Albert Einstein said, "You cannot solve the problem with the same kind of thinking that has created the problem." Thanks, Al, for pointing out why the revision process can be so darned frustrating: It presupposes that you can evaluate and enhance your novel's meaning and focus simply because you've completed the first draft.
Logic says otherwise. In order to serve as your own critic and teacher, you must first educate yourself and attain a level of expertise higher than the one you occupied when you wrote the manuscript. Unless you master new skills, you won't be able to spot problem areas, let alone know how to eliminate them.
In 1990, after thirteen years of editing best-sellers for top publishers, I extended my services to aspiring authors. Even their best efforts were a long way from marketability. The errors in the first chapter also appeared in the last. No surprise there.
Once taught a few basic concepts, these "newbies" produced astonishing second drafts that were entertaining, original page-turners. If they did it, you can, too, by learning and applying the ten basic concepts that follow.
1. A revision takes as long as it takes.
The creative unconscious won't be rushed, and if you try to blast through the rewrites, you'll cheat yourself out of your best ideas.
Relax. Enjoy yourself as you rework your project. View the revision process as a fascinating mind game, a Puzzle for the Intelligent. Stop when you feel tired or upset or when the right words just won't come.
Educate yourself about the problem areas, research how your favorite authors approach similar material, and explore the unlimited possibilities your imagination is poised to deliver.
2. Revise toward a Marketable Length.
Many new novelists end up with a huge honker of a manuscript that can be overwhelming to revise. Consider taking the intermediate step of eliminating all unnecessary material before you fine-tune.
Weigh every word to make certain it's essential. If it isn't, delete it. Measure your material against these questions, then delete whatever earns a yes: Have I said the same thing in two slightly different ways? Does my reader already know this information from somewhere else in the manuscript? Does this scene fail to advance the plot in a significant way? Have I included more backstory than what is crucial for grasping my characters' motivation? Is this backstory/description so long that it interrupts the story's momentum? Have I included biographical background for minor characters?
3. Torque the Power of Your Scenes
Double-check the purpose of each scene and make certain you have satisfied it. Have you pushed the plot forward in a meaningful way? Have you chosen the best characters to communicate new information to the reader and selected the most logical character to hold the point of view? Does the setting underscore your objective?
Discrete scenes allow your reader to focus on the action by dividing your story into digestible increments. Make sure you have not created scenes that begin in one setting with a particular collection of characters, then, via a narrative bridge, move to another time and place, with a different group of people.
Frame your scenes to organize the action and emphasize the purpose of the action. Settle your audience into the scene quickly by providing this information: Where are we? Who is present? How much time has passed since the previous scene? Who is the point-of-view character, and what is his/her frame of mind? Subtly mention the props the characters will use before the scene ends (a briefcase, a comb, etc.), so objects don't suddenly materialize. Vary how you offer these elements and slip the information smoothly into the dialogue and narrative.
4. Begin Your Scenes Close to the Action
Once you determine precisely how a scene supports your plot and reveals new information to the reader, pinpoint where that communication takes place. Now go back to the beginning of that scene. How far(in paragraphs/pages)is the opening of your scene from the main point of action? What can you eliminate or compress so the scene will open near a power point?
5. Chapter Endings Should Tease the Reader Forward
Each chapter's conclusion should leave the reader excited, anticipating what might happen next. Good endings, linked to powerful beginnings in the succeeding chapter, keep your audience fully engaged.
Let's assume your protagonist is struggling to complete his/her quest while battling ever-increasing obstacles. You will find numerous possibilities for a compelling chapter conclusion by focusing on your point-of-view character, be it the protagonist, antagonist, or helpmate of either one. (Minor characters should not be given the point of view.) What is your protagonist planning/worrying about/trying to survive? What is your antagonist plotting/spying on/strategizing, and how will it harm the protagonist?
Because you want to draw the reader on, look ahead but don't give away too much; you want to save the full dramatic impact for when the event actually takes place.
6. Replace Discussion with Action
Meetings are usually as dull in novels as they are in real life. Rather than placing your characters around tables in conference rooms and restaurants, get them up and out, performing interesting activities in intriguing settings.
Don't waste words on self-evident events. For example, why show your character making plane reservations, when, in an upcoming scene, we see her aboard the jet? The reader will know your character made travel arrangements.
Similarly, readers assume that characters brush their teeth, wash their face, etc. Include these tasks only to further character development because of the unusual manner these rituals are performed.
7. The Antagonist Mirrors the Protagonist
Many aspirants don't realize that a bold, intelligent villain underscores the brainpower and courage of the protagonist. Flesh out your villain with as much character detail as the protagonist.
A good villain has depth and motivation, knows what s/he wants, and is willing to commit ruthless acts to gain the prize. A good villain must have some redeeming qualities and a conscience, although his/her code of ethics is skewed. Because the villain believes that what s/he is doing is right, you must lay the proper foundation for that mindset.
We can all relate to a good villain because we've all experienced temptation, jealousy, lust, and so on. The only distinction is that we have not crossed the line from good to evil.
8. Dialogue Can Make or Ruin Your Novel
Often the characters of new writers sound alike, and they all sound like the author. We are all different. Our speech reflects our age, gender, education, social class, culture, interests, preferences, and prejudices.
Set this as your goal: Your readers are able to identify each character's dialogue without attribution because the speech is consistent with that character.
If you don't have "an ear" for dialogue, visit a mall's food court and eavesdrop as if you were a social scientist. Listen: People tend to speak in short sentences. They interrupt one another. They use slang, colloquialisms, and regionalisms. They have favorite words.
Insert one-line boosters into the midst of dialogue to add interest, deepen characterization, advance the action, and identify the speaker ("I'm going on a diet tomorrow." Nancy licked the frosting off her fingers and set the bowl in the sink. "Want to go out for lunch?").
9. Do Your Research
Your jobs are to inform and to entertain the audience. Readers love to learn, even when they pick up a book for pleasure. As you wrote the first draft, did you include any material beyond what is generally known? If not, see if you can subtly weave in some fascinating facts pertaining to one character's pursuits. When you write your next book, research one to three areas of interest to integrate as you go.
10. Dramatize, Dramatize, Dramatize
If you tell your story rather than show it, then you interject yourself between the reader and your characters. The events lose their immediacy and dramatic impact. The indicator is each scene's ratio of narrative to dialogue. "Telling" has an overabundance of narrative.
This is one of many reasons why I encourage authors to populate their scenes with two or more characters if at all possible. With one character present, new writers fall easily into the role of storyteller.
Before you write, become the point-of-view character. Allow the action to filter through that character to the reader, who experiences the situation vicariously.
The clearer the scene is in your mind--how the characters interact, their appearance and body language, and the setting's sensory input--the easier it is to dramatize. Consider making a prewriting list of what the point-of-view character sees, smells, tastes, hears, and touches in the scene. What emotions does s/he go through as the actions unfold, and what physical sensations result from those events? Use that list to help you nail down the scene.
Telling also applies to labels. Rather than tell about your character's nature, show it through behavior.
If you grasp these concepts and apply them, you will indeed occupy higher ground when you start to revise. Albert would have been so proud.