April 18, 2019

Editing Advice Part 3: Rewriting

Last time, we discussed how to address plot holes and keep world building internally consistent. Today, I will share my thoughts on rewriting, specifically on when you should rewrite, and when you should stop. I should mention, though, that parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series can and should be done simultaneously. That is, while you're rewriting, you can fix plot holes and issues with timing, and when you're looking at some inconsistencies in world building, you might find a section you need to rewrite. So the first answer to "when should I rewrite" is "when you have to fix the problems with continuity, world building, and plot".

But what about in general? First of all, what do I mean by rewriting? I'm not talking about tweaking a sentence here or there, or find/replacing a character's name, nor am I talking about changing the details of how a certain magical creature looks or wether the moon should be waxing or waning in one scene. I'm talking about full on changes to scenes, chapters, or entire books. This is hardcore stuff. Fun, but hardcore. First, let's talk about dealing with different drafts.

My Draft Philosophy

While some psychopaths writers will tell you to completely scrap each old draft and literally rewrite each new one from scratch, I think this is utter madness. First of all

and I realize I am only one of five writers ever to say this—your first draft is good! If it wasn't, then you shouldn't bother rewriting it and should move on to some other project. Is it perfect? Heck no! That's why we're shiny-ing it up. But it's good. There are good sentences, good turns of phrase, good exchanges and flow. What's more, there is heart; when you wrote it, you were feeling certain things that you won't be feeling if you completely rewrite it. Don't forget that, and don't throw it away.

Well, now that that's out of the way, what should you do with your first, or second, or third draft (did I mention I rewrote my third book four and a half times?). Save them each as a separate document! You never want to write over an old draft, because you might, even years down the line, think back on something that you can reuse from one of those old drafts. I'm speaking from experience here. Just as there are parts of your old drafts that you dislike, there will be parts of your new drafts that you end up not liking as much as what you had previously written. Computer memory is cheap, and writing time isn't. Save everything!

I'll even save each chapter of a to-be-rewritten/edited draft as its own document. This helps me break rewriting into chunks and, occasionally, rethink structure. Maybe the story would flow better if I moved this chapter before that one? Maybe I should break this long one into two short ones (separate documents will more easily show you the word count of each chapter). I'll even do this for particularly tricky scenes, saving only the scene into it's own document so I can really play around with it without fear of altering the rest of the chapter. When I'm done with the scene or chapter, I copy/paste it back into the larger draft of the whole book.

When to Rewrite

But how does one know when a scene or chapter should be rewritten, instead of changed a little. The simple answer is, when you don't love it. When you're reading through your book, happy as a clam, and suddenly there's a part that irks you, or feels off, or is kind of boring. That part needs to be rewritten rather than sent out into the world in a subpar fashion.

Obviously, you'll need to rewrite scenes that contain large continuity errors, internal inconsistencies, or plot holes, but there might be scenes that are perfectly serviceable that still don't sit right with you. They're not as good as they could be, and you know it. Rewriting, to me, is a very personal thing; you might even have beta readers who think your story is fine, but if you don't think it is, then it isn't. 

Given the personal nature of the beast, it's hard to talk about it in generalities, so I'll instead deal with examples. I'll use my own writing, since I've done my share of rewrites for a number of different reasons.

Miscast Spells had it's major changes when I went from planning to drafting, so I didn't have too many rewrites, but I did significantly change the prologue; it was actually the last scene of that book that I wrote. Why did I rewrite it? Well, it was boring, so I spiffed it up, added more characterization, and actually showed Emmaline getting cursed during it (yes, that very important scene was not in the first draft!).

I would say I went through about three drafts of Outcast Shadows. The first one existed before I wrote Recast Light, and I didn't know how the trilogy ended. Sebastian had a bit of a different motivation for his actions ( he actually wanted to destroy Chiaroscuro! Yikes!), but when I started writing Recast Light and looking at Sebastian's character, this motive didn't ring true to who he was. This meant I had to do a major overhaul of his storyline, but it was obviously for the best. In the final draft, I rewrote particular scenes—when Sebastian first speaks to Millie in Chiaroscuro, when he explains about the threat facing the city, what happens between him and Alistair in the courtyard—in order to really emphasize character relationships and feelings. I wouldn't say the old versions of those scenes were bad, but they weren't what I wanted for the story overall. I didn't love them, and now I do.

