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On Rewriting Your Manuscript: Everything Changes

At last we’ve come to the rewrite. The big one. The end of the line.

If you’ve really been thinking it through, you might have a question about the way I’ve arranged things. It might seem strange that I had you fix sentences before I let you go in and move paragraphs around (inevitably breaking some sentences). And I had you change the flavor of your book before sending you in to do the kind of wholesale rearranging that a rewrite calls for.

The fact of the matter is, you’ll be doing more passes on the book. Every pass through gives you a better idea what it is you have to work with, and you weren’t ready to make major changes until you’d looked closely at all those other elements.

By now, you should be. By now, you should be qualified to get in there and do some serious work.

Rewrite like It’s November

So…what exactly do I mean by “serious work”? Chances are good you already know, from your review of your own novel. In the end, it’s always going to be a different requirement for each project, but I can give you a few examples:

Gods Tomorrow starts with Katie’s first day at a new job working for the FBI, in Washington, DC. She has just moved in from Brooklyn (where she was a cop), and feels extremely out of place.

To introduce her character and get some of the exposition out of her head, I had her making frequent phone calls (sort of) to her boyfriend (sort of) back home. Their exchanges were incredibly powerful, characterizing both of them deeply and really creating a strong emotional attachment for Katie (since we got to see her vulnerability in an environment where she felt so safe).

Unfortunately, as the story picks up pace, there’s less and less room for that sort of thing, and as Katie’s story is in DC (not Brooklyn), there’s no real room for Marshall in the story anywhere after the first plot point. That left me spending a lot of time strongly developing a character who was destined to disappear for the biggest part of the book.

By the time I got to the end, I already knew the beginning needed to change, so in my first rewrite, one of the major things I did was cut Marshall out of the story entirely. I pared ten or fifteen phone calls down to two or three, and turned them into messages she left for her father. Same infodump, same characterization of Katie, but nothing coming back from the other direction.

That’s no small change to the story. That’s going in and making up new material (her father, her relationship with him, and why he never actually answered any of her calls). It’s making some painful decisions about what to cut (and what to save for future books), and what’s actually necessary.

The trick to rewriting well is to really invest yourself in something I mentioned last week: your story isn’t finished. You’ve got to accept that this isn’t just “tweaking,” this is writing. When you step into a rewrite, you’ve got to be prepared to make story.

Be bold. Dive right in, and do what needs doing.

Save Your Drafts

At the same time, you should be aware that you have an opportunity here many of the authors who’ve gone before could only dream of. You can easily and cheaply save the very things you’re changing.

Save your drafts. My little sister does all her writing in Microsoft Word, so between edits she’ll make a copy of the file she’s been working on and add a new version number to the end, just like a computer program. The last copy of her book I looked at was version 7.0, but I’m pretty sure she got up into the 13s before she set it aside.

Sure, I “cut” all those phone calls with Marshall from Gods Tomorrow, but I didn’t let them get away. They did a remarkable job characterizing these two and their relationship, and I knew that relationship was going to make it into the books someday, so I saved their calls in a separate file.

I go back to it from time to time and read it like old emails or chat logs. It’s a powerful glimpse into the story I need to tell someday, even though it didn’t get into the story I told before.

Make plans now to save everything. Keep a copy of your very first draft. Keep a copy of your book as it existed after the first rewrite (and after the second, and third, and sixteenth). Storage space is cheap, and there’s valuable information to be had by glancing back into your own process.

It’s a safety net, too. It frees you up, psychologically, to do the things you need to do. It’s a lot easier to carve a character out of your story when you know for sure you can always roll back to a version that had him in it, if it goes badly.

Save early and save often, and then get in there swinging. It’s your opportunity to do great things.

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