By SARAH ARMSTRONG
Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it. Michael Crichton
Let’s say – for the purposes of this article – that you have a first draft in hand. An unwieldy, imperfect first draft. Bravo for finishing a first draft. It’s no small achievement. (And if you want to know more about why I love my first drafts to be messy and chaotic, read this).
An effective rewrite of this first draft will require the courage to make wholesale changes.
I’m talking Seriously Big changes. You may need to kill off or bring to life a character or two. You may ditch great reams of writing. (And I mean tens of thousands of words.) You may even find you need to dump the passages of writing you love the most. (Get prepared for this. You will find all too often the most ‘beautiful’ writing is superfluous.) You may start and end the book with completely different events, even losing whole scenes or strands of plot you thought were vital to the story. You may also decide that a different character is going to ‘tell’ the story.
Rewriting is not tinkering at the edges. It’s not smoothing out the sentences and sweating over the right word. It’s not swapping the order of a couple of events. It’s not playing around with commas, trying to get the pauses right. That is what I would call editing. Of course you need to do that, but don’t do it too early or you may find that you end up ditching tens of thousands of (beautifully edited) words because the original structure wasn’t working. This is precisely what happened to me while ‘rewriting’ Salt Rain.
(I had three sections, each told from a different character’s point of view. However - as I progressed in the telling of the story - I found that this structure made it too hard to release information as needed for the plot. It didn’t maintain dramatic tension and was, frankly, a bit boring. I reworked the structure so that the character telling the story (the point of view) changed chapter by chapter. This had its own challenges, one of which was a whole section of one character’s life biting the dust. And I found myself with some of what I call - for want of a better term - ‘energy leakage’, which often happens when you switch points of view frequently. But more on that another time.)
The big questions
So you have your manuscript in hand. Hopefully you feel proud of the work you’ve put in and excited about the possibilities. I suggest that the first thing you should do, though, is … nothing. Put the manuscript aside for a few weeks. Give yourself a holiday from it. Go swimming. Go for a bike ride. Walk. During this period – several weeks, at least – resist the urge to open the manuscript. But do make notes as thoughts arise. Talk to your workbook.
Then, without reading through your manuscript yet, ask yourself, What does my protagonist (main character) want? Desire drives plot, so this question is critical and not always straightforward. Perhaps your protagonist wants love? Or belonging? Revenge? I use freewriting to explore this question and gain a more complex understanding of my character’s desire. (Read more on how I use freewriting here and here)
A concrete desire
And how does the character’s desire translate into something concrete. Does she want to find her birth mother or ask the man next door out on a date? Does she want a particular job or house? Or does she want to bankrupt her brother-in-law who cheated her out of money?
Then – still without re-reading your manuscript – consider what concrete steps she takes to get what she wants. I think that brainstorming is a brilliant way to come up with possible steps. It means I come up with some truly wacky ideas, but that’s very freeing and often leads me to unexpected and interesting dramatic possibilities. Perhaps your character who wants love and to find her birth mother rifles through her (adoptive) mother’s drawers while her mother is out. Or perhaps she goes to interrogate an old relative, or gets in touch with an estranged (not adopted) sibling.
Then consider what obstacles might get in the way of your character getting what she wants. Allow these obstacles to create rising action – where your character must take steps of greater and greater magnitude to try and get what she wants. Perhaps her mother comes home while she is going through her cupboards, or the old relative breaks down and reveals something surprising. And perhaps the estranged sibling gets angry and lectures her about meddling where she isn’t welcome.
Then and only then, when you’ve exhausted yourself with these questions, do you read through your MS. Read it from beginning to end as if you are reading it for the first time. (Which in effect you are.) Don’t, whatever you do, stop to edit. As you go, however, make note of the passages which really draw you in and those where your attention wanders. Other than this, keep reading until you reach the end.
When you have finished the whole MS, while it is still fresh in your mind, sit down with your workbook and comprehensively write out everything you think and feel about the book you have just read - your impressions, questions, satisfactions, despairs. Try to be constructively critical. Voice your doubts and dissatisfactions, but also think about the changes you can make to improve it. These ‘conversations with self’ are like freewriting – a great way to unearth new ideas, to open doors to the next draft.
Only now - in my experience - are you ready to start rewriting.
I tend to focus on plot in my first rewrite, because for me plot is the most important thing to get really clear. This inevitably means I need to get to know my characters better as plot and characters are bound together.
I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t consider these questions of what your character wants in the first draft. But these questions of desire invariably need (much) more work in the rewrites. And it’s helpful to think about these questions without being tied to what you’ve already written. Don’t allow what you’ve written in the first draft to limit the possibilities. Allow for completely new ideas.
Here are a few of the questions I ask about plot when I am rewriting a piece (and, unsurprisingly, the kinds of questions we ask in the online writing course we teach).
- Am I clear who my protagonist (main character) is? How would it be if another character was protagonist?
- What questions does my protagonist have?
- What’s at stake if he doesn’t get what he wants? (The concrete as well as the abstract possibilities.) His happiness? His house? His marriage? His life?
- What concrete steps does she take to get what she wants? I like to brainstorm possible steps.
- What obstacles get in the way of my character getting what she wants? Allow these obstacles to create rising action – where the character must take steps of greater and greater magnitude to try and get what she wants.
- How will the protagonist change? What will he learn by the end? (Or resolutely refuse – or be unable - to learn?)
In the first draft, I’m a big fan of writing and seeing what emerges. But when it comes to rewriting, I also believe in knuckling down and getting technical. In my experience the questions above (and the hundreds more that you need to ask) focus the writer’s thinking. They help you create the narrative tension that will draw your reader through the story.
Think of writing your first draft as creating the raw material, the clay, if you like. Rewriting is when you shape and craft the clay into a finished sculpture. And be prepared for rewriting to take its own good time. The Nobel Prize-winning Australian writer Patrick White once commented that the quality a writer needed above all else was patience.
Many beginning writers find it really hard to make big changes to their manuscript. They hang onto their opening words no matter what. They endow the first words they laid down with a kind of purity and immutability and seem unable to sketch out a new start, even as an experiment. I can relate to this. It took me years to learn that where first words came from, others will follow.
The more you commit to the process of rewriting, I believe you will, like me, come to see rewriting as a great pleasure. First drafts may have that unmatchable thrill of discovery, but for me, rewriting is where I really get to play with the craft of writing. And with this commitment to craft, I can bring my manuscript closer and closer to that first, intoxicating sense of how my story idea might look as a finished book.