You finished writing your novel! Your story is spoken, the loose ends are tied, your characters are sipping wine around a roaring fire, the danger finally behind them. Or not. Maybe they’re locked in separate dungeons waiting for the executioner. I don’t know your life.
Either way, offer a toast or applaud around the manacles – you did it!
Now, it’s off to the presses, right? The work is done, time to reap your reward.
Wait, is that an it’s instead of its? For the love of god, why did I use their, when I clearly meant they’re. Oh bloody hell, I forgot to expand that scene that introduces the antagonist. And why oh why did I open with four pages of exposition?
The wheels squeal to a grinding halt as you pull your work back to the screen. Time for the rewrite.
Personally, I enjoy the rewrite phase of a novel. Maybe I’m weird, I dunno. But it lets me play with the clay I threw on the wheel. Now I get to shape it and squish it between my fingers and make it perfect. It’s a little less stressful than the first draft (also a little less engaging, but I’ll get into that), and a little easier to see, because now I know the intricacies and the shape I want it to take, rather than working from a vague diagram. Now I get to enjoy my words and characters as I truly bring them to life.
That being said, rewriting a novel is completely different from spinning out a first draft. The creative inspiration of the first draft is addictive. It’s that moment when the story clicks into place and you stay up until three, feverishly typing the words as they flow from your tongue. There are few things that get your heart pounding the same way as diving into your combat scene before you know how the strokes are going to fall. Then there are those utterly enthralling moments when the scene comes to life before you mean it to, and suddenly you’re writing something you hadn’t intended, leaving even you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens…
But now, those moments are behind you. Shed your tears, let them go, remember them as the inspirations they are. You still have a lot of work to do.
As I said, the rewrite can be easier, in a lot of ways. For the most part, now you’re done scraping the inside of your skull to fill story gaps. That’s always been the most stressful part for me. Now, you can ease off a little from the creative obsession and enjoy the flow.
Easier though it is, no one said a rewrite is easy. It comes with its own set of challenges. Here are a few tips I’ve learned to make the process as smooth as possible.
Without an organized story plan, it’s hard to look at your work with a bird’s eye. But that’s what you need to do, or you’ll miss fixes your story might need. Personally, I’m a believer in tight planning, even if that planning develops at the same time as your first draft. Keep track of things as you go, and your revision is that much easier.
I recommend keeping a separate file (I like Excel, but use whatever works), to keep track of POV, scene goals, timeline, word count, whatever you need. Here is also where you can make jot notes of anything that strikes you. For example, in my latest rewrite, I changed the size of my city’s security force at least five times, to balance realism and story demands. Without making notes as I went (and researching- did you know there 38,000 uniformed officers in the NYPD? I was shocked), I wouldn’t have caught the oversight.
It’s easy to think of a rewrite in the same way as the first draft – start from the beginning, work to the end. While this IS essentially what you’re doing, your rewrite demands a little mobility within the work, to make the fixes as you find them. Making notes as you go lets you do this without losing track. (So does using bookmarks. Lots of them.)
Use the Tools
There are lots of different programs available for writing. I’ve used Scrivener, which is fantastic, but honestly I keep coming back to Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Both have great functions that make my rewrite simple.
Whatever tool you use, learn how to use it. If you’re in Word, make liberal use of bookmarks and find/replace. If you’re in Excel, map out your timelines and keep track of your word count. Use the tabs along the bottom to organize your thoughts into their own little compartmentalized homes. You can have seperate tabs for name ideas, character lists, history, needed re-works, anything you want. With the right tools, rewriting doesn’t have to be hard.
Now that the excitement of your first draft is over, the rewrite can feel like a chore. A long, drawn out, deeply boring chore. By necessity, you need to go over your draft one sentence at a time. Really though, One. At. A. Time. And after you’ve finished a paragraph worth of sentences, you start back at the top of the previous paragraph, to see how your changes flow together. There was a section in my current WIP that took two hours to go through one page, because I just couldn’t find the right way to shape the words. TWO HOURS for one Word typed page.
Needless to say, it can take a long time. And you need to let it. Rushing through your rewrite does you no favors. This is your chance to make your work shine. Take the time to do it right.
So get a cup of tea, settle in, and enjoy the shape of the words on your tongue – especially when a messy paragraph finally clicks into place. Seriously, that moment is better than chocolate.
Read out Loud
As weird as this sounds, if I can, I always read out loud as I edit. Somehow, airing the words brings out their nuances better than anything else. You can hear sentence flow, you can catch repetition or unintentional rhyming (for some reason, this drives me nuts when I find it). You can feel the flow of dialogue, and when you can get away with removing unnecessary dialogue tags or action beats (or when you need to add one after all).
Also, I find reading out loud, even whispered under my breath as I go, invests me in my words, driving away the inevitable boredom of evaluating a novel one sentence at a time.
Plan for the Time
No one said writing a novel is easy. It’s work. Lots and lots and lots of work. It’s easy to feel a little cheated when you finish your first draft, realizing that you’re only halfway done. Go into the process with the right expectations, and it becomes a little more palatable.
Expect your rewrite to take at least as long as it took to write your manuscript in the first place. That’s not only normal, but part of the deal. Expecting anything else will just leave you frustrated. For a potentially long time. Don’t do it.
If you have any other tips, I’d love to hear them. I find rewriting is a good time to let my brain unclench after the creative overload of the first draft. It’s a good wind-down to prepare for the inevitable (and much scarier than it sounds) moment when you’re… DONE.
So crack open that bottle of wine, sit back, and prepare to love the long haul.