“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
— C. J. Cherryh
The goal of the rewrite is simple, but not easy. You want your story to live. To accomplish this, it’s helpful to have a basic confidence in the arc of your heroine’s journey before getting more specific with character, dialogue, and the refinement of prose. You’re seeking to create a story that amuses and entertains, but also captures some complexity and truth about the human experience.
This is a daunting task because—be honest—there’s a bit of inflexibility in your relationship with your first draft. On the one hand, you fear that if it’s not told as precisely as you imagined it, it won’t work. On the other hand, it feels somewhat unsatisfying as written.
So the biggest challenge in the rewriting is being able to make a thousand little painful paper-cut changes while avoiding wholesale amputations and honoring the integrity of your initial premise. Or, to put it simply: How do you keep the patient alive during surgery?
Step 1: Become a Stranger to Your Story
In her wonderful blog post, Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas, author/editor Roz Morris offers some cogent advice toward approaching your manuscript again after the first draft. Whether you’ve just finished NaNoWriMo, my own 13-Week process, or any other method of writing your first draft, the best thing you can do is just put it away and take some time off from it.
Why? Because it’s an emotional experience, finishing a first draft. And because you’re still too close to it. You cried when that secondary character was killed off at the end of Act Two. You twirled your moustache when you wrote that villain-scene and plotted the destruction of your main character. And you suffered along with your hero through the final battle-scene against the forces of Evil and Angled-Parking Spaces in the final chapter. And that’s all still very much with you for the first few weeks after writing your first draft.
As Roz puts it:
To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.
So lock it away in a drawer, enjoy some spiked eggnog, do your holiday shopping, reconnect with old friends, make poor life choices at holiday parties, and don’t think about your manuscript.
Step 2: Reading Your First Draft
Once you’ve put some distance between yourself and your manuscript, your next task is to read it. Don’t judge it. Just read it. If you want to make some notes, that’s fine, but keep them simple. You’ll be surprised to find that those parts you thought were monotonous, you now love. Those parts you thought profound are now dull. And, “Where in the hell did that scene come from? I don’t even remember writing it!”
But above all, don’t judge. Why? Because as Poppa tells us:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Sometimes, in the throes of creative frenzy, you’re not even conscious of what godawful crap you were writing. So be kind to yourself. If Hemingway can admit that his first drafts were shameless godawful crap, I think you’ll survive the realization that yours is too.
Step 3: Rewriting & Plight
The rewrite process is a gradual movement from the general to the specific. As such, you have to identify the plight at the heart of your story, the “theme” as it were, the central problem with which all of the characters are wrestling. Finding the plight provides you with a sense of what your story is really about. By getting underneath the plot and its sequence of unfortunate events, you find the primal forces operating beneath the surface, and come to a deeper understanding of why you wrote what you wrote in your first draft. This in turn gives you greater confidence in the editing required to fully realize your vision.
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” — Herman Melville
So what is a plight? It’s a problem that can’t be solved without creating another problem. A lot of writing books and MFA courses talk about the dramatic problem, the thing that the protagonist is trying to solve or overcome through the story. In my experience, after years of writing, and studying writing, and helping other writers with their writing, I’ve found that this idea of the dramatic question actually hinders writers’ understanding of their own story. When you approach your story as if your protagonist is struggling with a problem, the natural tendency is to try and fix the problem, to figure a way out of it.
But this can just short-circuit your work, because underlying this apparent problem is a plight, and a plight can’t be “fixed,” a plight can’t be “figured out,” it can’t be “solved” by the heroine who set out on this journey. The purpose of a story is to reveal an evolution in your heroine, and the plight is the pivot on which that evolution turns. Only by evolving can the heroine’s relationship to the plight be resolved.
So in approaching the rewrite, it’s important to inquire into this plight at the center of your story. By interrogating your story, your characters, and your plot in search of this plight, you begin to see your story from a wider perspective.
Step 4: Rewriting & Story Structure
When it comes to first drafts, there seem to be three kinds of writers:
- There are plotters, those who scheme and plan and outline their story to the nth degree before they ever set word to page.
- There are pantsers, who prefer the amorphous, unrestrained, and boundless energy of spontaneous creativity.
- There are plantsers—like me—who think that a fair amount of very general advanced planning is a good thing, but who love the rush of creation in the specific details.
No matter which one you are (and there’s no wrong way to write a first draft, so long as your way gets you to the end), the rewrite is largely about story structure. Many writers resist the idea of story structure for fear that it will limit their creativity and reduce their work to some kind of accounting formula: a + b = c.
This just isn’t true. Story structure isn’t some equation designed to reduce your story into quantifiable parts. Story structure is a paradigm for the evolution of your heroine. It’s a way to track the beats of your character’s development from “OMG, I have a plight!” through the necessary evolution of the heroine to the resolution of her plight.
This movement consists of three core elements which—taken together—allow a story to satisfy its premise and its readership.
- Desire. (Your character wants something.)
- Surrender. (Your character gives up all hope of ever achieving her desire.)
- Evolution. (Your character reframes her desire, thus seeing it again from an entirely new perspective.)
The reason for learning the fundamentals of story structure is to make the whole of your novel greater than the sum of its parts, more than just a series of unfortunate events. The purpose of structure is to hold your characters accountable to a universal truth so that your ending is the culmination of everything that came before it.
Step 5: Technical Matters
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
— George Orwell
Before beginning your rewrite, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the tools, techniques, and mechanics of storytelling and prose. Your manuscript is the canvas, but these are the paints and the brushes, and it’s vital to arm yourself with these basic tools to make your story more alive, and to keep your reader immersed in the storytelling process. Your characters and your prose are servants to your theme. While technique without imagination is worthless, imagination without technique clouds your work’s intended meaning. The last thing you want is your reader to leave your story and wander lost in a fog of frustrations: “OMG, doesn’t this writer know how to spell? Or put a sentence together? Is the principle of suffix-absorption when forming a genitive construction completely unknown to him?!”
Rewriting: The Last Word
The final word on rewriting is that there is no final word but your own. All the guidance, insight, and encouragement that your beta-readers, your editor, and your mom might provide is still just their advice, their experience, their opinion. Yes, you want your work to be read by others, you want your work to get published, but if you take the thrill of creation for its own reward, and stay connected to the uniqueness at the core of your story, you’ll be more inclined to create something lasting and meaningful, and make your work compelling and dynamic. So disagree with your beta-readers, argue with your editors, and tell your mom where to stick it. Trust your instincts and write what you know to be true. It’s your work, and you have the final word.