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Rewriting A Novel: Method or Madness?

10.09.2012

Recently, I’ve had a lot of time to write, and I’ve come to realise that my planning methods and approach to drafting have gone through a gradual change over the past 12 months from messy to structured. Last November, I received in-depth feedback from a publisher at the QWC/Hachette manuscript development program. The publisher told me I needed to consider reordering the events in my novel. He suggested I improve on a few other things as well – details, really – and made it sound like all my manuscript needed was a bit of fine-tuning and a lick of polish.

How wrong I was.

As I started to make the changes he’d suggested, I discovered that, in fact, I had a long way to go before the manuscript was ready for resubmission. Usually, I fix things in no particular order, and I often skip details that I really should pay more attention to – I see the bigger picture long before I notice the minutiae. Unfortunately, details are important too, and they’re generally what trip me up the most. With a deadline looming, I knew that, unless I took a radically different approach (read: sequential and analytical approach), I’d get stuck.

I also realised I’d have to design my own approach, since the ‘how-to’ books on redrafting a novel are a little thin on the ground.

So I tried looking at my novel from a business angle, and treated it like I would any other work assignment. I did some research, reading up on how other people approach rewriting. One of my favourite sources is Dee White’s blog, which is crammed with great advice and useful tips. I also revisited a few writing books, such as Jessica Page Morrell’s Between the Lines, which is perfect for the rewriting process, because she assumes the reader is already familiar with the hero’s journey ‘grid’, and focuses instead on more subtle things like sensory description, effective foreshadowing, pacing and subplot development.

Armed with this knowledge, I boiled each chapter down to a post-it note, which was hard work, as it took an exceptional amount of thinking and analysing and staring blankly at large slabs of text trying to figure out what was wrong with the details. But it was worth it because it forced me to focus on things I’d lost sight of during the writing process, such as tension and pacing.

Each of my post-it notes included:

  1. Chapter title
  2. 1-2 sentences describing what happens in that chapter
  3. The setting/location of the action
  4. The characters who appear or whose names are mentioned in that chapter
  5. The chapter’s primary role in revealing character development, setting or plot
  6. Some post-it notes also flagged major turning points for the two central characters

I stuck the post-its onto a giant sheet of paper and – hey presto! – I had an instant novel storyboard.

Being a visual person, this worked really well for me. Once my novel was laid out in its current sequence, I had a clear picture of what the narrative and character arcs were doing, and I could move things around as much as I wanted.

This preparation took time, but it gave me clear and immediate directions when I began rewriting:

  • If the chapter title didn’t reflect the chapter description, then I changed the title. Pretty obvious, but I didn’t always notice the connection until it was right under my nose.
  • Identifying the setting/location helped hone the descriptions/language used in the chapter. It also determined what the weather was doing. And if there were two or more distinct settings, then I considered breaking it into two chapters.
  • Knowing which characters make an appearance/are mentioned was particularly crucial when I was reworking the beginning of the book, as I didn’t want to introduce too many characters all at once. It helped for the later chapters too, where a whole host of characters was involved – I could sort out who was critical to the narrative, and who didn’t really need to be there at that time.
  • If I wasn’t able to point directly to the chapter’s primary role in revealing character development, setting or plot, then I went back and had a good hard look at what was going on, and shifted descriptions/events/actions around where needed.
  • I could see the spread of things, such as character turning points. If character turning points/revelations came too close together, I shifted them further apart. This helped with narrative pacing and character development.

I gained a deeper understanding of chapters as being their own separate entities as well as elements of a cohesive bigger picture. (Again, obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of these things when you’re concentrating on a hundred other relevant details.) The process also taught me to pay attention to the subtler aspects of narrative and character. And it inspired a better title for the book.

Now, I use storyboards for all large writing projects. Even if all I’ve got is a smattering of incomplete post-its, I still lay them out in storyboard format, filling in the gaps as I go. This not only keeps me focused on the task, but it also provides options for those times when ideas get tangled or fizzle out.

This method has transformed the way I approach fiction writing. What works for you? Are you a ‘bigger picture’ person like me, or do you prefer a more detailed or sequential approach?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 10.09.2012 1:06 PM

    Wow, yeah that is really hard to rewrite a whole novel. Seems like you’ve got lots of great resources and ideas and I’m so thankful you’ve shared them! I’m picking through my 2nd novel right now to see about polishing it up in preparation of publication. Good luck with yours!

  2. 18.09.2012 8:29 AM

    This is really helpful. Once I finish my current draft, I think I’ll use this method. I’ve read about and seen other forms of storyboarding, but they never really fit my writing style. I can also see where this would keep the writer really focused on what’s important. Good luck and I hope the publisher is impressed with your work.

    • 18.09.2012 12:20 PM

      I’m glad it was helpful! Good luck with your writing, and thanks for stopping by.

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