The Rewrite Rules!

by Bess Weatherby published in Writing

In April of 2011, I hit a wall in my book. This was not a “I need a break” or “I’m tired” or “this is hard” wall. Writers don’t get breaks. We’re always tired. And writing is never not hard. This was a “this is not working” wall. There was a fundamental flaw in my plot and I had no idea what it was. So, I took a month off from drafting,  looked at what I had, figured out what was missing and made an outline. Then I set back to work. These were my goals:

  1. Finish new draft by November
  2. Edit during December
  3. Send my first query in January

I kept the first goal. By November 1, I had a draft. A month of edits and I would be ready to go, right?

Wrong.

E.B. White once said, “The best writing is rewriting.” It’s a phrase that ranks up there with “Kill your darlings” and “Write what you know.” And, like most cliches, it’s a cliche because it’s true. I was setting myself up for frustration and failure by not making a realistic plan for re-writing. If I had, the process would have been quicker and more fruitful. Here’s a few ways you can make the most out of your re-write by giving it the respect it deserves.

Give Yourself a Break

Have you ever spent too much time with a friend, and grown sick of each other? You save your friendship (and your sanity!) by giving yourselves a break. The same holds true with a story. By the time you finish a first draft, you’re so in the world it’s hard to see it. You might be sick of it. You might be on a writing-high. But, either way, you are not objective about it. Editing requires objectivity.

Taking a week away can be hard, but it will give your mind and book the space to breathe. Think of it as a reward: during that week, you don’t have to stop writing, but you can work on something fun and different. You can catch up on reading. You can organize or decorate your writing space. And when you come back to your manuscript, you’ll be ready to re-write.

Read With New Eyes

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from Stephen King, who said, “Write with the door closed; edit with the door open.”  When you’re writing that first draft, thinking about audience or editors or agents can stifle your imagination. Doubt crushes creativity. So shut the door, don’t listen to anyone and go for it. Sometimes the best ideas come at the end of a string of ridiculous ones.

But, when re-writing, it’s time to invite some other people into your world. You have to be the critic. This can sound harsh, but  we need to be prepared for people to have negative reactions to our work. Before you start re-writing, re-read. All of it. Start to finish. And begin considering what an editor or a reader might think. When you are looking at a scene, a character or even a plot-line, ask the tough questions. Here’s a few I ask myself:

  1. Is this (scene/character/plotline/description) necessary?
  2. Does it reveal character or move the plot forward?
  3. Is it a reflection the character’s goals, and not mine?
  4. Does it make sense?
  5. Can it be said more concisely?

If the answer is no, make a note of it. I print out and bind each draft, and then make notes in the margins. You can also easily do this with Track Changes in Microsoft Word or Scrivener. Don’t start writing yet. Just observe. Take the project as a whole. Threads and problems will start to reveal themselves to you, and you’ll save time in the long run by not stopping to fix every little thing you see.

Create a Hospital

“But I love that scene!”

It’s the cry of the re-writing writer. A scene or a character or a plot-line needs to go, and you don’t want to let it. Fair enough. It is, to use another cliche, your darling. So, don’t kill it. Create a folder and label it “Hospital.” You’re the doctor, and this scene is very, very sick. Cut it out, paste it in a separate document, and save it in the hospital folder. It’s not dead; it’s on bed-rest. It will be there if you ever want to revive it.

And, in the meantime, your manuscript is getting leaner, cleaner and maybe–just maybe–doesn’t need that scene after all. But having the option of putting a scene back in can help the re-writing process be less painful.

Set Concrete Goals

With the excess cut, you’re ready to start the actual re-writing.

When you’re drafting, it’s easy to set goals: a page a day, or a word-count a day. Re-writing is less easily defined. Revising one chapter can take a week; revising another can take a few hours. It all depends. It can be easy to lose sight of the progress you’ve made, or where you’re headed, when you’re in the throes of re-writing. It’s helpful, before you start, to set goals. I try to make mine:

  1. Challenging — It’s always good to push yourself. You do, after all, want to get this thing finished! So keep in mind, when you are setting your goals, to push yourself.
  2. Obtainable — That being said, it’s no use to set goals you can’t keep, either. If you almost never are able to keep the goals you set, you’ll find yourself getting discouraged and not wanting to continue.
  3. Sustainable — Re-writing takes a while. The standard (so they say!) is around three months for a 60,000 word book, but this can vary wildly. For me, it took a year and four months. But no matter how long it takes you, it’s important that the goals you set are ones you can keep over an extended period of time.

I make a list of tasks, by chapter, and label them as one-day, three-day or one-week tasks. Each one day task gets one line. A three day task gets three, and a week task gets seven. That gives me a line to check for every day. A simple system, but it’s very effective for keeping me motivated, and also for understanding at the progress I’ve made.

Enjoyed this writing boost? Check out this DIY MFA online workshop that’s coming up. We’ll share 7 techniques designed to give your writing a jolt of inspiration.

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  • VanillaBean

    Thank you for this! I especially like the ideas of naming the “killed/scrap” folder as Hospital (It feels so much kinder to the poor dears!) and the task list check off lines like a to do list that actually lets you feel like your getting somewhere in the long slog.

  • zannierose

    yes, the hospital metaphor- great..and it might have a life of its own in another form- short story, another novel, a blog post…