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An Approach to Re-writing a First Novel

Several months ago, I wrote about my perspective on the differences between writing a novel and writing a short story. Now, several months later I’m knee-deep in re-writing that first draft of the novel, and so I thought it might be neat to follow up on my earlier comments:

Distance Buys Perspective

Writing a novel is an intensely personal investment, made over an extended period of time. It can take months or years of our cogitation, sweat, and emotional turmoil. It’s never far from our minds. We lie awake in bed thinking about how to do certain things with it (at least I do). By the time we write “The End” we’re relieved and rightly proud of our creation. And – I at least – wanted to dive right into re-writing it.

But that’s not wise. Because after we’ve just finished writing the book, it’s still up at the forefront of our minds. The characters names roll off our tongues, and we could recite the events of the plot backwards and blindfolded. Even if we can’t recite the text from memory, we still know what the sentences should say. At this point, we’re too close to it for effective revision. Where the story has narrative pot-holes – missing plot points, pacing issues, clumsy writing – our minds fill them in, gloss over them, because we know how it should work. It’s like having beer-goggles on: our minds won’t let us see the reality.

Which is why all of the smart advice out there tells us to wait. To put the book away. File it in a drawer, forget about it for a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, work on something else and then come back to it. Coincidentally, Kay Kenyon – one of my favorite science fiction authors – just posted about this exact issue. Unsurprisingly, I agree with her with all of my heart. But, like avoiding sweets and getting regular exercise, it’s not easy.

Letting it settle is one of the hardest aspects of writing a novel that I’ve discovered. While waiting to go back to my first novel, I took the time to write a second novel (okay, technically a graphic novel – but I figure it counts). Even though I intellectually know that I need to leave that graphic novel aside and let it settle, I still want to dive right into it and do the re-write. Which, much as I am loathe to admit it, is probably proof that I’m still too emotionally and intellectually close to it for proper revision. But it really makes sense to resist the temptation, because it lets us spot weaknesses that otherwise we would miss.

The Re-writing Attitude

Getting ready to re-write my first novel has been a mix of trepidation and hubris. On the one hand, I’m worried that as I take another look at it I’ll discover that it sucks. Then my ego kicks in and says “What are you talking about, the book is great, it can’t possibly suck.” Of course, that ego is a thin veneer over my own insecurities (which, of course, I quash). Which is why I found it helpful to keep the following statement in mind as I sit down to re-write:

Most first novels don’t get published. It’s okay if it sucks: we re-write to make it better.

Ask a bunch of authors how many books they wrote before they ever got an agent, or before they ever sold one to a major house. The number will surprise you. I’ve regularly heard debut authors talk about having five, six, seven finished novels (sometimes entire series!) in their drawers at home. That’s because writing a novel is a skill, and it is a skill that takes time to hone. Writing short stories can help with some of the craft, but it takes a different set of skills to write a great novel. In many ways, I think of it like playing a sport: how many games did Babe Ruth have to play before he could hit a homerun in the major leagues? How many pick-up basketball games did Michael Jordan play before setting foot on an NBA court?

It’s alright if the first draft of a novel sucks. That’s why it is the first draft. Because, if we’re serious about writing, we’ll produce a second draft that will be stronger than the first. And if need be, we’ll write a third draft that’s even better than the second. And at some point, perhaps, the finished product might be polished enough for publication. And if it isn’t, well then the skills we’ve picked up and practiced will help us write our next book, which will be better than our first. At least that’s the theory.

The Process of Re-writing

The Professor – my fiancée who edits YA books for a living – gave me some really good advice on the re-writing process. Of course, being male and knowing better, I promptly ignored her excellent advice and it bit me in the ass. Her advice on the process of re-writing:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When I initially picked up my first draft and started to read it, I did it with pen in hand. I dove in and attacked clumsy sentences, poor word choices, weak verbs. In the trade, this is called a line-edit and apparently it’s a classic first-time novelist mistake. The point of the re-write isn’t to fix the little flaws that have crept into the work. The point of the re-write is to spot the BIG structural weaknesses. If we’re bogged down in the minutiae of the sentences, we’ll never see the yawning pacing chasm or the gaping plot hole. We won’t see the forest for the trees.

I realized this about mid-way through my book. I had a niggling concern about a structural issue (the pacing), and it just wouldn’t leave me alone. But I couldn’t diagnose the problem effectively, because by jumping right into the sentences, I had gotten in too deep, too quickly. So I had to put it down again, walk away from it again, and then approach it a different way.

