February 3, 2011

revising a manuscript - let it simmer

I’m going to have a short series on revisions, starting today. I’m not sure how many posts will be involved; there may in fact be several weeks’ worth. Only the future can tell us. Once we know for certain, I'll be sure to post a summary of everything.

You’ve finished the first draft of your novel.

*asplosion of confetti on your face*

Finishing a novel is no easy feat. It warrants much celebration and confetti throwing. It’s too bad that completing a first draft is really only the first cobblestone on the long, winding road toward producing a book of publishable quality. We’re not even talking about publication here. That’s a whole different monster entirely.

Now, the absolute first step when starting revisions is to take that newly birthed manuscript and stow it away in a drawer. I can’t say this enough. As soon as you write that last word, take the sheaf of papers, or easily movable digital file, and bury it in the recesses of some scary, easily forgotten place. And most importantly, leave it there.

You don’t have to forget about the story. No. You can think on it all you want, but by the Nine Divines, do not touch it.

This is the longest, scariest, most difficult part of revising a story: not doing it. You may think that you’re wasting precious time, but trust me on this. It’s the best thing you can do for your story. While your manuscript is sitting in the proverbial drawer, it’s simmering like a good stew. The flavor gets better the longer it sits. This is a fact. Unlike a stew, however, this particular recipe requires that it simmers for more than two or three hours. It requires at least a week, sometimes months before it will be ready for tasting and additional seasoning.

You might even decide that after those months, the original recipe is not quite right. It needs more beef, less carrots, more broth, a dash more salt, and maybe some dumplings would go well with it. So you start fresh.

I’m serious about this. Sometimes, a story needs more than line-edits. Sometimes, a story needs a rewrite. Now that’s a lot of work. I know. I understand. You just wrote a 100,000 word novel, and now I’m telling you to rewrite it? Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

No amount of spell-checking, sentence swapping, or comma placement adjustment is going to turn your first draft into the beautiful novel it was born to be. Line-editing is the absolute last revision go-to.

Now, how exactly does one rewrite a novel? I’ll tell you next week. Most importantly, let that novel stew. Let it simmer. Let the flavors build


  1. And to think: my students think that a rewrite of a PARAGRAPH is too great a request.

  2. Hard to argue with a food analogy! :) But I totally agree-- revision needs seriously fresh eyes, that only come after a lot of time apart.