I was recently asked how much I revise when I’m working on a novel, and when I do it. The answer is: always several times; sometimes many times. If I’m not too tired, I look over the day’s effort again immediately I’ve finished writing. Whether I do this or not, I always scrutinise it the following day before I start writing again and make minor changes. Books usually fall into natural sections, and I’ll devote a day or two to working through a whole section in one go once I’ve finished it, to make sure that it hangs together and that I’ve been consistent. Finally, I revise the whole MS before I send it to my editor, sometimes more than once.
I’ve been asked for my ten top revision tips, so here goes!
- Make sure you get both the tense and the mood of verbs correct. This may sound easy, and it may even make me look stupid for saying it, but it’s surprising how often I read novels that have been marred by this mistake. And yes, I catch myself out sometimes.
- Scrutinise the word order in each sentence that you write. I don’t just mean taking care with words like ‘only’ which have different meanings depending on where they appear in the sentence – I believe that achieving the optimum word order is essential to good writing. If you look at the sentence structure and word order used by a writer whom you really admire, you’ll see what I mean.
- Be descriptive, but sparingly. It’s true what people say about purple passages!
- Try really hard to make the dialogue sound natural. Think your way into how the character who is speaking phrases his or her speech and listen to the voice. At the same time, be aware that making it sound natural doesn’t mean copying nature! I’ve just been reading a novel in which two of the main characters engage in the kind of desultory breakfast conversation that I often have with my husband. Not only does it not go anywhere, it unfocuses the reader’s attention and dissipates the tension that the author has built up in the preceding chapters.
- If you create an interior monologue for one or more of your main characters, ensure that you give it enough depth. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making it too brittle or superficial. It’s quite a hard technique to work with and so, if you’re not sure whether you’ve succeeded, abandon it!
- Apply my last point to all of your work, quite ruthlessly. Be your own fiercest critic. If you’re not completely happy with something, or think that it might not be working, it probably isn’t.
- Check that you have used the same names for your characters throughout and haven’t introduced some subtle changes along the way. This may sound an unlikely mistake, but it’s certainly one that I’ve made – for example, in the first complete draft of In the Family, Ronald Atkins was also called Roland and Rodney on some occasions – and, having talked to other authors about it, I’ve discovered that it’s quite a common fault. Readers are bound to be irritated by it!
- If you write a fairly detailed outline of the plot – as I usually do – you don’t have to stick to this slavishly if you’re inspired by some better ideas once you’ve started writing. However, be certain that these work within the context of the whole and don’t present you with a lot of inconsistencies that require making many changes, or force you to offer outlandish explanations that stretch credibility.
- Also on the subject of plot construction, try to write the chapters in chronological sequence, even if you plan to present them in a different order in the final version. If you don’t, you are almost bound to introduce anachronisms that will need ironing out afterwards. This is perhaps my own greatest fault. I’m trying really hard to practise what I preach, now that I’ve started my third DI Yates novel!
- Turn off the spell-checker, which has a nasty habit of introducing US spellings or unexpected quirks!
I refer to [Judith] Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, which is an invaluable resource for ensuring consistency and proper presentation of material for publication.
Finally, may I add that I take very seriously the comments of readers about my writing. When I weigh them up, I find that they tend to have objectivity and honesty and I value their constructive and helpful insights.