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MAKE A PASS; I DARE YOU: Revising Your Draft

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With permission from Alan Levine, pxhere.com

Recently, I allowed myself to type those two precious words:


I’d completed my first rough draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Of course, finishing a draft is not THE END at all.

Those two magical words are the call to arms, the rallying cry to get one’s butt back into one’s damned chair, to double down, dig deep, grovel, beg, and maybe ugly cry.

It’s time to revise.

Hopefully, one is armed with tissues as well as a stash of tried-and-true methods for honing, pruning, enriching and revealing; plus the fresh input of trusted beta readers, freelance editors, a publishing editor, and/or literary agent (if one’s agent is the editorial sort).

I asked four generous and highly esteemed fellow authors whose names begin with “J” about their tips-n-tricks for revision so that I can, selfishly, mine their ideas for my own use. And yes, I am sharing the 411 here with you.

Janet Fitch- author of the Oprah’s Book Club selection and feature film, WHITE OLEANDER; and most recently, CHIMES OF A LOST CATHEDRAL. Her Janet Fitch’s Writing Wednesday YouTube series is a gem.

“I think in terms of revision “layers”. First layer, the scenes—making sure each scene has a change, that something has good and truly happened, and the POV character can’t go back to the way it was before. Second layer, I check the senses—am I embodying the story, using all the senses, every page? I make sure the WHERE is firmly established and continues to be refreshed. Third layer, the polishing. I make sure every sentence sings—checking the verbs for specificity and flavor, that the language has texture or ‘crunch,’ and that there’s variety in sentence length and structure. I will read this draft aloud, listening for the music I’m making.”

Jane Healey- bestselling historical novelist and host of the fab webinar series H3- Historical Happy Hour. Her most recent book, THE SECRET STEALERS is out from Lake Union Publishing.

“When I’m revising I always remind myself that readers are very smart, so in the first round of revisions, I do what I think of as a “macro” review and question every chapter, every scene and every event and ask myself, does this chapter/scene/event matter enough to remain in the story? Does it advance the narrative or shed light on character enough that it deserves to stay in the novel? And if it doesn’t, I take it out (always saving it somewhere else just in case). And then the next round is the micro review – more of a line by line review of exposition, dialogue etc. to make sure that I’m not talking down to readers in any way – I’m not repeating things they already know, or annoying them with details they don’t need to know. I find reading out loud helps at this stage, it’s much easier to spot clunky dialogue or unnecessary description when I read out loud.”

Jacquelyn Mitchard- #1 New York Times Bestselling novelist (and a former MFA advisor of mine), whose latest, THE GOOD SON came out in January from Mira, has this to say:

“I revise my drafts as I go along, so that when I finish the first iteration, it is as close to “perfect” as I can make it. Of course, then my agent has ideas, and then the editor has ideas too.

Mostly, what I look for are any obvious repetitions of events and for excessive words.
After all these books, I’ve trained myself never to use attributions beyond “said,” except for the occasional “whispered” or “shouted.” Most of the adverbs can go, because they should be obvious from the context. (e.g. “I think I can try to stand up now,” she said weakly … but it would be self-evident that she was saying it “weakly” so I wouldn’t use “weakly.”) I also encourage myself to be patient with setting a scene, because I tend to include too few details. (e.g. A wide green meadow dropped away to the beach … I would say instead, A wide green meadow dropped away over the cliff to a furze of rosa rugosa and beach grass, finally giving way to the toasted rubble of the beach …)

I also strive to eliminate excessive conversation, as I can go on forever with dialogue and use it as a crutch. Further, and this drives me crackers, I try never, ever, ever to cheat with describing a person by having that character look in a mirror unless the person is noticing something new — like a horn growing out of her forehead. People look at themselves for imperfections, not to assure that they’re still dark-haired and green-eyed.”

James Wade- James and I both debuted in 2020 with Blackstone Publishing, and his third novel, BEASTS OF THE WILD will be out on October 11th.

  1. I try not to repeat a two-dollar word.
  2. I try to limit my two most-used descriptors– ‘some’ and ‘great’ (as in, “a great storm raged sudden upon the horizon, as if brought about by some unseen conjurer”).
  3. Lastly, I try to make the tone/voice/pacing of the manuscript sound halfway consistent. That’s the toughest part, because my brain doesn’t operate on a consistent baseline. When I come to the desk each day, I’m in different moods, I’m influenced by different things. If I go a few days without writing, I might not see everything the exact same way I did last time I was on the page. So, a final quality alignment check is invaluable.

My own writing process is a sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-back progression, with lots of micro-editing as I move along. (Is micro-editing a thing? It is now.) I also make passes through the entire manuscript to ferret out or enhance specific things. The novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff taught me to do a pass through my draft for sensory details, to add texture to setting and scene. The former Henry Holt & Co. Senior-Editor-turned-literary-agent Barbara Jones told me to search for overused words, and she gave me a list of common ones, as well as some I was personally guilty of overusing (enter “JUST”). A search through your manuscript in Word is easy, and you’ll have the distinct satisfaction of seeing the number of uses decrease as you slash your way through your pages. I actually keep a tally page, listing the overused word and the number of times it appears before and after the slash-n-burn edit (SO satisfying). I have yet to figure out how to do this as efficiently in Scrivener. If you know, please comment below.

Here are some of the things I make passes for:

  • Use of pronouns vs. names when referencing characters. In some beta reads I’ve done recently I noticed a habit of using the character’s name over and over in speech tags and identification, instead of alternating names with he/she/they.
  • Specific verbs. The delightful Bianca Marais always hammers this home on the podcast she hosts with literary agents Carly Watters and Cece Lyra, The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing. ( Highly recommended, BTW.) Why should your character walk when she can stroll, saunter, or stumble?
  • Grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Of course, a copy editor with slap your hand over your comma problem and verb tense boo-boos, but you can and should do this polishing yourself. Spell check in Word should be a given, reading aloud, and I also run each chapter through the program Grammarly. It highlights grammar errors (often questionable, IMHO) as well as repeated and missing words. Warning #1: Super tedious. Warning #2- The program does not allow for colloquial use of speech or artistic license, and it is sometimes wrong.
  • Era and area-specific speech patterns. Because I write historical fiction, I like to check that phrases like “The cat’s pajamas” are era-appropriate to my timeframe. (This phrase began to be used in the 1920s.) You can check terms and phrases with Google’s Ngram viewer. Enter the words or phrases in the search box and the engine provides a graph of usage by year. For instance, I wanted to know which phrase would be most appropriate to use in 1932, “trash can” or “garbage can”. Entering those two phrases separated by a comma gave me my answer. My fellow historical novelist friend Maryka Biaggio told me about this.

Do you have tried-and-true methods for revision? What are they?


About Liza Nash Taylor

Liza Nash Taylor (she/her) is a late-blooming historical novelist and self-proclaimed empty nester with attitude. She was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle MagazineDeep South, and others. Her debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS (Blackstone Publishing, 2020) was listed in Parade Magazine’s 30 Best Beach Reads of 2020 and Frolic’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2020. Her second novel, IN ALL GOOD FAITH, came out in August 2021, also from Blackstone. A native Virginian, Liza lives in Keswick with her husband and dogs, in an old farmhouse which serves as a setting for her historical fiction. Find out more at lizanashtaylor.com.

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