Today we’re going to talk about revising a novel. It’s a highly emotional and arduous task, but vital. Revising a novel is more than mind-bending work at a computer (or with a red pen for the retro crowd). It’s a tough emotional experience that can blindside us and land us in the mire if we don’t anticipate what to expect.
Some of y’all might be familiar with the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. For those unfamiliar, Swiss psychiatrist, Kübler-Ross first introduced her grief model in her book, On Death & Dying back in 1969 after years of working with terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross identified five specific stages humans experience when faced with an emotionally overwhelming event.
The emotionally overwhelming event can be something traumatic like a death, but not necessarily. The human brain is a magnificent organ. The brain’s critical imperative is, first and foremost, to help us SURVIVE. Not thrive. SURVIVE.
We have to remember this to appreciate what we’re really going through when writing and then revising a novel, especially when we are new.
Our amygdala (Lizard Brain) is roughly the size of an almond, and responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze that kept our ancestors alive for enough generations to give us cool stuff like iPhones, Ikea, and the Internet.
Problem is, the amygdala isn’t terribly ‘smart.’ It can’t tell the difference between an attacking bear…and someone dumping us via text message.
It also can’t discern between experiencing death or revising a novel. This can become a problem, because we need to be in the higher thinking centers—HELLO PREFRONTAL CORTEX—if we hope to be objective enough to revise our first draft(s).
It’s a Process
New writers often are unfamiliar with these five stages. Thus, they can become stuck in the grief process when revising a novel. Revising a novel is grueling, which is why it helps to know what it feels like. What is normal? When are we stuck? Why or when should we look for outside help?
Good questions, so back to the five stages…
Kübler-Ross caught a lot of criticism when she introduced her Five Stages of Grief. Many (mistakenly) assumed Kübler-Ross was suggesting humans went through the five stages in a neat, linear order. Some folks didn’t experience all five, etc.
The problem, obviously, is critics assumed humans make sense.
That, obviously, was the first mistake.
Those who’ve studied Kübler-Ross’s model now realize humans are jacked up and don’t follow instructions because we are not robots. #YayScience
According to some researchers, some humans facing trauma don’t experience any of these emotions, though I’ve yet to puzzle out how that is even possible. So toss that out for our purposes. We often won’t go through the five stages linearly.
Perhaps we can even get stuck on one, or vacillate back in forth in the Feedback Loop from Hell. The Feedback Loop from HELL is what is most pertinent to the Emotional Sheol that is revising a novel.
Kübler-Ross’s five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It applies to losing a loved one, and yep, also applies to writing.
Denial: My Book Is PERFECT
This is something we experience most intensely when we’re new and have no friggin’ idea what we are doing. I remember my first ‘novel.’ It was—and I KID YOU NOT—187,000 words long.
One day, I just started writing, and writing and writing. Finally, I said to myself, ‘Well, this seems long enough. The End.’
I wish I were joking.
My novel was AMAZING. It had love, death, murder, comedy, tragedy, witty reparatee. It had everything!
…but a plot.
I didn’t want to be…’formulaic’ *flips hair*
This is the point where we might join a writing group or hire an editor because we need help with you know commas, spelling, punctuation *more hair flips*.
Many who finish NaNoWriMo for the first time can believe that the novel doesn’t even needs revising *clutches sides laughing* and that it’s cool to publish as is.
Please for the love of all that is chocolate do NOT PUBLISH OR QUERY. Finishing a novel is a lot like losing a loved one. Many loved ones actually in that when we finish, we have to say goodbye to ‘people’ who are very real to us.
Thus, selling our house, accepting proposals from death row inmates, or publishing a book are all MAJOR decisions we should put off…until we’re again legally sane.
Okay, for writers, legally ‘sane.’
The other side of denial (for the more seasoned/jaded author) is THIS IS ALL CRAP. Resist the urge to delete or sign up for barber college. May I introduce y’all to the seasoned writer after a first draft (or NaNoWriMo):
Have a Snickers…and a nap.
Anger: How Dare You Say My Book Needs Work?
Maybe we reach out to a beta reader, a critique group or even hire a professional. This is the gut punch. Again, this is more for the newer writers since, if one sticks to the craft long enough to be a seasoned author…we spin through these stages faster than a Roulette Wheel hit with too much WD-40.
