How to Revise a Novel (starring James McAvoy)

Greetings from Week Two of my revision push. I am tired and braindead. How are you today? Fine thanks. Please set your butter knife on the edge of my table. Katydids are not native to Sudan. Eat my shorts!

(Okay. Perhaps things aren't quite this bad. Not really. Not yet.)

But I am still working my fingers off at all hours of the night, and I am still desirous of a long nap. A long nap that lasts 2 - 3 days (minimum). On the plus side, I'm getting so much done! Yippee! Pages and pages and pages and . . . what was that, Stephanie? Don't get too carried away?


Okay. So maybe the pages I've revised are the ones that don't need as much work. Maybe this week will be tougher. Maybe next week will be even worse. Then again...

Maybe not.

I mean really. I'm on a delirious writing high right now. WHEEEE!!! I AM AWESOME!!!

Too bad we all know what follows a high. No. Not a trip to the supermarket for eighteen boxes of Lucky Charms and a gallon of Sunny D. I'm talking about THE CRASH. So before the inevitable (THE CRASH), I want to talk about what's been getting me through revisions. In hopes that they'll keep helping me. And, perhaps maybe kinda sorta, they might help you too.

I know, I know. You are wondering when JAMES MCAVOY will show up again. How JAMES MCAVOY ties into all this.

He doesn't.

But this is the genius of the Internet. I can post pictures of whatever I like, even if they have NOTHING TO DO with what I'm talking about. Isn't that great? It's pretty much the best thing about having a blog. The pictures.

A picture!

Isn't that nice? Would you like another one? Okay, but don't say I never did anything for you.

Another picture! In color!

Jeez, I need some sleep, right? Or how about . . . COFFEE??? Hey look! I've got one that actually works for this!


Revisions. Focus, Stephanie, focus.

So in addition to the many, many mocha lattes Jarrod has served me (bless him), I have a few new tricks up my sleeves. I mean, Jarrod and his glorious mocha lattes are obviously my BEST tricks, but some other things are helping right now too. Here goes:


Are you still reading this?

1) Discover Bookmarks

No, not the cardboard things that hold your place in large Russian novels. Bookmarks! In Microsoft Word! HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT BOOKMARKS? (Seriously, people. Why didn't you give me the memo?)

Now, I realize Microsoft Word isn't the greatest of writing programs. In fact, it sort of blows. But as it's the industry standard, I prefer to use it. Saves me the hassle of transferring the files later, right? Right.

I discovered the bookmark function a few days ago on Writer Unboxed. The link explains them better than I can, but basically, they save me a LOT of time.

I've marked all of my chapters, so that I can flip easily from scene to scene. This means NO MORE SCROLLING! (Word doesn't have the friendliest of scrolling tools, does it? Try to move the bar down a page or two, and suddenly, the text is seventy pages later.) That saves me a hundred hours a week right there. Practically.

I also use the bookmark function to mark places that still need work, so I can move forward with a peace of mind, knowing I won't accidentally forget about them. Because how mortifying would it be to print up your pages and hand them to a friend, only to have them run into a passage like this?

"[Very witty comment about cucumbers]," said Tanya Rastermuffin.

[ACTION]. He couldn't believe her nerve! [Something about bellybutton smelling like carrots? turnips? cabbage? Or NOT??]

"[Reply]," said Tony. "But what about Ms. von Piddington? You didn't think
she forgot about [cucumber thing], did you?"


(And, yes, brackets. I love brackets! I use them all of the time as place holders.)

I am impressed you are still reading.

2) (Re)Break Out the Books

Remember those writing books you LOVED and scribbled on and highlighted? (And I HOPE you're taking notes in those books! Now is not the time to be delicate.) Yeah. Time to look at them again. No need to read the whole thing, but I've found a quick breeze-through is healthy. My current reference is Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. He has the elements of a novel broken down in such a handy way, and with such excellent examples, that I can easily flip to something helpful. So dig out your favorite book, and remind yourself why it inspired you in the first place.

