Lessons from the Front: On Revising My Novel

The emerging novelist has had a difficult time keeping up the nagging demands of blog-life, obviously. The past months have eroded to passive regrouping of my energies after submitting a novel for editorial consideration. End result: my story is too long (especially for a first novel). It has too much dead space (more on that below) and a story line that protracts into several long and dull passages. The writing while at times lyrical is not consistently so.

I summarize in my own words from editorial comments of a handful of readers. Editors are fine for making generic comments, but they leave the interpretation up to you. The problem here is a writer (me) is that I cannot fathom exactly how I need to proceed in order to fix the issues. I am a person who ripped out 5″ of a knitted panel for the sake of one dropped stitch (easily fixed in 5 minutes, according to my Mom). Thanks to the works of Donald Maass, in an excellent workbook called The Breakout Novelist, I am able to approach the effort with some intelligence. I know enough about writing to understand that I am a fool wandering around passages in the deep cave of success, hoping that I am making the correct assumptions about how to use this map. 

 There appear to be three major issues, according to my readings, that provide opportunities to cultivate dead space. The first problem to consider is my opening—Chapter One. While meeting the stringent requirements for setting up scene, introducing character, and getting my hero moving across the page, this opening did not grab the reader’s attention, make her feel uncomfortable in anticipation of conflict, or give her any reason to turn the page. It did move my hero forward through his world, across the lawn into the college, but not into the story. In fact, the first third of the book (148 pages) does little to move his story forward, offering backstory instead, a justification of the hero’s existence, really, and a test to see if I could write the academic male viewpoint. The classic “threshold” from the hero’s journey occurs on page 149, leaving the opening stagnant and dull. Ho-hum, who cares?

Establishing character time and place is good but the real journey takes place elsewhere. A lot of wasted images, scenes and dialogues are in these pages—wasted on the reader, not the writer who apparently needed to experience it all so that she could see the story. The journey is a journey into his past, which happens at the place of his birth. Eventually he runs into all of the thematic elements once the journey begins. Having been explored in the opening third of the novel, these are revisited in the “special world” of the journey, a second contributor to dead space: repetition.

To be candid, I got into this mess by attempting to merge two stories—and two story structures—into a grand tale. The first story followed a student coming to terms with her less than perfect background in the nascent energies of women’s liberation. The second followed a socially inept young professor who aims to be a successful scholar envisioning himself rising above the poverty of his youth to become an eminent scholar in an Ivy League school. He saw himself as Percival the lad of woodsy ignorance who became a knight of the Round Table. The novelist in me wanted the story to end nicely, a quaint romance. I was of the mind that these two characters had to be become equals at the end, so that one would be worthy of the other. I proceeded to take the reader on each journey, in order to demonstrate the evolving shapes on each side of the balance.

Talk about repetition. Yet, by trying to develop two stories I cheated the professor of his true story and short-shifted the student of her rounded story arc as well. The ending, which forces them together, actually thwarts the theme I set out to demonstrate: that is, in order for “true” love to exist, one must park his ego and allow his heart to rule. I learned that pushing the story askew to demonstrate a pet theme is no simple task. And when it is done, the story feels forced. Many of the story’s underpinnings feel false. It is like deciding who the murderer is in the middle of your mystery and then pressing forward to wrap up without laying the necessary field case.

Too much concern on how the story should turn out kept me engaged in theme when I should have been paying attention to how the story was unfolding, to the here and now details of each scene, to what Maass calls the “tension on every page.”

By focusing on these three issues, I expect the manuscript will improve greatly, being more readable, and appealing to a greater audience, making it more publishable. First, focus on one story. Second, push backstory to the second half of the novel, and third, ensure that the conflict keeps the reader in continual distress by writing tension into every dialogue, every scene and every major turning point of the story.


The hero’s story is the one that demonstrates ego surrendering to heart, and so I have chosen to go with that one. Since the heroine’s story line shows her transition from leaning on the privilege of her position as a wealthy scion’s daughter to a self-sufficient adult, it becomes a subplot that enhances the hero’s transition. My work on her journey has not been entirely wasted. In its length it comprises the fodder for another novel, one where her concern for others detracts her from looking after her own self-interest. The work produced by this change is significant but not overwhelming. I have to rewrite the first chapter to resonate with a restrained focus and less expansive goals. It also requires the tightening of story structure, which will—hurrah!–reduce the final novel by at least a fourth of its size.


Next, every line of backstory in the first 148 pages needs to be plucked out, leaving only 6-7 pages in the first chapter. Maass suggests that backstory, if used at all, be deferred until the second half of the book. This was the lesson hardest for me to learn. I was absolutely convinced that my story made no sense to the reader who was not clued in from the beginning. I struggled with this for months, striking out then putting back in, over and over. Finally I resorted to watching film and reading novels to test his “theory”. Maass most likely had done the tests himself over time with the thousands of manuscripts he had read as an editor. I found it to be a valid tenet. Science fiction offers the most striking examples, as with Star Trek episodes, and Star Wars which drops us into the middle of the battle, <or Matrix–where the whole film is a revelation of backstory even as characters race to its conclusion. The tenet holds true in the love story, Cold Mountain, a literary example closer to my own story. The revelation of the Civil War and the hero’s displacement in his society unfolds uncomfortable on every page.

Maass provides the revising writer with examples that sharpen his lens, rendering abstract concepts into living experience. Working with this workbook was like having a tutor working by your side. “Tension on every page” is the most difficult of the revision tasks for me because I will have to read every line of my extant novel and evaluate its ability to move the story forward. I have to admit I am not the greatest proofreader of my own work.

The whole novel needs revision, a daunting task. But, while I am revising this baby, I will continue to germinate my current novel, a story that takes me back to my first love of mystery novels, to the San Francisco of my youth and to my life today on a not-so-remote island off the Pacific coast. Patches of images are cropping up every day. The dream lives on.

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