A little side-bar here…
When we decide to become professional authors, it’s wise to master the craft in every way possible. STUDY STORY. Become an expert. I read a ridiculous amount of books in almost every genre.
Yes, binging on Netflix and series IS work.
I study story structure, character arc, dialogue, theme, etc. First, I do this to help write better craft blogs, give the best classes and offer superlative services. But I also do this for my ART.
Expertise gives us insight and ammunition.
When I was new, I hadn’t studied enough and there were consequences. First, I dismissed good advice. Secondly, I didn’t have any way of discerning good advice from bad advice, which can lead to the Franken-Novel (book by committee). Thirdly, if I wanted to stand by a creative decision, I couldn’t articulate why.
But back to anger. When others (even experts) told me I had problems, I got angry. Instead of doing the tough work, I ‘fixed’ surface stuff. If we get the opinion of an expert who’s any good, I guarantee you they’ll make you angry.
As a long-time editor, I can tell you the ‘perfect’ book doesn’t exist.
Even if a book is great, a good editor should be able to spot something that’s going to take it to that next level. Often, it’s something that requires painful sacrifice. Anger is natural, but take time to cool off and see if maybe that person has a point.
If it’s something you simply refuse to change that is perfectly okay. It’s your book.
Yet, I’ve learned if something makes me angry…there very often is something there worth exploring.
Bargaining: Okay, Maybe My Novel Needs Work
Bargaining is the place I believe most novels die. This is where we spend three or five or ten years reworking the same book. I can’t recall who first coined the term, but this is where we start ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.’
We can’t bear the thought of tearing down and starting over, so we futz with prose and description, move around chapters, decide we really have a series.
When revising a novel, we do everything BUT what needs doing. Sometimes we don’t have a core story problem. Or we have a weak core problem. Maybe we don’t have any stakes, or the stakes aren’t high enough.
Perhaps there is no ticking clock, thus nothing prompting urgency in the characters.
This is the hard birthing pains part.
Maybe we DO have a series, but series have structure. We can’t just parse a book apart at a certain page and say, ‘Book ONE!’ then ‘Book TWO!’ without doing some other modifications.
We always have to remember that the human brain is wired a certain way and when writers run contrary to what’s been ingrained in the audience’s very DNA, that’s a risk.
Dramatic structure is not an arbitrary—or even conscious—invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, two, three.
~David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, pg. 73
Depression: I SUUUUUCK & My Novel is DOOOOMED
No and no. Writing fiction is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting. This is why most of us who finish NaNoWriMo spend the first weeks of December eating jars of marshmallow fluff from our blanket fort. We’re so shredded because we’ve poured out an incredible amount of psychic energy, which needs time to recharge.
Think if you were trying to remodel a bathroom. You throw yourself into the remodel for a month. You’ve had to pee in old Folgers cans, borrow a neighbor’s bathroom, you have to go to the gym to shower.
Finally, after thirty days, the functional stuff is in place: shower, sink and toilet work.
But you insist on continuing without charging any of the tools. Oh you plug in the drill while you break for lunch, then go back to trying to instal cabinets, but the drill is sluggish and dies.
That table saw you’re using to cut the flooring is portable because it has a battery pack. But you do the same thing you did with the drill. You plug in the battery while you run down to the mini-mart for a Monster drink…then BACK TO WORK!
Can you imagine the nightmare of ‘finishing out’ a bathroom with tools that barely have a charge and keep dying? The mistakes one might make by stopping and starting over and over to plug in the charger for a half hour?
THIS is what can happen if we start revising a novel too soon. We are worn out. Our tools need time to charge. We need perspective and if we force the process…we can make small problems much bigger.
Editing too soon, can cut the beating heart out of a perfectly good story. Premature editing KILLS.
Or, maybe you’re out of your depth. Using our bathroom analogy, you were able to do everything but some electrical wiring and plumbing. You have to flush the toilet to turn on the lights. Maybe it’s best to admit we’ve done all WE can do and just hire some help.
Yes, it costs some money, but what is your TIME worth?
If you have a plot problem I (or another expert) can fix for you in an hour or two, which is better? Calling us and fixing the problem and finishing the book or spending the next year fixing the problem when you could have written another book?
I have never met a plot I couldn’t fix. I’ve done in less than an hour what clients couldn’t do in years. So many cry and ask, ‘Why didn’t I call you sooner?’ My answer. It doesn’t matter. You called. And quick tip. It is OKAY to not know EVERYTHING 😉 .
