Getting to Grips with a Big Revision of Your Novel

by Katrin Schumann

I'm working on a major revision of a novel I wrote some years ago and put away in a drawer. I loved and still love the story, but I think it needs a more compelling central question. Right now, I'd call it a "family saga," and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, I'd like to create a through-line in the story that makes it more compelling. I want readers to be thinking, Oh my god, what happens next?

For anyone working on a major revision of a story they already love, it can be hard to figure out what stays and what must go. I'd picked up a book many years ago called "Revising Your Novel" by Janice Hardy and I dipped into it again to find some inspiration. She breaks down the process into various categories, which is surprisingly helpful when you're not that sure what the core "problem" might be. Using her guidance and my instinct about what my story needed, I came up with eight points to consider, which might be applicable to your work-in-progress, too.

1. What is the central question of the narrative? What are the moral stakes?  

2. In one sentence, what is the "lesson" the protagonist learns, or the insight s/he gets, after living through the experinces recounted in the book?

3. How does each important character change (preferably in interesting ways that relate to the novel's underlying themes)?

4. What are the core conflicts in the book (list them)? What does the main character want?

5. Can I name five critical events (arbitrary number alert) that must happen in order to resolve the core conflict? These can be thought of as turning points. Is there a reversal and where does it happen?

6. For each scene, answer these three questions 1) What is the character trying to do and why? 2) What is the barrier to and the cost of this effort? 3) What goes wrong or right?

7. Is there enough CAUSALITY in the events? Are characters making choices that have consequences? (Make a list).

8. Which are the scenes in which readers learn who the characters really are? In any of these scenes, do we see characters who are forced to act in opposition to their beliefs?

Good luck with your work and happy revision!

* Picture credit: New Yorker cartoon by J.C. Duffy

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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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