right circumstances. But you should be careful with characters who go from happy-go-lucky to irate within the beat of a single sentence.

Sometimes writers forget that emotional build is necessary. Imagine watching an angry character slowly become calmer then pacified then intrigued by something then excited about it. That emotional variance within a single scene can pull a reader in if you do it well. If you don’t, it becomes jumpy, and your characters become a little manic—and that’s not what you’re going for.

Exercise: Every time your characters have a shift in emotions during the scene, reexamine how you do it. Is it too fast? Do you allow your readers time to go on the emotional journey with your characters? Allow them to see and experience the subtleties that trigger the changes.

Strike the realizations

Some words indicate the writer is cheating. Do I mean cheating where whistles are blown and flags are tossed onto the field? No. Though, if I had my way, it might be something like that. I mean “cheating” because the writer is taking the easy way out, and their writing suffers for it.

When it comes to the word “realize,” would you rather have your reader hear about what is being discovered, or would you rather have your reader make the discovery along with your characters? What is more exciting?

What is more powerful: a line about a character realizing the solution to the mystery or a moment that allows your reader to have the same epiphany as your protagonist at the same time?

What will strike your reader more profoundly: an injustice experienced through a scene or the pointing out that something is not fair?

The Novel Editing Workbook by Kris Spisak

What might draw your reader in more: the witnessing of the exact second she understands she loves him or the narration where this revelation is explained to the reader?

It’s harder. It takes more time. But it pays off.

Exercise: Search out the word “realize” in your manuscript—and when I say  search out the word “realize,” I actually mean to search out “realiz” because if you stop at the “z,” you will catch the words “realize,” “realized,” “realizing,” and every other version that might pop up. Of course, “realize” is not the only epiphany-weakening culprit. Think about other wordings you use in the same way too. Then take these opportunities to elevate the possibilities. Your reader will appreciate it.


Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out Kris’s new book The Novel Editing Workbook: 105 Tricks and Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

With degrees from the College of William & Mary and the University of Richmond, Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor; however, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing. Helping writers sharpen their craft was the driving force behind her book Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press, 2017). Kris is also pursuing the publication of her first novel and is the co-founder of Midlothian Web Solutions.

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PJ Reece

Who was it who said, “Writing is rewriting”? And I would add it’s also the most exciting part of writing. So thanks for these reminders. My “rewriting” mind is working even as I write the first draft — especially the concern with agency. Especially because my protagonist is a teenager. My publisher keeps reminding me that the kid has to initiate the action. He has to be the cause of all his downfalls and all his victories. So, there are many crossroads in my story … turn left or turn right … and agonize over the decisions. Cheers and thanks… Read more »

Linda C. MacConnell
Linda C. MacConnell

Kris Spisak’s article, When Revising Your Novel Look for These Four Problems, is spot on. As a fiction writer in the process of revising my novel, I found it very helpful. I plan to buy her book.

Debby Mayer

Thank you! Love the exercises. Going to start them right now, as I rewrite my novel. And yes, this post is a good pitch for Kris’s book!

Karen A. Chase

This is such great advice, and it comes from a sharp editor—I know her revision techniques work, because Kris Spisak has helped me apply them. I had a sitting-and-talking scene, but in the final novel one of my two people is skinning a pheasant, which added action and doubled as a metaphor for the outcome of the concerns they’re discussing. I have Kris’ workbook in hand from her launch this week, and even though I’ve already completed a novel, I know I must apply these lessons to my next work of fiction.

Emilya Naymark

Really excellent article. Very helpful.

Alana White

Terrific article. Thanks! 🙂

MrBosski

I’ve just finished a draft of something and what I usually do, is give it a bit of resting time of a few weeks. After its out of sight from my eyes, I would print it out and go over it, highlight my poor grammar, point out parts that dont click, read it as if I am a reader and take a list of notes while writing. I think after really scrutinizing it, figure out what structural components aren’t hitting the mark and figure out what’s going on there. The best way to look at the structural components I’ve found… Read more »

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

Good post. I think perhaps we use ‘realiz . . . .’ as a short cut in first drafts. Just been through my WIP – will ignore the 5 that appear in dialogue, and the 3 in internal thought might be difficult to portray as ‘show’, that leaves me with 4 in narration to ponder on, though I don’t think 4 in a 65,000 word (so far) 1st draft is excessive so not too much work to do on that particular exercise.

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