Building a Novel: Bones, Muscle, Skin and Makeup

I once read somewhere that authors are supposed to edit/revise their novel four times before it is ready for submission. If it is not ready for submission at that point, table it and come back to it. I think this is a little harsh. We all work at our pace and with our own methods. Some of us have clear revision steps that we follow. For others, revision is messier than the first draft. One day we might be in big-picture revisions and the next day doing line edits.

My own process? It is pretty much the four revision process, except I don’t do line edits the day after I write my roughs- I wait until the entire thing is done and then go back and do line edits. It’s exhausting and maybe I SHOULD move to daily editing. But, if we all share the same process we’ll all be writing the same novels, and who would want that?

The other night I had a dream. It was one of those dreams that comes to you before you fall asleep- a daydream when the sky is dark and the room is quiet. In that special stillness I saw myself building my current work in process like Frankenstein’s monster. First bones, then muscles and blood, then a wrapping of skin, and finally a few brushes of makeup and hairspray to make it fit in with the current trends.

It isn’t how I usually write, but it is how this novel is happening, and it seems to be working. I am in a rhythm that propels me along, words oozing onto the electronic page.


The skeleton of a story is obviously its plot. For most people this happens during the outlining stage. For a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pantser like myself, this is the rough draft. The first draft, which I am in at the moment, is a time for carving out hard shapes. It is a time to think about strength and structure and kinetics.

Too often I want to be pretty when I am making bones. But bones aren’t pretty. Bones are useful and strong. At the same time, they are not clunky or awkward. They are elegant and precisely designed with function in mind.

Muscles and Blood

Muscles and blood is where I used to start with a story. It is still the inspiration for a novel. It is a short story that is beautiful and juicy and powerful. It has movement and wet softness. But now, instead of trying to muck my way about in the juiciness of muscles, I save them for my first revision. This way I can attach my muscles to the solid structure of my skeleton, which is already in place and waiting for animation.

These are quirks and depth. These are beautiful passages. These are the literary elements of writing. I’m a writer, so I like to spend most of my time in the muscle and blood zone, but remembering that it is only one aspect of four revisions allows me to move in and out of it instead of wallowing in it for years.


I hate skin. Both in writing and real life. I have been plagued with acne my entire life and things that should be smooth and flawless never are. So for me, the skin of my novel is line editing. Grammar, flow, plot holes, word usage. The boring editing. But I remind myself that this is what holds all of my beautiful pieces together and lets them move. The skin is what lets my novel communicate with the world, so even though it can be problematic, it is just as important as the muscles and bones.

Just like our skin has layers, so does this editing step. For me it is never one solid editing session. It is back and forth. It is stitching together and… well, layering.


While I hate makeup in real life, I love it in writing. This is because my novel is there. It is complete. It is a full person. The makeup is the final flourish that accents its best features while downplaying the messes. A bit of lotion, some sparkly eye shadow, and a flick of bright red lipstick and you are good to go out the door.

So, yeah, four edits. Bones and muscles and skin and makeup. But it is always more complicated than going through the work four times. The bones are built in pieces. The muscles get a massage after the skin has been places. The makeup is replaced by tattoos sometimes.

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