Friday, March 6, 2015

What Fresh Hell Is This? On rewriting your novel...

So you're two or three published novels into your writer's journey, or maybe you're five or six novels in, and you basically are feeling like you're at the point in your career where you've gotten the knack of the writing thing. Promo? Maybe not. Foreign rights? Only if you're lucky. But writing? Yes, this belongs to you.

So there you are merrily crafting your novel in whatever way you do, and damn if that isn't an awesome first draft. Except you send it out to your beta readers or your agent or your editor, and the response is a resounding: "So...this needs a LOT of work." And suddenly all your bullshit bravado gets tossed out the window, because they don't mean you need to revise this to tighten up transitions, or maybe add a scene with the ghost and the dead uncle, what they really mean is that you need to REWRITE YOUR BOOK.

This point sadly comes in every writer's life. Sooner or later, you're going to need to tear the whole house down and rebuild from the ground up. For some (*cough, Carrie Mesrobian, cough*), it is part of the drafting process. For the rest of us, it is an absolutely defeating and daunting task. Because we LIKED that first version we wrote. We thought it kind of worked. Until your agent/editor/CP holds it up to the light and points out all the swiss cheese-sized holes in it and you realize they are right. You'll need to rewrite.

So how do I do this? Well, I don't think there's any hard and fast rule to rewriting a book. I frankly don't think there are hard and fast rules to very much in the world, but that's a different blog topic. In terms of rewriting, here's a few of my tips:

1. You will be inclined to save the skeleton. You'll argue with yourself that it's really just the meat that needs to change but you can leave the bones in tact. I think this is probably a mistake with a full rewrite. Most of the bones need to go too. I usually keep the spine, the core idea, the thing that made me want to first write the book. Everything else is up for inspection and dissection. You know that adorable gay bestie that you love and are hoping he'll get his own companion novel one day? Yes, he sometimes needs to get tossed out too. Same with the chatty mailman who solves everyone's problems with his Zen philosophy. He's a great character but he has nothing to do with your core idea. Save the spine and then start over.

2. Let go of your agenda. We all like to think we don't have one, but the reality is that many of us do. We want to SAY something about XYZ. But as soon as I find myself wanting to SAY something, I realize that I've gotten in my own way and that's probably why the book isn't working.

3. The lazy stuff you breezed over in the first place because you figured you'll tackle it in edits? Don't be lazy, during the rewrite is the time to actually DO YOUR RESEARCH and dig in hard. You have a list of stuff to do and this is a good time to do it. Refer to the list often.

4. Re-read what you've written every day. Tweak it, smooth it out, make sure you're staying on course. This isn't the time for fast drafting. You've already done that and it didn't work as well as it usually does. A re-write is an opportunity to take your time and really craft. Do all the things you hate to do: outlines, synopses, etc. Someone has given you the gift of telling you how to make your book workable, do not squander that gift.

5. Take breaks. You will be inclined to fix this immediately. Get right in there and roll up your sleeves and get to work. This is awesome. But don't forget the thinking time. The time when you're walking the dog and figure out how to solve the motivation of one scene, or you're sautéing garlic and you realize you don't need the ex-boyfriend to have a tragic accident after all. To me, thinking time seeps into almost everything I do when I'm writing or re-writing. Honor the time you need to fix your book, not just butt-in-chair time, but the thinking time.

Most important of all, do not kick yourself for having to rewrite your book. This is opportunity, not failure, and you are now one step closer to having something good to put out into the world.


  1. I pretty much live in fear of this day. I'm so worried it will happen to me and I'll try to rewrite the book and it will just be THE SAME BOOK. Sigh.

  2. Well said, my friend. And the Lenny touch was the best part. ;)

  3. Good tips. First time this happened I just hid the draft and moved on to something else. About to attempt a rewrite of something else, but will bear your wise words in mind - thanks.