My second time around, I followed The Professor’s advice, and read it just as a first time reader would. I read through it – cover to cover – without a pen in hand. I was reading it like I hoped a typical reader (or an agent, or an editor) would. I was paying attention to my response to the text, to see where my interest flagged, where the story got my heart racing. I wanted to find where the book worked well, and where it lost me. Sure, I still saw the occasional weak sentence. But I resisted the (often difficult) temptation to pounce and fix it. Instead, I tried to figure out if the bones of the story worked.

Here’s what I found (in ascending order of importance):

  1. The events of the plot – at a general level – work reasonably well.
  2. The world-building seems reasonably solid, with compelling settings and believable (and interesting) factions/characters.
  3. The themes of the book can be emotionally and philosophically interesting.
  4. I lost interest around the 25% mark, and didn’t have interest until the last 5% of the book.

That last one is really important: reading through the book, it fundamentally failed the “So what?” test. That failure was evident in the way that the book slowed down and lost the reader’s interest. That, however, is just an observation: a fact. It told me nothing about why it lost the reader’s interest. In thinking it through, and discussing it with The Professor (who was awesome enough to take a look and give me a professional’s opinion on where I dropped the ball), the major failing’s cause was the protagonist’s motivation. It didn’t ring true, it didn’t work, and as a result, the reader just didn’t care.

Responding to a Major Flaw

That’s a major, major super-mega-important flaw. Characters are their motivations, and so if the hero’s motivation isn’t compelling…well, the story’s missing its fuel. That’s also not a quick fix. That’s not something that can be addressed by “sticking it in” as an editorial after-thought. To get that kind of motivation right, it needs to be ever-present throughout the story, from the first sentence all the way through to the last. And it should have really started with a question I’d failed to ask myself at the onset: why is my hero the hero?

The answer – if I’m being honest with myself – is that in the case of this novel, his was a convenient perspective and I wrote the opening chapters with a nifty voice that I happened to like. Alas, that’s not enough of a reason. So back to the drawing board. I took a look at the story, rotating it in my mind and considering all of the characters’ motivations and trying to determine how I could find/develop a more compelling hero. As I did this, I found the answer staring me in the face: the book had a major character, who did have motivation, and who was compelling…he just wasn’t the original focus. The solution (perhaps) would be to make that character, or someone like that character the hero.

Of course, this would mean re-writing the whole book. I wouldn’t be able to keep the eighty-three odd thousand words I’d written over the course of five months. I’d have to junk it, and basically start from scratch. That is not an easy call to make. It took a lot of work to write those words, and some of those words were (I think) pretty good. But I faced two basic choices: I could either trash the whole novel, or I could take another stab at it by writing it all over again from a different perspective. Rather than throwing in the towel, I decided to (literally) re-write it.

My reasoning was pretty straightforward: the bones of the plot, the world-building, the themes, they were all solid. I had gotten them right once, I could get them right again. It was my hero/narrator characterization which had failed. I’d written a book once, right? Surely I could do it again. So I decided to re-write it. This also gave me the opportunity to re-imagine what kind of motivation I wanted to give my (now-different) hero, and to play with the components of the plot to add more tension and raise the stakes. It’s an opportunity to take another stab at the whole project, and make the whole thing that much stronger.

Looking to the Future

And so now that’s what I’m doing. It’s early days yet. I’ve got a revised outline in place, and I’ve re-written the first couple of chapters. I’m thinking that maybe, as I get further along in the re-write, I might be able to re-use some select passages from my earlier draft. But I’m not certain of that. If I can, great. If not, no big loss. The actual process of writing the book is going smoother (and it seems faster) than on the first go-around. That’s probably because I’ve been living with these characters and this world in my head for almost a year now. It also suggests to me that I’m on a better track: the experience is reminiscent of writing the graphic novel I finished a couple of weeks ago, which has much simpler motivation (it might have other issues, but the motivation at least should be pretty solid).

I don’t know if this re-write will make the book good enough to vie for representation and publication. I’m hopeful, but if it ends up not being good enough…well, that’s alright, too. Because the process has taught me a lot about myself as a writer and about some of the skills that are essential for writing long-form work. And so even if this first novel ends up collecting dust in a drawer, I’ll still say it was damn well worth it.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ugh, this is what I’m staring at, a re-write from the ground up. Plus side: I’m glad to know I am justified in thinking it needs this. I haven’t been able to bring myself to touch it in several months, which is probably a good thing.

    February 10, 2011
  2. Absolutely! Taking time off is a great way to get the distance necessary to spot and diagnose problems. Good luck with the re-write!

    February 10, 2011

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