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The First Step to Revision: Read the Recipe!

Welcome back to the first deep dive into the revision process. Today we are starting with a step that I never used to complete, but like many failed recipe attempts, I've learned it's ESSENTIAL! (Be sure to check back to my first post: Revise your Story in Four Essential Steps (The Cupcake Method) for an overview of all the steps I'll be covering. )


My dad is an excellent cook, and he has drilled into my head this idea of "mise en place". This French term loosely translates to getting all your stuff together before you start cooking. This makes a lot of sense, not only with cooking but with revising as well.

So what do you do first to get ready?

Read that beautiful mess, prepare how you will tackle it, and evaluate what you have on the page already and what is missing ... before you even touch that page. From page one to the end, you will read without adding a single comma or deleting any awkward adverbs.

Now, don't get me wrong, this will be a very active reading process. Just like with reading a new recipe, you want to make sure you have the right ingredients and tools to perfect your cupcakes ... I mean manuscript. So, let's break it down into a few big picture ingredients, and some important tools/conventions to keep track of along the way.

Here are the big picture pieces we are going to look for in this first reading:

  1. GENRE CONVENTIONS: In most stories, we are working off a pre-established genre already in the market or a combination of those genres. Even if you are writing literary fiction, there are still likely elements of a mystery, a thread of romance, or a worldview plot tucked into that beautiful prose. If you are unsure of the genre of your story, then I'd highly suggest checking out Savannah Gilbo's post about finding your genre HERE. Once you know your genre (or genres), we want to make sure that we're including the critical scenes and conventions expected by readers of that genre.

  2. CHARACTERS WHO CHANGE: Do I have characters who change from beginning to end? Do they have clear goals, motivations, and wounds? If you are looking for information about character arcs over the course of your story, check out K.M. Weiland's fantastic thoughts on this HERE.

  3. STORY STRUCTURE: Do I have a plot that follows an accepted story structure? K.M. Weiland has also been a fantastic source for me, but there are tons of story structure resources out there. If you are looking to dive deeper into this area try HERE.

  4. THEME: Can I identify a clear theme that is sprinkled throughout? This is something that may not be fully formed yet, but a quick read is the best way to identify if you are heading toward one or two key ideas.

To keep track of all these areas, I highly suggest finding a blank notebook or taking advantage of one of the many tracking sheets and methods available on the web. You could also print out your entire story and make marks along the margins, but because I love trees, I try to keep my manuscript digital, make notes in Scrivener, and only print a few tracking sheets.

To help organize the big picture changes and ingredients, I created three charts adapted from the highly skilled writers and book coaches mentioned above.

1) A first-round edit checklist for each of my POV characters that ensures I have explored key story structure elements, and established clear goals, stakes, and wounds for each character.

2)A Summary Sheet for each POV Character that includes their scenes, a summary of the action, value shifts (more on this in the next stage), and possible big picture edits needed to create more tension, change, or action.

2) A list of necessary scenes and conventions for my particular genre. In my case, I created a "worldview genre" sheet, adapted directly from Savannah Gilbo's excellent insight.

Again, how you decide to structure this first step is entirely up to you. These tracking forms give me peace of mind, like a grocery list, to ensure I'm getting everything I need ready to be revised. If I'm missing key elements, I want to identify those early on. If I have chapters that don't show change or growth, I may take them out altogether, or combine them with others. You are the chef! You get to decide the final list of ingredients and the steps you'll take to complete your manuscript, but keep in mind, that recipes should still be read and understood all the way through before you decide to start getting creative. And some ingredients (i.e. sugar? flour?) are essential, so go ahead and change some things up, but still keep in mind the critical pieces in the process.

I hope this is helpful! I'll be sharing my tracking sheets in my next newsletter, so be sure to sign up ASAP. If you are late to the game, just email me, and I'm sure I can dig through my writing recipe box and send them your way!

Until next month, happy prepping!


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