Revising a novel is a lot of work, but if every word is a struggle, there might be a problem you’re missing.
In theory, novel revisions should be easy. You’ve already written the story, you know where it goes and how it all unfolds, and now it’s just a matter of making the novel better.
In practice, it takes work. The first draft is more brain dump than workable manuscript, and there are always details to work out, characters to develop, and plot holes to fill.
Revisions are a part of writing, and as much as we wish they’d go smoothly, they don’t always work out like we planned.
Some manuscripts fight us more than usual and nothing we do makes them into the glorious novels we know they could be. When we run into such a troublesome beast, it helps to step back and figure out the problem before we make a mess of our stories.
Here are five reasons why your revision might not be working:
1. You’re Not Done Writing the Novel
It’s not uncommon to reach the end of a first draft and call it, “done.” In many cases, the draft is finished and you’re ready to move onto revisions, but if the story is still rough and there are still plot details to work out, it might not actually be “done.”
Trying to revise when you still have plot holes, or you’re not sure about the character arc, or there’s a subplot that so doesn’t work after you changed that scene in Chapter Fifteen, often results in a revision that feels like you’re just changing the novel, not making it better.
What should you do to fix it? Stop revising. Keep drafting until the story is the way you want it, and you’ve filled in all the holes. Once you’re happy with how the novel unfolds, then return to the revision. That way, you’ll take a solid novel and make it better.
2. You’re Trying to Make Too Many People Happy
Beta readers and critique partners are wonderful things, but if you’re not careful, you could be letting what they want influence your book. If your romance-reader friend wants more romance in your police procedural, adding a love interest to make her happy is probably going to knock your plot out of whack and force the story where it doesn’t want to go—same as adding a high-powered action subplot would likely ruin your sweet romance novel. Revising to make every reader happy isn’t good for your novel when all those readers are looking for different types of novels.
What should you do to fix it? Choose only the feedback that will improve the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t be swayed by great advice that doesn’t serve your story (even if it’s good advice in general), and be true to the heart and soul of your novel.
3. You Have No Idea What Your Novel is Actually About
Some ideas come to us and we jump in and write them without really knowing where they’re going. There’s nothing wrong with this for a first draft (pantsers do it every day), and some ideas need to be written and explored before we really know where all the good bits in them are.
But we can also chase down multiple “good bits” and end up with three potential conflicts or plots in one rough draft. Any of them would make a great novel, but they don’t work well together. We’re better off picking one and saving the rest for other books.
If you haven’t yet figured out the story behind your idea, you could end up changing scenes so they no longer support that story. Not all first drafts are ready for revision, and it might take a pass or two to identify the real conflict and get the story the way you want it.
What should you do to fix it? Take some time to clarify exactly which novel you’re trying to write and the story you’re trying to tell. Crazy as it sounds, writing a query letter works wonderfully here to help you pinpoint the core aspects of your story—the protagonist, the antagonist, the core conflict, the stakes, the setting, and the motivations. If you can’t write even a rough query, that’s a red flag you don’t yet know what your story is (odds are it’s the conflict you’re lacking).
Bonus Reason 3.5: The Novel Doesn’t Work
As much as I hate to say it, there are times when a novel just flat out doesn’t work. It’s a great idea, but you haven’t found the right execution for it yet. Maybe you need a different protagonist, or it’s the wrong genre, or the entire idea works better as a short story than a novel.
What should you do to fix it? It’s hard, but let the manuscript sit for a few weeks and then read it again. If you still see no way to fix the problems, let it go and accept that you might still need to figure out a few key pieces before this idea can work. Some stories need more time simmering in the brain before we find the right approach for them.
4. You’re Scared You’ll Mess Up Your Manuscript
If you’ve never revised before, or you made a huge mess the last time you tried, you might be scared to start a revision. Maybe you’re not sure about the plot, or you have doubts about the characters, or the theme feels all wrong for the tone. You’re not sure what to do and worry that you’ll change the wrong things and ruin the book.
What should you do to fix it? Save your original draft in another file in the unlikely event that you do mess up your manuscript, and then trust your instincts and dive in. You know your story, you know what you want it to be, so take your revision one step at a time and start developing that story. If you’re not sure what to do, ask friends for feedback or hire an editor for guidance, (or sign up for my free at-home revision workshop that walks you through the steps).
5. You’ve Never Revised a Novel Before and You’re Lost
If you’ve never revised before, there’s a lot you don’t know (and that’s okay, we all start somewhere). You might be working on issues in the wrong order and redoing edits you already made, you might not know what to look for, or even what questions to ask. You might not know what a solid story structure is or the best way to order your scenes. These are all skills that take time to learn and develop, and it can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before.
What should you do to fix it? Research how to revise and learn more about the process, which will give you the confidence and skills to move forward. There are plenty of great blogs out there with advice, and hundreds of books with step-by-step instructions to guide you (Such as my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft). You might even look for classes in your area or online, or hire a book doctor or writing coach to help you learn (if your budget allows—don’t spend money you don’t have—it’s not necessary).
Revisions don’t have to be a hassle and can even be a lot of fun. If you’re facing one that’s causing you trouble, take the time you need to figure out what the problem is and the best way to fix that problem.
EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and consider if any of the above reasons are why you’re struggling to revise. Trust your gut. If one resonates with you—especially if you don’t want to do it but feel you should—that’s probably the reason holding you back.