Writing Tips

My Novel Revision Process & Lessons Learned

By October 14, 2016 23 Comments
Writing Millie Ho Novel Revision Process & Lessons Learned

Revising in dank coffee shop basements near you.

This past weekend, I finished revising the novel I started this April. The New Story has been sent to beta readers, and I’ll do more revision once I get their feedback, but for now, the hardest part is over. Here’s a timeline of my writing progress:

  • April: Ditched the Long-Suffering Manuscript and plotted a new novel, the New Story.
  • May: Finished writing Draft One by turning off my brain. I printed it off and put it away to revise later.
  • May – June: Worked on short stories/poems/art to take my mind off the New Story.
  • July – September: Pulled out Draft One and started revising. I wrote Draft Two, then revised Draft Two, wrote Draft Three, then revised Draft Three…
  • Late September – early October: Followed an instinct and restructured the entire story. This became the final draft I sent to beta readers.

Overall, it took me six months to plot, write, and revise the New Story. Compared to the nearly five years I spent on the Long-Suffering Manuscript, this is a big improvement. Along with my output speed, I like to think that the quality of my writing also improved because I got a lot more practice done in a shorter period of time, which is aligned with my goal to finish more drafts this year.

Here are some challenges I ran into while revising, and how I would do things differently the next time around.

Lesson #1: Stop cramming in too many new ideas.

I took lots of notes while writing Draft One. These notes ranged from solutions to plot holes, to characters I wanted to add in or kill off, and other random details like which person had jowls and how I would describe a police station made of pink granite. I took these notes to stop myself from editing the story whenever I got a new idea and also to sustain my writing momentum.

Then I revised Draft One and tried to cram in all these new ideas, which was a mistake. Sure, some ideas were interesting to explore, but that didn’t mean I had to explore them in this one story. As a result, Draft Two was bloated with stuff that didn’t necessarily enhance the story. I spent a lot of time in later drafts pulling out the weeds. Next time, I will add only the most urgent and relevant ideas and save the rest for stories to write in the future.

Lesson #2: Plot loosely for each new draft.

Since Draft Two was so bloated, I needed to re-plot Draft Three to get the narrative back on track. Because I felt the story had gotten out of control, I reverted back to control freak mode and tried to plot every chapter of Draft Three down to the last detail. Looking back, this made the writing difficult in two ways:

  • My characters became more passive because the story was becoming more plot-driven.
  • I was living in my head (plotting, making notes, etc) more than I was writing.

I lost two weeks of writing productivity because I was painstakingly re-plotting everything, and in the end I scraped most of these plans anyway. When I’m writing, I’ll run into situations I can’t predict, so it’s better to place the narrative in the hands of the characters and let them run the show. I now know that it’s better to develop a loose plot for each new draft and to simply readjust the story when it needed readjusting.

Lesson #3: Do more exploratory writing instead of deleting things.

If a character wasn’t working out, I would simply cut them out. A few days later, I could be out walking and think, “Hey, why did I cut out Character X? They could’ve been useful in This New Situation.” But by that time, I would’ve gotten too far into the new draft without Character X to even bother with putting them back in again.

I learned that just because something wasn’t getting written smoothly didn’t mean it didn’t have a place in the story. What I should’ve done was open a new Word document and write a scene or two featuring the character that was giving me problems, and let them explain their story to me. This would’ve saved me a lot of headache and allowed the narrative to unfold more naturally.

Lesson #4: Get more comfortable with making big changes.

With each new round of revisions, major elements of the New Story changed. Draft One was set in a futuristic environment, but the story in the final draft took place in contemporary Toronto. I also removed four major characters between Draft One and Draft Three, and changed 90% of the story when I restructured everything in the final draft. The word count went from 98,298 (Draft One) to 121,731 words (Draft Three) to 62,635 (the final draft). These were some big changes, and I didn’t always handle it well.

There were days when I moped around, listening to 80s power ballads on repeat and reading John Ajvide Lindqvist under a blanket until my eyes fell out. What I should’ve done was just suck it up. Making big changes is just part of the writing process, dammit! Things got better once I learned to become more patient, so I’ll mope less the next time around (because I WILL MOPE) and get back to the blank screen quicker.

Next Steps

I’m switching gears and working on some stories and art to take my mind off the New Story until my beta readers get back to me with their comments. I’m also preparing to do some travelling this winter, so that should take up a good chunk of my time. All in all, I learned a lot about writing in the past six months, the most important lesson being that there’s always room for improvement.

Millie’s Note: What’s your revision or editing process?

