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How Do You Know When You Need to Revise?

I follow the “social media maven” Kristen Lamb’s blog. She is a zany, savvy writer and social media marketer. Here are excerpts from a recent blog post “Five Warning Signs Your Story Needs Revision.” I ditto her remark, “To maybe make you guys feel better, I’ve written well over a million words in blogs and articles alone. I’ve also written three books, two novels and scads of short stories. As much as I have written—and EDITED—even I have to seek outside editors to look for these issues.”

Photo by Andrea De Stefani
via Free Images
Kristen’s warning flags:

1. If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision. Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part….Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.

2. If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision.
Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to defuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi. 

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?
(Heidi's Note: Now I've been taught it's good to start with action, but I think the rule "moderation in all things" might apply here.)

3. Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision
Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.  
His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.” Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

4. Too much Physiology? Time for Revision 
Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.

5. Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!
Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.
She stood quickly from her chair.
Stronger: She bolted from her chair.
Also be careful of redundant adverbs. She whispered quietly… Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level. She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

Read the rest of this excellent post at Kristen Lamb’s Blog. You can also connect with Kristen Lamb on Facebook, on Twitter @KristenLambTX and #MYWANA

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, will be published in May 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.


  1. I do love this one, Heidi. Depending on the quality of the book, however, some comic relief provided by eyes flying and head following may offer a welcome chuckle at the created visual. Your comments on adverb evils is right on. Even though we've heard it many times before, it merits repeating because it's still a major stumbling block for a lot of writers. As for opening with action, that depends, as you note, on characters involved—as well as relevance to the story. Wonderful advice here. :-)

  2. Absolutely, Heidi ... but, what happened to Katy, Skipper and Mitzi?

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Kristen, and for sharing your expertise and wisdom!!

    2. Yes, thanks, Kristen. I'm glad we can connect on Twitter and Facebook too.

  3. LOL LOVE number 4. Guilty guilty but trying to create new ways to say the same thing.

  4. I'd like more expansion of #3. Frankly, most of those 'disjointed' body parts don't bother me because I see them as metaphors, or idioms, or whatever you call them. "Her hands flew to her face" doesn't give me an image of winged appendages. And I don't mind eyes meeting across the table--I don't see them leaving one's head. In fact, I've had no complaints about the following in one of my novels:
    She forced herself to meet his eyes. Dark chocolate brown, they grabbed and wouldn’t let go.
    I don't find it 'comic relief.'

  5. Revision is the hardest part of writing a book. I do edit for free-roaming body parts.

  6. The hardest lesson for me to learn was the paring down of characters and honestly, it's one I still struggle with.

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  8. I'm with Terry on this one. I also don't mind my characters meeting their gazes. In some of the physiology spoken of, there's more than one way to read the sentence. I read one book where there was so much gazing that it stood out. The "look" verbs are tough for me. Look and Gaze are solid words. Very few verbs equal them. I have to run a find on Look so I can rephrase the sentence somehow. But I'm in full agreement with the "drama" words where the heart is concerned, though I admit I've used them, but sparingly. Great articles from a great article.

  9. I, too, really enjoy Kristen's blog and most of the time agree with her advice. I think the flying body parts issue is only an issue when the rest of the writing is only so-so, and those references to rolling eyes make a reader want to sigh.

    I agree with Terry that sometimes that simple, "their eyes met across the table" works. But it only works - for me anyway - when the author has done the work of creating these characters and that moment so I really care. Then I am so invested in what is happening, I don't get that literal imagery in my mind.

    Also, I think in revising we can look at places where we have a character roll her eyes. Is there a way to show that a bit differently and not fall back on the ordinary? Yes, people do roll their eyes, and that doesn't mean using eyeballs as dice, but could we show exasperation another way?

    1. LOL, Maryann. That's one I used quite a bit and never thought of it as "disembodied body parts"! I'll probably never look at that phrase the same way again!

      I agree with all your comments--again I think that "moderation" is key. The "rules" are not hard and fast -- They are guidelines in writing that can help (especially the new writer) learn and perfect the craft.

      That said, you don't want your reader to stop in the middle of the action to mull over the eyeballs rolling down the aisle or some such thing!

  10. BTW, you can connect with Kristen Lamb on Facebook, on Twitter @KristenLambTX and #MYWANA

  11. When I first started writing, one of my books was over 100,000 words. That's because it was full of those evil adverbs. I learned soon enough that those were a no-no.

  12. As I'm currently editing the third in a trilogy fantasy series, this is timely. Absolutely agree with you re the Emotional Thesaurus, Heidi - one of the best buys ever. On named characters, I'd observe that, to some extent, this is dependent on genre and book length. Fantasy often takes the form of a quest through different lands, where many different characters can have an influence on the journey of the central characters. It can be a bit tedious referring to such minor characters, who nevertheless have a role to play, as 'he' or 'she'. A name gives them substance and readers in this genre recognise that not all named characters are going to make it to the end of the central tale, but will be vital to their particular portion of the story.
    Redundancies: currently doing an occasional blog post about those, too!

  13. Plunging into action is virtually demanded in thrillers. In fact, the question, "Who are these characters?" is often precisely the something that impels the reader to read on. That and, "What is this all about?" In short, the Revision-Needed signs may depend on the genre.

    The elusive moderate mean might be not to start with the first sentence but still to build quickly to pivotal action. If something doesn't happen in the first page or two of a thriller, the writer has lost the reader, which may be part of why so many thrillers start with a prologue packed with as-yet-unexplained action.

    1. I agree with you, Larry. No need to build background and backstory up front. Introduce us to the character and the problem as soon as possible!


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