Six impossible things

Making it up in the rewrite

Rewriting is inevitable. Most of us are well aware that our manuscripts are not perfect the first time around. Many of us depend on beta readers and critique groups and various other pre-submission review-and-refurbish processes to whip our rough drafts into shape. Those who for one reason or another have to work in isolation often do much of this painful work themselves. And even the most perfectionist of first-draft producers eventually face editorial revisions.

A lot of would-be and beginner writers think of these revisions on the micro-writing level. They expect their second draft to be, in its essence, just like the first one except that the sentences will be prettier and there won’t be any accidental spelling or grammar mistakes. This works fine…sometimes. Eventually, though, that writer is going to be faced with a first draft (possibly incomplete) that needs to be ripped up and redone in some really major way.

Usually, this means more than just rearranging scenes and coming up with a few new transition paragraphs to connect them; instead, the writer is faced with introducing or eliminating one or more characters, inventing a new subplot, or sending the whole story in a completely new direction starting in Chapter Two.

This means making up new stuff. If the writer is lucky, there will be an obvious “missing scene” – something that is known to have happened offstage that really needs to be shown. Other times, the missing bit is so obvious to the writer that they forget that the readers don’t know that A tried unsuccessfully to bribe B and that’s why B’s attitude toward A changed so suddenly.

In these cases, the writer is basically making up the details of a new scene, one that slots into the story fairly cleanly. It’s a lot like making stuff up in the middle of the first draft, except that both What Has Happened and What Will Happen Next are solidly nailed down. Unfortunately, there are writers who find it almost impossible to pry apart their prose when the Before and After are both already written. It doesn’t matter whether they’re inserting a missing adjective or whether they’re filling in a three-day battle that their original manuscript referred to as happening offstage; they have a terrible time changing anything that isn’t already in the first draft.

And then there are the really major changes – the ones where the writer looks at the manuscript and decides that it will read far more smoothly if characters B and G are combined into one person, or that if C is present at that scene in Chapter Three, they can cut two other scenes and improve the pacing, or that something needs to happen during the five days the characters spend driving from San Diego, California to Washington, DC.

All of these changes require making up new stuff – new characters or events that weren’t in the original draft, new stuff for existing characters to say, new reactions for them to have to all the new people and events, and quite possibly some new places where some of this new stuff happens. And all the new stuff has to fit the already-done stuff (and if it doesn’t quite, or if it changes some of the things that are stated in the existing first draft, that will have to be fixed).

The difference between doing this in the rewrite and doing it during the first draft is that in the rewrite, the writer has to pay close attention to the ripple effect. It isn’t enough to write a new 10,000 word encounter with a mugger; the new incident has to be set up in the chapters that came before it, and it has to have an impact on the chapters after it. The new character can’t just appear in a few new scenes; he/she has to be inserted in existing scenes as appropriate, either as a mention or as a presence. New information and new reactions have to be looked at to see if they change the development of existing characters, the pacing, or the logic of the plot.

There’s also the question of eliminating stuff, which can also have a ripple effect that will necessitate making up other new stuff. If the writer eliminates a scene, any plot-or-character critical information that was in that scene either has to be relocated, or else it has to be made irrelevant (and any references to it in other parts of the manuscript taken out).

In the rewrite, continuity becomes a major consideration. In the first draft, the manuscript is still open-ended; if the writer makes up something new, it will naturally roll forward into the rest of the work (and if it doesn’t, it may not belong in the story). In the second draft, every new thing the writer invents means changing a bunch of other things, and the changes vary from altering a couple of words in several bits of dialog, to moving paragraphs or whole scenes because the new bit sets them up sooner/later, to completely rewriting large sections of the story because a major section has fallen out of the plot.

9 Comments
  1. For me, sadly, I have discovered that I’m incapable of doing a rewrite without basically going back to the beginning and starting over. Minor stuff, yes. All of my books wind up needing me to flesh out my major scenes, which I tend to hurry. But if it’s a serious change, I can’t just insert a scene or make tweaks throughout — or at least if I do, it doesn’t work and I have to start over again anyway. On my current WIP, I’m on my fifth or sixth major revision and basically they’ve all been complete restarts. I’d love to figure out how not to do that.

  2. Revisions and I are still not on good terms.

    there are writers who find it almost impossible to pry apart their prose

    And that is a large part of why. And you’re absolutely right that it doesn’t matter how large or small the change is.

    There are rare instances where a change comes easily. I wish I could use that as a guideline for whether making the change is the right choice, but there are equally necessary revisions that require chisels and blasting powder. There’s no correlation that I’ve been able to detect between the amount of pain involved and whether the change really does need to happen.

    the missing bit is so obvious to the writer that they forget that the readers don’t know

    Guilty as charged. When I have had to revise substantially (by my standards, anyway; I’ve never had to make the kind of really major changes you describe once the draft was done), it’s nearly always been either something I thought was obvious from the briefest of tangential mentions or some obscure fact that I spent days researching and then assumed everybody knew.

    That said, usually what revision I do is on the micro level, even if it’s addressing a macro problem. “If I add a sentence here, it’ll make this character’s motivation clearer there.” (At least, I think it does; I’m operating without the sources of feedback I would like, so I could be whistling in the dark.) I’m not sure I really know how to revise; it seems such a piecemeal, hit-or-miss function that I wonder if I’m not missing some fundamental aspect of the process.

  3. Enjoyed especially the part about the ripple effect. I’ve been wrestling with exactly this in a second draft. Had no idea the first-draft chapters were linked so tightly together till, as you say, I had to pry them apart to fit in the changes!

  4. I just finished up revisions on my MS and it took me MONTHS. I had to rewrite the beginning so many times that by the end, I was getting really tired of that ripple effect!

    • All the time. Actually, now I think of it, it’s a fractal process. You go back over the text again and again, each time adding finer details. Or I do, anyway.

  5. Oh my goodness! I am ALWAYS leaving out things that I know so well that I think readers do as well. Usually I catch it in the second or third look-over, but not always.

    As for complete rewrites–ugh. I’ve had to do that with three of my books; and with one of them, twice. It made all three tons better–aka, protag with a personality instead of without; coherent plot and non-bipolar main protag–but it is SO wearying. Always satisfying, however; so there is that.

  6. For me, even so “minor” a revision as a name change requires a major rewrite. Even if it has the same number of syllables, accent, and assonance, it alters the *taste* of every sentence or paragraph in which it resides, and accommodation for it must be made.

    A bit OCD, ya think?

    • @Wolf – Makes sense to me. A different word has a different feel in the mouth/brain, no matter how structurally similar it might be. For me it wouldn’t be a major rewrite, but it would definitely take more than a blanket search-and-replace.

  7. So long as your OCD makes sure that you get ALL the name changes made, and not just most of them.

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