Acceptance: Let’s Fix This
You’ve rested, grieved, watched Netflix until your brain hurt and, overall, gotten some distance. I recommend checking out a previous post, Self-Editing: 7 Tips to Tighten the Story & Cut Costs. This post has a lot of DIY tips that will keep costs down if you do hire an editor, because the good ones are not cheap.
If you go to the Editorial Freelancers Association, you can see the standard rates and different types of editing. A developmental editor isn’t the same as a proofreader. Yet, I WILL say, that if we fix as much as we can on our own (sort of like that bathroom remodel), when we DO hire a pro we gain major advantage.
First, the expert can SEE what needs fixing MUCH faster. Secondly, it’s easier for them to do their thang. The means YOU saved THEM TIME so YOU SPEND a lot less MONEY.
Revising a Novel: DIY Dilemmas
As an editor, if I can’t get past the word echoes, passive voice, bad punctuation, POV shifts—simple fixes but MASSIVE distractions—then you’re burning cash. If we can’t see through this stuff that’s easily fixed on your own quickly, then it will take more TIME to get to BIG issues like plot, characters, arc, etc.
I offer my ‘Write Stuff Special’ namely because I want writers to have an affordable way to experience a true deep edit. This is my way of helping y’all save a ton of money. When I was new, there were some pros who helped me out and this is how I pay it forward.
I can tell every bad habit and good habit in only a few pages. More importantly, I can spot major structure problems as well and will give suggestions how to fix them.
This saves a TON of time ‘fixing’ stuff that doesn’t need fixing.
***Agents can see this stuff, too, which is how they can reject a book with only a small sample. If a writer doesn’t grasp POV in the first 10 pages, it’s unlikely to get any better and no one wants to be trapped in The Blair Witch Project.
Fresh Eyes Help
Remember that even the mega-authors have editors. We never outgrow needing fresh eyes to help us get unstuck. These experts are invaluable. Using myself as an example, I had a major problem with finishing up my mystery-thriller The Devil’s Dance.
Agents spotted a problem, other editors spotted a problem, even beta readers spotted something was…off. They couldn’t tell me what. #Great
Finally, I handed it to my then editor and NOW my current coauthor. I kid you not, she read three pages and went, ‘Your problem is BLAH.’ And she was dead on.
*rails at heavens*
I’d read and reread my MS countless times over the course of a year and didn’t see that all I needed to do was remove three sentences.
Who do you think I now call FIRST when I am stuck?
Speeding Up the Cycle
Hopefully, now that we’ve explored the emotional rollercoaster that goes with revising a novel you’ll relax some. This is all natural. No, we won’t always go through all five stages. Sometimes we’ll hit them in a different order.
I have yet to figure out how one experiences NONE of these…but whatever.
Regardless, if we know this is a PROCESS and the parts of the PROCESS then we can more easily recognize when we’ve gotten STUCK.
Once we know we are stuck, we can then act. We can take a nap, work on something else for a while, take a class, read some books, crochet, watch Game of Thrones all over from beginning to end to recharge our bloodlust and dysfunction.
Just know if you’ve written a novel, even a crappy one, you did something that countless people claim they want to do…and DON’T. You finished and the most critical piece of success—in ANYTHING—is learning to be a finisher.
So give yourself a pat on the back and maybe a treat 😉 .
Before I ask for your thoughts, I want to make a little announcement…
Author Holiday Hotline
All the On-Demand bundles are ON SALE. We’ve saved all the best classes for a limited time for ON DEMAND. This means professional author training in your home, no pants required.
I STRONGLY recommend the gift that’s going to keep blessing you all year, all career long. We record all classes to make training accessible and convenient, but these recordings take up A LOT OF STORAGE space. Come the new year, we’re going to have to free up space on the servers and these classes will be gone for good. Some we might not offer again.
We have classes on speculative fiction, plotting, character, blogging, social media, etc. Scroll down and pick out the ones you want, then you’ll have the recording to watch on YOUR schedule.
Also, we have two more classes for December and some listed for January. If you sign up before December 24th, you can get $10 off.
