I have a boxload of revision versions for each of my books, which goes to prove that you don’t have to be a good writer to get published. You just have to be a good rewriter.
How do I go about rewriting a novel? First, and this is important: I avoid it.
Yes. When I have finished a draft of a book that I’ve been working on for weeks, months, maybe even a year, I stay away from that book. I put it away and keep myself busy with other things that need to be done anyway—correspondence, paperwork, bills. I find the student papers I misfiled in the wrong folder last week, and I call my mother.
I rent moves I didn’t have time to see in the theater, read a few of the books on the “to read” mountain, dig up the invasive vines that grew up my shutters, vacuum the cat hair out of the corners, and have some friends over to eat, drink, and sing karaoke.
When I’m ready to write again, I’ll probably work on another project for a while, probably something scholarly, something that’s still in the research phase, or a draft of a different novel left sitting. All this avoidance/distraction allows me to gain distance so that I can become my own most demanding critic.
When it’s time to hit the book, I make a plan of attack. First, I make a list of the “big picture” concerns I already have, taking into consideration any feedback I may have received from editors or critiques from other writers. Along with that list, I usually make a one-page grid that includes a section for each character, with notes on things I want them to do and be in the next version.
Then, with the “big picture” list and the character grid in front of me, I go through the manuscript marking it up with “to do” notes. I don’t do any actual rewriting yet, just make notes to myself in the margins and/or on sticky notes regarding what changes I want to make. These revision plans fall into four categories.
Part of my plan of attack always involves a pencil machete. I hack out any scenes, characters, or subplots that don’t move the story forward, no matter how much time I spent on the writing or how much I love my words. I cut flashbacks out completely, if possible—and if not, they usually become recast in their own chronological time as forward motion. For a manuscript of 200 pages, it’s typical to cut 50 pages or more in a serious revision. Yes, really!
Early drafts usually include too much summary narration. I need to add showing scenes of action and dialogue to move the story forward, to foreshadow key events, or to play out themes that were set up early in the story but not followed through. If the protagonist spends a lot of time alone, thinking, thus resulting in too much “talking head” and not enough event, I might give him/her some peers, neighbors, or relatives for spicy interactions. At this stage I might also plan to add a subplot to deepen the theme, or more conflict to heighten the tension.
By the time I get to the end of a long draft letting my characters drive and my voice flow, a lot of unexpected things happen. I always wind up moving scenes around to order them in a way that develops the people and their conflicts at a satisfying pace, with the plot building to a clear climax. It’s especially important to begin at the right moment. I make myself figure out what my major dramatic question is and start with a scene that brings that out. Important information can almost always be woven into the context of the characters’ lives being lived in the story’s present, so I avoid letting backstory bog down the beginning (which it often does in early drafts).
This can mean changing a character’s name or condensing the role of two characters into one, turning narration into dialogue, changing viewpoint from third person to first, or the like. It also means finding smoother, clearer, livelier, funnier, deeper, more creative, more powerful, or otherwise better ways to word the writing. Many writers do just this and call it revision—but beware. Wonderful wording does you no good if there’s been a false turn in the story itself. Because of that, the polishing part of my rewrite comes last.
After making a mess of the manuscript, indicating exactly where I’ll add or move things, crossing out pages/scenes/paragraphs/sentences to be chopped, but not yet rewriting anything, I fire up the computer, open up a new file, and start to type.
Yep, I’m going back to the blank page.
For me, the best rewrites flow from the momentum of a fresh start. I go back inside the heads of my characters, only much deeper than I was in the previous draft. Now that I know exactly where the story is going to end up, new ways of getting there pop out in ways they never would have if I were just moving words around on the screen.
It’s a great reality check when a scene I thought the story couldn’t live without doesn’t seem worth the effort of typing over. And if I do want to keep some of the best scenes from the previous version, that’s fine. It’s easy enough to cut and paste them in from a saved file.
So that’s what I do…then do all over again…as many times as it takes….
This piece is adapted from my Fall 1999 column for Once Upon a Time, which was called “How to Get Yourself a Boxload of Revision Versions.” I often teach these techniques in one of my favorite workshops, showing the first page of each major revision of my first novel, Grass and Sky, to illustrate exactly how each revision improves greatly on its predecessor. Now I’ll be doing the same for The Hole in the Wall, which has become my novel with the most revision versions.
©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1999, 2010
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