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • I really appreciate your points in Lesson #1. It is very easy to start making changes and adding in details that you think make the story better, only to realize that it just weighs the story down.

    Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on getting from blank page to a final draft in 6 months!

    -Anderson Ryle

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks Anderson! Yes, those editing-while-writing urges are real. The note taking exercise also made me realize that not all ideas deserve to be polished. Proposed edits must also be edited. 😛

  • Paul says:

    Now I understand why you haven’t been Blogging lately! You’ve churned out a novel! First of all, congratulations! You’ve done it.

    The business of deleting characters and/or reintroducing them into the narrative is always problematical at best. I’ve gone through a similar experience and hence your section on “Exploratory Writing” was extremely perceptive. I’ve never heard of doing such a thing, but what an interesting idea. I’m definitely going to give that one a try!

    So again thanks for sharing! I look forward to the publication! 🙂

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks Paul! I learned the exploratory writing technique from an interview somebody did with Gillian Flynn. She said that she’s not much of a plotter, so she complements her lack of plotting by focusing on developing her characters. This means making Netflix playlist queues for her characters and learning how they will act in certain situations. I tried exploratory writing a few times and it’s been working well. Just wished I’d done more of it!

      I hope you have success with exploratory writing as well. 🙂

  • evanonlineblog says:

    You did great?

  • chrisbkm says:

    As always Millie the sharing of your process is a great read. It seems like you’re in a constant state of evolution and observation always willing (wanting!) to push it further. Congratulations on bringing it to this stage. Because writing is such a big part of your life I’m curious how the changes in writing style may have effected changes in life style. Great stuff as always. Thanks Millie!

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks Chris! I’m thrilled you’re enjoying these posts. I’ve been making notes on the writing process as I went along and needed to consolidate them somewhere. A blog post seemed to be a good idea, especially if it was interesting or can give somebody new ideas.

      As for lifestyle changes, hmm, good question. I’ve definitely been writing more in recent months, so that’s the major change. To free up time for this, I gave away my TV (I now use my laptop if I really must watch something on Netflix, etc) and went from being a full-timer to a freelancer. I’m doing more travelling this and next year, and hopefully that will teach me how to manage my time better and prioritize what I really want to do. I’d love to hear your thoughts about balancing different projects like this, i.e.: being a graphic designer who also writes, makes art, pursues other interests at the same time.

      • chrisbkm says:

        Just this week I wondered what I’d do without the little coloured blocks on my calendar – my anchors.
        I take a long slow start to the day, coffee and conversation with my wife, an hour and half of yoga and meditation – and then go to work in the studio (usually by around 10:30). I’m happy if I devote a solid 5 hours a day to business. Jobs are blocked in one hour chunks on my calendar and I knock them off one at a time. If my work load is heavier it’s not a problem because once started it’s easy to keep going. When I’m really busy I don’t mind making up time in the evening. I’m quite disciplined and organized. Once I get the work done that I committed to – I’m open to do what I want (like writing) without being distracted thinking I should be working. Maybe all that to say, the calendar and time management are really important to keep me on track. Also, I’m disciplined – but not anal. I trust my system (and self) so don’t worry when diversions come up. I move the blocks around.
        I also have quite a solid time tracking system for dockets and billing that I’ve developed over the past ten years or so. Lots of designers and freelancers hate time sheets. For me, well-documented time is a major stress-reducer. I have my targets. I hit them. I relax. Phew. Time to write a poem or go for a walk 🙂
        Work hard. And relax. I’m a big believer in down time and the only way to enjoy down time is to get the work done.
        This is an interesting conversation (?) Millie and not one I ever have. I could probably ramble for quite awhile… I hope I answered some of how I handle balancing….
        All the best,

        • Millie Ho says:

          Thanks for sharing your process, Chris! Very enlightening, and you’ve done more than answer my question about balancing different projects. I think your method of breaking work down into one hour chunks is an effective way of staying productive and distraction-free. I find that batching similar tasks together (i.e.: checking email and responding to Twitter comments) helps you get things done quicker because you’ll be in the right mindset for all tasks and also because you’re racing against one hour deadlines. You also don’t need to constantly switch between different tasks, which helps with concentration and flow.

          I admire the calendar/tracking/time management system you’ve developed and can see how it allows you to produce great creative works as well. When you’re writing a poem, I imagine you’re completely invested in the writing process and not thinking about work. Work hard and play hard, that sort of thing. I completely agree with your point about documenting time. I started tracking my daily activities in a notebook and enforcing 90 minute jam sessions to keep my focus consistent. I hope to reach your level of discipline the more I work at this.

