When to Revise a Novel

Everybody knows-at least, I hope everybody here knows-that all books need revision. Great books aren’t written exactly, they’re rewritten, and that’s a crucial thing to remember as a writer, no matter who you are and how good you think your first draft is. Sure, there might be sentences, paragraphs, maybe if you’re lucky entire scenes that will go from draft to draft untouched, but overall, your novel will need revision.

There are at least a thousand questions that can be asked about revision, and not one of them can be answered the same way for every person except maybe ‘do I need to revise’. Like anything else in writing, it’s complicated and there are as many answers as there are writers.

The question I would like to discuss today is the question of when to start revising your novel.

Of course I’m going to start with the ambiguous answer, which is, elegantly put, when you and your novel are ready for the revision process.

I can feel the look of ‘what kind of an answer is that’ but hear me out.

Terry Pratchett believes that some novels should never be rewritten, specifically those you abandon and come back to years later. There is some truth to that, but like anything in writing, it’s not one hundred per cent true. I’d say it’s probably about seventy-five per cent true.

So what’s the key factor? Personal change.

I’ve decided this by looking at my own life and my own novels.

My first novel and its children have been abandoned completely. I wrote my first novel before my dad was diagnosed with cancer. (I finished it shortly before that.) Even from one year to the next, even before my dad died, my second novel in the trilogy was very different. I couldn’t properly connect to Maria, my light hearted protaganist of the first novel. I couldn’t write in her viewpoint. Just trying gave me a headache.

Then my dad died, and in the third book, it was even harder.

I’ve said many times I wish I could go back to that story. It was a beautiful story, it was original, but I can’t. Why not? Because I’ve changed too much, become too jaded, to write in Maria’s voice. I’ve lost my connection with the character and so I’ve lost my connection to the first book. The second two still have prospect, but without the first, they’re just orphan children.

I wrote Moonshadow’s Guardian a year later. It was the first book I ever wrote that wasn’t connected to the first novel. Originally it was an entirely different story lifted from the adopt-a-plot boards on the Nanowrimo website. It morphed and then cut itself in half, creating an entirely new story. It is that story, in the character of Riana, that became the first novel I revised.

Throughout 2007 I edited Moonshadow’s Guardian. In 2008 I almost got it published. I look back now and I’m glad I didn’t.

Why? Because I’ve started revisions and it’s easier than I ever thought revision could be.

It’s almost a line edit, only I’m rewriting word for word. I’ve changed a lot, but it’s made me better able to write a mature character like Riana. I’ve become a much better writer, but that hasn’t distanced me from this story. I still love this world, these characters, this story. I’m excited to work with it again and I can already see the huge difference my editing has made-and I’m not even past the sixth chapter yet!

So what does that have to do with you?

Well, this experience has taught me something. Whether or not you can take a novel you wrote a long time ago and make it something amazing has less to do with time than you think, and more to do with changing life events. While my life has been hectic and many things have happened to me that changed my life, nothing has changed my life, my mental health, or my attitude as deeply as the loss of my dad.

I think I could rewrite every novel I’ve written since the day he died.

I don’t think I could ever rewrite my first novel, or the novel I wrote while he was in the hospital. Maybe it’s the pain of the memories, but I think it’s because I lost the innocence essential to Maria’s character when I lost my dad, and I can’t connect to that part of human experience anymore. It’s a loss to my writing and I hope someday I can write innocence again-but I know I will never be able to write Maria.

Are there any projects you’d love to rewrite but can’t? What’s your theory about why?