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2 Amazing Ways To Revise Your Novel (And When To Use Them)

picture of woman pruningYou know you need to revise your novel, but where do you begin?

The complexity of a novel can be overwhelming.

50,000-150,000 words means you can’t keep everything in your head.

Flipping back and forth between hundreds of pages makes it hard to remember where you are. You can’t see the story’s structure.

Or can you?

Two methods allow you to actually see the structure of a story, regardless of its size.

 

#1. Shrunken Manuscript

 

Purely by accident, I invented the Darcy Pattison Shrunken Manuscript Technique. I was broke, but had agreed to review a manuscript for a friend.

In an attempt to be thrifty, I took a novel and shrank it to the fewest possible pages before printing. I single-spaced the manuscript, took out all white spaces at the beginning and end of chapters, and then shrank the font to 8pts.

Hard to read? Yes! But half the number of pages.

Suddenly, an amazing thing happened. I could see the story structure. A whole chapter took up only one page. Act 1 was a mere 5 pages. This was easy to see, understand, and evaluate for story structure.

Ideally, shrink the manuscript to about 30 pages, which will eventually lie on the floor in three neat rows of ten. For longer stories, try putting everything into columns, or shrink to 6pt font, since you won’t really be reading from this copy.

If all else fails, evaluate the manuscript in two chunks of about 30 shrunken pages each.

First, mark the scenes or pages you are evaluating with dark markers. (Yellow highlighters don’t show up at a distance.) For example, you might mark the places where the villain and protagonist are in direct conflict, whether it’s just a couple of paragraphs, a scene, or an entire chapter.

Then, lay the pages on the floor or on a large cabinet or table. Stand back to look over the story and evaluate.

You can clearly see the frequency, duration, and location of protagonist-villian interaction. If these interactions are not appropriate for your book, you can plan an effective revision.

S&BShrunkenMss

For my middle grade novel, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A Hansel and Gretel Tale, I shrank the manuscript, and marked places where Krissy, the stepmother, interacts directly with Saucy, the protagonist. Because of story events, Saucy and Bubba run away from home, which means there are no direct interactions in the story’s middle, except for a brief phone call. Acts 1 and 3 are full of interactions, though, so this is a successful structure for this story.

 

#2. Spreadsheet Plotting

 

The second method of evaluating a novel for revision involves Spreadsheet Plotting.

Here, you use your favorite spreadsheet software to create a chart that summarizes your story. Create columns with labels such as: character name, setting, main plot, subplot, #words, and so on. Include whatever categories fit your needs. For example, mystery writers may want to include a column for clues.

Next, create rows for either scenes or chapters, depending on how deep you want to delve. Fill the information into the grid.

In this version of spreadsheet plotting, I used columns for Act#, Headline (short blurb for chapter), Day (time of year), POV, Setting, Action, and Emotion. Create columns to fit your genre of writing.

In this version of spreadsheet plotting, I used columns for Act#, Headline (short blurb for chapter), Day (time of year), POV, Setting, Action, and Emotion. Create columns to fit your genre of writing.

 

You decide what information goes into a column. In the main plot column, for example, you may simply indicate Act 1, Act 2, or Act 3, or you may be more specific.

For example, my novel The Hero’s Journey has clearly defined steps: ordinary world, call to adventure, meeting with mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests/allies/enemies, approach to the inmost cave, supreme ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and return with elixir.

When your grid is ready, you can sort your novel according to any of the columns you’ve created.

I sorted the Spreadsheet Plotting by setting. You can see that 3 of the Act 1 scenes are at Home, and 16 of the Act 2 scenes are at Home. However, there are no Act 3 scenes at Home. Is this right or wrong? Only the author can decide.

I sorted the Spreadsheet Plotting by setting. You can see that 3 of the Act 1 scenes are at Home, and 16 of the Act 2 scenes are at Home. However, there are no Act 3 scenes at Home. Is this right or wrong? Only the author can decide.

 

Caution: Be sure to use consistent language, especially the first word in the entry, so the sort works well. If you write “kitchen scene” in one place, but “baking cookies” in another, the sort won’t catch that the cookies are baked in the kitchen.