And then there is Recast Light, the problem child. When I say I rewrote it four and a half times, I mean I basically changed half of what happens in the book, significantly, four times, and then tweaked the rest here and there (that's where the half comes from!). For example, in the first two drafts, there was an entire subplot involving Chiaroscuran anarchists; if you've read the book, you'll know that that is no longer a thing (though two of their members, Augustus and the Empress, remained in the story). Why did I cut it? It was random and added nothing to the story; I didn't love it.

Then there was Sebastian, my problem child within a problem child. In the first draft, he slept through most of the book (no, really!), and in the second draft, he was awake, but hardly interacted with the rest of the main characters (he was hanging out with the anarchists). It wasn't until the third draft that he finally joined everyone else like a proper main character. Why did I change it? A better question would be, why did I write it so poorly the first two times. It was so weird and not at all what I wanted that I couldn't let it stand.

Then, I overhauled the entire second half of the book between the third and fourth drafts (everything after chapter seven, for those of you who have read it). None of that was there before the final draft. I'm still shocked by this, and I'm the author! Why did I rewrite it? Several reasons. First, the way the main cast dealt with Alcea in the first drafts was totally deus ex machina. Gross! Second, none of it tied in enough with the first two books. It wasn't narratively satisfying, instead feeling thrown together. Sure, the story ended, but it wasn't how that story should have ended, given everything that came before it. I wanted to bring back elements from the other books so that the trilogy would feel like a cohesive whole.

As a side note, the above example is also a reason not to kill your darlings. I had always wanted a ballroom scene in my books, but could never find a place to put it that made sense. As I was writing my fourth draft, flailing around for a way to fix it, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Eh, why not?", figuring that a ball scene couldn't hurt what was already massively suffering. So I wrote the scene, and suddenly everything fell into place: how Sebastian could naturally meet-up with the rest of the cast, what Alcea's endgame would be, and from there, what the characters would need to do to deal with her. It all fit, and all because I had a silly little pet project of cramming a ballroom scene into the book. Don't kill your darlings; use them.

When to Stop

Hopefully those examples can give you a feel for how to go about choosing when to rewrite, but then there is the opposite question: when should you stop?

This is actually an important question, because some writers never stop, and if you never stop, you'll never publish. Worse, still, are certain writers (usually poets) who continue to rewrite works that they've published! I feel like this is a case of the perfect being an enemy of the good, in that it is almost impossible to actually create a perfect story (there are, in fact, only four in existence: Fullmetal Alchemist, CocoErased, and Ghost Trick). What you need to realize is that you aren't going to send a perfect story out into the world and should instead aim to send out the best version of your story.

Thus, if the answer to "When should I rewrite something?" is "When you don't love it" then the answer to "When should I stop rewriting something" is "When you love it". When you read what you've written, or rewritten, and it makes you smile, or get excited. When you no longer feel annoyance or boredom or dissatisfaction at reading that scene or chapter. Again, this is pretty personal, so there aren't any specifics I can give you. Just pay attention to how you feel about your own writing; if you really love it, you probably don't need to rewrite it any further (though you might need two tweak it for continuity and world building and such).

A Few Other Tips and Tricks

Everyone has their own style of taking on the rewriting process. Some people use Track Changes, or different colors of font and highlights. Some people print their documents and make changes on the paper itself with a red pen. I would say to find whatever works for you.

My process is: I usually read each chapter through, changing what I can and marking other things for later review, usually using Track Changes. I will leave myself notes, like, "Check for continuity with Chapter 5" or "Is this clear?". If it's something that irks me, but I'm not sure why, I'll usually highlight the whole section for later review and rewriting. I will then move on to the next chapter and do the same thing, then return to my notes after going through the rest of the book.

When it comes to how to rewrite a scene, I will usually outline my thoughts on paper. I might chart out two possible scenarios and see which one works best, or enumerate how changing one thing will effect the rest of the events in the story. I like writing on paper because it's quick, impermanent, and easily scrapped. There's also something about moving my hands, using different colored ink, and seeing my ideas written out spatially that helps me think. It's a way of seeing the story from a different perspective that I find helpful.

And that's it for rewriting. We've covered the main chunk of the editing process, the hard part, if you will. All that's left is copyediting. See you next time!

Part 4: Copyediting

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