Prepping for #PitchWars: how I revise, a twelve step process

I’ve been reflecting on the revision process I’ve used on the last two novels I’ve finished, and I thought I might summarize what I’ve done and what I’ve learned in a blog post. I decided to share my reflections with others in case it might be helpful, or just in case my non-writer friends are curious what happens after I finish that first draft. So, here goes…

So far, I’ve finished a novel first draft three times. The first time was back in November 2007 on what I like to think of as my “starter novel.” That novel was the result of my first NaNoWriMo and was a total mess. It will likely never see the light of day. Hell, it didn’t even make it to a revision process. It’s just hanging out on a hard drive somewhere, chilling.

The second and third novels that I finished both went through slightly different rounds of revision, and that’s what I’ve been reflecting on recently. I’ve been comparing and contrasting what I did on each and thinking a little about what I might do with future novels. In my day job, I create and optimize processes. So, I guess I’ve been subconsciously trying to build myself a high-level revision process. What follows is what’s worked best for me. Everyone is different, so this may be a terrible process for someone else, but it might give you some ideas if you’re also a writer and working on finishing and/or revising a novel.

First step: Finish the first draft.

For me, this is possibly the hardest part. I’ve found that I have a hard time writing endings. I usually know how I want the story to end. But I tend to write very plot-driven novels and tying up all the various threads into a nice, satisfying ending is hard. My perfectionist tendencies make me feel like I must stick the landing perfectly on the first try. So, somewhere, in the middle of that final crisis / climax scene, my brain just puts the brakes on. In these situations, I’ve found that it really helps to send the first third of your book to some CPs or beta readers who love you a lot and will not strangle you when they are begging for the final third of your book and it’s taking you weeks and weeks longer than you promised them to finish it. Having “fans” that are waiting for me to finish has definitely been the secret sauce to pull me through those final chapters. Let me tell you more about them and what they do…

Second step: Send your draft to your favorite, trusted “Alpha” readers.

I like to post sections of my novel into Google Docs for this step, and let my Alpha readers comment in the doc. This way, they can all see each other’s comments, and I can see their reaction as they read, which is really motivating for me. Plus it make me feel a little less nervous about sending my novel out into the world for the first time because this way I’m not freaking out while I wait, wondering if they like it or they hate it (because obviously I’m going to assume they hate it and just can’t figure out how to break it to me…). For both The Lost Empire and Godda’s War, I’ve had the same three trusted “Alpha” readers. They are: my mom, my cousin Kaitlin, and a friend who is practically family, Linden. However, I didn’t pick these folks just because of their relation to me. I picked them because they are all avid readers and they read (critically) in the genre I write in. I trust their bookish opinions (and their other opinions, but right now I’m only considering the ones related to books). They know their tropes, they know their plot holes, and they are exactly the type of readers who I want to love my books. I have other people who I feel this way about, but these three have been my “Alphas” because they are in my trusted inner circle. It’s super scary sending your little novel-baby out for people to read. These three strike an excellent balance between caring about me a lot (my mom is seriously my biggest, and admittedly completely biased fan), and being excellent readers. They find all my plot holes, tell me where things don’t make sense, and tell me if my romance is feeling too much like the dreaded “insta-love.” They also forgive my horrible, rushed first endings (or at least, I hope they do).

Step three: Revise based on your “Alpha” feedback.

Your Alphas are going to point out your plot holes, the things they like and don’t like about your characters, and maybe some obvious grammar errors. Fix these things. And, if you’re me, you probably also need to re-write that sloppy, rushed ending. Then, move on to step four.

Step four: Get a professional “reader report.”

Initially, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put this as step four or step six, but I’ve ultimately decided that it’s most valuable as step four. Last year, while following the PitchWars feed on Twitter, I kept noticing all this great writing advice being Tweeted by one of the previous PitchWars mentors (she’d taken the year off, but she’s back this year, guys!). Naomi Hughes caught my eye and I started paying closer attention. I followed her on Twitter. I checked out her webpage. I did some math. Then, after much deliberation, I decided to spring for what these freelance editors call a “reader report.” Basically, Naomi read an early draft of The Lost Empire and wrote up a several page summary of her thoughts and suggestions for areas of revision. It’s not quite a full edit letter, and there are no in-doc comments. But, I’ve come to believe that this sort of thing at this stage in the process is exactly what I need. For me, having a professional opinion to help guide the next steps of my revision is key, and Naomi is exceptional at pinpointing the thing, or handful of things, that, if you change them, will fix all the little stuff that isn’t working in your novel. Maybe you have a critique partner that can do this for you, but I didn’t at the time, and I can’t tell you how much this helped. For Godda’s War, I worked with Kaitlyn Johnson because I’d already planned to have Naomi do a full critique for me on that novel. She’s also really good. I think it’s helpful to have more than one editor you trust because the one you like to work with may be all booked up at the time you need. So, research freelance editors. Contest mentors are a great place to start for finding these folks. I recommend both of these ladies, plus a third, who you’ll hear more about in step eight, below.