Also, if you're like me, you probably take a lot of notes. Research, research, research. But -- if you're like me -- you also have a tendency to take these notes, and then promptly leave them in a drawer or binder or notebook somewhere, never to be opened again. OPEN IT! You'll be amazed at what you already know. I don't know how many times I've opened up my notes to find the answer to my problem staring me back in the face.

And one more book I can't live without these days: my thesaurus. And not the quickie Internet one, but an actual physical drop-it-on-your-foot and you'd-say-ouch thesaurus. Because the genius of a BOOK thesaurus is that when you look up a word, you are inevitably led to pages of other fantastic words, words which you had never even CONSIDERED before. Whereas when you use a thesaurus online, you look up your one word, you get your eight synonyms, and you're done. The flipping is often where I find my juiciest words, not to mention the marvelous "CONCEPT" indexes in the back. So if you haven't held your thesaurus in a while, time to pick it up.

You mean you're skipping the reading?

3) "Find" "these crappy words"

This isn't new for me, but as I use it 500 times per sitting, it's worth mentioning. The "Find" feature on Word. I have a tendency to repeat myself, so I took the suggestion from Justine Larbalestier's excellent rewriting advice and created a list of dangerous words. Words I COMPLETELY abuse.

Words such as:


And so on. You'd think my characters were popping happy pills by how often I catch them with "wide grins." THIS MUST BE STOPPED! Enter the "Find" feature. Not only do I check my list frequently, but anytime I have any doubts as to whether I've used a word recently, I search for it.

(Today I worked on a scene that takes place at night, and realized I'd used the words "dark" and "darkness" four times! NOO!! This is unacceptable.)

Anyway. The "Find" feature + a dangerous words list. It'll be your best friend.

You're just looking at the pictures?

4) Delete! Delete! Delete!

If you are a writer (and if you aren't, that means you're probably just looking at James McAvoy, and I can say all sort of peculiar things right now, and you'll never know. Bubblegum! Tortoises! Hammer pants!), you'll have heard the -- rather annoying -- phrase "kill your darlings." Meaning, you have to cut the bits you love if they aren't necessary to your story.

But it's not JUST the darlings that must be killed. It's those other bits. Those in-between bits you keep fiddling with in stupid, time-consuming ways. Moving the dialogue tags. Changing the transitions. Adding and subtracting adjectives.

It's not working is it?

Yeah. If the passage jumps out at you, if you MUST fiddle with the phrasing every time you read through, then . . . it's gotta go. The whole thing.


The interesting thing is that usually when I run across these passages, once I hit the "delete" key, I don't even have to replace the text with something else. It's just something stupid and extra that my fingers added in when I wasn't looking!

Delete delete delete!

That's okay. I'm not actually writing this.

5) Avoid

In this case, I mean avoiding things you enjoy. Your hobbies. The ones that take up your free time. Sucks, doesn't it? But if you ever want to finish your novel (And I do! I so do!), you're going to have to cut a few things from your life, albeit on a temporary basis.

Things I have cut from my life:

Television -- Because I can't turn it off once I turn it on. I physically can't. I will watch six consecutive hours of VH1 pop culture countdown reruns if left unattended.

Books -- Normally, I read several a week. I'm down to ONE. I have a LOT more time now.

Movies -- No more movies at home, because that involves turning on the dreaded TV set. (But a trip to the theater, where you are forced out of your seat when the house lights come on, can be a nice, temporary break)

Internet -- I don't keep my laptop (what I write my novel on) hooked up online. If I did, you'd better believe I would not be talking about revisions right now. Instead I would be psyching myself up to finish Chapter Three. As much as we all love it, the Internet = Mindsuck. (Worse than TV, even.)

So what do you like to do in your free time? Stop doing it. Presto! Look at all of that time on your hands you suddenly have!

(Yeah. It sucks. But do it anyway.)

I am just looking at the pictures too. This is a nice one, isn't it?

In conclusion: Pancakes, twaddle, and beatniks. I am tired. I want to go to bed. But I have revisions to do, so I'll see you later (to beg you for more advice).

