By Tarun Shanker
When you finish the first draft of your precious darling of a novel, it can be difficult to look at it objectively. Even if you put it aside for a couple months, format it to look like an official book on your Kindle for a re-read and get a critique partner to rip it to shreds, there’s often a small part of you somewhere that is protective or simply unsure whether it’s worth spending a few more months making massive structural or character changes. If you’ve got an editor, an agent, or a critique group that you really trust, then it’s easier to make those decisions, but when you’re just writing and revising for yourself, how do you find a way to be impartial about your work and confident in which changes to make?
Read similar books
Most writers probably do this from the start. You search to see if your idea has been taken and if not, then you research as much as you can in your genre to get an idea of how other authors approached a similar world, premise, characters, mood, etc.
That’s really important to do before outlining/drafting, but it can be just as valuable if you save some of those references for the revision process. Then you’ll be able to directly compare the decisions you made for your story with others and really see the mechanics of how things work. It’s much easier to get out of your head and decide how you feel about a certain trope in your book when you see another writer do it well or do it poorly.
When I finished the first draft of my first novel, I found it tedious to read through, but it was hard to pin down exactly what wasn’t working. It could have been anything from the uneven structure of the mystery to the characters being predictable and boring. So I went around haphazardly trying to fix random things in the hopes that something might help.
Fortunately, while in the middle of revisions, I happened to read a book that I disliked and it was much easier to pinpoint why: the protagonist was bland and unmemorable. And then I looked at my protagonist. Who I thought had depth… at least in my head. But when it came down to it, I couldn’t articulate on the page how the two protagonists were any different. So with that as a reference, I decided to completely 180 my protagonist’s personality and write them as a response to the things I disliked. And because this was the voice and viewpoint for my whole story, that change evolved and helped so many other elements fall into place. That’s when I first felt like I was really on to something.
Reading the criticism of other books
Sometimes you can’t catch everything yourself though. Everyone has blind spots and guilty pleasures, so you may just not notice when another book makes a cliché choice, or you may not even care.
That’s why I try to make a regular habit of reading reviews and criticism of similar books, whether they be from Goodreads or journals of academic writing. It’s helpful to see the wide variety of ways readers can interpret the same work and even if you don’t agree with their opinions, they will temporarily put you into another mindset and help you re-interrogate your own writing on those terms. You’ll think a hundred times about whether you’ve unintentionally fridged a character or written an uncomfortable colonialist narrative when you see reviewers pointing that out in other books and imagine them reading yours.
It’s a good way of recreating the effect you get when you email your story to a close friend and immediately after hitting send, you realize that they are going to hate this one part and you really should have changed it first what were you thinking.
And while reading other books and criticism is great, the best way to get out of your own head is to have these discussions with other people. Book clubs, movie outings, office water cooler TV chatter– all those conversations come in handy for revising your own stories if you look for the similarities and dig deeper, trying to break down and argue with your friends why certain elements did or didn’t work.
I don’t have too many writer friends, but I have plenty of movie nerd friends who always help me out with randomly specific questions (like what twist endings have worked for them and why? Or how did this unsympathetic character manage to hold their attention?) whenever I’m stuck on a revision. My co-author and I often have similar tangents to our conversations when we’re trying to brainstorm solutions to our story and we somehow start talking about a movie we saw on the weekend and then something clicks: we should really be piling more horrible things onto our protagonist before the climax.
Of course, like all writing advice, there’s a dark side from going too overboard here. I’m overly critical and I often get way too anxious constantly comparing my rough draft to other writers’ final drafts, or reading reviews and creating an endless list of possible problems. At some point, you need to set a deadline and step away. Hopefully by then, you’ll at least have the reassurance of knowing you were a bit more honest with your work by viewing it through these other lenses.
Tarun Shanker is a mild-mannered assistant by day and a milder-mannered writer by night currently living in Boston. His idea of paradise is a place where kung-fu movies are projected on clouds, David Bowie’s music fills the air and chai flows freely from fountains.
He is the co-author of the These Vicious Masks trilogy with Kelly Zekas.