Step five: Revise based on the reader report.

If possible, take some time to think about the feedback you received. I’ve found that this report can be a little shocking at first. This is going to maybe be the first time you’ve had very critical and objective eyes on your novel-baby, and whichever editor you use, they are going to point out the flaws. But this is what you need right now. So listen, absorb, contemplate, and consider how you might go about making changes. My writer friend Shanna wrote a great twopart post about how she implements revision feedback. Go check that out if you want some great ideas.

Step six: Send your novel to your “Beta” readers.

At this point, I’m still working out the story kinks, so I’m not ready to pull out the big guns (critique partners), yet. But we’re almost there. For Beta readers, I hit up my next round of reader friends who read widely and critically in my genre. I might also ask a few of my writing friends who also are also avid readers of my genre. I’ve always tried for least two, ideally three readers for this step. If you can get more, do it, and definitely try to get as diverse a group as possible. Tell them what you want them to comment on (usually general story/character feedback, what they liked and didn’t like, etc.). If they are unfamiliar with the beta reading process, send them this video about how to be a good Beta reader. And while they’re watching that video, you should watch this video about how to get the most out of your Beta readers. Side note #1: I love Jenna Moreci’s videos about writing. Side note #2: this is also the step where I will finally let my husband read my novel. He reads a lot of science fiction, but he doesn’t (usually) read romance or YA. So, for me, he doesn’t count as a true “Beta” reader. But I take his opinion very seriously in terms of the elusive “cross-over appeal” factor.

Step seven: Revise based on your “Beta” reader feedback.

For those of you paying attention (or even just still reading…), we’re up to revision three at this point. Did I mention that writing a novel is a lot of work? Similar to step three and five, you’re going to make some tweaks based on what you’re hearing from your readers. Hopefully, this is a smaller edit than the previous two edits.

Step eight: Get a professional opinion.

Did I mention that professional editors are awesome? Do yourself a favor and find one that you want to work with, especially if you don’t have an agent yet or don’t plan to get one. I already mentioned Naomi and Kaitlyn, above. So here I will recommend Elizabeth Buege. She’s the editor I worked on The Lost Empire with during the Pitch to Publication contest. She helped me so much, and you should definitely consider her if you’re looking for an editor. Go check out her website, follow her on Twitter, and say hi. She’s super nice, and she’s a grammar wizard.

Step nine: Another revision.

This will be your fourth revision. Similar to step three, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed with the feedback from your editor. Once again I advise taking a small break, listening, re-reading, absorbing, and doing a lot of thinking. I find long drives and road trips are really helpful for figuring out sticky revision issues. You may also want to read some other books in your genre and pay closer attention to how your favorite authors are doing some of the things you need to do in your revision. After you have a plan, you’ll be able to tear through your revision. Wait for it, then go for it. Once you’re done with this step, you’re probably going to feel really good about your book. You probably think you can skip the next step. I encourage you to keep going.

Step ten: Send that novel-baby to your critique partners.

These will be your writer buddies. Finding critique partners you click with is really hard. I know. I had a great critique group for several years. But eventually we all went our separate ways. Some went into MFA programs, another moved, some weren’t a great fit for genre and style reasons. This happens. Keep cultivating your resources here, and hold tight to the ones who get you and your writing. They will save your butt and be there for you through every step of the process, including that last one that we’ve nearly reached.

Step eleven: The final revision.

Your critique partners will inevitably find some stuff for you to tweak. This will hopefully be nothing compared to step nine. You’ve got this. Consider their feedback and revise as needed.

Step twelve: You may now query.

What? You didn’t already write your query letter? You don’t know what agents you want to query? You haven’t been following them and their #MSWL on Twitter? What were you doing while all those people were reading your novel? You’ve had plenty of time to do all that and write a synopsis while you were waiting. And, just like your novel, be sure to get feedback on both your query and your synopsis, and maybe a Twitter pitch, too, while you’re at it. Believe me, you’ll want to have this done long before you attempt to enter the query trenches. So, find your most experienced writer friends for help on this — the ones who’ve already waded into the query trenches and are starting to get requests and rejections. And best of luck to you! May the odds be ever in your favor.

I hope this post has been helpful, or at least enlightening. If you have questions or things you’d like me to talk about more in future posts, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!