A Writer's First Novel Rewrite
2002, Jennifer Shafer
completed the first draft of my first novel, my initial reaction was, "I'm
immediately followed by, "I'm not done!"
129,000 words of text, and more characters and plot threads than could fit into
my ending. In addition, my ideas for the novel had changed over the year it took
to write. I needed a serious revision. But how? I was as new to rewriting as I
had been to novel writing. As with writing a novel, I had heard a lot of
conflicting advice on how to go about revision. So like my first time writing a
novel, I decided just to start and see what worked for me.
first thing to do was to read through my manuscript and figure out what I needed
to change. I already knew that I needed to move some scenes and add others, so
the plan was that I would read, do line edits as necessary, and decide what
needed moving before I did the actual rewrite.
didn't last long. Since I planned to alter the storyline, I wasn't sure whether
any scene would stay or go, so I quit doing line edits. I also found that it was
hard to keep such a large number of scenes straight, both in content and order.
So I switched to Plan B: write a synopsis with a short description of each
scene, then rearrange the synopsis before I began rewriting.
proved much faster and easier. Reading through my manuscript, I found some
dialogue I liked that I only vaguely recalled writing, and details in the early
part of the story I'd completely forgotten, but would be useful near the end. I
also discovered discrepancies I hadn't realized were there, repetition of ideas,
dialogue, and names, and references to story events that never happened.
started making changes to the synopsis, I made notes of what things I already
knew needed fixing: a couple of characters had subplots that had been left
unresolved, a plot element that influenced the climax had to be introduced
earlier, one of my major characters didn't appear at the climax.
And, more importantly, I had gotten more interested in Brian, one of the
major characters, at the cost of Amber, the main character, so I needed to fix
the ratio of Brian scenes to Amber scenes.
I also kept
in mind some of the things I had learned about the craft in general. For
example, that a small cast of complex characters is better than a large one;
that short scenes tend to make for more disjointed reading; that every scene
should have some action and conflict. All of these were things I needed to
address. So I sat down, located a pencil, and attacked my synopsis.
aware of my plot as topography: twists and curves and tangles, hidden caverns
and tall peaks. My job was not to flatten it but to smooth the rough spots,
correct the proportions, and make sure there was a clear path from beginning to
end. I immediately found scenes I needed to cut where there was no action, or
where the action could be mentioned briefly in the next scene without detracting
from the storyline. I moved scenes back and forth to space my subplots more
consistently, and created new scenes to add depth to my characters'
relationships and problems. My story had five point-of-view characters and I was
concerned that switching between them too frequently interrupted the flow of the
story, so I made an effort to combine scenes when possible.
discovered that my opening scene no longer made sense. After an attempt to fix
it, I decided to cut it as well. Cutting it meant that my book didn't start with
a scene that didn't fit the rest of the text, and began in my main character's
point of view, rather than a lesser character's.
point-of-view characters seemed like a lot, I considered removing or combining
the two less important ones. I only decided against it when I discovered it
would be extremely difficult to extricate either of them from my web of
cause-and-effect leading to the ending, and even then I was unsure I was making
the right decision. Was I being lazy? Were these characters truly important, or
did I simply like them too well? I did cut two minor characters and combine two
others, which gave one of my villains a reason to be even more sociopathic and
eliminated the need for a minor plot thread. And I realized that I did like the
resulting smaller, more complex cast better than my original one.
synopsis was well and truly marked up, I typed in the changes to get a clean
copy of what I expected my finished second draft to look like and began the
As I read
through my first draft, I had noticed some stylistic habits: choices of certain
words over others, too many semicolons, not enough description, and too many
nervous beats. I found a particular dialogue structure--person A asks three
questions, B responds with the same word to each question--in four different
places. So when I did line edits, I kept an eye out for those problems, as well
as awkward dialogue and sentence structure, extraneous words, and abrupt
was more fun than I had anticipated. It made sense, though; after all, I was
taking a story I liked and making it better. Cutting wasn't so bad... at first.
However, once I was really into my story, I was able to see that I ought to cut
or mutilate even more scenes. Some contained neat bits of dialogue, or
interesting character development, or important information. I didn't want to
get rid of them. But I already knew, from other people's descriptions of their
experiences, that I would feel this way. And like a tree shedding its leaves in
autumn, my story would retain more vitality if I cut those scenes. So I did.
were interesting to write. I knew my characters much better than when I had
written draft one. I inserted new action, and suddenly that was what happened in
the story. My world had
become malleable, even after I had created it. Halfway through writing a new
scene I discovered that a minor character badly wanted out of a secret program
--which gave him more definition and a far clearer role. There were other places
I discovered resonances in the new material, relating it to multiple existing
threads. This sort of focus and clarity was exactly what I was hoping for when I
began the rewrite, but it was still startling to discover that my story would
continue to evolve for as long as I chose to play with it.
two synopsis slowly became covered with new notes. As I progressed through the
manuscript, I found the problems I had set out to correct disappearing, replaced
by a story that was much smoother and less diffuse, more concentrated on the
plot and themes. This gave me momentum to reach the climax, where I needed to
give two characters new roles -- including one of the characters I had
considered cutting -- and develop an entirely new plan for defeating the
villain. It was a lot of work; but if I had left it alone, I would have had to
live with knowing I could have improved my novel immensely and hadn't bothered.
I learned a
lot from my first rewrite. I found a method that seemed to work for me, even
though it took a little experimentation. I found out how rewriting feels: the
pleasure of finally cleaning up a scene that's been bothering me for sixteen
chapters, the dismay at realizing a 3,500-word scene is completely worthless in
the context of my story. Cutting words was a vital part of the process for me; I
ended up deleting more than 25,000 words. It depressed me a bit to realize I had
written a novella's worth of useless material, but the story is better for it,
just like leafless trees in winter. I think that I'll be able to write my next
novel more efficiently, knowing what I now know about writing and rewriting. The
process took some mental adjustment, but it's been both useful and genuinely
fun. A lot of it was learning by doing, just the same as when I wrote my first
novel; and just like writing a first novel, my first rewrite has taught me about
the writing process, how to craft a story, and what I need to be willing to do
to make my story the best it can be.