Rewriting a Novel: Five Ways to Make It Less Painful
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I hate rewriting.
I know, I know. I should enjoy rebuilding characters and their motives. I should take pleasure in ironing out all those little plot inconsistencies and cutting away the excess weight of irrelevancies. I should, but I don’t.
Context: I finished a new first draft back in December. Yay! More books! Only not quite. I refer to characters by different names throughout. Everything seems to be spelt incorrectly. I go off on wild, irrelevant tangents, and the initial brilliance of the plot in my mind appears lost underneath bad pacing and inconsistent voice. Why can’t it just be as easy as getting down those first draft words and sending it out to the world? Sadly, that’s just the way it is.
Fortunately, there are ways to make the rewriting process somewhat more bearable. So, dust off that old manuscript you’ve had lying in that digital drawer for years and get ready to enter a world of annoying technicalities and crises of confidence!
1. Take a break from your manuscript, if you want to.
One of the top rules that pretty much every writer appears to agree on is that for a rewrite to be successful, or legitimate, us writers need to distance ourselves from our work before jumping into the rewrite. Personally, I spend four weeks maximum away from the work, but within those four weeks, I don’t detach myself from the world of the story. I might have a read through after two weeks. I might hop into a section and see how it’s panned out, and jot down a few notes on how I could improve it.
The thing is with these rules that writers set is that you really should just take them with a pinch of salt. I realise I’m being kind of hypocritical, sitting here writing a list of methods myself, but note the ‘if you want to’ in the heading. What does that mean? Well, don’t just spend a few weeks away from it because ‘Author X’ said that’s the way to do it. If you wake up after a week and are raring to get rewriting, then firstly, credit to you. Secondly, just follow what feels good. Don’t hold off just because another writer said they do.
A word on these little lists us bloggers write — sometimes, believe it or not, we don’t follow our own rules. We write what we know will appeal to the masses. That’s just the nature of the internet and attracting readers, I’m afraid. While I try not to do it myself, we’re all guilty of writing an idealistic sentence or two in our lives when in reality, we’re struggling away like the rest of you.
We’re all human. Find what works for you. There’s some great advice out there, but it’s absolutely fine to ignore it if it doesn’t click with you.
2. Create a rewriting outline.
So, I’m going to pretend I didn’t type any of those last few words and give you another suggestion. I’d highly recommend creating a rewriting outline if you’re struggling with the process. I know for a fact that I struggle, and creating an outline really seems to be helping me this time round.
What is an outline? Roz Morris calls it a ‘beat sheet’ in her (excellent) Nail Your Novel eBook. The idea is that you go through your manuscript and write down a snapshot of the intended purpose of each scene on a spreadsheet/piece of paper/loo roll. That way, when you’re done, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of what your novel looks like. You’ll be able to work out where you should slip in a quieter scene, whether you build up to a strong enough climax, and whether your book lags in the middle.
It’s also a great way of ticking off your rewriting process. I highlight a scene in red on the beat sheet when I’ve completed rewriting it. There are few feelings better than seeing that red box increase as the days go by. Great way to stay sane, for sure.
3. Set realistic targets.
A word on staying sane — rewriting will probably challenge your sanity, so set yourself some realistic targets. I like to try to get at least two scenes rewritten a day, depending on length, and that works for me. It’s important not to overkill rewriting much in the same way as first drafting: you don’t want to burn out. It’ll just make for more rewriting in the future, and nobody wants that, huh?
Another reason why not to go too crazy on rewriting, perhaps more so than first draft writing: you don’t want to become too absorbed in your novel. When I write a first draft, I tend to write from a semi-subconscious state whereby words are flowing out of my head based on what sounds good, and matches up to my first draft ‘roadmap’.
Rewriting is kind of different, though. You’re making your protagonist’s goals more streamlined, really throwing yourself into their perspective and mindset to try to feel their dilemma. So, if you’re rewriting 20,000 words per day of a negative-themed novel, chances are you’re going to feel a bit shit afterwards.
As with everything in writing (and life!), know your limits, and set your targets based on those limits. Rewriting may be a slow, fatiguing process that seems to drag on and on, but you and your readers will thank you for it if you are patient. It’ll make for a better novel.
4. Accept that the first draft is a very different beast to your initial idea.
This is a hard lesson that all of us writers learn: our writing rarely matches up to the initial idea. Maybe a character that you planned an epic plot twist for is kind of in the background more than first imagined. Maybe the protagonist’s entire persona has taken on a whole new meaning. ‘It’s rubbish! It’s nothing like I planned!’
Well, time to accept that, my friend. Our brain is a magnificent tool, but it’s very rare that we totally capture its inspirational ideas in full. Something happens in the stage between thinking up something and committing it to paper. I guess in the same manner that music files lose quality the moment they are ripped from intangible abstract sounds on a disc, to mp3 files on computer hard drives, ideas lose their sharpness in their ‘conversion’ from pure thought to writing.
But it’s not such a bad thing. Celebrate the fact that you’ve got even just a fragment of that idea jotted down. I used to get stressed about this point in particular, but as I write more, I find myself marvelling at the beauty of this amazing conversion process. Even the initial plan I had for this blog post and how it has ultimately turned out is phenomenal, and totally unpredictable.
So, instead of lamenting the inadequacies, embrace the inconsistencies. I reckon that would make for an amazing t-shirt slogan, right?
5. Work on a new project to boost creative energy.
Of course, we’re writers, so the last thing we should be doing is spending too much time in the critical side of our brains when the creative side is crying out for some love.
Well, what’s stopping you commencing work on a new project?
The What We Saw rewrites were difficult at first, mainly because I didn’t give myself anything fresh to focus on. Being my first novel, I was still very much in the ‘one project at a time’ camp. But late on in the rewrite process, I worked on a couple of short stories (Something in the Cellar andSilhouette), and found that not only were my ideas still very much intact despite the rigours of the rewriting process, but the critical side of my brain was actually stimulated by these new ideas.
Now I’ve finished the first draft of Killing Freedom and started working on the rewrites, what am I doing to keep the creative side of my brain stimulated? Well, I’ve only gone and written 40,000 words of another novel. It’s tricky balancing both projects at times, but simply knowing that I’ll most likely have two books out this year is what gets me through it.
If the rewriting is getting you down, pick up your pen and get creative. It’s healthy to be writing daily, so this is a great way to keep yourself in check.
Something in the Cellar and Silhouette now available on Kobo; other stores to follow.
After reaching the end of their KDP Select commitments, I’ve decided to make my two short stories, Something in the Cellar and Silhouette, available cross-platform.
I’m a big fan of KDP Select (thoughts on that here and, more recently, here) and will continue to enrol my novels in it, however I don’t see much in the way of benefits for short stories. I’ve given a few thousand away, but without any real impact on sales, so it makes sense to ‘push the boulders‘ out of Select and onto pastures new.