After the first draft is written a writer is entitled to bask in their own glory (“I have written a novel!”). But then comes the realization that it isn’t really finished, and the hard work begins. We stare at our pristine pages created with a mixture of utter love, frustration, late nights, and enough tea and coffee to turn lesser beings into gibbering wrecks. Can we really lay a hand to our creation, destroy and rebuild it like the Six Million Dollar Man in the hope of making it better? I don’t know, we think, that bit was really good… but… actually the phrasing is a bit off there, I could do that better. What about the end of chapter one, that was a great hook, right? Hmm, maybe wasn’t as strong as I hoped. And so inevitably rewriting begins, a slow descent into madness through which we must be both creator and stern judge. Like the two-faced Roman god Janus, we must look at the end of the old and the beginning of the new.
When I first started writing I didn’t anticipate just how much rewriting I would have to do. Going back to polish the work, spotting plot holes, rephrasing sentences, restructuring, yada yada yada. But eventually you realise that writing a novel is really about rewriting. What Patrick Rothfuss describes as eliminating the ‘meh’ writing. It’s an essential process for any writer to go through who wants their work to be taken seriously by others, whether friend, family or agent. Sometimes the first form of words is the best, but usually it’s not. In the first draft we are still tuned into the Ideas Channel trying to get it all down on (electronic) paper, so obsessing over individual words can get in the way and slow us down. To be honest, I have been guilty of that, but try to keep going before the vision is gone.
Personally I go through peaks and troughs where the words come perfect first time, and other times they are more descriptive than evocative and I can come back to those on the next draft. There was a great post about rewriting on Pimp My Novel recently, which made me think about how I rewrite. Some people plough on to the end of their entire first draft before going back. I would love that discipline! But I am a fussy creature, as anyone who knows me will tell you 😉
So where do you start? I am an advocate of the old ‘stick it in the drawer for a while’ philosophy. So before anything else, forget about the book, do something else and come back fresh so it’s easier to spots things that need to be changed. Then look at the novel from a number of different angles. Some require a micro analysis of the novel, some are more an overall feel for what’s going on, including things like:
- Spelling and grammar – a continuous battle as you can introduce new errors during rewriting
- Punctuation errors – sometimes hard to spot
- Gaps in the story
- Consistency in how things are described, like a character’s eyes changing from blue to green
- Continuity errors, like someone losing their sword then in the next scene it mysteriously reappears
- Overall story arc, does it tell the story the way it was meant to be?
- Character development, are they ‘real’, can readers sympathise with them, do their decisions and journeys make sense?
- Are there story elements missing, or sections which are not really that important and slow things down?
- Word count. If aiming to be published, a writer must be intimately familiar with acceptable word counts with agents and publishers. Fantasy novels are notoriously long on word count, and first drafts tend to be verbose anyway so revise/rewrite with the aim of reducing word count. From the advice I have seen, around 100,000 words is optimal for a first-time fantasy novelist. I will come back to this topic another time.
Now that’s all I can think of for now but no doubt I left a few things out. One last thing, rewriting takes stamina, and utter faith that through rewriting the novel will improve. Too lenient and it will not get better, too harsh and you can start to doubt your ability and destroy good work, or even abandon the novel altogether. So stay true to the path my friends… the novel that comes out the other end will be all shiny impressive gorgeousness.
Until you spot the next amend.
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