By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Revisions are a part of writing, and as much as we wish they’d go smoothly, they don’t always work out like we planned. Some manuscripts fight us and nothing we do makes them any better. When we run into such a troublesome beast, it helps to step back and figure out the problem before we make a mess of our stories.
Here are five reasons why your revision might not be working:
1. You’re Not Done Writing the Novel
It’s not uncommon to reach the end of a first draft and call it, “done.” In many cases, the draft is finished and you’re ready to move onto revisions, but if the story is still rough and there are still things to work out, it might not actually be “done.” Trying to revise when you still have plot holes, or you’re not sure about the character arc, or there’s a subplot that so doesn’t work after you changed that scene in Chapter Fifteen, often results in a revision that feels like it’s not making the novel better.
What should you do to fix it? Keep drafting until the story is the way you want it and you’ve filled in all the plot holes. Once you’re happy with how the story generally unfolds, then start revising. Take the solid story and make it better.
2. You’re Trying to Make Too Many People Happy
Beta readers and critique partners are wonderful things, but if you’re not careful, you could be letting what they want influence your book. If your romance-reader friend wants more romance, but you’re writing a mystery, adding a love interest to make her happy is probably going to knock your plot out of whack and force the story where it doesn’t want to go–just like adding a high-powered action subplot could ruin your sweet romance novel. Revising to make everyone happy isn’t good for your novel.
What should you do to fix it? Choose only the feedback that will improve the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t be swayed by great advice that doesn’t serve your story, and be true to the heart and soul of your novel.
3. You Have No Idea What Your Novel is Actually About
Some ideas come to us and we jump in and write them without really knowing where they’re going. While there’s nothing wrong with this (every writer has their own process), if you haven’t yet figured out the story behind this idea, how can you possibly revise it well? You could end up changing scenes that support that story. A first draft isn’t always ready for revision, and often, it takes a pass or two to get the story the way you want it before you can start to refine it.
What should you do to fix it? Take some time to figure out what novel you’re trying to write and the story you’re trying to tell. Crazy as it sounds, writing a query letter works wonderfully here to help you pinpoint the core aspects of your story–the protagonist, the antagonist, the core conflict, the stakes, the setting, and the motivations. If you can’t write even a rough query, that’s a red flag you don’t yet know what your story is.
Bonus Reason 3.5: The Novel Doesn’t Work
As much as I hate to say it, there are times when a novel just flat out doesn’t work. It’s a great idea, but you haven’t found the right execution for it yet. Maybe you need a different protagonist, or it’s the wrong genre, or the entire idea works better as a short story than a novel.
What should you do to fix it? It’s hard, but let the manuscript sit for a few weeks and then read it again. If you still see no way to fix the problems, let it go and accept that you might still need to figure out a few key pieces before this idea can work. Some stories aren’t ready to be told.
4. You’re Scared You’ll Mess Up Your Manuscript
If you’ve never revised before, or you made a huge mess the last time you tried, you might be scared to start a revision. Maybe you’re not sure about the plot, or you have doubts about the characters, or the theme feels all wrong for the tone. You’re not sure what to do and worry that you’ll change the wrong things and ruin the story.
What should you do to fix it? Save your original draft in another file in the unlikely event that you do mess up your manuscript, and then trust your instincts. You know your story, you know what you want it to be, so take your revision one step at a time and start developing that story. If you’re not sure what to do, ask friends for feedback or hire an editor for guidance.
5. You’ve Never Revised a Novel Before and You’re Lost
If you’ve never revised before, there’s probably a lot you don’t know (and that’s okay, we all start somewhere). You might be trying to work on issues in the wrong order, you might not know what to look for, or even what questions to ask. You might not know what a solid story structure is or the best way to order your scenes. These are all skills that take time to learn and develop, and it can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before.
What should you do to fix it? Learn what to do and give yourself the confidence to move forward. There are plenty of great blogs out there with advice (such as WITS, or my own Fiction University), and hundreds of books with step-by-step instructions (I just released one, in fact–Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft) to guide you. You might even look for classes in your area or online, or hire a book doctor or writing coach to help you learn (if your budget allows–don’t spend money you don’t have, it’s not necessary).
Revisions don’t have to be a hassle and can even be a lot of fun. If you’re facing one that’s causing you trouble, take the time you need to figure out what the problem is and the best way to fix that problem.
Have you ever struggled with a revision?
Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.
To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.
It’s easy to enter. Simply visit, leave a comment, and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.
Looking for help revising your novel? Check out my new book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook, a companion guide to Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft and the upcoming Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.