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Mette's 20 Best Revision Tips

These are all mistakes I have made, at least once. Sometimes, over and over again. Some of them I am still making. And I know that not everyone will agree with them. Some people are told to write exactly the opposite of what I recommend, and it may sell books, too. It just doesn't make me a happy reader of those books. So these are the rules for writing the kind of books I love. Maybe this list is a good starting place for you to write the rules for books you love.

Think about what makes you want to throw a book across the room. Think about what makes you stop reading a book. Think about what makes you not pick up the author's next book. Put a favorite book out and a good book, but not a great one. What makes the difference?

1. Cut 10%-20% of your text.

If you do nothing else to your manuscript, it will improve immensely by this method. Editors of magazines are always looking for tighter pieces, because they don't have much space. But it turns out that better writing is more concise, too, so editors of novels will also pay more attention to your book. There is also the advantage that you will be able to tell more of your story more quickly, to both your editor and eventually, your reader. Everyone wants a story that gets to the "good part" fast, and everyone likes a story that wastes less of their time.

2. Never start a novel or a story with a dream.

This also means that you should never end a novel or a story with the words, "And she woke up, to discover it was all a dream." Never, never, never. Even if you have a good reason. If your book has those words at the end, cut them out. If you have a first paragraph with a dream, cut it out and start with the second paragraph. Or the second chapter.

3. In fact, cut the first chapter entirely, especially if it is a prologue.

See how it reads starting from chapter two. Or chapter three. Or chapter four or five. You want to start your book with something exciting. Even if it requires you to do some back-story, you will be surprised at how little you end up needing. Your reader is smart. Your editor is smart. They will appreciate it if you treat them as such.

4. Delete any words that you need to make a pronunciation guide for, or a dictionary.

This includes almost all dialect. Also delete people from your cast of characters if you need a special family history sheet to explain who everyone is and how they relate to each other.

5. If any reader of your book tells you that it sounds like an episode from a movie/TV show/book, change the rules immediately.

Change the characters. Do the opposite of what would be expected for a book in that series. And then change your main characters so that they are as different as possible than the more famous ones. And I don't mean giving them different color eyes.

6. Make sure your main character (and every other character) has at least one thing about him that is likeable.

If you are telling the story about a villain, make sure the villain is damn smart. Not just handsome or persuasive, but something the reader will really like and cheer for. If the reader is spending that much time in his head, they need to not find him absoltuely despicable.

7. Make sure your main character (and every other character) has at least one flaw.

And it can't be just a physical one, although those can be interesting things to add to the mix. A main character needs a personality flaw to be interesting to the reader, and to feel real. Also, it helps if they're going to grow and change in the course of the novel, if they're starting from some place a little further down from a cloud.

8. What does your main character need?

You must answer this immediately, in one sentence or less. If not, it's not clear enough to you. And if it's not clear enough to you, it won't be clear enough to your reader.

9. What does your main character learn?

Ditto above.

10. If you are writing a series of books, stop.

Write only one book at a time. All the good stuff you're spreading out over the whole series--put it in the first book. There is more than one reason for this. But realistically, you are going to have a hard enough time selling a book, you don't need to make it harder by pulling punches. Make it as painful and glorious as possible in the first book, so you have a chance to write the second one. And from someone who knows, the first book is going to change so much anyway that you'll be happy you haven't written the second and third books, and then have to delete them almost completely. Keep notes, but don't write the whole series unless you're a masochist.

11. If you know what the theme of your book is, cut out every sentence that even hints at it.

It is the development of your plot and your main character's reaction to that plot that show your theme. You as the author have so much control of the book already--let your reader have control of coming to understand the theme. Also, you may be surprised at what they find.

12. Identify the climax of your book, and then make sure you end within 10 pages of that climax.

The tension that has been dragging the reader to keep reading is gone once the danger is gone. They will remember the experience of reading more fondly if they are left holding the book in their hands, wishing it went on, than if they put it aside, thinking that it went on too long.

Also, it never hurts to leave things open for a sequel. Just don't put any hooks in those last few pages. That's a cheap trick.

13. Delete any wandering.

I want a main character who knows what she wants and where she is going. She can certainly be diverted if there is a good reason, but wandering is for characters who have no purpose.

14. Give your main character a life, besides the one main problem the book focuses on.

This includes friends, a history of favorite life events, embarrassing moments, and so on. You don't need to write up a special page on this, because you don't want to put in anymore than the text demands, but there should be hints that the book could go on, outside of the pages, if you will. Like a painting that doesn't end at its frame.

15. Let your main character (and other characters) make mistakes.

I personally am frustrated when authors have characters only make stupid mistakes. But everyone makes stupid mistakes, as well as mistakes out of misunderstanding, or conflict of interest, or fear, or hatred, or ignorance. I love characters who make mistakes, because then you always get to see what they do next, when they realize the mistake. Do they try to fix it? Push it aside? Cover it up?

16. End your chapters with some kind of suspense.

This doesn't have to be cheesy, but if you make sure that something happens in each chapter in the middle that cannot be resolved in that chapter, it involves the reader. Also, it doesn't hurt that it gives you something to have to figure out while your working through that nasty middle section.

17. What are the stakes?

I'm a little tired, frankly, of every fantasy novel, or every suspense novel, having the stakes be "the fate of the free world," or "the end of all magic," or "cataclimsic demise of all characters we know and love--including small children." But you do need stakes. What happens if the main character doesn't get what he is searching for? This is a question to ask even in a contemporary realistic piece. It should matter to us on a personal level. And somehow, it should feel as though it isn't something that you as the author have put together. It should be "natural."

18. Who is going to die?

It better not be the man in the red uniform who doesn't matter. And I'm not saying the person actually has to die, either. But there have to be losses in every book. The loss might be a friendship or a dog or the loss of innocence. But if you don't know what is lost, you haven't dug hard enough in the book yet.

19. Is it true?

If you are drawing from your own life to write a story (and every author should, and must), are you purposely shielding people in your story? Are you cutting out parts because you are afraid of offending someone? Are you playing it safe? Don't. Your passion for writing about this topic must show. Why are you the only person who can write this story? This is part of your voice, that indefinable something that the best books have.

20. Are there two journeys going on?

I think every story deserves two journeys, one external and one internal. Your character's physical movement from one place to another hints at the spiritual movement in her character.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.