Say you’ve finished the first, grueling draft of your story, and you’re taking a well-deserved breather. Congratulations! Now begins the real work.
How to approach the revision of that initial messy draft?
First, get a perspective check. When you’re too close to your manuscript, you’ll experience story myopia. Both the faults and strengths are out of focus, and you can’t edit properly.
So leave some time between draft and edit — 2-3 weeks, if possible. Then get started. Revising is recursive. You’ll find yourself going back and forth between big stuff and little stuff, between plot holes and line tweakings.
But if at all possible, discipline yourself to do the big stuff first.
Why big stuff first? Well, there’s no point in correcting spelling if you’re going to edit out the word anyway.
When I was a teen in the ‘70s, everyone had big hair, and I, with my curly white-boy ‘fro, was no exception. Like many, I used a wide-toothed Afro pick to shape my shaggy locks. It helped catch the big stuff, like twigs, dustballs, and small rodents in the hair.
So go through your draft with an Afro pick, looking for these six big things:
1. Gaps in logic: If your character is a regular kid throughout most of the story, then she suddenly starts practicing magic without explanation, it’s jarring. You’ve taken a logic leap and not brought us along. Make sure key developments are properly set up and foreshadowed.
2. Missing/inconsistent motivation: All actions and dialog must be motivated. Go through the story looking at your main character’s actions and dialog. Ask yourself, would this character really do this or say that? If your answer is “no,” then revise.
3. Theme: Does your book have one? How can you bring it out even more? In my story Key Lardo, the theme of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes emerged — but I didn’t see it until the second revision. [Tip: In picture books, your theme may be as simple as a catchy refrain you can repeat throughout.]
4. Linkages: Linkages make your story stronger. When I first wrote PIRATES OF UNDERWHERE, I made the main character, Stephanie, a math whiz. But she didn’t use that skill to resolve the main problem in the story. In revising, I fixed that and added mock math problems to open certain chapters.
5. Loose ends, unresolved threads: Are there any promises made that don’t get fulfilled? Does one character figure strongly in the beginning, make a threat, and then disappear for the rest of the book? Don’t leave the reader hanging. Tie up any loose ends.
6. Overall flow: Does the story have momentum, or does it get bogged down here and there? Often the problem is exposition chunks – like where you take a whole page to explain the history of the corset, thus bringing your story to a screeching halt. Make your exposition chunks smaller, and scatter them throughout.
Of course, that first, Afro-pick revision only catches the big stuff. To discover the smaller inconsistencies and problems in your story, you’ll have to make another pass with a fine-tooth comb.
But that’s a topic — and a hair care task — for another time.
Bruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 25 books for young readers, including the Edgar-nominated Chet Gecko Mysteries and Snoring Beauty, one of Oprah’s Recommended Reads for Kids. He is a popular speaker and storyteller, having presented at conferences, schools and libraries across North America. Subscribe to his free e-newsletter of writing tips at: www.brucehalewritingtips.com. Or check out Bruce’s books at www.brucehale.com.