GET $10 OFF ALL LIVE CLASSES. Use the promo code Jolly18.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Are you stuck revising your novel? Find yourself looping back and forth and never getting free? Hey, I’ve been there. Does this help you see the pattern? Give you some spark that YES, YOU CAN BE FREE! Revising a novel is TOUGH, so give yourself a break. If this job were easy it would be called rocket science 😛 .
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
Also, check out the FANTASTIC HOLIDAY DEALS we have! A lot of our On Demand classes need to be wiped from the server to make room for more training, so if you want professional training AT HOME? While in jammies during December when calories don’t COUNT? Grab you SOME! Gift it to yourself, a friend, YOURSELF!
ALSO, I’m offering my Write Stuff Special for a LOW holiday price. 20 pages of deep edit/critique for $55 and there are only 7 slots left. If you need some outside feedback to get you on the right track? Get a SPOT, TODAY! (You can use when you are ready).
In the meantime, opinions!
What do you WIN? For the month of DECEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
LIVE CLASSES! REMEMBER TO USE Holiday18 for $10 off!
The WANANANO Bundle
Instructors: Cait Reynolds, Kristen Lamb
Price: $79.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: (see below)
- The Sticky Middle Saturday, December 14, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
- NANONOWWHAT? Thursday, December 13, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST (Just enough time to recover…)
Get two live classes plus all recordings for 30% off! You can also purchase each class individually.
The Publishing Triple Threat Bundle
Instructors: Kristen Lamb, Cait Reynolds
Price: $155.00 USD (buy now and get that last tax deduction in before the end of the year!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: (see below)
- Pitch Perfect: How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that Sells Thursday, January 10, 2019. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
- Amateur Hour is Over: Self-Publishing for Professionals Friday, January 11, 2019. 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST (PLEASE NOTE THIS IS A 3 HOUR CLASS!)
- Get Ready to Roar: The Business of the Writing Business Saturday, January 12, 2019. 1:30-3:30 p.m. EST
Normally, it would be $210 USD for these three classes.
With the Triple Threat Bundle ALL THREE CLASSES (10 HOURS LIVE and RECORDINGS) for ONLY $155 USD. (Three classes for the price of TWO!)
You can also purchase each class individually.
***Registration is open until an hour before the final class. If, however, you want to attend ALL THREE CLASSES LIVE, MAKE SURE TO SIGN UP BEFORE THE FIRST CLASS ON JANUARY 10th.
ON DEMAND CLASSES!
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Tired of writing Soylent Green? Too many unfinished books trapped in the Twilight Zone? Ready to get weird…but way faster and at a professional level of weird? You came to the RIGHT PLACE! Cait and I are professional weirdos….(that sounded way more awesome in my head).
Anyway, the Blinding Them with Science Bundle is SIX HOURS of professional level training in speculative fiction at your fingertips.
***Just promise us that when you enslave the human race, we get cookies.
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These classes are pre-recorded and won’t be offered again. This is the last chance to enjoy these classes before we free up space on the servers.
About the Instructors:
Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.
Kristen Lamb is the author of the definitive guide to social media and branding for authors, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. She’s also the author of #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. She’s just released her highly acclaimed debut mystery-thriller The Devil’s Dance.
Kristen has written over twelve hundred blogs and her site was recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine as one of the Top 101 Websites for Writers. Her branding methods are responsible for selling millions of books and used by authors of every level, from emerging writers to mega authors.
Mmmm, yeah. A short while ago I received the google doc of my ALREADY EDITED ms with remarks of beta reader. Huh, my paid editor missed a lot. So I’m revising and rejoicing in how much better the book is becoming when I hit a suggested revision and slammed the brakes. Usually I try to be polite even when I don’t follow the advice, but this time I replied, NO. Later I replied No with a little explanation. Still later I replied No with a longer explanation. Then came a long discussion with all the beta readers and the collaborator and only one of the betas agreed with me. A few days later I changed the d**n thing. Is the book better now? I honestly don’t know.
I never thought of the post-writing roller coaster feelings in quite these terms but it makes perfect sense. As does the need for distance and fresh eyes. ?
Sounds like a conversation I had with my husband this past weekend. Took me longer than November to finish my book, but I completed it this weekend.
It is a dumpster fire.
The plot needs work. The happily-ever-after wasn’t really earned by the characters. I’m certain there is passive voice, word repetition, and commas scattered by the comma fairy.
Yes, it’s a dumpster fire.
