Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 30, 2016

5 Reasons Your Revision Isn't Working

Janice Hardy RGB 72By 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?

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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.

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Janice Hardy #3Looking 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.

About Janice

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.

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68 comments on “5 Reasons Your Revision Isn't Working”

  1. My problem with my current WIP is between #3 and 3.5. There's something I need to know about my protagonist - that last click of a puzzle piece.

    There, I've admitted it in public.

    Thanks for your wisdom, as always, Janice.

    1. Admitting it is the first step to fixing it πŸ™‚ At least now you know what area to focus on.

  2. Number 1 is my problem child. My first draft has tons of holes. Second draft gets a pretty thorough overhaul. Then I'm usually ready to start revising on the third draft. USUALLY. At least that's the plan.

    Great advice, Janice. Always love seeing you here on WITS!! πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks, always fun to visit πŸ™‚ On the bright side, you know you take 2-3 drafts before you're ready, so you don't have to stress over it. It's just part of your process.

    1. As much as we all complain about the dreaded query letter, the exercise of writing the pitch paragraph(s) is pure gold. I still write a pitch paragraph for every concept before I start writing. For one thing, it helps me grab the idea especially if I'm not going to start working on the story for a while, but more specifically related to this post, it helps you get a better sense of what your story is about.

    2. It's SO helpful. It covers all the critical info, so you know right away if you're missing something.

  3. My novel had problems 1-5 for about 2 years. Then I realized I was trying to write a story about a kid who went to public school, because that's what every middle grade comp had. But the story lent itself to a main character who is homeschooled - a world I was more familiar with anyway. When I started writing what I knew instead of what I thought I was supposed to write, the book came together and I was finally ready to move onto revisions.

    1. I'm glad you finally found the story in your idea πŸ™‚ I've faced the same issue before and it's so frustrating.

  4. I can't tell if my comment has posted and is waiting for approval, but just in case it hasn't, thanks for a fabulous post, Janice! I'm sharing with my writer friends.

  5. Like Orly, number 1 is my issue too. Plot holes were sinking my story. And thank you, Janice, for explaining so clearly the difference between drafting and revision. So drafts apply to the big, macro/developmental/structural edits? I'm still at work on my first novel and it's been an interesting, sometimes exciting, learning curve.

    1. Lisa, what I found works for me is to NOT think about editing during my first draft. I just let the story go. When I'm at a point that I feel mostly done with the top level story, I read through it and make notes on what's missing. Then go back and write those additions/changes. Then I'm usually to switch gears into revisions because the story itself is there.

    2. Yes, though other writers might have different opinions. To me, a draft is when you're still working. Once the story is "done" you can move on to revising it. Treating them differently takes the pressure off. If I'm still drafting, I'm still writing, so I don't have to worry if it's polished or perfect. I've found these tiny distinctions make a HUGE mental difference when working on a novel. It's crazy, but it works πŸ™‚

  6. I'm always leery of typing "The End" because I'm worried I'll leave something out. Sometimes I imagine my stories so vividly, but the details don't translate to the page, or I'll think of something later that I should have added. Thanks for the great post! And the chance to win a crit.

    1. Think of it as the end of the text, but not necessarily the completion of the story. πŸ™‚ Or mentally add, "for now" after you type it. That way, if it changes, no biggie.

  7. I have a finished manuscript written some time ago. As I read your article about revision, I suddenly knew I had to start fixing it AND also continue writing my newest wip, Return to Roseville, Cajun Posse 2

  8. For my current WIP, I revised the opening chapters again and again until I figured out the heroine's GMC wasn't working and she was coming across as a gold digger, not a woman who had an honorable goal that . There was also an entire thread that wasn't needed, and making sure there were no breadcrumbs left on the table after I cut it was another challenge.

    What I find, is if a scene needs work, or there are major revisions, it's best to start that chapter from scratch in a new file rather than try to move things around and fiddle with it while it's still in the master file. (And I always save my MS with a new file name every day so I can always go back and not worry about losing too much.)

  9. I write Christian non-fiction and find that many of these apply there as well.
    1) A manuscript may not yet be completed
    2) People pleasing versus God pleasing
    3) No idea should not apply to this genre
    3.5) When it does not work, that can be an organizational issue
    4) Fear seems to apply to the novice
    5) Same as #4 with the clueless

    Christian writing can have the added benefit of the Holy Spirit as the silent co-author. I had one manuscript that was largely written with that inspiration. The problem for Christian authors is that sometimes we don't hear His voice or don't hear it correctly.

    Thanks for your advice, Tom

  10. Great information, Janice. I'm hoping I'm on my last revision. As a neophyte, I'm not even sure how many revisions I've done, but each time it's opened my eyes to little holes and better story flow.

