The 7 Stages Of Novel Revision

We writers have different ways to do things, but when it gets dark and dirty, we share the same insanity and go through the same highs and lows and inevitable meltdowns. It’s heartening to see we’re not alone.

But also, what the fuck, people? Hasn’t anyone figured out a fool-proof, three step way to go from sketch board to bestseller? I bet someone has, HE’S JUST NOT TELLING US, that selfish bastard. *narrows her bloodshot eyes*


Revising sucks balls. It’s a fundamental law of writerly physics, just like the omnipresence of typos and the law of conservation of insecurity. We all go through it, though, and after mountains of blood-soaked paper, we eventually emerge with this glorious thing that is A READABLE NOVEL. Suddenly, all the nervous flaring seems worth it.

All the months we invested, the crying and bitching and procrastinating, the endless tweaking and crazy giggling at 4 in the morning, have coalesced into this miracle that is OUR STORY. We’re ecstatic! We’ve made it! Uncork the champagne!

But for now all we have is a messy first draft scribbled on napkins and toilet paper. What next?

1. Ha ha ha, I have no idea what I’m doing. Whee!

Sounds like drafting? That’s because it is. The first developmental revision of a novel is usually just a wild spree of adding things our MS must, like, totally have: worldbuilding, background info, childhood flashback, setting descriptions, random dialog tags, a one-eyed pony.

We just read our MS through for the first time and found plot holes, inconsistencies, missing chapters, dead goats, people wondering about bumping into walls… the usual. We must get back to drafting board and rebuild. Add a chapter here, tweak a scene there and cut another, and voila! It’s gonna be a masterpiece, mwahaha! *type type type*

2. Oh God, I have no idea what I’m doing…

We made our big scale changes and tweaked the plot, and now everything else disintegrates. It’s like an old sweater with a tiiiiny hanging thread that we pull on to make it look acceptable again, and suddenly everything unravels and we’re rocking back and forth, covered in twine, crying and swallowing lint.

It’s okay though. This is supposed to happen. A novel is a fragile thing, a complex tapestry we must weave with great care. It takes quite some effort to turn it into art, and it usually involves a lot of rage and frustration, and sometimes the sacrifice of a goat.

3. Hm. This might actually work. If I rewrite the whole goddamn thing from scratch.

When we’ve been revising for a while, we reach a dark moment when we realize that rewriting the whole MS from scratch might actually be easier than polishing this fucking turd right here.

I did this twice with The Deep Link, so I might be a little biased, but if you reach this point and you still have the energy (and crazy drive) to do it, go ahead. If not, go get a second pair of eyes (I have some in a jar under my bed) and see if they see the same thing as you. Get competent advice from writer friends or editors, and move on.

Whatever you do, don’t drop anchor in this swamp of half-revised, half-destroyed, all around messed up draft.

4. I suck. Everything sucks. I better just burn it all.

The mandatory meltdown. Whatever we decided above, we’ll feel overwhelmed and the MS will feel utterly unsavable. We’ve sharpened our critical eye and now all we see is crap.

crap everywhere

The important thing now is to take a cold shower, wash off the reek of despair, and get back to work.

5. Don’t touch it anymore. Stop it. No!

I touched it.

Now we can’t stop tweaking and editing and here a comma there a comma everywhere a fucking comma.

6. I’m working it! And I know what I’m doing! Whee!

Things are slowly making sense again, and in fact, are quite improved. The manuscript reads like an actual novel, the characters are coming to life, and the plot… hey, this might actually work! I’ll be damned.

We still need to finetune some stuff, though. Maybe add a little bit of dialog over here, make this description smoother. Does Joe really need to keep living past chapter eighteen? Hm…

7. Booyaa! I’m DONE, suckers! Bask in the glory of my masterpiece. *waits for applause* *crickets* …What now?

It’s either exhaustion, blindness, or excruciating boredom, but at one point we accept that there’s nothing more we can do to make this novel better. If we’re lucky, we’re right. If not, we might still not be entirely lost yet, because–

Next we need to find an editor who can slap the MS out of our hands, and fix all the shit we broke in phases 1 through 6.

And when she’s done, we might even have to do it all again. 😉


Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author — I deliver the aliens.

17 thoughts on “The 7 Stages Of Novel Revision

  1. *uncorks champagne, drinks it all, leaves nothing to the blog host*

    Perfection. Fuck that shit. It does not exist.

    Vero, do you write for writer readers who will be judging your every misstep from perfection because each of them has their own vision of how they like their things? Or do you write for readers who just read? They want a badass escape, perfect or not. (Both groups could nitpick grammar, so make sure that part is flawless. The rest is YOUR thing.)

    I just went through the second revision of my short novel, 45.6k words. My biggest issue is that I can’t have it done in a single day! My draft was 43k so I expanded it in revisions. Never in my mind I had an idea of rewriting, tweaking or whatever.

