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!