          Thanks again for the great tips. 🙂

  • I’m always looking for insightful peaks into brilliant minds, and you’ve offered me one today. I really do appreciate you sharing your process with us. It’s useful to me on many levels.

    While all of your lessons-learned were useful, I found #3 to be of particular value. As a structural editor, I tend to work with authors very early in their manuscripts. When issues are found, it seems a common writer response to simply cut the character or plot device out of the story completely.

    I recommend doing exactly what you describing, and that’s pulling those elements out and shaping them separate from the manuscript. Even if those elements don’t make the final cut, you have a fully formed concepts to use for other pursuits.

    So now, when you become an international best seller, I can say, “Millie Ho utilizes this method of writing, I also recommend it.” Best of luck to you moving forward!

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, Corey, and for that big ego boost. I might have to hit you up before any of that could happen! I’m glad this post was useful to you. I didn’t realize until now (after getting comments on this post) that removing/reinserting story elements was an issue for most writers, though it makes sense now that I think about it. Unless you’re going to do some exploratory writing, you’re going to edit. And it’s better to explore hypothetical scenarios to give you an idea of how best to edit rather than blindly editing and regretting later on.

      “Even if those elements don’t make the final cut, you have a fully formed concepts to use for other pursuits.”

      Great point. This year, I learned the value of not deleting everything just because they didn’t work out. It’s less about the ideas you have and more about how you manage them.

  • This is such a great read and it helped me a lot. Congratulations on completing your final draft!

  • Thanks for sharing your process. I’m not a writer but from what you write as photographer I find similarities with the process of editing and sequencing my pictures.
    I make first a rough selection (this works and this one not) and than start to prepare sequencing finding the best order to display them in a book or in an exhibition, so this photo is so strong and should be in the beginning to catch viewer attention. Than this after this, yes it works but…
    Wow, now I have a new idea if I insert here something like this picture the meaning of the work can be stronger or going in a more interesting direction but in this case I need more pictures to support the idea, or the flow…what should I do? taking time and go for the new (now missing) photos or go back to the original idea and forget this new development?

    This just to give an idea…

    I think it is necessary to find the right compromise between being productive and leaving freedom to our phantasy…not easy sometimes…

    Thanks again for this interesting post, ciao


    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for sharing your process, Robert! I now see how selecting photographs and revising a novel are similar. Looks like we face similar challenges when we review the work and realize we’re missing something.

      It’s tough to find that compromise, and sometimes there will be mistakes. I found that my gut (usually) leads me to the right answer. How do you find this compromise with photography?

  • theryanlanz says:

    Hi Millie! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured on http://www.ryanlanz.com on Nov 9th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

  • Dang, 6 months! You’ve made some incredible time! This sounds like a great practice for all of us writers to get into, writing down what mistakes we made and how we learned from them. Perhaps I will do the same. I’ve been editing my manuscript for the last few months. In the early stages of writing the book I edited as I went, and then I decided that any time a problem cropped up I would put it on a list and attend to it later, so that I could keep the momentum of writing, as you did with your notes. When I finished the manuscript, I separated those edit notes into what would take lots of time and thought, and others that were fairly quick. Then I set to work – bulky items first, lighter items after. The process worked well for me.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Hey Shannon! Thanks for sharing your process. It’s cool to see that this “put it on a list” technique is something other writers use, and I like how you grouped your notes into quick vs. time consuming edits. This was something I didn’t do enough of, so I’ll definitely do more of this when I organize my beta readers’ comments.

      It’s interesting that you tackle the bulky items first. Do you find that editing gets easier when you get the big items out of the way first? How do you deal with lighter items that threaten to change the direction of your book, or does this never happen because you’ve edited your notes (and can anticipate all changes) already?

      • I thought about getting the smaller items out of the way first, because I figured it’d feel good to see my edit list quickly whittled down. But then I decided that I’d have more energy and morale at the beginning of the process, so I should devote those to the items that would most need them. Also, a lot of those big problems were really bugging me, so I wanted them fixed and done.

  • M. Miles says:

    Thanks for sharing your lessons, Millie!

    Lesson #1 is definitely one with which I’ve struggled. I actually keep a word document with pretty pieces that I’ve cut out of novels, if they didn’t fit. Maybe I can re-use them later?

    Congratulations on reaching draft three of your novel! I’ll keep checking in for more news about it!

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, M! I love that you keep that Word document with the pieces you cut out of your novels. I wish I started doing that earlier since it really improved how I brainstorm for scenes and short stories.

      Thanks also for your encouragement. I will keep you updated!

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