How to revise your novel if you can’t get into it – take time to dress the set again

When you left the draft, you were living and breathing the story. When you go back to revise, one of the biggest hurdles is recreating that familiarity. How do you take control again?

The email was headed: ‘Here’s that film you were in!’ Hereafter, the Clint Eastwood film in which I was an extra, has just been released, and friends are making my day by sending me links whenever it’s mentioned in the press. Yesterday I got an article about a chap in London whose house was used as a location. It had to double for another house already used in the film, and the crew added false tips to the railings, replaced the front door, recoiffed the pot plants and wallpapered the hall.

It struck me that that’s a lot like revisiting a novel to do revisions. To start with I feel I don’t know the story any more, or live inside the characters, or remember the geography of their world. I have to go through a mental set-building phase in order to feel at home there again.

But I don’t just tip into the draft. That keeps me on the outside, like a new reader, and I need to be inside, behind the scenes, taking control of it all. I need to dress the set again. Here’s what I do.

1 Never throw your notes away

From the moment I start planning a book I keep copious notes. About the world, the synopsis, the characters. In one novel I’m planning, there’s a discography of all the music that exists in the world. When it’s time to revise I read them all again.

So many writers I know throw away these files when they send the novel out or hand it to their editor. But it’s never too late for somebody to suggest another round of revisions. The only time it’s safe to throw away your notes is when the book is between covers.

2 Get out your soundtrack

I need no excuse to make soundtracks for my books. First there are the pieces of music I choose to help evoke the initial mood of the story (and are an excuse to browse the Listmanias on Amazon). Then there are the tracks that grab me while I’m working on the book – a talisman for a particular scene, a theme to connect me to a character. Each of my books has a soundtrack, and I dust it off when I need to reconnect with the book again.

3 Make a beat sheet – or read an old one

There’s an exercise I always do before a major edit. It’s called the beat sheet, which becomes an at-a-glance blueprint for revision. It helps me take charge of the book again because it focuses on the underlying purpose of each scene. Once I’m done with the revision, I keep the beat sheet because if I need to revisit the draft, the beat sheet helps me rebuild the set again.

Thank you, E Bartholomew on Flickr, for the photo. The beat sheet is one of the tools from Nail Your Novel, Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Read an excerpt in the widget on the right, and read Amazon reviews of it here

Guys, what do you do to rebuild the set for a revision?

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  1. #1 by erikamarks on January 29, 2011 - 3:31 pm

    Great post, Roz, and some great ideas. This can be such a tough thing, ESPECIALLY when you think you’ve put that novel to bed and are well into a new story–that’s when I find myself stuck. To reacquaint myself with a novel, I try to revisit the setting, through, as you’ve suggested, a soundtrack, notes, (Yes! Never throw away those old notes–I’ve become such a word hoarder, have a long file of cut scenes, even sentences–you never know)…And frankly, I employ a good dose of Just-do-it-kid. Sometimes, even when the muse won’t show, I know if I dive in, eventually we’ll grow familiar with one another again.

    • #2 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 5:30 pm

      Erika, that’s such a good point – eventually we do grow familiar with the book again, but it takes time.

  2. #3 by Sally on January 29, 2011 - 5:40 pm

    Great post, and one that I think we can all relate to. I too have a soundtrack (thought that was just me. Whee, I’m not crazy!) but can’t have it on whilst writing. Too distracting.

    Another thing I do is re-read some earlier scenes featuring the characters of the scene I’m trying to write. It helps gets me back in tune with their individual mindsets and motivations.

  3. #4 by Sally on January 29, 2011 - 5:41 pm

    That line – ‘Whee’ – was supposed to say ‘Whew!’ lol! Sorry!

    • #5 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 5:30 pm

      Sally, ‘whee’ made perfect sense to me 😉

  4. #6 by Alexander M Zoltai on January 29, 2011 - 5:57 pm

    My work-flow for writing is worlds apart from yours yet I love reading your posts and always come away with new insights. Rather like a painter whose friend is a quilter and never fails to be inspired by their work.

    I “rebuild the set” by letting what I call my Meta-Reader take over. My Meta-Reader is also a literature detective. Never fails, in this communication of part of my consciousness with other parts, that I can inform the writer in me what’s real and what’s counterfeit.

    • #7 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 5:31 pm

      Thanks, Alexander – I learn a lot from reading about other writers’ methods too, even if they are different from mine.

  5. #8 by Victoria Mixon on January 29, 2011 - 6:11 pm

    What do you mean, “safe to throw away your notes”? What are you saying?

    I still have two boxes of notes on the novel I gave UP on.

    • #9 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 5:33 pm

      Victoria, you’re right. What was I saying? The other day I came across notes from novels that were published YEARS ago and I couldn’t ‘t bear to throw them away.

  6. #10 by Kevin McGill on January 29, 2011 - 9:02 pm

    Some roadblocks for me are the transitions my MC takes from one world to anothr. For every revision, I get stuck at that place where Nikolas is traveling from Earth to his fantastic world. The environments and characters are so different that its hard for me to make the shift. I feel like I am putting down one manuscript, and picking up a completely different one!

    • #11 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 5:35 pm

      Hi Kevin! That’s interesting. I have a feeling that may indicate something isn’t right with the way you’re drawing the reader from one world to the other… just a guess (and a blind one), but does the fantastic world have enough tension?

  7. #12 by Carrie on January 30, 2011 - 8:39 pm

    I’ve yet to finish a novel but I know coming back to edit and do re-writes will be a bigger challenge than the initial writing. I’ll have to check over your post again when that time comes 🙂

    Visiting from Red Dress Club

    • #13 by rozmorris on January 30, 2011 - 9:49 pm

      Thanks, Carrie – and best of luck. Rewriting is tough, but also incredibly rewarding.

  8. #14 by epicblackcar on January 30, 2011 - 11:50 pm

    The beat sheet is the key to all writing. If the outline / structure is bad, I don’t care if it’s a two-minute speech or a 100,000-word novel, line editing won’t fix it. Polishing the fenders won’t make a dead engine fire up.

    • #15 by rozmorris on January 31, 2011 - 12:11 am

      Epicblackcar, you are wise. And enigmatic.

  9. #16 by doreen mcgettigan on January 31, 2011 - 12:55 am

    I am glad I have not thrown away my notes. My book is in ‘production’ now and I have been warned there could possibly be a request for more revision..yikes..I am 2 books further down the road. I love the idea of a sound track for each one. I totally took my soul back out of that first book so it is so hard to get back into it again.
    Thanks for the tips!

    • #17 by rozmorris on January 31, 2011 - 1:12 am

      Doreen – how nerve-wracking to be waiting for more notes! Hope it goes well – and good luck.

  10. #18 by jesswords10 on January 31, 2011 - 6:06 pm

    I think I may try a beat sheet for my story. I found that post very helpful and since I’m such a visual learner it would be a great exercise for me to do when I begin editing. I’m also in hopes of starting a writer’s group and will share that exercise with others. Thanks for the tips!

  11. #19 by sylviahubbard1 on February 3, 2011 - 1:41 pm

    i loved this and will definitely share this with my writers group this weekend.

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