Early in my writing career, there was little I feared more than having to rewrite any part of my novels.
I agonized over scenes so they were “perfect” the first time. I obsessively saved and re-saved anything I wrote and made sure multiple backup copies existed lest a laptop theft or fire destroy my hard work. Every time I received an edit, I peeked through my hands at the editorial letter until I saw I was safe from having to go back to the drawing board.
Now? I’ve written a placeholder opening for my new novel that’s just standing in for a better one I’ll think up later. I pressed forward on some scenes I know will be cut just to see how some ideas work on the page. I know when I’m finished I’m going to rewrite the whole thing with whatever voice I’ve crystalized by the end.
Here’s what accounts for my change in approach: I’ve learned that rewriting a novel is almost always much easier than you think it’s going to be.
The first draft is phenomenally difficult
Pushing forward on a new novel is extremely hard. Just ridiculously, mind-bogglingly hard.
It’s like trying to run a race in three or four directions at once. You’re getting to know the characters. You’re fleshing out the setting. You’re trying to see if the events you have in mind are going to work once they hit the page. You’re trying to find the voice. You’re weaving together plots and subplots. All at the same time.
Maybe your novel will spring forth in its ideal form and all of these elements will magically weave together in perfect harmony.
Instead, even if you write slowly and carefully, chances are you’re going to muddle through. You always have work to do when you’re finished.
And sometimes you’ll have a ton of work to do. Particularly after you confront a daunting editorial letter, sometimes you’ll need to go back and rewrite the whole thing mostly from scratch.
But take it from me: starting over isn’t something to fear.
Don’t be afraid to start over
One of the absolute most important qualities that stratifies authors between great and mediocre or worse is a willingness to confront weaknesses, bite the bullet, and do what’s necessary to improve your work. Even if that means completely scrapping what you’ve written and starting over.
Does this sound terrifying to you? Take heart: Nothing is lost.
Even if you have written a steaming pile of seemingly unusable garbage, the plot makes little sense, nothing fits together, and you are going back to Chapter 1, Scene 1 to rewrite the whole shebang, you’re not really starting from scratch.
Chances are you’ve learned a ton about the characters, the setting, the voice, and the plot. Even if your knowledge is mostly about what doesn’t work with the plot, that knowledge is phenomenally useful. Rather than trying to accomplish every single thing all at once, like you are with a first draft, you’ll be able to focus on one or two key things. It’s a huge advantage.
Every time I’ve gone back to the well for a substantial rewrite, I dreaded it like you wouldn’t believe, then wound up astonished how much easier it was to complete than I thought it was going to be.
You feel like you can “get above it” and see the forests from the trees. Scenes flow. The characters pop.
Rewriting is nothing like a first draft. It feels like you’re writing with a jetpack.
The only thing to fear is revision fatigue
Revision fatigue is absolutely a thing.
You may grow tired of a particular project, shiny new ideas will come knocking on your door, life will interfere, you may simply fall out of love with your project.
Maybe even more pernicious: you may be rushing to completion because you want or need the external validation that you are dreaming will greet your project, but which you should shut out of your mind as much as possible.
Sometimes it really is time to put a manuscript in the drawer, other times you’ll retain that fire that pushes you on even when the going is difficult. That ability to keep moving forward is a massively important quality.
Particularly in this publishing climate, it pays to polish your book as much as you possibly can before you pursue publication. Do everything you possibly can to polish your diamond rather than sending out one that’s still in the rough.
And if you really need to go back rewrite your book: just go ahead and do it. I’ll bet you’ll wind up surprised it’s not as painful as you thought it would be.
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Art: Detail of Maleren Krøyer modeleres i sit Atelier paa Skagen by Vilhelm Pacht
I’m working on a novel told from two points of view, with entire chapters told by one of two characters. The two characters are completely different from each other – one more slow and methodical, but the other is a man of action, a get-it-done fast and quick kind of guy. When I’m working on his chapters, I find myself writing them in present tense while the others are in past tense. I tried rewriting his chapters in past tense, but something about his style seemed to get lost, even though his dialogue, actions, and thoughts are short and punchy. Will I have difficulty getting this published written in two different tenses even though their storylines occur simultaneously? Or am I in for a major rewrite?
Nathan Bransford says
Anything can be made to work, but I can’t help but feel like from the reader’s perspective, switching between past and present in the same timeline would feel jarring to read.
I was afraid of that. Thank you for the insight!
Deanne Williams says
I am way past revision fatigue. I have hit Revision Exhaustion.
Neil Larkins says
I hear you. My memoir which covered a mere three weeks took me over seven years to write. About one year to complete the rough draft and six-plus years of revisions. Most of them were small but in the third year I realized that a large section twenty pages in needed to be the introductory chapters. Anyone who’s never written memoir might think it’s easy. It’s your own story, after all. You don’t have to invent anything. But to make it interesting to the reader, many of the elements that make up the structure of fiction need to be employed in memoir.
Also that seven years had several long periods, once six months, where I didn’t work on it at all. You didn’t say how long you’ve been at your WIP, but if you haven’t taken any long breaks, might you consider it? Don’t be afraid you’ll lose interest and never finish. You’ll get’er done. History is peppered with great works that took years, sometimes decades to write. I’m sue that isn’t you, but you get my drift.
This is not a close example. But as a student, I used to procrastinate writing essays, because I thought that if I started writing, I need to get a good paper right away. Then I read on Studybay’s blog that the main thing is to start an essay, write the first draft, and then it will go on. From that moment on, I did not put off starting to write and I was not scared of the first draft, because I knew that the beginning was there and I would only improve my essay.
Now, I am on my way to writing my first novel. Thanks to my experience, and thanks to your advice, Nathan (thank you), the first draft does not scare me.
Raymond Walker says