October 26, 2004

To rewrite or not to rewrite -- that is the question

On the Forward Motion site, someone stated that having finished their first attempt at a novel, they now think their writing stinks. Should they, they ask, start over, writing it all fresh, or try to edit what is there?

First, you often hate what you wrote. This is good, because you can now freely edit what you wrote to make it better. The hard part is that you need to love it enough to keep from gutting the story, or just setting it on fire. Unfortunately, this 'hate it' gets harder to deal with as you sell the book and it goes through the stages of editing, copyediting, page proofs and then published -- because you're less and less able to change things. The copyeditted manuscript and page proofs actually come with big labels that say "DO NOT REWRITE!!!" and they WILL charge you money if you try.

BUT... there's no reason to assume your first attempt of a novel is good. I know I put my first two attempts into a drawer marked "Learning experiences" and moved on.

Lastly, its difficult to do a major gut on an old project because you keep getting stuck on what used to be there -- kind of like changing from a stick shift to an automatic -- you find yourself reaching for the stick despite that piece of the car is GONE!

All that aside, the question is "can you stand trying to gutting and rewriting this?" If the answer is no, then don't. Certainly no one expects to sell their first attempt at an oil painting to a New York City art gallery. If yes, you're still excited about this project, then yes.

Yes, because, soon or later, you need to learn how to rewrite.

One of the important keys to rewriting is to sit down with the novel and pens in hand, and start from page one and start reading. Read carefully. Read aloud if you can stand it. Make any notes that will help you to track plotlines, dropped threads, anything that you forgot to set up, anything that comes to mind. Read the whole way through without stopping to attempt the rewrite. Get to the end. Put it away. THINK about the story that you just read.

Also, if you can find a good first reader, (writers make best first readers) give them a copy to read at the same time you're doing this. Have them read for things like:
Can you understand what actually happened?
Did I leave out important information?
Is any part too fast or too slow?
Did characters lack motivation for their actions?
Did you find the main character sympathic enough that you're willing to keep reading?
What are the themes I put in?

After you've thought about the story that you wrote, and the story you WANTED to write, make notes how to make the two match. Then read over your first reader's notes. With ALL that in hand, start your rewrite, starting on page one, and moving forward.

Posted by wen at October 26, 2004 07:01 PM
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