Five Books You Need When Revising Your Novel
National Novel Writing Month is over and you did it! You wrote a novel. Congratulations, writer! But now you might be wondering…what’s next?
Perhaps you’ve written a novel that’s almost readable, but you’re overwhelmed at the thought of all the work that lies ahead. Many writers give up at this point, which is a shame, because often, with just a little tweaking, a novel can be transformed from ho-hum to wow!
The bad news is, you have to do the work. Revisions often take as long–or longer–than writing the first draft. And being in the revision trenches feels bad. You’ve traded the certainty of rising word counts for the uncertainty of cuts and changes. Some days, you might not know if you’re making your book better or just different.
The good news is, you don’t have to go through the revision process alone. There are very good guidebooks that will help you understand what you need to do and show you how to do it. Here are five of my favorites (with a bonus book at the end).
Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld
Obstfeld points out mistakes without being negative, and shows what works without being preachy. This book is filled with good examples to show you what to do and how to do it. You don’t have to know your novel’s exact problems in order to fix them. As long as you kind of, sort of, mostly know what your novel needs, you’ll be able to find the answers in Fiction First Aid.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Sometimes, NaNoWriMo participants write so fast that they lose sight of their plot. Bell helps writers think in terms of structure, building the story with solid scenes that go together in a logical order. Plot and Structure is written in easy-to-grasp language that’s free of jargon. Bell starts with a basic overview, followed by detailed chapters on beginnings, middles, and ends. Each part of a novel has a specific job to do, and Bell details how to hook readers, elevate the stakes, stretch the tension, and satisfy reader expectations.
The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black
Writing rules aren’t meant to stifle writers. The rules exist because they are the best practices for communication. The better you understand the rules, the better you can apply them–or bend and break them when the time is right. The Anatomy of Prose will help you tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and elevate your descriptions. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions. This book covers a lot of ground in very short chapters that get right to the point.
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
Novels are emotion-delivery vehicles. We read nonfiction for information, but novels are all about going on an emotional journey with the characters. As writers, we can move readers to laughter or tears, limited only by our storytelling skills. The Emotion Thesaurus offers a list of a hundred and thirty primary emotions such as anger, dread, relief, shame, and satisfaction. Each entry gives clues about how to express the emotion with physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations. This book won’t do the work for you, but when you’re putting the finishing touches on your novel, this book can help your characters express their emotions in a believable way.
Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth
In this short book, Gerth explains every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Show, Don’t Tell begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s necessary to do so. Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.
The Big-Picture Revision Checklist by Alex Kourvo
You didn’t think I’d finish this list without mentioning The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, did you? This book is much more than a simple checklist. It’s a comprehensive step-by-step guide to the revision process in a very small package. With this book at your side, you’ll write more likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and book blogger who loves how-to books almost as much as she loves key lime pie.
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Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.
I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.
Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.
Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.
But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.
The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.
You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.
Keep writing. You’re doing great.
About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.