How to Revise a First Draft: Three Exercises to Get You Started
Welcome back friend! We’re really doing this--we’re revising our novels. Eeek! I can hardly believe it myself. In this series I’m going to share with you the steps I’m using to revise my novel--these steps are very similar to the ones i use with my clients (both Ink & Grace clients and Author Accelerator clients).
I want to add a note here that I wasn’t born knowing how to do this. Four years ago I was staring at the worst draft known to man (#notexaggerating) that I’d flung at the page during Nanowrimo--and I had no idea where to even begin to fix it. But through some amazing courses, amazing books, and amazing mentors, I now know where I should have started my revision back then. And now, with a completed first draft of my middle grade fantasy novel, I’m digging in to this revision with enthusiasm.
Quick note of thanks: Some of the exercises in this blog are my own, some are based on exercises I’ve learned from these sources, most are a mash up of both. :) I want to give specific shout out for these exercises and methods to the Story Genius book, the Author Accelerator book coach certification course, and Jennie Nash (click here if you want some of the best writing exercises Jennie Nash and Author Accelerator have to offer—fo’ free!).
So let’s start revising guys! I promise that if you follow these steps, you will find the revision process enjoyable and it will make a lot more sense for your brain. Plus it will be fun because we will be doing it together!
One more note: There are many different methods out there for revision--hopefully these exercises will add to your writer’s tool belt. As with any writing strategy, take what is useful and lose the rest. There is no right way (or wrong way) to revise, so use what works for you.
Alright: Start here!
Step One: Assess the big picture by using these three exercises.
Exercise #1: Write the jacket copy for your story.
The first thing I did when I started my revision was write the jacket copy (basically that short synopsis on the back of the book) for my story. When I reread it I realized that one of my key plot points didn’t fit in the summary. No matter how I phrased it, it wouldn’t work. So I asked, “Well, is that really important for the jacket copy?” And it wasn’t. That’s when I realized that if it wasn’t essential for the reader in the jacket copy, it might not play as big of a role in my story as I thought it did. Mind=blown.
Why is this exercise so helpful? Being forced to strip your story down to the bare bones helps you see what’s important and what isn’t. It also helps you see connections (or lack thereof) because writing the short summary forces you to explain the relationships between things. You might discover that the plot and your character's internal struggle aren’t as connected as you thought they were, that a character you thought you needed was unnecessary, that your point is fuzzy, etc…
There is no limit to what might come out of this simple exercise. Used as a tool for revision, this exercise becomes a good way to look at your story through a new lens so you can see the cracks that you might otherwise have missed.
Assignment #1: Write the jacket copy for your story (keeping it under 250 words). As you write it, be sure you are including the context for your story, the conflict the main character faces (not just external, internal as well), and hint at the point (or theme) of your story.
Exercise #2: Write the log line for your novel.
A log line is basically a very short, one sentence summary of your book. It’s much harder than it sounds. IN some cases a log line could also be a blank-meets-blank sentence that describe your book (i.e. “It’s Die Hard with fairies” for Artemis Fowl or “It’s The Hobbit meets Judy Blume” which is the one I am currently batting around for my own novel--I will probably change it but for now it amuses me). This is often used for pitching and querying, but it’s also really fun and requires you to think about your book from the reader side of things instead of the author side.
You can read more about writing a good log line in this blog post.
Assignment #2: Write the log line for your novel. Don’t stop at your first attempt. Keep tweaking and playing with it. And take notes about whatever concerns or questions come up as you brainstorm.
Exercise #3: Complete a Novel One Sheet that summarizes the important elements of your story.
I created this one sheet after working with lots of writers at once--and getting a little mixed up on what was finalized and what was still being worked on with different writers. I needed a quick sheet that would keep all pertinent information in one place so I could just reference it as a gave my writer feedback. It also happens to be very similar to an exercise that Jennie Nash uses in her How to Revise Your Novel class (I didn’t know this at the time--but I felt pretty good when I found out!).
But even though it was created as a reference sheet, it works amazingly well as a revision tool. Like writing the jacket copy, this exercise can help you look at the major story elements and catch any potential issues before you even touch your draft.
Here are the questions that should be on your Novel One Sheet
What is your story point?
Who is your protagonist on the inside?
What does your protagonist want?
Why does your protagonist want this?
What does she think will happen if she doesn’t get what she wants? (Think both tangible and intangible consequences).
What is standing in her way (externally) of getting this?
What is standing in her way (internally) of getting this?
What is your protagonist’s misbelief?
At the end of the story, how has your protagonist changed?
Assignment #3: Download your Novel One Sheet from the Inklings Secret Library and complete it. DON’T move on to the next assignment until you’ve answered every question. DO keep it handy while you are revising and DO be prepared to tweak it as you go. It likely will change as you revise and realize that you need to tweak some big picture stuff to make your story really sing.
Okay, those are the exercises I’ve done to start work on my revision. Coming up, I have MORE great ideas for you. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you one resource first that could literally change your writing life and your book. If you sign up with your email here, you get an AMAZING 7-day writing challenge from Author Accelerator that includes some of THE most important exercises you could ever do to write an amazing story. It includes some of the writing exercises that I’ve mentioned here, but it also includes some foundational exercises that every writer should complete before they even start their rough draft (such as digging in to WHY you need to write this book, identifying your point, etc..) This will also give you access to Jennie Nash’s Two-Tier Outline, which is the next exercise I’m doing for my revision—and I can’t recommend it enough. This material is gold guys, so get over there and snatch it up!
Want some outside eyes on your manuscript before you dig in to revision? Check out my manuscript evaluation package. I fondly call it The Revise Your First Draft Package (because I’m extraordinarily clever). The package includes: A pre-editing conference call (60mins), a complete read-through of your manuscript, and an editing summary detailing strengths, weaknesses, where to focus in your revision, and next steps. Price varies depending on length of manuscript. See my pricing guide to get some ball park figures and contact me here if you want to get more information and a quote for your manuscript!