The Craft of Writing: Revision, or Re-vision

Perhaps because my new book--A Coastal Corpse--has been such a challenge to write, rewrite, and revise, I feel like I ought to have something helpful to say about the process. After 10 novels and countless short stories, I have learned something, right?

Some days I'm not so sure about that (Maybe this should be an Insecure Writers Support Group post!)

In all seriousness, though, I do have a few thoughts on the subject, some of which might be helpful to others.

Today I'm going to talk about the radical things that may have to happen after I've finished the first draft and let it sit a while. This is all in 1st person because who knows if any of it applies to anyone but me?

What now?

I've let my MS rest for however long I need (2 weeks to 6 months?). I've re-read it and made notes. What next?

Things can go two ways at this point. I might decide that the basic structure is sound, and move on to the next level of editing (a topic for another day). More commonly I find myself staring bleakly at the steaming pile and wondering how in the name of all that's unholy I ever thought I knew how to write. Because that MS is an incoherent mess with the beginning, middle, and end all messed up and maybe I fingered the wrong perp anyway, and nothing makes any sense and... You get the picture.

I've found a few things to do when that happens. None is pretty or easy.

The problem may well lie in the main character

This is where I was with A Coastal Corpse. At this point I did things all out of order. I opted to do a radical rewrite without taking the time to delve into my main character and really get to know her, because it wasn't until later that I shared the MS and Jemima Pett gave me the nudge to see what I needed to do. Don't be me. Save yourself a lot of grief by doing this kind of work before you start the second draft. In fact, do it before writing the first draft.

Things that helped me at this stage were exercises like interviewing the character or filling in a trait sheet on them (I have some good templates for this, but I'm not sharing because I'm not sure where I cribbed them from and don't want to steal someone else's work. An internet search will bring up many such). I like to include some off-the-wall questions that get at the character's quirks. Writing the character's bio can help, too. Writing it 1st person, even when the novel is in 3rd, seems to help get their voice down.

Now I am ready to a) look at how the current MS does or does not put that character across, and b) move on to the radical rewriting options.

Before I start revising, I make an outline (even if you don't like to outline before the first draft, it's danged helpful here). First I get down an outline of the current MS so I know what I have. Then I write an outline of what the story *ought* to look like. For me, that may be the key tool and the best way of gaining insight into how to go about the revision.

"Pro tip:" Before you start making big changes, do a "save as" and rename the file as version 2.0 or something, so you'll always be able to go back if necessary.

At this point, I found myself faced with two options.

Option 1:
Work with what I have. I can now take my new outline and start moving scenes around. This is the big stuff. Remove the subplots that don't work or characters I like but who really have nothing to do with the story (I stow them in a scrap file; I may want them for the next novel). Finger the right perp and go back and find the places where the story can or does point to them (okay, that's a mystery thing, but I bet in most genres you can find something comparable).

Moving scenes around creates a lot of continuity problems, so I then spend weeks gradually finding and sorting out all of those.

If I'm lucky, after all that, I have a solid draft ready for feedback (I can't bring myself to inflict a rough draft on anyone, which does mean I have at times done a lot of work on an MS that needs a more radical rewrite after getting feedback. I still think it's only courteous to try to make it sort of readable before I ask someone to read it. That might be different if you are paying an editor or are less inhibited).

Option 2: The nuclear option
This is a big painful step that I read about somewhere. I was dubious at first, but I have tried it and it did help.

Take that outline, the new one that shows how the story is *supposed* to go (as opposed to how it went the first time out). Create a new, blank file and start writing. Now the whole story is in my head, and the draft, at least in theory, will follow the path it needs to. This allows all those changes discussed above--moving/adding/deleting scenes, adding or deleting characters, etc.--without the loose threads that can make such a mess under Option 1.

I admit that the one time I did this, I "cheated" and copied some scenes, but I followed the original suggestion and even those scenes I re-typed, which eliminated most of the loose ends. I was able to do the re-draft a bit faster than the first time through, but it still took over a month.

What did I have when I was done? Well, I had a draft that was a lot more workable than the first time. But because I hadn't done my homework with the main character, I still had some big issues to work out. I think that if I find myself needing to go this route again, I will have a better outcome, because I'll do more work beforehand. I also ended up digging into POV, which was another huge project, and another thing that ideally I'd have figured out before beginning the re-draft. But in the end, I did have an MS that I could edit into a novel, coming soon!

The take-away:
Writing is definitely a craft that is never truly mastered, and I'm always learning, so this is what you might call a draft of the process! Let me know if you've ever tried a complete rewrite of an MS, and how that went for you, or share your favorite editing tips.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2023
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