Embracing the Major Rewrite

Something happened a couple of weeks ago that has never happened to me before. I’d heard about it happening to other authors. I’m assured it is not uncommon amongst new or well established writers.

I sent off my latest manuscript and eagerly awaited feedback. Finally it arrived. I opened the email and… Okay. I admit it. Cue a mini meltdown. The suggestion was that the book needed stripping right back to the original kernel of the idea. Chapters needed down-sizing into paragraphs, or cutting out completely. A good number of characters needed to disappear.

We’re talking a major rethink. We’re talking murdering many darlings. Or possibly ditching the book.

This was new. In the past – and I’ve had eight books published, now – I’ve had what I call “extensive” rewrites but now I realise they weren’t. At the most they’ve meant restructuring a plotline or adding emotion or developing a protagonist further. My first drafts have rarely needed fundamental changes. I plan each chapter in detail before I write. At the end of the process I’m more of a tweaker and that seems to have worked. I’m not used to completely pulling apart a finished draft.

So this has come as something of a shock.

Especially as, when I send off my first draft, I am always in what I call  “delusional X-factor contestant mode”. I make no apologies for this. It’s necessary for me if I want to write any book. I need to think it is going to change the world!

This meglomania doesn’t last forever, of course. My feet soon settle back onto the ground during the process of rewriting and editing, of publishing and getting reviews… but I need to feel super excited and confident about any project at the beginning. So when this feedback came back I wasn’t sure what to do.

I had two options. Move onto my next project (which I’m very enthusiastic about) or tackle the major rewrite. And of course, sometimes there are genuinely valid reasons for moving on. My advice, here, is listen to your heart and talk it through with reliable and knowledgeable writerly confidantes. I shelved several projects before getting published because I could not re-ignite my motivation and I think, deep down, that was because I realised those stories were never going to work.

Indeed, my first reaction in this instance? With all my confidence gone and feeling despondent, I decided to start my next book and leave this one either to stay permanently under the bed or revisit at some point in the future. I decided fixing the problems would involve too much work and take too long.

However, something unexpected happened overnight. The characters began to talk to me. Ideas slowly formulated around which needed scrapping and how to improve the remaining ones. Then new plotlines twitched in my brain. I woke up feeling rather excited. Eventually, after a day or two, I realised that this book, this story still existed – I just had the  opportunity now to really make it shine, having already done a lot of the groundwork.

I mapped out all the chapters and almost enjoyed slashing some out and combining others together. As for the characters, it’s not proving to be as hard as I expected to ditch some even though, in my head, they’d become my friends.

Perhaps they’ll resurface one day in another story. And that is the essence of embracing the major rewrite – realising that what you have to lose is not a waste. Characters can be used again and all of that prose you wrote is practice – continually you are improving your craft.

I’ve now regained some confidence and cringe when I think about the initial version. I’m grateful for the knowledge I now have of where and why I went wrong. This should help with my next draft and future projects.

So here’s my own advice for embracing a major rewrite -and if you’ve any tips then please do share them!

Sure, throw a little pity party and lick your wounds when vigorous feedback comes back. Eat chocolate. Take a long bath. Grieve for the story you believe you have lost. But don’t let this stage last too long.

Sleep on it. Even take a break for a few days. Try to stand back. Put your ego to one side when asking yourself if the editorial suggestions are valid.

Don’t see it as having to start over again. See it as simply continuing with, and fully fleshing out, a plot and characters you have already well developed. Refuse to see slashed characters and chapters as wasted.

Realise that if someone takes the time to give you detailed feedback, be that a potential agent, signed agent, editor or critque partner, they believe in your writing. 

As a resident Mancunian, I’d say  make your mantra “You don’t get owt for nowt”. Yes, writing can be bloody hard work.

Remind yourself that a first draft is called that for a reason. It isn’t the last.

Compare starting another story from scratch, to *starting* one where you’ve already worked extensively on the nuts and bolts. No contest!

Good luck!

 

 

30 comments

  1. Julie-Ann says:

    This is resonating with me at the moment as I’m doing a redraft and feel as if I’m destroying my book. Hopefully, I’m not. Anyway, I gave one of my characters a new line to speak, which I think basically sums up many rewrites for many authors … i.e. making something we think is complicated, and clever, into something simple and readable?!
    “Sometimes we don’t see what’s in front of us. And hanker for what’s far away, the most difficult. Easy doesn’t always mean wrong, just as difficult doesn’t always mean right. “
    Good luck, Sam. Of course you will pull it off. Unsure I will!

    • Sam Tonge says:

      That’s a lovely line, Julie-Ann. And it does feel like destroying something – but if you step back, it really isn’t, it’s just taking another facet of the same story and focusing on that instead, or that’s how I see it. I can really relate to the ‘clever’ comment though. I think I was trying to be way too clever for my own good and it showed. Lesson learnt.
      Good luck to you too – you’ll do it 🙂

  2. Madalyn Morgan says:

    A terrific post, Sam. Very interesting, but for me at this point in my current WIP, so much more. I’m writing my sixth novel, and I still have stumbling blocks. Like you, I love it when characters come to me in the night and help me with something I’m struggling with. I also love it when I read a blog post like yours that helps me. Thank you.

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks for that, Madalyn – and it’s really reassuring for me to know that other writers face the same problems! Yes, it’s great when characters take on a life of their own and give input. Best of luck!

