Revision toolbox

After typing THE END in giant block letters on my no-holds-barred first draft, how do I polish it into a ready-for-other-people-to-read version?

As many writers will tell you, writing is revision. Once I’ve let a manuscript rest for at least 6 weeks (or 6 months or even 2 years!), I read it through again fast. No editing yet! What works–and what doesn’t–often pops right out at me. Magic!

But not always. Either way, I reach for some of the following craft-based tools to figure out what needs improvement and to provide structure to my messy draft. Most of these also work well for composing that initial draft so it’s not quite so messy.

Bonus: All of these authors offer freebies on their websites!

Story Genius by Lisa Cron is great for character development and enhancing the story’s main emotional arc. Practical, step-by-step advice narrows down what characters want, what they need, and what misbeliefs must be overcome. I use this for developing the heart of a book.

Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody is fabulous for plot development. As part of the Save the Cat series for screenwriters–all of which I recommend–this book breaks down a three-act structure into “beats” that comprise a satisfying narrative. Lots of examples demonstrate how this basic format can be modified for a variety of storytelling needs as you develop the novel’s spine.

Jami Gold’s templates for Excel or Scrivener have been invaluable for improving my novels’ pacing. Building on Save the Cat and Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, with bonus templates for developing romantic arcs, these guidelines help me prune when something is flabby–hello, muddy middle–or expand when an aspect has been short-changed.

Rachel Funk Heller’s Writer’s Coloring Book zeroes in on scene structure in a fun way. For each scene of my novel, I fill out one of these worksheets, which are based on TV or movie production call sheets. After coloring in the story helixes, I have a quick reference guide to my whole book, making it easier to sort through what works, what’s missing, or what needs shuffling around. (Bonus: These help in writing the dreaded one-page synopsis!)

Each of these tools helps me to dig deeper or know what to cut. Time consuming? Sure. But fun, too, as I sculpt my chunk of words into a story I’ll be excited to share.