 

Shrunken Manuscript vs. Spreadsheet Plotting

 

Both shrunken manuscripts and spreadsheet plotting reduce a novel to a manageable level.

At-a-glance analysis is simple in either method. However, each method has its strengths and weaknesses.

Because a shrunken manuscript uses a tiny font, it is hard to read the text. That’s usually alright, because you don’t need to read it; you only need to know what happened in a certain section. However, the tiny font does cause a problem for some people. You can alleviate this by leaving chapter titles or other key identifiers in a large font.

 

The advantage of a shrunken manuscript is that it shows proportions.

Let’s assume you marked your five strongest chapters with a bright X. (Five chapters works well for up to about 40,000 words; after that, mark another strong chapter for each 10,000 words.)

When you evaluate the novel, check to see which marked section is longer or shorter. In other words, you’re evaluating the proportions, or how long each event occurs.

I often find that an author marks the final chapter as a strong chapter. Good! The climax is usually the final chapter, and it should be strong.

But too often, that final chapter is only 3-4 pages long, compared to other chapters of 10-15 pages each. This means the chapter happens too quickly; it isn’t strong enough.

Climaxes should take up an extended space in a novel, creating a big scene that drastically changes the characters’ lives. Shortchanging the climax means a flat ending and a reader who feels cheated. This common mistake is easily seen in a shrunken manuscript.

 

The advantage of spreadsheet plotting is the ability of a spreadsheet program to sort.

You can click on any column and sort it into ABC order. Let’s assume you have scenes that take place in twelve different settings, but the most emotional setting is your mother’s kitchen.

By sorting, you can see where in your story’s structure kitchen scenes occur. If only one scene occurs in the kitchen, perhaps the emotional content is weak.

If ten different settings occur only once in the novel while the kitchen setting is repeated often, the story may be drowning in kitchen (emotions) and lack variety in setting.

 

Spreadsheet plotting can give you information on proportion, with a column for word count; but it isn’t visual enough.

A shrunken manuscript can be sorted using color-coding, perhaps using purple to mark scenes in the kitchen and red to X scenes in the garden. But it’s clumsy compared to sorting a spreadsheet column.

In other words, these are complementary tools that tell you something about your story.

Use the two methods in conjunction as you revise your novel, because the biggest advantage of both techniques is shrinking your novel to a manageable size that allows you to see the story at a glance.

When you want a simple count of how many times an event takes place in a certain setting, use Spreadsheet Plotting. Try this technique to evaluate POV, chapter length, or emotions.

When you want to see proportions, use a Shrunken Manuscript. It tells you not just where an event happens, but how much space it takes up.

When would you use one technique over the other? Let us know in the comments!

 

About the author: 

Writer and writing teacher Darcy Pattison blogs at Fiction Notes, one of Write to Done’s Top 10 Blogs for Writers. Download her free e-book After the First Draft at Fiction Notes. Tweet Darcy @FictionNotes.

Image: Pruning courtesy of Bigstockphoto

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25 thoughts on “2 Amazing Ways To Revise Your Novel (And When To Use Them)”

  • John Yeoman says:

    That”s an amazing – and very clever – technique, Darcy. In the days when I lectured on creative writing at an illustrious university a professor of information management gave us a talk on how to write our PhD theses. ‘Print out your chapters and lay them on a carpet,’ he said. ‘Then shuffle them all together.’ Weigh them in your hands and it will show you at once where you need to trim or expand some sections. Then just look at them – and you’ll see where you have gaps of logic.’

    We gasped. ‘Why don’t you put all that data in a spreadsheet or database?’ we asked. He replied sheepishly ‘It’s the way I still write my academic papers, and it’s the only way that really works.’

    So that’s what I teach the students at my own writing program now! Because it works…

  • I had heard about the shrunken manuscript and plan to use that concept. I use that writing my sermons. The spreadsheet idea is a good idea too. I plan to use my E Notes program to outline each chapter so I can review content and character flow. Thanks. I am into my first 100K fiction story and when I am done I have a editor/coach reading behind me to help, but I admit it is hard to remember all the details on the first write. Before I begin my rewrite I will be using these techniques to balance and check the development of the flow and consistency of the story. Thanks.Appreciate the tips.