  3. Joy Lennick says:

    Hi Sam, You have my unreserved admiration for rewriting your story – although most of us know that rewriting is often what it’s all about. And then some! Pleased to hear it’s worked out for you. I’m an ancient; think wine rather than cheese…eclectic, writer and know what a hard slog it can be. The very best of luck. Sincerely, Joy

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks for popping by, Joy – yes, I’m a bit new to this deep rewrite game and am still finding my feet. Well done for all the projects you’ve clearly stuck with and good luck to you too 🙂

  4. Terry Tyler says:

    A most excellent post as always, Sam. I actually do this with most books, because although I plan my books out before I start, and think about each chapter the night before I write it, I still throw the first draft down as it comes out. Then I roll up my sleeves and think ‘right, now I’ve got something to work with’. By the time I’m at about 80%, I can see which events earlier in the book are perhaps not so important after all, and can be, yes, turned from a chapter to a page. My biggest weakness is not realising when there needs to be a scene actually played out, instead of ‘reported’.

    In one book I wrote, The House of York, I was 30K in with the whole thing planned out, when I realised that the whole thing was far too complicated and needed paring down. It meant taking out a whole sub-plot and 3 main characters, but it was worth it. And you’re so right, it really teaches you, doesn’t it?

    I am sure your latest book will be all the better for it!

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks Terry! Ah, this process is all new to me. And I found it painful, at the beginning, to ditch characters and chapters – but then, as I said in my blogpost, I realised this wasn’t wasting work at all and we are continually learning which helps future projects.
      It’s always fascinated me how writers work in many different ways but it always boils down to the same process – bum on seat, nose to the grindstone 🙂

  5. Sue Fortin says:

    Great advice. We (The Romaniacs) have a term for putting it aside. It’s called the freezer treatment. Shove it in the freezer and leave it for a few days, then take sneaky peaks at it and before long all the initial knee-jerk reactions have disappeared and you realise that the comments are actually helpful. I had a major rewrite earlier this year when I ditched 40k words. It was painful but I knew it was a far better end product as a result.

    Well done! x

    • Sam Tonge says:

      I like that term, Sue, (and even better if you can take out comfort ice cream when you put the manuscript in!) Yes, a bit of time and distance are definitely required, I find – to recover from the shock if nothing else. You do need a clear, unemotional head to take on board the criticism. Well done to you too and thanks for popping by 🙂 x

  6. Sue McDonagh says:

    Very timely blog for me, as I’m tackling the edits on my debut novel, due to be published in the Spring.
    Good to know that even authors much further along than me have the same issues, so thank you for your honesty.
    I am ‘bum on seat, nose to grindstone’ until it’s done! x

  7. Susie Nott-Bower says:

    Sam, thank you for this post. This year I wrote 48,000 words of a new novel and have been unable to write any more since a report questioned every aspect of it. It’s lying in scattered, despondent pieces as I write this. Your post has reminded me that it IS possible to start again, even if the motivation isn’t immediately there. Hope your rewrite goes well.

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Thanks Susie – yes, it can be painful, can’t it? I had a couple of dark days where I really couldn’t see any way out apart from ditching the whole project. But time and distance are useful tools for realising what needs to be done. Perhaps you should put finger to keyboard again and see where it takes you. Best of luck.

  8. Jenny Blackhurst says:

    This couldn’t have popped up on my Facebook feed at a better time! Day one of first edit – I feel like I’d rather do anything but pull this story apart but at least I don’t feel alone now! Thank you!

  9. Jo Lambert says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one Sam. From experience I think I’ve learnt that if something isn’t working then it’s not meant to be. In my early writing days I spent so much time agonising over sections that for whatever reason weren’t right. I’d spend precious moments trying to restructure or add to the section, only to find it still didn’t work Sometimes being brutal is the only way. I think no matter how many books we write we’re always learning something…

    • Sam Tonge says:

      I think you’re spot on, Jo. Sometimes you just have to start over or move on. It’s painful but in a way it hurts more to keep trying and trying down one road,just not getting anywhere.
      Yes, no one ever warned me the day would never come when I knew it all!!
      Thanks for popping by.

  10. Rae says:

    Such a useful post, Sam. So helpful to know that even experienced writers sometimes require to undertake a major structural edit. Good luck with those changes. You can do it! : )

  11. Jill Mansell says:

    Just reading your blog post made me feel sick with fear! Suspect I may soon have to do the same, so I hope I can manage it with as much enthusiasm as you!

  12. Sherry Gloag says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It is nice to know you’re not alone in this. I have a story that a beta reader ‘destroyed’ with her comments. I put/buried it away for years. Recently it has been ‘calling’ to me. Your post have given me that final incentive to have another go and trust my characters are ready to have another go at their story, so, thank you.

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Best of luck, Sherry, and if your characters are calling then I’m sure there is a story there that needs to be told. Criticism never gets easier to take, I find, but at least now I know how I have to deal with it – take a break. Lick my wounds and then deep breaths… All the best 🙂

  13. carol warham says:

    A great post Sam with great advice. It’s heartening to us newbie authors to realise this can happen to anyone, even an excellent author like you

    • Sam Tonge says:

      Aw, thanks for the kind words, Carol. A writing career certainly has its ups and downs, that’s for sure, and I take comfort too from knowing that other authors face the same challenges – and come out the other side!

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