“There’s no reason you shouldn’t, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” — John Irving
You’ve written a masterpiece. Sure you have. Take it out of the drawer (or click into the folder on your desktop) and check it again.
Does it seem a little flat? That doesn’t matter. It’s a classic, a future great, kids will read about it and learn this novel for years to come. I’m sure of it.
All you need to do is cross everything out and start from scratch.
“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov
It’s not always the case that you should trash your work and start from the beginning.
Sometimes you only need to kill a few scenes or shift them around — and sometimes you only have to tighten the dialogue in certain areas, or cut obtrusive phrases, or slice out a paragraph or two in order to speed up a lagging section. In any case, it’s always wise to take a step back from your novel and view the bigger picture.
Can it be massively improved? Many times the answer is yes.
But a lot of authors — especially those desperate to break into the publishing world — don’t want to put in that kind of effort. Or they’re scared to. They know something’s wrong with their novel, but they’re not ready to fix it because they like it too much and they’ve grown attached. It’s similar to being in a relationship that you know isn’t right for you. The girl (or guy) might have plenty of great traits that you’ll miss, but overall you just don’t feel it, and you know, deep down, you’d be happier with someone else. Well, the same can be applied to your fiction. It might be good, it’s just not good enough. And in cases such as those, it’s worth pulling it apart and fixing it back together.
Realign the spine, structure the bones, then begin slopping on the flesh.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard
How do you know when you should scrap it? That’s a hard question to answer.
Firstly, if your most reliable readers keep telling you something is wrong it may be time to listen to them. If one out of ten, or two out of eight, point out an issue but no one else has a problem with it, you can disregard it. People have different tastes and needs and some folks are just extra finicky and needlessly pedantic. However, if the issue(s) is recognised by the majority, it’s best to address it.
Author Neil Gaiman once said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — And all that means is, listen to their complaint but ignore their advice. You know what’s best for your story, not them. Once they highlight an issue, analyse it and pick apart why it’s wrong. Then change it.
Some comments might be vague: I didn’t quite connect with the main character. Others might be straightforward: You have a big ugly glaring plot hole in chapter 12.
Whatever the complaint, don’t argue its case. Your first instinct will probably be to fight the complaint and justify your decisions after the fact. You might try to explain that you meant for your main character to be dull, as some kind of reflection of the mundanity of society. Or you want people to hate your main love interest because that mirrors the hatred she feels for herself — or some other self-indulgent bullshit to give meaning to your mistakes.
Don’t do that. Take the comments on board with a simple sentence: thank you, I’ll take that into consideration. Arguing your case won’t make them change their minds. You can’t convince people to like your book, and you can’t hang out with everyone who reads it, leaning over their shoulders saying You just don’t get it. If enough people are confused by your meaning, that just shows you weren’t clear enough. It’s not their fault if they don’t connect with your work. The onus is on you to grab them by the throat and not let go until the final page.
So sit back, look at your work, and improve it.
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler
When I was younger I used to think rewriting just meant tinkering.
I’d read so many quotes about rewriting but it never occurred to me these people actually rewrote large sections of their book. I assumed they fixed a sentence here or there and chopped out a line of dialogue or two. In reality, some writers will excise characters, fuse scenes, and rip out whole chunks of the book — deleting chapters and rearranging the plot — until it’s right.
That’s the difference between writers who make it, and writers who don’t. There are thousands of competent novelists out there, authors who write well but aren’t quite able to grip their audience, and they don’t know why. A lot of the time, if they had the patience to work through their novel from top to bottom — analysing the pacing of each scene, the relevance of every moment, the inner and outer tension of the characters and the plot — they’d be able to give their work more weight.
But the job can be daunting. Rewriting 700 pages? Killing so many beautiful scenes? No way, some of them think. I’ll keep it as it is.
But if you want to succeed, you need to stop being precious.
“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman
Back in 2003, Eminem won an Oscar for his song Lose Yourself, taken from the soundtrack of his semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it became the longest running single at Number One for a rap song, lasting almost six months at the top of the charts.
Can you imagine how powerfully a song has to connect with its audience for it to stay atop its competitors for half a year? It’s unheard of. Also, in a time of mass piracy, the song shifted over six million copies in the United States. Six million. Whether you like his music or not is irrelevant — those sales are monumental. It was even in featured in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
And the reason I’m mentioning the phenomenon of Lose Yourself?
It wasn’t his first version.
“Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson
Go on YouTube and type in Lose Yourself (Original Version) and you’ll hear how this worldwide smash hit originally sounded. The lyrics were different, the central theme of the song was different, and although the beat and parts of the chorus are similar, they lack the spark and creativity of the final released version. Eminem, for whatever reason, decided to redo the song from scratch.
In an interview published a few years ago, he claimed he no longer remembers writing or recording the first song, and it’s probably true. With his past, he was quite possibly high on drugs at the time and his memories of those days have been eroded. Either way, during that period of his life, he realised something wasn’t quite right with the track. He trashed his unmemorable first attempt, kept the foundations and skeleton, and rebuilt it from the ground up, taking an average song and turning it into one of the most successful songs ever created. That’s why he’s Eminem and why other rappers are failing.
The point is: his original song isn’t bad. If we’d never heard the newer improved version, the original would still have been considered a decent, albeit forgettable, song.
Your novel might be passable. It might be readable.
But is it amazing?
“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” — Helen Dunmore
My friend Rob Boffard, author of the successful Outer Earth trilogy, is the perfect example of a professional who rewrote a decent book to make it into something special.
Around the time we first started talking, Rob told me he’d been shopping his Sci-Fi novel (titled Tracers at the time) around to agents and receiving positive feedback. But nobody wanted to take him on as a client. I told him to email the book and let me take a look.
And the truth is, when I began reading the first draft, it kind of bored me. But out of respect to him, I kept reading through the slow parts, forcing myself to carry on; and then, around 100 pages in, the novel suddenly hooked me and I couldn’t stop reading. I zipped through the rest in a few days. From trash to amazing in the space of some plot shifts. I’m so glad I stuck with it.
Once I put it down I called Rob up and I said, “You have a problem with your first hundred pages,” and then I babbled on about plot constructions and character motivations and rambled endlessly, thinking this might be the end of our friendship before it properly started.
I figured he’d reply with: “You’re wrong, go fuck yourself,” and hang up.
Instead, he took my advice graciously, said he’d take a look at it, and he rewrote the beginning, trimming and cutting and morphing it to give the novel pace from the outset. He’d taken my advice on board, then used his own wise judgement and reshaped the novel to fit his own ideas — taking what I said as a marker, but writing in his own fresh direction. And the book was infinitely better for it, and after a few more edits he sent it off to agents again.
This time, he was offered representation by three different agents. He could pick and choose who he wanted. He went from being rejected to being sought after. And this is why he signed a three-book deal with Orbit. Rather than pout and argue his story’s merits like an amateur might do, he sucked it up, acknowledged the faults in his novel, and persevered.
He rewrote that motherfucker until it worked on every single level.
Again, his book wasn’t bad to begin with. The writing was solid and the characterisation was great — the book just lacked a little momentum in the plotting department. It needed a sharper edge and he wielded his editing sword to give it one.
If you want to succeed, you need to do the same. If your book keeps coming back with rejection slips, it might be time to step back, view your work, and admit to yourself something isn’t working.
And then try to fix it.
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