But it’s done. And when I come back to it in a couple of months, I will using the smoldering remains to create something better.
My second draft is actually harder to write than the first. This time, it has to make sense. Scenes have to transition. The characters don’t get a free ride.
I will probably increase my word count by 10-20%, and that is after cutting 20%+ pf what is there.
But that’s for the second draft. Right now, I have a dumpster fire, and I am glad to have it.
That the second draft is actually harder to write than the first is very true, after that it gets a little easier.
A very good blog. Thank you. And to complement it, a link here to a much forgotten element of writing a novel – the last task – writing the Acknowledgements.
Thanks again for a great post
I tend to go straight to Depression. That takes awhile to get through, then I move to Acceptance, and get on with the job.
I spend most of my rewriting time in Depression, with occasional forays into Bargaining and Acceptance.
But I’m not going near my NaNo draft for a month or two at least – if only because the rest of my life is threatening to stage a hostile takeover if I don’t start paying it attention. I found fragments of snail shell in my slipper the other day, for reasons which still escape me. Time to focus on house and yard work? I think so…
Loved the timing of this post- I’ve set aside my nanowrimo draft and am digging back into the next set of revisions for my current WIP. Thanks so much for the guidance and the laughs!
Dear Kristen & Cait, As Batman and Robin struggled against the forces of evil, the two of you have gone to war against the proliferation of poor writing. I fear it’s an unending battle, but as a student of your blog I can attest to the fact that you are making progress. The author’s art is a talent worth pursuing and as you have so eloquently proclaimed, “It ain’t easy!” I have appreciated and been the beneficiary of your humor-laced instruction. All the best, Clare
…speaking of which, I couldn’t be more grateful for your help – even though it means I am now on draft 21 🙂 *waving from Amsterdam*
“Ticking cock”??? Methinks the art of spell check has become a bit rusty, at your computer or with your red pen.
Hey, I TOLD you even experts use editors. Don’t you feel super helpful now? 😀
Your posts are always a worthwhile read! I must say, with all due respect, that the lack of “a ticking cock” is most certainly what my writing needs.
Proving even the pros among us can miss typos 🙂
Maybe I put that in there to see if you were paying attention 😛 .
All your posts are uniquely helpful, each one and I have taken several of your classes – Bullies and Baddies (Antagonist), Writing a pitch(log-line),A Blurb and Backstory The Yarn Behind the Book, all of which I am grateful and have learned tons. Then I finished my book during NaNo. Now, I believe I need a (possibly deep?) edit for my 88,000 word YA ms. I have revised and edited on my own and written a Synopsis and query letter. Would a final edit (?) be something you could do and if so, what do you think would be a price range for my book?
Criticism is good. I see no reason to emotionalize the process of perfecting the work. OK it’s drudgery, but to me revision and line editing is only inoffensive grunt work that must be done. Writing as a profession requires a profession perspective and attitude. That approach, for any writer at any level, can only improve the outcome. If writing is your way of psychotherapy that is well and good but don’t expect it to be publishable. Doing one’s best in any endeavor is it’s own reward.
You’ve pretty much convinced me I need to hire a professional editor for the novel I’ve been struggling with. I know it has problems, but I’m having trouble knowing what/how to fix them. I definitely need a new set of eyes on said novel!
Welp, this just described the last nine years of my life. It sucks it took me so long to learn the cycle, but hey, at least maybe I’ve learned it well now. Thanks for the post. It really does make a difference to know when you’re not the only one. Also timely in that I’ve just started listening to The Story Grid podcast and they talk about the stages in one of their earlier episodes too (but from the perspective of character plots, not editing). Thank you for sharing!
As a professional editor with over 250 manuscripts under my care since 2017, I want to thank you so much, Kristen, for making the self-editing process as easy as possible for writers. Thus, making our joy-jobs much easier as professional editors.
Here’s to the success of books!
On draft two I had it checked again and it finally clicked with what they were saying but couldn’t articulate. It was written in the wrong pov style. *Brain blast!* (Ten points if you know what show that’s from. xD) So had the ‘fun’ of rewriting the whole thing, but ti changed almost everything and along the way, I learned even more about the characters and their world. I am never doing that again it’s like peeling off my own skin, getting unstuck from the other pov style was hard! @_@
It can change everything and not every story can employ the same POV. Sometimes we need a different POV to better execute the drama. Also, it helps get unstuck.