How do I rewrite a novel?
January 6, 2010 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Okay, I've got the writing done, now how do I re-write?

I've written a novel. And by written I mean, I have a first draft that goes all the way from the start of the plot until the end of the plot and includes many words in the middle.

And while it's no great work of literature, and isn't supposed to be -- I'm aiming to submit it to Harlequin -- it has some structural problems that need to be resolved before I'd consider it finished. My problem is, I've never gotten this far in a writing project before, and I'm not sure how to go about that re-write.

I've been trying to write some small scenes that I think need to exist and patch them back in, but I feel like that's just making the whole thing less cohesive rather than more, even with attempts to smooth around the changes. So then I tried really thinking about each secondary character and writing a description of what their role should be, with an eye to writing them in based on that, but that takes me back to small scenes, above.

So what am I missing? What methods / processes / tools do other MeFi writers use when they're not writing but re-writing?

Just to clarify, I don't need help with line editing, or even editing individual scenes for language, flow, etc. Those I can handle. It's thinking about how to fix the whole plot and structure as it exists over the course of 50k words that I'm having trouble with.
posted by jacquilynne to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks, first. You really need to see it with fresh eyes.

Then just read it. Make notes if they come to you, but just read it straight through.

Then make a list of stuff that needs to be done.

Then do it.

(That's how I revise, more or less. YMMV)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:21 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Give it to a few friends who read the type of novel you wrote. Ask for feedback (preferably written) and tell them to be brutal. Put your ego aside, and listen to everything they say, then re-read your novel with fresh eyes, seeing what advice you should use from these beta readers, and what advice you should discard.
posted by xingcat at 8:32 AM on January 6, 2010

Put it down for a month before you do anything else. If you think of some change you want to add, make a note in a fresh Word document or some centralized note-keeping system, but just let it be for a while before you do anything else to it. You've likely been living with the novel for too long at this point to be able to be objective about it.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:34 AM on January 6, 2010

I'm going to counter the advice here (and most of the advice I've read previously) and say don't sock your ms away for a cool-down period. I have tried that before but often come back to an alien manuscript and while yes, it is great to approach it as a reader will, totally cold, this early in the process you need to come back to it in the same mindset with which you left it. You want to retain as much of your feeling from the end of the book as you can when you look at the whole of it, so that style, feeling, tics etc. that you express in the last 1/3, when you were really moving along, aren't lacking from the first part, where you still hadn't developed it.

I am in a situation similar to yours (running a second draft, with needed extra scenes, etc.). While I was writing the first I made notes about what I wanted to add, and found that two things are useful for this second draft: 1) Make up an outline of all your scenes, with just a little description of what's going on in each one. This gives you an opportunity to focus on structure, pacing, etc., without worrying about the individual line-edit details that you can fix later. Then add stuff in, make notes, etc. I typed my outline on half the page and left a wide left margin for handwritten notes. 2) If you're working with any kind of manageable timeframe, draw up a calendar of events. It can help you get a handle on your overall timeline as well as how things happen in relation to each other.

Bonus advice: a writing prof I had a few years ago suggested looking at your project and determining what the 10 crucial scenes are. If drawing up an entire outline seems too detailed, you might at least draw up your key scenes and then think about what needs to go between them to make them as punchy as possible.
posted by dervish at 8:41 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I actually finished it a few months ago and then ignored it for several weeks, so I've got the leave it alone for awhile thing covered.

I have a sense of where my structural problems are, I think, I just don't know how to go about the act of fixing them.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:46 AM on January 6, 2010

The way to do this sort of structural fixing is not to tweak and edit the existing bits, it's to write entirely new sections/chapters that will replace the original, broken bits. The second writing will be much easier, as you'll instinctively know what needs to happen this time and won't be feeling your way so much. By the time you're done, there may not even be an original chapter remaining. That's OK.

There's a reason it's called "rewrite" :)
posted by bonaldi at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Rewriting without an iron grip on structure makes no sense.

I like to make outlines of the existing text -- it's easier to spot structural problems this way. Then I re-jigger the outline to fix any problems, and rewrite based on the new outline.

The beauty of the outline is that it's easy to shuffle around different plot points to see what flows and what doesn't. Make the outline as bare-bones as possible, so you get a big-picture view uncluttered by insignificant details.

