You finished your first draft; now you’re done, right? WRONG. Not even close. Theoretically, you’re at the beginning yet again. After all, a great book isn’t written–it’s rewritten.
I’ve heard people say they don’t revise or rewrite. Shame on you. A good book, I mean one worth paying money for, has three things.
- A well-constructed plot
- Fully-developed characters
- Smooth prose
Trust me, you can’t achieve those three things in one draft.
Writing requires imagination, creativity, and long hours of time. Rewriting requires less imagination and a whole lot more courage. It’s not for the weak or timid. You’ll be making big decisions. Most of us struggle to make small ones like what to order in drive-thru.
You have to decide if your protagonist is the best voice for your story; if entire scenes should be revised, removed, or added; whether characters be removed or added: whether or not your beginning works; or if the end provides any payoff.
These are the choices you have to make before you even decide does this sentence sound good?
What is rewriting?
There’s a big misconception about what rewriting is. It’s not perfecting a sentence here or there, or correcting typos, it’s gutting, hacking, and dismembering your first draft.
This might sound daunting. You’re playing doctor–God even! I’m talking total reconstructive surgery, not a botox injection.
Difference between revising and rewriting
Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing although you’ll probably do a combination of both.
To summarize: Revision is adding and deleting a few words or adding more character motivation or adding or removing description. Rewriting is deleting or adding whole scenes, deleting characters, or changing a POV.
For some straightforward and hilarious examples, see here.
How many rewrites?
There isn’t a certain number. It depends on the MS. My current MS is on rewrite number two. Planning helps cut down on rewrites.
So what’s the first step?
Back away from the manuscript and nobody gets hurt. It might be easier to make objective opinions once you’ve separated yourself from your writing. When you come back to it (say in a week or month or so), that glittering sentence might not shine anymore, or you might unearth some hidden gems.
Look at the big picture
Ask yourself with an objective eye: What does my protagonist want? Is it clear?
What is the plot? The theme? The conflict?
Did you select the best character to be your protagonist?
Could some characters be cut or blended? Do multiple characters serve the same purpose?
Is your plot well structured? Do any side plots deviate from the main plot?
Be objective or find an objective eye
Looking at the big picture can be challenging when you’re nearsighted, and all authors are–we’re way too close to our WIP to see it clearly. This doesn’t mean we can’t try to be objective. I usually read through and make an often very long list of questions that arise, changes I want to make, plot holes (often gaping and cavernous), side plots or character arcs that are unfulfilled, and other areas of concern.
If you know something is wrong but can’t put your finger on it, consider enlisting help.
Step two: outline
Did you outline before you wrote? Even if you did, once isn’t enough. Rewrite your outline before you rewrite your MS.
You’re not mistaken. Not only am I telling you to rewrite your novel, I’m telling you to rewrite your outline. That’s a lot of rewriting–but the more prepared you are, the less you’ll have to rewrite. Planning can make the difference between two and ten rewrites.
I look back at my first outline and realize I either deviated from it for better or for worse, or I decided to change it. Don’t work off of an old outline. An outline can be your typical diagram or a detailed description of each scene and chapter. If you don’t know how to create an outline, check out this prior Tuesday Tip.
Example of a detailed outline:
Chapter one: Introduce main character, best trait, fatal flaw, ordinary world, goal, and conflict.
Scene one: Start with attention grabbing sentence. Main character is doing this . . . then this happens . . . and so on.
I’m shy about sharing my work but to give you an example of how much my beginning has changed since I started rewriting, this is how my WIP used to start.
Character (side character) discovers that a city has been destroyed and all the inhabitants killed after a very long inner monologue. Next scene takes place years later and introduces main character with major supporting side character.
Notes that I made before revision:
- No clear main character
- POV character doesn’t appear again for a couple of chapters
- Info dump: Might be more interesting to slowly reveal the back story leading up to current events
- Might be better to start with the destruction of the city from the POV of main character
- Next scene is too jarring. Too much relies on understanding the characters and their relationship, culture, etc that can’t be summarized in a paragraph
Revised Outline: This is how it starts now (still in progress).
Main character is introduced. Reader is introduced to his world and culture. Exposition is interwoven throughout text instead of being dumped. Character goes to city and destroys it. Conflict is introduced with inciting incident and call to action. Character refuses the call. Character then answers the call to action.
It’s still in the works but what I like is that the main character starts the story. You see how the events that the other character stumbles upon unfold. You see how the main protagonist and main supporting character meet. You get to know him and his goals before the action starts.
What’s still needed. I still need a clearer definition of my character’s goals. I have a basic idea of what he wants, but I need to make sure his goals are strong enough to always be his driving force.
Step three: should it stay or should it go
I love those home remodeling shows where they make the homeowner choose what to keep, toss, or sell from their clutter. I adopted a similar strategy for revising my MS. I read through from beginning to end, highlighting every word and sentence I want to keep. In a different color I highlight what I want to delete. In a third color what I want to keep for a different project. After I do this I can delete this version so I don’t end up with five or seven word files.
Try this. Chances are, even if an entire scene has to go, you might find a good snippet of dialogue or a wonderful description. If you can still use it, don’t lose it.
Step four: Rewrite or revise
If the scene is good, you may only need to revise: correct syntax, cut and add sentences, etc. But if you are making major changes, you might just want to rewrite. I usually rewrite the entire scene without looking at the old version, or else you just end up with a version that is only slightly different. Then combine the elements that you are keeping from the previous written scene.
Essentially how you rewrite or revise will depend on what kind of writer you are. Do you overwrite? underwrite? Based on that, you may need to cut scenes or write new ones to fill in the gaps. Do you go into too much description or need to add? Do your characters talk too much or not enough?
This is my method. There are others out there. Find the one that works for you. What are some methods that work for you? What are some tricks or tips that you use to make the process easier. Please share.