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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My critique group says that my heroine is a “Mary Sue.” She’s too perfect and therefore unbelievable. I tried giving her some flaws in my next draft, but now my critique group doesn’t like her at all. How do I balance it out so my heroine is neither a goody two-shoes nor an unlikable witch?
I sympathize. Making a character three-dimensional is tough.
Nobody wants to read about someone who never makes a mistake. In fact, the entire point of a novel is to watch a heroine grow and change. She can’t do that if she’s already perfect. And if all the other characters in the novel already love her, there will be no conflict.
Most writers realize that their heroine needs some flaws, but they aren’t sure what kind of flaws to give her, so they choose things at random. Suddenly, their heroine is clumsy, or short-tempered, or her house is always a wreck, or she’s late for everything. Any flaw that sounds interesting or fun gets thrown into the book.
The problem with this? Readers will feel the randomness. Your character won’t seem well-rounded. She’ll seem scattered, and therefore, readers won’t believe in her.
Instead, look at your heroine’s strengths. What are they? Make a list on paper. Now turn them upside down. What are the downsides of those wonderful positive qualities you gave your heroine? Is she extremely independent? That probably also means she isn’t good at asking for help when she needs it. Does she see the best in everyone? That can also mean she’s naive, and lets people take advantage of her. Is she brainy? In what ways can you make her “too smart for her own good” as she only sees the high-minded, logical answer to a problem, never the down-to-earth practical one? Is your heroine very athletic, winning every race or match? In what ways is her competitive nature going to be a problem for her?
You can also flip this. If you’re having trouble thinking of the downsides of your heroine’s strengths, you can also look at the upside of her flaws. Perhaps you have a character who is very cynical, always looking for hidden motives or waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s the person who will spot danger first, long before the other characters see it.
You can give your heroine any strengths. You can give her any flaws. But it’s crucial that you make one the mirror image of the other. If you want to make a well-rounded character whom readers will believe in, you need to make these positive and negative qualities mirror one another. Her good traits are her bad traits, and vice-versa.
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.