Have you ever looked at one of your completed manuscripts and thought it was a piece of junk? I know I have. And it hurts. Author Rachael Herron is here with tips on how to ease the pain when rewriting a book.
Take it away, Rachael!
Sound horrifying? Yeah, it did to me too. With my first published book (How to Knit a Long Song), I had some major rewrites to do before my agent shopped it around New York. But I did them, and the book sold quickly, with a three book deal to HarperCollins. And we know how it goes—that first book gleams. It’s bright, shiny, and it was written over the course of years, made better and better with slow loving caresses, without an editor looking at her watch, standing outside your office door.
Then you go to contract, and your second book is due in six months. Well, of course! No problem! You struggle a bit, but you write it. You send it in. You sit on your hands in anticipation. Then you get The Call, and by this I don’t mean the joyous book deal offer. I mean the call you get from your editor when you find out it’s just not quite right.
Or in my case, not right at all. My editor, the amazing May Chen, gave me props first. She’s good at that. She said my writing was great. I had a structure she loved and characters she cared about. Whew, I thought. This is going to be okay.
But then she said I had no plot.
After I started breathing again, I tried to address her concern. I did have plot, I said. The characters totally get mad at each other! Really mad! So mad. Oh, crap. I didn’t have a plot. I asked her if she thought I could fix it. “Well,” she said, “It’s going to take some heavy lifting.”
I took myself away, to a cheap hostel on the coast, and I watched the waves beat against the shore. I tried to think of how I would rewrite an entire book, from scratch, adding a plot that seemed organic and necessary, while keeping the characters I loved alive.
Turns out I’m kind of good at it. I’d rehearsed it with the first book, but that had been more of a lark. Now it was imperative that I got it just right. But where did I start? How does one start taking apart and then putting back together an entire novel?
This is the process that I use, and I’ve used it on four books now with great success. Perhaps this will help you, too.
Accept that everything might change. Don’t plan on changes, don’t get any predetermined ideas just yet, just aim for general acceptance that anything you do will probably, eventually, make things better.
2. CUTS FILE
Open your document. Save it as a new document (thus relieving your concern, unfounded though it is, that what you’re going to do to the novel will make it worse). Then over that, open a brand new blank document and title it CUTS. This file is going to be your best friend.
3. START READING
Start reading that very first scene. Is it right? Does it jump right into the action? Is it pivotal and completely necessary? Does it immediately identify who our main character is and what she needs? If it doesn’t, or if you’re not sure, copy the text and REMOVE it, placing it in the CUTS file. I know, ouch, right? But tell yourself you will eventually use every word you place in that file (you won’t, but telling yourself this lie will save your sanity).
I use the small ones, the 1.5x2inch kind. Any color (I like pink). As you read that first scene, something important might occur to you. Jot yourself a note. You might realize that later on, your character needs to be confronted by the law. Write “Sheriff showdown” on a Post-it. Don’t solve it now unless it needs resolution in this scene, just stick the Post-it on an 8.5×11 piece of paper (I keep mine in my novel’s binder, propped open next to the computer, but you can just leave the page lying close by, somewhere you can see it). Sometimes I organize the Post-its with a character’s name at the top, tiling them down from there, or sometimes (like with the book I’m working on now), I just slap them on haphazardly.
That sheet of paper (or papers, as you add notes) is always next to me, covered with ideas I have to work on/work in, and I move them around a lot. I’m gobsmacked every other day when two of the Post-its collide and make a new one, or when something on a Post-it gets handled in a way I didn’t expect. And every time I resolve a Post-it (say I write that Sheriff showdown and it’s where I want it), I take the Post-it off the paper and throw it in a little box I keep on my desk (I have hundreds of completed Post-its by the end of a draft). There are the Big Trouble Post-its, yes, the ones I look at and wonder how on earth I’m going to get them into the Done box. But don’t worry too much. Leave them there, and that Post-it, by the end of the draft, will be taken care of, I guarantee you (even if it’s that you realize you didn’t have to worry about it after all).
The Post-it system is a method that lets your brain relax. Your hero needs to be a little more alpha, okay. Instead of trying to concentrate on that fact and the fact that your heroine needs a little more chutzpah and that you need more setting description all at once, the Post-its give you confidence that no, you won’t forget that important thing. It’s not jotted in a margin somewhere; it’s not lost. It’s right there, in front of you. You’ll get to it.
5. Read on.
Second scene. Is it completely necessary? Does it accomplish more than one thing? If it’s a people-having-coffee scene (oh, how I struggle to keep those out, but I never quite manage), is it doing more than just illustrating a character’s needs and motivations? Something should happen to Lucy in the coffee scene as well as teaching the reader that Lucy needs to get a backbone.
But hey, you love this scene. You realize this was where the novel should begin. Okay. CUT the whole scene, placing it in the CUTS file along with that original first scene that now you’re not really sure about. Remember I said this file was your best friend? It is. Be confident.
Now, while you’re in the CUTS file, identify the first few sentences that you know you have to keep. Cut them out of the CUTS file and paste them back into your working document. And now you really have something to work with: sentences you love, and an idea of how to shape this scene. Add new sentences and bring back the great sentences that are in the CUTS file. Leave the ones that aren’t that great. It’s okay to let them stay there—after all, if you need them, they’re still safely stored where you know you can find them.
6. Work in order
Not everyone does this, but it’s important to me. Juggle scenes as you come to them, letting them stay in place when they work, moving them to the CUTS file when they don’t. When an idea flashes into your mind that you know you need to include at some point, don’t dash forward ten chapters to write it (what if by the time you get there, you realize you were wrong, and you wasted time writing it?), simply jot it on a Post-it, and deal with it when you reach that point. When you’ve solved that problem, store the Post-it in the Done box.
7. Remember it’s slowest at the beginning.
The hardest part to revise is the first half of the book. Don’t lose heart. You will work so hard on those first scenes, getting them right. Then as you move forward, writing and solving Post-its, moving words into and out of your CUTS file, you’ll jump backwards to fix something you just figured out and you’ll have to make sure that the change meshes with what you’re working on. But all of this work is narrowing your egress. Your book will necessarily gain focus, and the conclusion you’re working toward will become inevitable, which will make the last part of revising feel like downhill skiing. Or hopefully it will. That’s the goal.
This system got me through my second novel, the one I told you about earlier, the one with no plot. It turned out to be a book I truly love (How to Knit a Heart Back Home, March 2011, HarperCollins – William Morrow) with a plot I’m very proud of. So it was almost okay when I looked at my completed novel (93,000 words) and compared it to my CUTS file (96,000 words). I’d written, cumulatively, 189,000 words to get the novel I needed to end up with. (Results not typical; don’t let this scare you.)
The novel I’m revising now isn’t anywhere that bad. At 97,000 words, the CUTS file is only 18,000 words, which to me is nothing. I’m sure I have more pruning to do. But I’m not scared of it. The end result makes this crazy revision ride worth it.
Enjoy. You can do it.
RU Crew, do you have any rewrite tips you would like to share? We’d love to hear from you.
Thanks to Rachael for being here today. Join us on Friday when author Margaret Watson fills us in on the life of a category writer.
Bio: Rachael Herron received her MFA in writing from Mills College, and has been knitting since she was five years old. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. Rachael lives with her better half in Oakland, California, where they have four cats, three dogs, three spinning wheels, and more instruments than they can count. She is a proud member of the San Francisco Romance Writers of America, and she is struggling to learn the ukulele.
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