When I teach Novel Revision Retreats, I need a variety of ways to explain this thing called “revision.” Lately, two ideas have helped.
Plot: Aiming for Bull’s Eye
There are two things novelists must do when writing a story. First is figure out “what story are you telling?” Second is “what is the best way to tell that story?”
What story are you Telling. This is a plot question.
Especially when talking about the plot of a novel, a metaphor that helps me is to think of a draft as an arrow that hits a target. The first draft is way off bull’s eye. The second draft hits one ring closer to the center because you focused on selecting great scenes, revised those scenes, layered plot layers and subplots, all the while avoiding the most common pitfalls. Successive drafts should sharpen your aim, until you’re hitting in the red circle. Many stories sell successfully when they just hit that red circle in the middle; the really great stories hit smack in the middle of the bull’s eye. It’s worth that last revision to try to hit exact center.
Voice and Character: Sharpen the Focus
What is the Best Way to Tell This Story? The second question is about voice and character.
Generic descriptions, no inner life and a so-so voice — these are indications that your camera lenses needs to be focused. You can do this with great sensory details, showing the character’s attitudes, thoughts, emotions, and by careful attention to language. Each successive draft should sharpen the focus on your character and how s/he views life, in particular, the events of this story. Like hitting bull’s eye, don’t be satisfied with almost-in-focus; work until each detail is sharp and crisp, revealing the inner life of your character.