Monday, 3 February 2014

Stages in writing a novel - rewriting

There are various stages involved in writing a novel. This is a simplified view, which generally represents my own process.

  1. First is the 'gathering ideas and thinking' stage. This doesn't mean planning everything out, but does lead to convincing details, key plot points, and ideas about some of the characters. And although some of the research can come after the first draft is written, with the imagination filling in the blanks for now, at least a bit of research is appropriate here since it will save you time. The system I use is quite efficient. I have folders for future novels, and even though I am not working on them yet I save snippets whenever I come across a phrase, description, bit of information or scene idea that is relevant. By the time I come to start that project I will already have a lot of material to work from.
  2. Then you will write a first draft. I'm not going to say much about that today. During the process you'll also do some editing and further research.
  3. The mysterious process of 'rewriting'. More on this below.
  4. Probably an external literary editor. This is a bit like a game of snakes and ladders: if you are unlucky you might get sent back to the rewriting stage. If you rolled a six then you can move on.
  5. Make the changes and edits your literary editor suggested. Keep polishing the stone.
  6. Get it proofread. Do some tweaks, more polish, and then you could be finished. Celebrate with some cake and a nice glass of ginger wine.

Note that they are not always discrete stages. For example, while writing my first draft I may also be doing research, or thinking about the next chapter, or editing what I wrote the day before.

In the past I didn't understand this step well. "I've written it once - why would I rewrite it?" But it doesn't mean setting the whole novel aside and starting again (except for in the very worst cases...). Basically the text needs changes to structure and content, maybe there are new ideas to build in or old ones to remove. It's also the chance to do last bits of research.

I think of the novel as a building. It may be dilapidated and need masses of work on the foundations, the structure, before you can get to all the dainty stuff like wall coverings and fluffy cushions. Or it could be in almost perfect condition and just need a bit of touching up. Chances are it is somewhere in the middle of that range. So you may have to work on the structure a bit, and move scenes around. Knock out the ones that don't work. Fill in with new ones that do, and which further the story. Some scenes might just need a tweak. Some might need a literal rewrite.

New writers have problems with this stage, because they don't have the trained eye to spot where the work is needed and what interventions would best fix the problems. But we all get better at it over time. Experience guides us.

Sometimes I do the rewriting on my PC, since it is easy to drag paragraphs round, highlight sections with notes, and jump back and forth through the whole document. But other times I find working on paper easier, especially if it is more of a polish than a restructure. (Bonus: I can do this in 'Office B', my euphemism for editing in bed with a cup of tea on one side and a cat on the other).

I start with printouts of the scenes, and of my notes about what changes to make. I can then edit on the pages and also write out new sections on my A4 pad. I use letters or numbers to mark where sections from printouts connect to sections in the pads, and for re-ordering or moving sections round. Later on I make the indicated changes to the electronic version.

The pages probably look like the scrawlings of a scientist driven mad by Cthulhu but they make sense to me. I thought it might be interesting to show how much change can take place on just one page, hence the images below.

As you can see, I ended up deleting half of the old scene.

Lots of new writing to make the scene better, 
cross-referenced to existing text where appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. Being self-critical is very hard so your re-writing efforts are to be praised.