So you’ve finished your first draft. You’ve let it sit in a drawer for a few weeks. You’ve enjoyed your holidays, made your New Year’s Resolution, and had a thought about the revision process in general, what storytelling is really all about, how structure and plight work together, and some of the technical matters to keep in mind during your rewrite. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and really get to work! Over the next thirteen weeks, I’ll be sharing my own week-by-week plan for taking a manuscript from first gasp to polished draft. Welcome to my 13-Week Rewrite.
But where do you start?
Why, with a new outline, of course!
I know. “I already have a finished draft!” And, “I don’t like outlining!”
I hear you. If you want to be stubborn about it, come back next week. Your process is your own. This is mine. No hard feelings, but suck it up, Buttercup.
Ok, everyone on board now? Great. Let’s continue.
I know it seems strange to re-outline something you’ve already written. But that’s not what I’m recommending. What I’m suggesting is that you allow yourself to imagine the most compelling version of your story. Yes, large amounts of your existing first-draft material is re-usable. But keep in mind two things:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway
“I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” — Theodore Sturgeon
I don’t care who you are, where you came from, what color you are, or what personal beliefs get you through the night. Your mother may love you, but this I know:
YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS THE 90%.
But here’s the good news: A little hard-work, elbow-grease, perseverance, and faith can put you in the 10%. And for the love of all that’s holy, that is where you should be aiming. The world has plenty of shitty writers—and to spare. Even if your work doesn’t sell any better than theirs, you owe it to yourself to hold yourself to the highest possible standard of professionalism. Because I promise you: Everyone else will.
Once More, With Feeling
So you start by imagining how your 90% shitty first draft can be better: tighter, more compelling, more imaginative. You will re-use material from the first draft, no doubt about it. But you will use it in new ways, and you will find new material that’s yet to be written.
“One always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.” ― Michael Cunningham
Your first draft is probably a lot different from the story you originally imagined. This is absolutely normal, particularly if you’re a pantser and making it up as you go. But even planners find that their characters go off in unexpected directions, or that plot twist they imagined doesn’t really work. So thank all that’s holy for The Rewrite, where you have the opportunity to refine and purify your original intentions.
Your new outline will not be a completely different story. But it is a valuable opportunity, before you dig into the minutiae of your prose, to step back and have a a 30,000-feet look at the whole story, and to ask yourself questions around how to tell your story in the most effective possible way.
- What do you want to express through this story?
- What is the most effective order of events through which to express it?
- Do you have a worthy villain?
- Are you dramatizing the story through action, or are you simply telling the reader what happens?
- What is at stake for your hero?
- Can you track your hero’s desire through the story points?
- Are you sure that your hero is, in fact, your hero? Is it possible that another character in your story has a more dynamic character arc?
- Are there any moments or scenes that don’t seem to belong in the story? Does removing them tighten the narrative drive?
- Are there scenes that feel redundant, but contain essential information? Can you conflate those scenes and put the essential information somewhere else?
- Are there characters that feel similar to other characters in the story, yet still perform one or two important functions? Is it possible to give those functions to another character?
- Are you noticing how the hero’s plight is alive through every scene, and how it’s explored in different ways through each and every story point?
Your 13-Week Rewrite Mantra
The rewrite process is absolutely not easier than the drafting process. But it’s not any harder either. You’ve come this far, and you can get through this too. So, for the next thirteen weeks, if you’re serious about your rewrite, keep all these ideas firmly in mind as you go into your rewrite:
Your book is still a work in progress. By maintaining a healthy spirit of curiosity, everything you write, rewrite, and edit either belongs in your story, or leads you to what ultimately belongs in your story.
You’re the only person in the world qualified to write your story, and throughout your rewrite process, you shouldn’t abdicate authority over your work to anyone, including family, friends, agents, publishers, and snarky online creative writing gurus like me. (Hi!)
This doesn’t mean that you won’t and shouldn’t at some point ask for feedback. But you absolutely should not make changes without first checking with yourself that the changes serve what you are attempting to express, even if you can’t quite articulate what that is yet.
Your impulses and hunches are precious assets. If someone else’s constructive critical opinions don’t ring true, regardless of the source of that critique, you will and should disregard it. I don’t care if the ghosts of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf, every Brontë sister, Jane Eyre, and God On High are all literally standing over your shoulder shaking their collective heads. Tell them (courteously) to shove it.
Your first obligation is to trust that what you are expressing is valid, because the impulses driving its expression are valid.
Alright, then. Good luck and get started on that new outline. I’ll see you again next week.
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Backporch Review, The Harbinger, Idiom, and Venture. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies The Golden Treasury of Great Poems and Dance on the Horizon, and he is a two-time winner of the Golden Poet Award from World of Poetry Press, a past-nominee for the 2016 Summer Indie Publishing Award, and a current nominee for the 2017 Summer Indie Publishing Award. He currently lives and works in the Greater New York City area as a freelance writer, editor, and publishing consultant. He is the author of the fantasy novellas Hedge King in Winter, and A Merchant’s Tale, the full-length fantasy novel, The Romance of Eowain, and he’s currently preparing his forthcoming book, The Wedding of Eithne, for publication.
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