Revision–the BIG picture

One of the hardest parts of both finishing and revising a novel is keeping the big picture in mind–juggling all the elements so that you end up with a story-shaped book that delivers the ending you promised at the start. I’ve tried different strategies over the years and this is the one that is working pretty well for me at the moment.
5 steps to seeing your novel as a whole

1. Shrink your text to 8 point type, remove space between chapters and make margins as narrow as possible so that the whole novel will fit on less than 50 pages. Print it out. Put it up on a wall or lay it out on a large table or bed.

  • Observe the balance of dialog to description.
  • Notice chapter lengths relative to each other.

2. Highlight setting descriptions

  • Are they present throughout but not large?

3. Highlight physical intensity/action in a different color. Do the same for emotional intensity/tension and humor

  • Is there balance? Some action in every chapter; some tension in every chapter?
  • If it’s not a funny book, is humor providing a respite? If it’s a funny book, is the humor consistent throughout?

4. Use a post it notes to mark where each character is introduced.

  • Does the main character appear in the first page or first 400 words of the book?
  • Are all the major characters introduced in the first third of the book?
  • Are there clumps of 3 or more characters introduced in a single scene?

5. Use post it notes to mark the major events of the plot

  •   Are setting and main character established in the 1st 500 words?
  • Is the inciting incident in the first chapter?
  • Does every chapter contain an obstacle, or a reversal, or an important plot point?
  • Is there a single clear climax?
  • Does the story resolve and end shortly after that climax?

Remember these are questions and not commandments. You may have additional questions to ask yourself or different aspects to highlight based on the type of story you are telling. It’s just a tool, so feel free to make it your own.

This is how big picture revision looks in my office.
This is a 45,000 word MG novel shrunk down to 34 pages. Setting details are in green, humor is pink, action is yellow, and emotional intensity is orange.
Over the top of the highlighting I used cross-hatching to indicate view point narration. I have two view point characters. One is indicated by right slanting red lines and the other is shown with left slanting green lines. Putting the alternating point of view up on the wall like this made it clear that in the middle, the POV character is not clear. I can also see that there is too much of the red characters POV and not enough of my green character’s POV in the final section.

I’d love to hear from you about what works for you when you are revising with the flow of the whole novel in mind. Leave your suggestions in the comments!

9 Responses to Revision–the BIG picture

  1. I’ve read about doing this, with a slight tweak–Highlight in different colors as you suggest, but on a copy of your mss in the computer, then shrink as small as possible so you really just see the colors and print out. I think you can do a full novel in ten pages this way. However, I don’t think you can actually READ it, so it may not work for the post-it additions. Thank you so much for sharing this technique!

  2. This is an intriguing idea, Rosanne. I’ve written several MG books and what seems to work best for me is to tweak and revise until I know it’s getting close, and then read it all in one sitting. This takes several hours straight, but if I can pull it off it really helps me to see the big picture. I can’t see it if I only read a chapter or two at a time.

  3. So simple and seemingly quite effective! I’m going to try your technique with my current wip. Thank you, Rosanne!

  4. So neat and clear, Rosanne! Timely for me, too, because I started with one character POV for my next novel but decided on two in revision. A great improvement, but t’s hard to keep the structure and balance in my head, so making it visual should really help. Thanks!

  5. Love it, Rosanne! I’ve done some highlighting to guide my revision before but never tried the shrunken-font-hang-it-on-the-wall approach. Very cool. Thanks for sharing your brilliance! :)

  6. So helpful. I sent it to a friend of mine who is writing her first book and she’s struggling with exactly this step. Thank you!

  7. I really needed this one today. Perfect timing for good info. Thank you!

  8. Ditto – I love seeing how everyone writes and revises. And Rosanne, this is pretty brilliant. Pretty sure I’m going to give this a shot myself. Thanks!

  9. Karen Schwartz

    I love posts on process. I will do a version of the shrunken manuscript with summary lines of scenes and impt info on POV, time, emotional and plot changes. I will also read the whole thing in a single sitting to hold it in my mind.