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Rewriting, with a difference

20.08.2013

I attended the fabulous QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2011, and one of the most radical changes I’ve experienced since then is how I redraft a novel. My approach has shifted from messy and undisciplined to structured and analytical, and it’s helped me improve not only the novel I wrote for the Program, but also my approach to every other large writing project.

Jon Appleton, the then children’s publisher at Hachette, said I should consider reordering the events in my novel. He suggested I improve on some other things as well – details, really – and was so encouraging and kind that I came away thinking that all my manuscript needed was a bit of fine-tuning and a lick of polish.

How wrong I was.

I got home and fell right into my old work habits – rewriting sections, checking transitions, tweaking details, shifting scenes around to see if they fit better elsewhere, and eliminating the odd subplot.

But even after a month of solid redrafting, my novel still wasn’t working. I read and re-read books on writing and perused blogs to see how other writers tackled the redrafting phase. Little by little, I began to realise that my current approach would not improve my novel.

Why? Because I was so focused on the finishing line that I’d lost sight of the most crucial element: the novel itself. I’d created an impasse for myself, and I knew that unless I took a radically different approach, I wouldn’t be able to move forward.

post-it pile

So I did the exact opposite of what I’d always done – I banished creativity (temporarily) and treated the redrafting process as I would any other work assignment: clinically and objectively. I forced myself to examine the skeleton of the story and identify its core structure. This was hard work, and I spent a lot of time staring blankly at large chunks of text as I tried to extract the essence and purpose of individual chapters. Once I’d reduced the novel to a handful of dot points, I transferred these to post-it notes.

Each post-it note included:

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

Novel StoryboardI arranged the notes on butcher’s paper to create a storyboard for my novel. I left this on my table for two weeks, moving and combining and separating the ideas. I scrunched up several notes and lobbed them into the bin, wrote more or improved on the ones that I had, unravelling and restitching, examining and interrogating that storyboard until, finally, I had a structure that felt right.

This new sequence provided me with a clear picture of what the narrative and character arcs were doing, and it gave me 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 several characters were 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 was able to play around with character POV a lot more, identifying chapters where a POV switch might provide more tension and narrative drive.

This process helped me to gain a deeper understanding of chapters as being their own separate entities as well as elements of a cohesive bigger picture. It also taught me to pay attention to the subtler aspects of novel writing. And the most satisfying part is that it inspired a much better title for the book.

 

*This post is an updated version of a couple of older posts. The originals can be found here, here and here.

 

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