This is the fifth installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. It's based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"
Part 5 – Stages of Revision
Stage 3: Telling the Real Story
While Stage 2 dealt with the macroview of the manuscript (what’s working), Stage 3 looks at the microview (how is it working) with one important exception. Stage 3 is guided by your novel’s premise, the thing around which everything else in the novel turns, the thing that drives the action of your novel forward, that guides your characters’ exploration of the novel’s essential questions, and the thing that provides the narrative arc to your story.
Understanding your novel’s premise is absolutely crucial for writing a succinct and compelling query letter. It’s the number one issue I saw with query letters (and submissions) in the two and a half years I read submissions for a literary agent. As much as no writer wants to hear this, the simple truth is if you have a solid understanding of your novel’s premise, the query letter becomes fairly easy to write. I think most writers have problems with query letters because they haven’t pushed far enough into the revision process to get to this stage (let alone the final one that focuses on the reader’s experience of your story).
I’m going to repeat something I said earlier: the revision process isn’t about the number of drafts you’ve done, it’s about how close to query-ready the manuscript gets. There’s no magic number of drafts that will do the trick if you aren’t asking the right questions of the manuscript.
I also want to add that, even though I’ve broken down the revision process into stages, the stages don’t necessarily correspond to the number of revisions it will take to move the manuscript to query-ready. Some writers, especially ones with several novels under their belts, can do most of this work in a single draft, while others need several. The number of revisions may also vary from work to work. For myself, I’ve got one novel that has taken seven complete revisions and more than a decade to get to what might possibly be Stage 3 (I think I know what it’s about now and can move forward with that guiding every scene), but I’ve also just finished a novel that pretty much wrote as a polished manuscript from page one to the end.
Most of my clients seek help when they’re mired somewhere in the second or third stage and frustrated because they can’t quite get the novel to function correctly or come together as a cohesive whole. Remember, the goal is to create a fully-realized novel that’s driven forward by a central focus or organizing principal.
This is why I call Stage 3 “Telling the (Real) Story.”
This stage of revision is driven by what’s at the heart, the core, of the story you’re telling.
Every writer has something that sets them writing. The poet Richard Hugo in his marvelous book on craft The Triggering Town, talks about this moment of inspiration that propels the writer to the page. Whether it’s a line of dialogue, a situation, a character, something sets you off on this journey to write. If you’re writing a novel, that spark is big enough, intriguing enough, important enough to keep you working on it for months, years even. But, as Hugo observes, something happens to that spark and all the ideas that follow. They begin to take on a life of their own, they change and grow. New ideas, better ideas sometimes, come along and present intriguing alternatives. Sometimes, the book you thought you were writing turns out not to be the one you end up with. Sometimes a plot element or character has taken over the book and thrown the whole thing off course. The story may have all the same pieces you started out with – the same characters, the same plot, same setting and story arc – but something’s changed and the pieces don’t fit together the way you thought they would.
Or, nothing’s changed, but that incredible Franksteinian lightning bolt did not strike and, instead of being a vibrant novel brimming with life, you’ve got a collection of words that flop around in kind of an interesting manner. Sort of. If you squint in just the right light…
If you’ve worked on your draft in Stage 2 with an eye towards fully assimilating all the “ghost marks” of its creation into the forward movement of the story, you should have a fairly streamlined manuscript. All the pieces are pretty much in the right place, the pacing is pretty much on target so things happen in the narrative arc when they should, plot elements build on one another to create complexity, major characters have discernable arcs from the start of the book to the end. When I say Stage 2 deals with things on a macrolevel, this is what I mean.
The microlevel of Stage 3 is about making sure that all those elements and details are the right ones for the story you’re telling. In order to do that, you first need to understand what your story is really about.
In many ways, this is where genre writers have it easier than general fiction writers. Genres not only come with a set of conventions, they’re genres because they tell a certain type of story. Mysteries are driven by someone needing to figure out the cause of something that happened. Thrillers are driven by the need to stop something dire from happening. Romance is driven by the relationship between two (sometimes three or more, depending on your subgenre) people (Please note: this is not to say genre novels are formulaic – far from it. Part of the joy of reading genre is watching skilled writers take a well-worn trope and reinvent it or provide readers with the expected ending (the couple ends up together, the bad guys get caught) in an unexpected way. My point is that genre writers don’t have to figure out what drives their novels forward, it’s built into the genre).