  • joybelle2012 says:

    Mmmmmmm! Can’t read 6 point, I’ll need bigger glasses for this task.
    I’ve read about enlarging and reading from right to left, -difficult Also know about the word spotting game and a few other tricks some writers employ.
    My trick is to stand on my head, – really. -It allows blood to flow to the head.
    After this I do a meditation with breathing and color and try to visualize the manuscript as being perfect.Then finally I read a couple of chapters and its amazing how quickly I pick up the errors.
    This works for me, so maybe it will also work for others.

  • Gemma says:

    This is really helpful, thank you! I’ll definitely be using this technique once I get to the revision stage :)

  • Marcy McKay says:

    FASCINATING, Darcy. I’ve used the Spreadsheet method, but never the shrunken method. I’ll have to try that. How long have you been using both methods?

  • Ivan Izo says:

    Interesting ideas, Darcy. Writers who use an outline they keep updated are ahead of you on the shrunken manuscript. A 300 page novel will have a 30 page outline. No shrinking required. But maybe I’m a bit obsessive-compulsive updating the outline as I write. I like the idea of spreading the 30 pages out in order to see the big picture.

    The spreadsheet idea also sounds like a good analysis tool. I’ll be giving it a try when I’ve cleared up some other writing and get back to my novel. Thanks for the great post.
    Ivan Izo recently posted..On the Importance of Setting in FictionMy Profile

  • I’ve used the shrunken manuscript method, too. It’s great for showing up areas where you have too much dialogue, or too many long descriptive paragraphs, as these jump off the page at you.

    I used a spreadsheet for a novel I drafted a few months ago: it had several major characters and keeping a track of how and when they were appearing was tricky. Solution: a spreadsheet with one column per character, and a row for each scene. Then in each cell put “POV”, “Present” or “Referenced”.

    Then it’s really clear if a character is being neglected for too long, for example.

    For bonus points use conditional formatting to change the colour of the text automatically depending on the contents of the cell!
    Alex Brantham recently posted..New ZealandMy Profile

  • Angie Dixon says:

    This is great, Darcy. Thanks. I actually write nonfiction, rather than fiction, but as I read your post I could easily see how these two ideas could help me do a structural edit to see where the book doesn’t flow and where I’ve been repetitive.

    I can’t wait to use these ideas on the book I’m currently writing.

    Thanks!
    Angie Dixon recently posted..How to Let Your Creativity Run WildMy Profile

  • Awesome! I did the shrunken manuscript thing on my non-fiction book recently, and printed it with 6 pages to one page. (The pages were sized about 5″x7″ at 100%, and I printed 6 of them to each 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper.) It helped so much! I was looking to see if I missed any huge points or transitions… and I was! I don’t know how I could have reviewed the whole manuscript and kept track of where I was without being able to eyeball it all at once.
    Jamie Rohrbaugh recently posted..How To Prove That Jesus Is Fully HumanMy Profile

  • A.K.Andrew says:

    Two really great ways if evaluate plot, character & the manuscript as a while. I like the visual aspect if both of the. I use Scrivener now which will do essentially both if these things in a different way. It’s totally changed the way I work and makes organizing a novel and moving scenes & chapters a breeze. But I always enjoy finding new tools. Thanks for a great post .
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..3 Simple #Writing Tools for #EditingMy Profile

  • AJ Snook says:

    Thanks for the interesting tips. I’ve found dividing the manuscript into 30 minute chunks and reading and revising each chuck twice by hand works best for me.

  • AJ Snook says:

    I’ve found that dividing my manuscript into chapters or manageable 30 minute chunks works best for me. My rule is to not move onto the next chunk until the next day. For my book it took a few months to revise this way but I felt the quality of revision was very high.
    AJ Snook recently posted..Jane Ladue: Goodie Two Shoes (Flash Fiction in the Sage Ritzkan Series)My Profile

  • Star says:

    It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people on this subject,
    however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about!
    Thanks
    Star recently posted..StarMy Profile

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    Windows Cleveland recently posted..Windows ClevelandMy Profile

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