How to Identify Your Novel’s Problems: Revision Tips

How to ID what's wrong with your novel

Revision Tips: How to Identify Your Novel's ProblemsYou finished a draft of your novel! After you take some time to fully appreciate the fact that you reached the end–which you should definitely do–it’ll be time to dive into revision. But knowing where to start can be tricky. If you’re coming off the first draft, the whole story might feel like a hot mess. If you’re coming off the third, your book may be better but still not “there” yet.

So, how do you know where to begin? Like everything else in writing, I recommend breaking things down into as many steps as possible and taking things one step at a time.

Identify what stage your book’s at

The first thing to know about revision is that you don’t have to tackle everything at once. In fact, I would recommend you don’t even attempt to. If you do, the idea of everything you have to revise might get overwhelming very quickly, and it will be all too easy to give up. Instead, consider first breaking your revision down into two stages–early stage revision and late stage revision. I tend to revise at least two drafts with the “early stage” guidelines and two drafts with the “late stage” guidelines. At this point, we’re just looking at the problems. We’ll touch on addressing them later on.

Side note: These are guidelines that have helped me, but don’t be afraid to modify this to meet your own needs!

Early stage revision – First and Second Drafts

In the early stages, it’s more important to focus on the bigger developmental issues. These are the big elements that shape and carry your book. Don’t worry about the writing itself yet. At this stage, there’s a good chance you’ll have to rewrite a lot of what you’ve already written, so worrying about the language isn’t the best use of your time. Early stage revision is more focused on story and big-picture issues.

Check your characters

Take some time to assess your characters and their development. Are the coming across how you want them too? Do your main and secondary characters appear in the story with some level of consistency? Do all of them serve a purpose? If not, are there characters you can cut? Does each character have some kind of development? Do their actions and reactions line up with who they are and with their overall growth?

Check your plot/storylines

Next, consider your main plot and storylines. Does your overall plot have crisis points or rising actions that consistently build to the climax? Does the middle drag? Is your plot too front-loaded or back-loaded? Do you have storylines that get dropped halfway through the book? Are there storylines that are imbalanced or inconsistent? Are there storylines that are so small or confusing that your book might be better off without them? Is there something missing from your book that adding another storyline might explain? Do the events in each of your plotlines make logical sense? Does every scene play a role in your plot?

Check your setting/world

Now assess the world your characters are living in. Is there a good understanding of the “rules” of this world? Can readers find their way around? Is there a good grasp of the culture and problems? If there’s magic, are the rules clearly explained? If you changed history in our world, are the changes clear? If you created the world, is it fully developed? This section will probably be more important if your sci-fi or fantasy writers who developed your story’s world, but elements of this will probably apply to every writer on some level.

Late stage revision – Third and Fourth Drafts (and up)

Once you feel good about the bigger elements of your book, it’s time to take a closer look at the smaller ones. Late stage revision focuses on your book’s detail and language issues.

Check in with early stage issues

You probably made some big story changes in the earlier stages, so take a second to check back in with them and make sure everything still lines up and makes sense. If it doesn’t, I suggest fixing those elements and making sure you’re happy with the story itself before you move on.

Check believability

Now that the story is set, take a look at how believable the situations are. Do you rely on coincidence too much? Is there a reason for your characters to be acting as they are? Do things happen ‘just because you want them to’ too frequently? (This is something I’m super guilty of…)

Check your facts

If you set this story in the real world, make sure you double check all of the real world facts and situations you put your characters in. Is it possible for your characters to get from Point A to Point B in the time you say they do? If the locations your characters visit are real, do you have the details correct? If you’re writing about a culture or situation you haven’t experienced first hand, are you getting those details right?

If you set your story in a world you made up, are your details consistent? Are you following the rules you set for your world? Are you sticking with the ‘facts’ you established for yourself and your world?

It can be hard to get everything 100% correct and accurate, but you should do your very best to try.

Check your writing (aka editing)

Once you finish rewriting and making changes, and have all of the details in your story in place, you can finally worry about your word choice, grammar, and sentence structure. I highly recommend not worrying about this until the last step. This way, you won’t waste time polishing something you end up trashing or rewriting.

Implementing the changes

As you go through each section, make a list of the problems in your book, then go back through your story and tackle them one problem at a time. You might want to start with a free write or brainstorm before you start writing out the changes. I’m planning on doing a full post on how to make a revision plan, so keep an eye out for that if this is something you’re interested in hearing more about!

I hope this helps take the pressure off revision!

Keep in mind, that these are just some tips that I’ve found helpful. Play around with them. Don’t be afraid to change them up and make them your own! And if you’re wondering how to tell if your book is finished, check out this post!

Now it’s your turn: How do you approach revision? What works really well for you? What do you struggle with? Tell me in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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