(My background is in non-fiction rather than fiction, but I think this is a useful approach for any genre.)
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 9:23 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The way I do it is that I separate the chapters into categories (for me it was based time and characters focused on). Then I worked on individual chapters and then I put it back into shape (which turned out to be rather different than originally intended) and went through again and rewrote bits that didn't quite fit with the chapters around it and wrote in new bits to make it link up better.
posted by Kattullus at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2010

Romance writer Julie Leto's advice on layering is still some of the best advice I've ever been given when it comes to both first draft and subsequent editing.
I used it for my last book and using it on my current one in progress.
Highly recommended to anyone.
posted by willmize at 9:33 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's what I'm doing on mine:
  1. Have the tightest first draft you possibly can. It won't be publishable; it won't be perfect. But I've found editing a manuscript that I know needs major, major work to be frustrating to the point of unproductiveness. This . . . maybe be why I've written three novel drafts in a year and a half. This also might not sound helpful if you know you need major work on your draft. I know it wouldn't have felt helpful to me a year ago, but now I'm really glad I went through the work of two "practice" novels because it's helped me learn a ton about the novel writing process, and what does and doesn't work for me, as a writer.
  2. For your second draft, do one complete read-through, correcting typos and making minor changes. Don't make major changes at this stage. Feel free to take brief notes, though (I take mental notes of stuff I'd like to change, not written notes, but my memory for these things is pretty good). At this stage, you're not only fixing grammatical errors, but becoming reacquainted with the intricacies of your book that you might have forgotten earlier.
  3. Third draft: time for major structural changes. Add in the scenes that you know are missing; reorder stuff as necessary. You can make some minor changes here, but this is where you're just doing major plot and structural stuff. Don't worry if it's a bit disjointed--this is what the fourth draft is for.
  4. Fourth draft: repeat step two, streamlining the new scenes into it. Yes, you should do another entire read through. You'll be surprised at the typos you didn't notice in the first draft.
  5. Give your book to a bunch of beta readers. Give them a deadline. Feel antsy, impatient. Don't touch your draft.
  6. Have a conversation with your beta readers. You'll now probably have enough distance from the book that you can figure out what is, and is not, helpful, productive advice. They're sure to suggest things that you didn't think of. Give yourself a week or two to think about their suggestions and deciding which ones sound good.
  7. Repeat steps three and four, making major structural changes first, and then line-editing to streamline.
Whew. I honestly had no idea my own editing process was so convoluted. I'm not sure if that's helpful, but that's how I'm approaching it, at least. Of course, every writer is different, and what it really boils down to is finding a system that works for you.

Also, if you'd be interested in exchanging MSes, feel free to shoot me a MeMail. I'd love to help!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:15 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, in terms of plotting, I like to think of my plot as a problem-solving exercise. On my previous manuscripts, I'd write regardless of whether I had the kinks in my plot worked out. Now, I just do a lot of thinking. When your story is smooth and logical, it sort of "clicks" in your head; you'll feel the natural flow of it. I try to reach that point before writing these days, although now, in editing (just got mine back from beta readers), I'm able to do the same thing with the new scenes I'm adding in, since I know how the story ends.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:18 AM on January 6, 2010

I'm taking a online class to help me get through it. She's very good, and although with the holidays I'm terrifyingly behind, I've got a much clearer idea of what needs to happen and how to go about it (and I'm just in the first few weeks) Here's the link: (I'm not an affiliate, just a happy student.
posted by korej at 12:59 PM on January 6, 2010

I'm an editor at a romance publisher. This is a combination of what I suggest my authors do and how I edit a book.
  • Write out a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Jot down where the chapter starts and ends, what the point of the chapter is, and where the characters are supposed to be at the end of it.
  • Take notes of where the characters aren't where they're supposed to be, or where the point of the scene is lost. Ask yourself if each chapter contributes to the plot; ask yourself if the plot and characters grow/change over the course of the chapter. If the answer to either of these questions is no, you need to revise.
  • Outline what needs to be added. I realize that many authors are, as they say, "pantsers", but I've found that in revisions, flying by the seat of your pants is a less-than-wonderful plan.
  • With your outline in hand, sketch out the bare bones of the scenes that you need to insert.
  • Go back and put those scenes in. Try to flesh them out, but if you're finding it overwhelming, just get the basics in--what the characters are doing, where they're doing it, and what the effect of their actions is.
  • Now go back to the start of the book and revise. This is the big-picture revision--focus on the flow of the scenes, on making sure that the whole story's on the page and makes sense. Flesh out the scenes that need fleshed out, cut chunks that don't contribute to the story as a whole.
  • Reread once more, the typos revision. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, weird formatting issues...this is where you fix them.
  • Pass book to beta readers or crit partners. Consider their opinions and revise as you feel is appropriate.
  • Reread the book one more time. Double-check your facts. Keep an eye out for continuity issues--after this much revision, you'd be surprised at how easy it is to have a character taking off his shirt twice, or leaving the kitchen, picking up something from the kitchen counter, and leaving the kitchen.
  • Stop. Have a drink. Write a cover letter. Send out the manuscript, then cross your fingers.

posted by MeghanC at 9:01 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

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