A pantser’s guide to manuscript revision

If you’re a pantser like me, revising your manuscript might pose some interesting challenges.

For instance, my current MS started as a kind of futuristic/Western/fantasy novel. After a while, the world and the story shifted into focus, and I found myself writing something very different to what I had started.

I love having an organic process, learning about my story as I go. Which is lucky because I’ve tried and tried to plan but this seems to be the only way I can work.

And as I meander down strange paths and anxiously ponder false turns, I repeat one mantra in my mind like a guiding light – I’ll fix it in the edits, I’ll fix it in the edits – and that helps me to keep going when I have no idea what the feck I’m doing.

And then, the first draft somehow gets finished and I somehow don’t set the whole thing on fire and then –

The edits.

I should have seen that coming, right?

So, here are a few things I’ve learned from revising a couple of novels in the past few years.

 

  1. Trust your gut

A lot of the time, the feedback I get from beta readers, (who I love and rely on heavily), rings a very loud and familiar bell. I read it and I say – yes of course. I knew. I knew that scene was off. I knew the character motivation didn’t quite work. I knew I’d fudged something there.

So these days, I’m learning to listen to and trust my own sense of what works and what doesn’t, even when I can’t quite articulate why.

It sounds simple when it’s put like that, but this is something new for me. Particularly when trusting my gut instinct leads to big changes – a whole character erased, a scene deleted, a chapter completely re-written.

I find, if I’m really scared about the change I’m making, it helps to make sure my versioning is good, so I know I can always just go back to the way things were. Mostly, though, my gut seems to be right.

 

  1. Love the knife

You need to be a cold-blooded executioner of your own prose.

Don’t be afraid to cut words, cut characters, cut scenes. If you can cut without damaging the flow or the meaning, you probably should. If a character is not necessary to drive your story forward, and you can remove them without causing too many ripples, then you need to reconsider whether they should exist at all.

Embrace the dizzying power of the delete button!

 

  1. Write the story, not the words

This one has taken me a long time to come around to. There is a time and a place for wordsmithing, and the first couple of rounds of revisions are probably not either.

Noting (2) above, don’t spend too much time polishing something that might soon not exist. Focus on the flow of the story above all – the emotional journey, the stakes, the changes in your characters.

Get the big picture right before you make it pretty.

 

  1. Use your brain

I have writing buddies who are amazing at analysing characters and plot, motivation, story structure, world logic.

I am not, generally, one of those people. So I’ve had to learn to switch the logical, analytical part of my brain on during revisions. For me, this is the time to think about the why and where and how of the story, to ensure it makes sense, that my characters are either acting consistently, or if they’re not there’s a damn good reason why not. I have to actually think hard about what is on the page in front of me, and not take it for granted just because it’s there.

Again, this sounds simple, but it has taken me years to consciously realise this is something I need to do.

 

If you’ve got any techniques or resources you’d recommend for revising a novel, drop into the comments below, I’d love to hear from you! (I still have a bit to go on my current book, so any inspiration is welcome!!)

 

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7 thoughts on “A pantser’s guide to manuscript revision

  1. I’m just started my first round of revisions, too, and I swear I’m going to end up writing the entire book at the rate I’m going. For now, I’m just making notes in a separate file, but in the first five chapters, I’ve already got two with a lot of questions against them about how things should probably have actually worked. I am finding myself creating a story bible at this point – I know people swear by creatnig them at the start, but I have never managed that.

    Good luck as you continue! I am done with uni and shows for a bit, so we will have to organise another get together soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that feeling! I rewrote the first third of my book… I love the story bible idea. Was just thinking I need to do one retrospectively, since the current MS is book one of a series. I often feel like I’m doing things backwards. Good luck and yes a catch up soon is in order!!

      Like

  2. Love this! The number of times I spend ages getting a paragraph right in my edits, and then completely delete it later. Trying (TRYING) to do my current WIP just like you mention here – big picture first, then make it pretty… fingers crossed… for both of us!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a theory that this is why many first novels take so long to write. The author just keeps on editing; that, at least, was what I did. As writers become more experienced they learn that there has to be some kind of process. I still find first draft ‘just go for it’ writing very difficult though!
    Great post!

    Like

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