Fantasy and historical fiction are a little more complicated because the stories told in these genres can be driven by a multitude of ideas, but what they have in common is the need to create a realistic world in which certain rules govern what characters can and cannot do.
It’s sometimes a bit trickier to define the premise of a general fiction novel no matter if it’s commercial, upmarket or literary because, to paraphrase Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, the whole of human existence is the writer’s subject. But figuring out what drives YOUR novel forward is crucial for being able to understand if all of your novel’s elements work in service to its basic premise. Sometimes it helps to have outside readers at this point because they can often see things that the writer is too close to recognize.
In any event, whether you’re looking at your own manuscript or asking readers to take a look, you’re looking for those elements that tie the work together, the question that underlies the novel’s narrative arc, the way in which different characters represent different aspects of an issue. This is where the microview reveals the bigger picture. The minute choices you’ve made for language, voice, details, repetition of imagery, balance between exposition and action/narration and scene, choices for point of view, setting reveal the central premise.
Yes, there will be things that don’t work or are slightly off – make note of them as you do your readthrough but don’t try to fix them yet. This is the moment to get brutally honest with yourself and flag those passages or scenes you love but are secretly hoping no one notices that they don’t work or you think “yes, but…” when you read them or you flat out get a sinking feeling in your stomach. Listen to your intuition here and be as honest as you can. You’re not cutting anything yet, you’re just seeking to find those soft places where the novel doesn’t live up to what you envision.
The good news here, by the way, is that most often the problem is one of execution. One of my guiding principles as an editor is: honor the impulse. Nine times out of ten, what I see is that the writer had the correct impulse for a scene or a detail, but the execution was off – the scene happens at the wrong moment, the writer backed off putting pressure on the characters at a crucial moment, a detail doesn’t quite have the impact the writer is looking for to create a multi-layered image, the element only functions on the most surface level rather than resonates with other elements in the story.
In one of my own novels, my main character sees someone he hasn’t seen since they were younger. I wanted there to be a moment of confusion but some way for my MC to recognize this character. Initially, the character had a shortened ring finger on his left hand – the result of an accident when he was young – but I knew that wasn’t the correct detail. It didn’t resonate with anything else in the book, and, this recognition scene was important because it sets up elements that happen at the book’s climax. So, the detail had to be right. When I pushed into, questioned the detail against the central premise of the novel, it opened up an entire subplot that was absolutely perfect, and I realized the detail I needed wasn’t a shortened ring finger (surface level detail that only helps my MC recognize this other character) but a ring (detail that resonates with other themes of the book and has a payoff in the climactic scene). Honoring the impulse that led me to focus on the character’s hands but questioning the execution and making the choice more conscious, led me to the perfect detail.
This is the level of interrogation that needs to happen in Stage 3. You’re looking for the central premise, the question you’re exploring, the element that drives all the action forward. This is the central organizing principal for your novel and the thing that all the other elements work in service to. Stage 3 is about defining it and evaluating all the elements of your story against it.
Another timeline exercise?
Yup. This one is a little different, though. This timeline puts every event that is mentioned in your book (whether it appears on stage or off) in chronological order. There are several reasons for doing this. One, it will help you see where the story might still be bogging down with backstory. Two, it helps you see what backstory is necessary and how those events interrelate (this is especially important if you’re novel is non-linear). Three, when I do this exercise for clients’ books, I often find the very first event in the chronology is important for finding what the book is about and helps guide the writer toward recognizing the essential question.
At the end of Stage 3, you should have a real sense of what your book is about, and every element of the story works to explore, deepen, complicate, understand, and communicate that idea.
In the next post, I cover a necessary and important part of Stage 3: correctly locating and using your novel's destabilizing and inciting incidents to create the dynamic opening contemporary publishing demands.
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If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email or on Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base who's work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.
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