    1. Fingers crossed for you, then! Hope it's the last pass and you're happy with the story at the end of this round.

  11. It's helpful for me to think about drafting through those rough patches, as I revise. It takes the pressure off and helps my creative side relax. Thank you!

    1. It really does help. Just changing your perspective and how you define something can make a huge difference.

  12. This is so on point for me. I am trying to fill plot holes right now and panicked because the wordcount just kept growing. I started editing and deleting and I still have to fill holes! It's like a blanket where one thread comes unraveled and holes start appearing everywhere... Anyway, thank you πŸ™‚

    1. That happens, so don't worry about it for now. Get the story how you want it, then you can start looking for places to trim. It's much easier than you'd think to curt words. Just deleting 10 words a page can save you thousands of words, and that's only one sentence πŸ™‚

  13. Number three really tripped me up with my current MS. I saw that suggestion to write a rough version of the query in another post of yours, so I tried it out. It was much more helpful than I thought it would be. I had a boiled down version of my story with all the basics laid out. Now I'm working on finishing my second draft, making sure my subplots and secondary characters tie into the theme of my story. Such a great suggestion.

    1. Glad it worked as well for you as it does me. I use it as both a plotting tool and a revision tool. It's a great focusing tool.

  14. Though Reason #2 is a great danger, I found that joining an online critique group allowed me to open up a novel that had been static for a long time. I have to be careful not to get lost in some of the trivia that pops up (individual readers' pet peeves, for example, or whether I use a comma after even a three-word introductory element), but I was starved for readers for far too long. This group, together with my F2F group, has given me a sense of what others think my book is about. That's incredibly useful information, because we are all often too close to our own work to see some of the surprising ways it's succeeding as well as where it falls short of our hopes.
    This list really resonates! Thanks!

    1. Crit groups are great. I love my crit partners. They're also good practice for working with editors πŸ™‚ You learn what advice to heed and what to ignore.

  15. All interesting, though I'm never quite sure what's wrong with mine. Some days I wish I could just ship out revisions until it gets to the part where you make sure everything is pretty and perfect. πŸ™‚ Such is the life of a writer.

    1. Do you have beta readers or crit partners to work with? Maybe you would benefit from having some outside feedback to guide you. It's hard to know what to do sometimes. We're too close to our work.

  16. #4 was my big bugbear with my current WIP. I needed to make some MAJOR revisions (think swapping chapters around, adding a frame, and creating an entire magic system), and I admit I chickened out several times before I got up the nerve to go for it.

    1. Glad you finally dove in! Grats! It can be scary, especially if it's a story we love. I hope it's going smoothly for you now πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks! I have drafts in my files right now that need simmering before I can do anything with them. I love the ideas, but I haven't quite found the right angle to revise them yet.

  17. I'm dealing with this RIGHT NOW:) I especially like the suggestion of writing a query letter (or for that matter, the Amazon description or back cover blurb) to bring the core of the story into focus.

    1. Any blurb works. The goal is just narrow down your story and pinpoint those vital core elements so you can write it πŸ™‚

  18. Excellent post and tips. I suffer from "You're trying to make too many people happy" and my personal favorite: "The latest, greatest, hot writing tips." I'll be revising and think, "Oh, but you shouldn't use the word 'said' if we already know who's speaking..." Even if it makes a perfect break in the delivery of the sentence? Or the constant hammering about "show, don't tell," even when telling works better in certain parts. I could go on and on, but I won't. Often, during revisions, I'm my own worst enemy!

    1. Oh, I rewrote my started novel so many times after reading great advice somewhere πŸ™‚ I was totally plagued by that πŸ™‚

  19. I have no clue on revising and was just asking someone how to begin on this. I was lucky with one story that I had a one on one critique partner that understood my brain order and helped me with this.

    1. Very lucky πŸ™‚ I'd be lost without my crit partners. If you're still lost, or need some extra help, my blog has a ton of information. (And my book on revising, of course -grin-)

    1. It really can. When you're new, you haven't yet learned how to tell good advice from bad, and what advice will work for you. You'll get there, though! It just takes practice.

  20. Drafting a query letter early on in the writing process is a great suggestion. I go even further and write both a short (1-2 page) and a long (5-10 page) synopsis. Those help me avoid taking the wrong fork in the road while writing. That helps guarantee my first draft is ready for the revision round.

    1. Your process sounds similar to mine. I also like to have a working synopsis for every novel. I start with the blurb, then flesh out to get all the major turning points, then do the larger synopsis.

  21. After revising 1200 pages in twelve weeks, I can attest to points in your post, Janice. Took yesterday and today off, but I'm starting to revise another book tomorrow. Back to the salt mine...

  22. Like how u say to write a query letter, and how "If you can’t write even a rough query, that’s a red flag you don’t yet know what your story is."

    That's probably true, and sound advice!

    1. It hasn't let me down yet πŸ™‚ Best tool I have for testing a story idea.

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