Project 2012: Starting your revision, Step 1: The read-through

I’ll start with a caveat, because this post is composed of writing advice.  What you read here is my method, and it works for me.  I’m fully behind it, because it’s tried and tested and (my favourite word) efficient.  Nothing drives me nuts more than wasting time, so this method is designed to reduce time wasting and repetition as much as possible.

You don’t have to use it.  That’s not what I’m saying.  But if you don’t know where to start, or you don’t have your own solid method, then you are welcome to give this one a try.

I break all my revising into 3 parts:

  • big picture – the story, hook, climax
  • parts – chapters, scenes
  • language – word use, grammar, voice and style

I revise this way because there is nothing more frustrating than spending a week working on a scene, only to realise that it needs to be cut.  Ugh.  Waste of time!  It also means that I don’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of sentences when I’m still surrounded by hulking great plot holes.  It’s fast, efficient and means you shouldn’t need to revisit something once it has been fixed.  Of course there are always exceptions, but let’s reduce the back and fill as much as possible.

Step 1: the read through

I try not to sit down and read the story through in one sitting.  Because then I get into reading mode, and it’s easy to get a picture of your story that is not truthful.  It’s about seeing what’s there, not what you think is there.

So when I read through, I do it chapter by chapter, and I have a spreadsheet open beside me.  the spreadsheet has the following columns:

Chapter name/number Location Synopsis Major plot events Character arc Notes

As I read, I fill in the table.  If I have nothing to put in a cell, I leave it blank.  I use the notes column to remind myself of things that jump out at me, for example, when I can see a character is weak, where I need to increase the tension.  I don’t fix them, I just note them.  If timing is important to your story, you might also put a time column in.

This spreadsheet, once completed, is a powerful document.  Your entire story, distilled down into events.  Not only can you use it for revision, you can use an updated version to help you write your query and synopsis.  Spend some time on it – it will make your revision much easier.

Also, as I read I make a list of characters as soon as they turn up, with a brief note on relations.  Sometimes I already have a character list, but as you write characters sometimes just turn up.  This makes sure that you know ALL of the characters in your story.

One thing that is vitally important is not to get caught up in words.  Not now.  Clunky sentences?  Ignore them.  Grammar, spelling, voice, language, the lot.  Ignore them.  Because if you start fiddling with it now, there’s a good chance that (a) you will get caught up in the minutae and miss the big picture, and (b) you’ll have to scrap your changes anyway.  So resist the urge.  Even if you get a blinding flash of inspiration.  It will come back.  Jot it down and move on.

Once I’ve read the whole story through, I do 2 more things.  I write down the story question (also known as the inciting incident) and the climax.  So for example, in Lord of the Rings, the story question would be “can Frodo destroy the ring before Sauron takes over the world?”  the climax, of course, is Frodo destroying the ring.

Have a look at your story question and your climax.  Do they match?  If your story starts with “Can Frodo destroy the ring?” but ends with “Frodo and Sam get married and live happily ever after”, well, you may have lost your way somewhat.

If your question and climax line up, great.  If not, have a good look at your story.  What do you need to change to bring them together?  Do you need to change the climax, or do you need to adjust the beginning of the story to match the end?  Which is better?  Which feels more real?  Don’t start writing, think.  Do all the work in your head.

Check the pathways for your plot and subplots.  Do they run smoothly?  Do they intertwine?  Are there any plots left dangling that need tidying up?  Do your characters grow and change?  Do they react to events in the story? (Very important!)  Does every event have an impact on characters and the world, and lead to future events?

Keep the writing to a minimum, but identify on your spreadsheet where you need to change things, and what needs to change.  Use colours to highlight plots, character arcs, weak points, good points.  Spend a lot of time thinking about your story and what you need to change. 

Next post, I’ll talk about mapping tension in the story and a little bit about plot arcs and character development.

13 thoughts on “Project 2012: Starting your revision, Step 1: The read-through

  1. Pingback: Revisions & “Project 2012″ « The Undiscovered Author

  2. Pingback: Project 2012: Scene selection: what to throw and what to keep | Not Enough Words

  3. Hi Merrilee, I’m very late to the party but I have been trying to follow along as a lurker.
    It’s very hard not to correct as I write, especially if I’m reading from my computer. Do you usually read from the computer or do you print a copy or the MS and use a blank spreadsheet to make your notes?

    • Welcome aboard! It’s never too late to join in.

      Well I am actually reading my handwritten first draft, so neither! It is hard not to correct as you write, and I will find myself doing small corrections as I type in, but only small stuff.

  4. Great advice! I usually do a read-through to start off with when I’m editing, but I never thought of using a spreadsheet to create a nice overview of the story!

  5. This is an absolute gem, Merrilee; and it will almost certainly save me a world of (unnecessary) pain. At the end of 2011, I dropped my paid work to half time and, within three days, after thinking I would only ever write flash, I had an idea for a novel. It helps that I love a good spreadsheet, although I’ll be tempted to populate it with formulae if I can find anything to calculate! Thanks for the spookily timely advice :)

  6. Great advice. I have a hard time not fixing bad writing as I go without getting down on myself and my writing. I’ll have to give your method a try. Sometimes I have to start over if I get too bogged down in the writing and I’d love to be able to get through a work in progress without stopping.

    I like your spreadsheet. I usually write one up as I go, but it’s not as in detail as yours. And I like the idea of thinking a lot. I do like to set a piece aside after I read it through and do lots of thinking. It’s invaluable.

  7. Not editing even the terrible spelling is a serious challenge. It makes sense, but you’re starting off with the heavy hitters. I’m going to have to have my doc as read only, but since it is the first challenge… I’ll get it done.

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