I'm going to write.


  1. Anonymous7:36 AM GMT-5

    Hi Steph,

    First time reading your blog and it is AWESOME! Love the tips. Love the wit. Love that you are writing!!!!!! (Oh, yeah, and I love James MC Avoy. No fair using my weaknesses against me.)

    BTW, I think the Donald Maass book is fantastic, too. One of my favorites. Lots of good stuff in there.

    Reading these tips and getting inspired by your miraculous performance may be all I get done on the writing-front today, but it's a start. So thank you. And keep up the good work.


  2. Great post, Steph! And the pictures! Veddy clebber of you, sticking those in. Now you must monitor your site meter and see how many James McAvoy hits you get.

    Seriously good advice, and funny, as always! I think I will link to you today.


  3. Ha, your awesome! That was so amusing, and a definately a more fun way to learn about the trials of revisions!
    I L♥VE James McAvoy!
    Hurray for actor obsession! He was geat in Penelope (way cute movie). Yes ma'am.
    Can't wait to read more form your blog. Ciao.

  4. Hi jehsyka!

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a sweet comment! Yes, James IS delicious, is he not? :) Penelope is one of my favorite movies I've seen in theaters this year! Such a cute fairy tale, and wouldn't you kill for Christina Ricci's wardrobe??

  5. Ooh! Penelope is good, you say? I really wanted to see it, then read multiple terrible reviews, but still meant to see it, but it seemed to fall off the face of the earth. Wonder if it's on DVD yet. . .

  6. Penelope IS good! There are a *few* flaws. I saw it with the lovely Paula (above!) and we agreed it needed MORE PASSION and kissing and such. But it's quirky & adorable, and I think you'd like it.

    Plus. James McAvoy.

    Plus. Awesome colors.

    Plus. Cutest movie wardrobe ever. You will swoon.

  7. My first time here, too, Stephanie, and I like your voice very much! You are funny and James is pretty, what's not to like?

    Some really good advice here, too. I already do the find+embarrassment, but when it comes to time...

    Having already read Laini's slightly disturbing 6am post, I feel like a lazy slob who probably has no business trying to write a novel. I can't think if I haven't slept a full night, it just feels like someone fitted blender blades onto the top of my spine and hit the pulse button. But maybe I shouldn't sleep in every morning.

    And then there's all the time I spend watching tv, reading, surfing, blogging...

    Yeah, you're right. I'll be a good girl soon. I hope.

  8. Wow Stephanie! This blog could not have come at a better time. I just got my first editorial comments back and I'm feeling ecstatic-panicked.

    How 'bout dialog? Do you know any amazing books on dialog? Apparently I have a little bit of a problem with that (shh, don't tell anyone).

    You are simply amazing. Your work ethic is going to pay off.

    And hey, drop me a line when you crash . . . I am a genius at living through that. See - I'm still here!

  9. Great post at a great time for me, Stephanie. So glad Laini linked to you. I've got to figure out the bookmark thing...no one told me (until you, thank you)either. Now I need to get off the blogs and back to the book!

  10. Okay, so I came here from Laini's site and I'm having a hard time trying to figure out why I haven't been reading your blog since the beginning of time, basically. Great tips, but I'm just gonna go look at James a bit more.

  11. Wow! I am so, so, so flattered!

    THANK YOU Tone, Jolie, & Gretchen for stopping by and leaving such nice comments!!

    Elise -- I *DO* have a good book for you. Must go visit your blog to tell you about it...

  12. Two things:
    One - I love James McAvoy and am completely grateful for your gratuitous use of his image... Yum.

    Two: God bless you and your sense of humor and your devotion which translates into inspiration for the rest of us.

    What I learned?
    Write till you can no longer see, is that about right?

  13. I'm going to go back through this and take notes. I've never heard of the writing book you mentioned, and I've never used bookmarks. Thanks!

  14. Stephanie, I am just reading your blog now after falling in love with your debut novel. I was so shocked to realize who your husband is! I can't believe I loved you both separately before figuring that one out! How fun.