It's almost the end of November, which means one thing: tens of thousands of you have just finished a novel. Congratulations! Now for the heart-breaking part — looking at the hundreds of pages of action and emotion that you wrote in a feverish daze, and figuring out how to revise it. Or whether you really even want to.
And sometimes, you may just want to call this a practice novel and start another one from scratch. Here are 10 ways to tell if your brand spanking new novel just isn't worth revising.
Obviously, a lot depends on the definition of "revise" here — if you expand the word "revise" to mean "throw out everything you've written and start over from scratch with one or two of the ideas from the original manuscript, then any novel can be revised. And it's a virtual certainty that you'll have some ideas or a moment here and there from your new first draft that you'll like and want to use somewhere, even if it's in a completely new novel. But for the purposes of this article, we're using "revise" to mean "rework the material you already generated," using at least some of the structure and story that you already laid out.
Some questions you should ask
1) Do your characters have lots of conversations where they discuss the plot? And actually, those conversations are your characters trying to convince each other that the plot makes sense, against all appearances to the contrary? Do you have your characters pausing every few pages to explain to each other, yet again, why the basic premise of your book really isn't one gigantic plot hole? Umm... Yeah. Not that I've ever experienced that personally, of course. This happened to a friend.
2) Do you like your main character? Be honest here. And by "like," I mean not necessarily "want to have lunch with or go shopping with." Your main character doesn't have to be "likable" or "relatable," whatever the publishing industry may think it wants. But your main character has to be somebody that you're willing to spend a lot more time with — like, a lot. Because if writing that first draft was like going on a road trip with your main character, then revising the book is going to be like being trapped in a cabin with your main character for months with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Ask yourself if this fictional person is someone you feel that strongly about, or have that clear a picture of in your head.
3) Is your book just a collection of mostly unrelated episodes? Like, did you basically just write a bunch of short stories, strung together with a loose framework? Nothing wrong with that, but it may or may not be something you can turn into a novel. You may just have some short stories, some of which you can polish up and send out on their own.
4) Or is it a shaggy dog story? Again, you may have written a short story — with a ton of stuff in the middle to make it novel length. How much of your middle is really an essential part of the story, and how much is basically just padding? Is there any reason you can't just go from the beginning to the end in a few pages? (Either because your main character's emotional and psychological complexity requires more progression, or because the story is naturally one that involves complications?) More about this here.
5) Can you pitch this book to yourself all over again? You pitched this book to yourself when you started writing it — "it's about a guy trying to get back to his childhood home." Great. And then you went and wrote something, that bears a loose, possibly very loose, resemblance to what you pitched. (Depending on how much you outlined and how slavishly you followed the outline, of course.) Your characters took on a different shape, and your world grew strange quirks. So now that you've got a beginning, middle and end, can you pitch it to yourself again? Can you explain what the novel you actually wrote is about, to yourself?
6) Or can you pitch what the revised version would be about? More to the point, can you talk yourself into thinking that once you revamp your book, it'll have a cool story? Your first draft isn't supposed to be that great — but can you see the seeds of a great emotional, funny, fascinating tale in it? That's different from what you originally set out to create?
Some easy, (moderately) fun tests you can do
7) Put the thing aside for a few weeks, and then list the most powerful moments, from memory. Not the things that are great about your idea, or about your characters in theory. The moments that actually stick in your mind as moments. You wrote the thing, so if a moment sticks in your head as being especially emotional or intense, that's probably a sign that it's closest to the story you were setting out to tell. Once you've got that list, see if there's a story uniting those moments.
8) List all of your favorite parts. This isn't the same as the "most powerful moments" — this is the stuff that you were most proud of yourself for coming up with. All the funniest bits of business, all the cleverest set pieces, all the stuff that made you go, "I'm such a clever smartypants" while you were writing it. Take all of that stuff away. And see what's left. Yes, this is a "Kill Your Darlings" thing. Is there anything particularly memorable about your novel after you remove all of the stuff where you're basically showing off? Or is this book just a vehicle for your grandstanding? (And is your name not Douglas Adams?)
9) List all of the events in your book backwards, with "because" in between them. This is also a great revision technique. "The hero won BECAUSE she had the golden apple BECAUSE she spared a witch who gave it to her BECAUSE the hero felt sorry for the evil witch BECAUSE she herself had done some bad things BECAUSE she was misled into thinking a hero needs to be ruthless BECAUSE she was young and determined to prove herself." And so on. Do those "becauses" actually make any sense, when you run it like that? Do you care about that chain of cause and effect, as a basic skeleton? If any of those BECAUSE statements are like "because I, as the author, said so," can you fix that without the whole thing collapsing?
10) Think about the real-life experiences you're trying to capture in this book. And try to remember what they actually felt like, and how they affected you. And then try to imagine how you could make this book truer to those feelings and memories, in revising it. If you keep wanting to write a different book, or tackle them a different way, then that's a good sign that this was a valiant first effort — but maybe your heart is in telling a different story.
Bottom line: If you end up deciding that you just wrote a practice novel, and it's not one that you want to invest the time and heartache into revising, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's all great experience, and the more time you spend creating stories, the better you get at it. And even the process of deciding to put a completed first draft of a novel in a drawer and start something new can be a great learning process.