    Small stuff is as tough to polish as a big novel. Been there.

    What I look at during revisions is if dialogue works, if it needs fixes, if characters are in character, if their personalities bloom on pages, if they evolve (or we get to know them better, if they don’t change much; any progress [or regress] of character is good), if my themes are well defined and well illustrated, how can I strengthen all that, if needed. Are there other themes, subtleties of character, whatever awesome you just noticed that can be gracefully brought to light without overweighting the story? Is story structure pleasing to the mind’s eye? And so on. Revisions deal with things like that.

    Also, revisions, IMHO, depend strongly on the method of your writing.

    If the piece you removed collapses the whole story, do you really know your structure?
    Do you really know your novel? Yes, you wrote the whole thing, but what is it?
    What are its pieces? How they are tied together? How can you process every one of them and tighten them without rewriting the whole thing? Before you see and know all this, break your arms, but do NOT touch a draft. 😉

    Just my 2 cents.


    1. I write for readers, but I’m also anal and obsessive enough to no be able to let a MS go until it’s as good as I can possibly make it (without going totally insane).

      I must definitely improve on the going insane part, though. 😉


  2. Fun and cheeky piece, thanks. I’ll share how I avoid a lot of misery whereby revision doesn’t suck, rather it’s thrilling. How is that possible? I plan and plot extensively before writing. I do psychological profiles and back story ( mostly not used) too, so I know where plot and character are going and why before I start. Before I write, I step out all the scenes ( I know I need anyway) and mini plan them ( beginning middle and end) so I know what each needs to do. I write a scene a day (2000) words and leave it unfinished. Next day, too work into it, I read and tweak it for line edits, word use and anything amiss before going on. I don’t write them in sequence necessarily, if I’m stuck I jump ahead or back. I wind up with a card deck of scenes that I later splice together. This is the fun part. While splicing I uses an editorial process, filling in, taking out, more line edits, adding transition scenes or sequences. By the time it’s all done there is very little editing to do. Working fine threads into the existing overcoat is fun–there is discovery, nuance, foreshadowing opportunities and other connective tissues to discover and refine as I collate. In the end there isn’t much hair pulling–I feel the urge I jump elsewhere. I write the milestones and end before many of the opening scenes. The beginning is hard, but when you have scenes to work toward it sharpens your focus on the lead-up or in-between scenes.


    1. Thanks for sharing your process, Rachel. I love to see how other writers do things.

      True, the stages I described are mostly for pantsed frist drafts, without much planning in advance. Or the kind of drafts where things went sideways and the plan was thrown out the window early on.

      Revising can be fun if the draft being revised is grossly coherent and no major plot changes are needed. It stops being that much fun if you have to change (or replan) half the novel, remove characters or add subplots. That kind of major revision work can feel pretty much like starting from scratch and it gets frustrating.

      I’ve made all process mistakes I could have possibly make while I wrote & revised my novel, but it has also helped me learn a great deal about how I work best. Every writer is different. Some pants, and then rip their draft apart and rewrite it. Often more than once. Others plan meticulously, and later only have to do line edits on their first draft. Most writers fall in the middle.

      The most important thing I learned from my revision madness, though, is that I need to plan and test out plot lines in advance, and write a first draft that’s as clean as possible (line-editing excluded).


  3. I’m sort of recovering from #4 right now. For a while there, it seemed like every word I wrote was wrong, and the whole plot was off, and really, my old job wasn’t THAT bad. It helps knowing other writers go through the same thing.


    1. Yup, James, it really does help to know we’re not alone. #4 is a nut-cracker. And I’m not talking walnuts here. 😉

      Good luck and don’t look back!


  4. You made something oozing despair and self-loathing into a witty post.
    *applause* No, that wasn’t sarcasm; I really enjoyed reading this. I think it’s important that writers have something like this to go back to a read when they’re feeling hopeless, just to know everyone else goes through the same thing.

    The worst part is that it’s all self-inflicted… and we just keep doing it.


  5. This article was very timely for me. I just finished I dunno, maybe the fifth revision of my epic fantasy novel (struggle increases exponentially with book length I have found). I feel really great about it overall and have had others tell me they feel really great about it. So, I’m thinking I’m ready to send it out for submission. However, I absolutely KNOW that when I go back and read chapter one again I’m going to end right back up here:

    5. Don’t touch it anymore. Stop it. No!
    I touched it.

    This made me laugh out loud because it’s so freakin’ true! UGGHHH!

    There comes a point when you aren’t revising it to make it work anymore. That becomes passé. Now you’re revising it to make it GREAT. To make it PERFECT. To make it editor-proof? HAHAHA What’s the point?


    1. LOL, Anne! I do that too (to the point of insanity), and it always reminds me of Marge Simpson when she won a cleaning squad all for herself, and polished the house on elbows and knees like a maniac to make a good impression on the cleaning ladies. 😀


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