Whether you’re ready to begin revising your book or struggling to get to the finish line of your first draft, these exercises can help you get a fresh perspective and see your writing in a new light.
As you close in on finishing the first draft or are set to begin revising your book, it’s not uncommon to have the sparks stop flying and the momentum drag. Perhaps you could use something to jump start your progress towards the home stretch – some way to alter your perspective and help you take a fresh or deeper look at your material. One way forward is to get dependable beta readers to give feedback. If you can’t do that, or you’re not ready to share, you need to do something to trick your mind into looking at the material as “new.” Something to sweep away the blindness of being too close to the content and help you see your work as a reader will.
Hopefully, after doing one of more of the sanity checks outlined here, you’ll see your way out of the woods and make quick progress revising your book. Taking a systematic approach to evaluating your book as a whole forces you to look at pace, identify gaps, and rekindle your creativity. This is how the reader will experience your book – from start to end. Once you exhaust these exercises and feel you have nothing to change, you are truly done (until you look again, that is). If you try one or more of these creative tricks and feel deeply satisfied with the outcome, it’s a good sign you are ready to publish.
Read the story out loud
It is surprising how much it helps to just tell your story orally. You’ll add emotion. You’ll stress certain things and drop others. This is very telling. Some parts of your story will lend themselves to long descriptive passages that are hard to convey short of speaking the narrative. Other parts of the action aren’t that easy.
You’ll start to feel the pace of your book when you do this. You might even pick up new twists to the story, remember details you have to add, or identify gaps. If there is no one around, read it to yourself, or record yourself. Rehearse and rehearse. You might be surprised what pops out of your mouth that had never occurred to your fingers when writing or typing.
Play your story in your mind as a movie
Think visually. How would your book translate to the screen? When you visualize each scene, you have to place it in a real environment. You might find some flat sections that lack pace. You might begin to see your characters so vividly, you see new or better scenes to add.
If you had to paint 10 scenes from your book, which would they be? If you don’t paint, which photographs would you take? If you have no artistic leaning at all, which scenes would you want a professional artist to take the time to render visually for you?
Why are you picking those images? What do they mean? Are they spread evenly throughout the book, or do they come in patches? What does the collection of images say about your book? Are they all faces of characters? Are they the climactic moments or scenes of special importance? Are they deeply emotional moments felt by one or more of your characters? Are they of objects of symbolic or practical importance?
Was it easy to pick out 10 images, or was it difficult? Readers form images in their minds while reading books. What will your readers be thinking?
Study the opening and closing of each chapter
Writers often get lost in the details. The opening and ending of each chapter should be as strong as the beginning and conclusion of the whole book. Checking each chapter ending for how it relates to the opening of the next is important. On a micro level, you can look at the end and opening of each paragraph. As you do this, look to adjust the weight of each sentence so it has more impact.
Summarize each paragraph, section, and chapter – as well as the entire book
This is what belongs on the back cover!
Your manuscript should be like a perfectly carved set of Russian dolls, with each fitting into a larger doll beautifully – from words, to sentences, on up. The more dolls you have, the more exquisite the set.
At the lowest level, go through your chapters and write down what each paragraph is about. Do this quickly. Circle or mark the best parts of each paragraph. Are your circles sparse or so dense you can’t see what you wrote? You are writing out the story in shorthand so you can check the higher order patterns. In all likelihood, you’ll see new arcs. You are also checking that each paragraph says something new. If you can’t quickly figure out what the paragraph is about, delete it. If you essentially say the same thing in more than one paragraph, pick the best and delete the rest. Often you will find a paragraph that contains more than one idea. This probably means you should split it into two paragraphs, as great paragraphs are focused on one topic.
Draft a final outline
If you didn’t start with an outline for your book, try to make one now. Hopefully, you’re such a good writer that it jumps out at you. Having a solid outline means you have a logical, well-thought out book. If you have a fast-paced story that has all its parts in place, this will be very easy to do. If you started from an outline, start from scratch to see if anything has changed. Few writers stick to an original outline, and it will be insightful to see where you deviated and think about why.
Decide what you think your reader will remember most
Sit by yourself somewhere different from where you usually write and mark down the most memorable moments of your book. What you do think a reader will take with them? What do you want them to take away from the book? The best books contain something that a reader can remember for a year, a decade, or even a lifetime. What are your points? Do you make them clearly? Write down all your best scenes in rank order. They should come spilling out of you if you are close to done and your book has true substance. If you have to think too long or none stand out as favorites, you have more work to do. You should be dying to get these scenes in front of readers because you know they are so good. If a few pop out, great! Think hard about why you like those so much and try to edit the rest of the book to meet that gold standard.
In a related vein, think about which passages you would pick for a book reading and why. If you don’t have a bunch to chose from, get writing.
Check your book’s emotional cues
This is like making an emotional script of the book, or an outline based on feelings. Think about how you expect the reader to feel at each part of your book. What trajectories do you send them on? How well have you paved the way for them? Are there clear road signs? How much ambiance have you created? Go through the book and make a note of whether the reader should feel happy, sad, lost, etc. Write down what they should think about each of your characters and any of the actions. Should they be rooting for this character and hating another because you are going to kill him off in the next chapter? Look to make the peaks and twists of the story more riveting. If a married character is going to reveal she’s having an affair, make sure the reader thinks until then that she is happily married.
Change your ending
This is not about changing your story, or throwing your ending away and starting over. It’s about solidifying your current story by comparing it against other possible endings. Get a piece of paper and write down at least 10 alternative endings for your book. It’s just a thought experiment. Do more if you can. The more outlandish the ending the better. Then evaluate them against the one you have. Try to figure out what you would need to change in your current version of the story to make each ending work. This will give you a new view of everything from your characters, to their environment, to the action.
Remove each chapter, one by one
If you remove a chapter, what happens to the rest of the plot? Does it break the story? If it does, that’s good, it means it contains essential information for the plot. If it doesn’t, you should seriously consider dropping the chapter. You can repeat this for subsections, or even for paragraphs, although it can be harder to decide at that level of detail. You can also repeat this for each character. Is the presence of each one justified in terms of the plot?
In another twist on this, flip each chapter. Especially see what happens if you flip chapter two for chapter one. Do you get rid of unnecessary back story and let the action rip? What happens when you flip other chapters? If they are in correct order, and all needed, you shouldn’t be able to flip any of them without major disruptions (although there could be some exceptions).
Write something different
This might not help you directly, but it will refresh your mind. If you chose to write in a very different style it might just awaken new skills or get certain things out of your system. After a while, come back to the book and you’ll be able to look at it more objectively. Irrelevant details will fade to the background and you’ll see the chaff more easily. The themes and action points will gel. Don’t be afraid to throw paragraphs, sections, or even chapters away.
Read it backwards
With the ending in mind, go through the book from the start and ask how each chapter (or section, paragraph, character) helps to get you to that ending. If you can’t tell how it does, it is extra to the story and should be removed. Then start at the end of the book and tell the story backwards. If the ending is “Z”, it should come about because of previous circumstances “Y,” that hinge on “X,” that are only possible because of “W,” and so forth to “A,” the first action in the chronological timeline of the book. Are you compelled backwards at each point or do you have to search for the link? A great plot will be like a chain – all the links will be tightly bound together. Of course, often the more surprising and unusual the links, the better, but they also need to be believable.
Image via ShutterStock.com.
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