In my book Project December and in a March blog post, I outlined what I call Project November – how to approach a rewrite after finishing the first draft of your novel. To briefly recap, the steps were:
• Accept that change is required
• Ask for beta feedback
• Walk away (AKA take a break)
• Come back at least a month later (AKA read it yourself)
• Give careful consideration to all the feedback you receive from your beta readers
• Cut, cut, cut
• Add, add, add
• Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
I’m now doing Project November for Black Spot, which I’m planning to release later this year.
I’ve accepted that change is required. After receiving some initial interest from a publisher who ultimately decided not to proceed, I accepted that it’s a good story that just needs some good, old-fashioned, hard work.
I’ve asked for and received beta feedback from four different people – two of my sisters, my honorary manager and a former manuscript assessor my honorary manager just happened to be working with at the time (bonus!). I was also lucky enough to have an actual fiction editor working at a publisher read the manuscript when I entered a competition and she provided some limited remarks, too.
I’ve walked away (for much longer than a month – it’s actually been about eighteen months because I was submitting to competitions and publishers and then writing a blog and two other novels). And I’ve come back. I’ve read it myself and asterisked all the areas I think need attention.
I’ve given careful consideration to all the feedback I received from my beta readers including removing “Louise” words (words that I would use but that the characters wouldn’t), removing a scene where the characters pee in the woods (what was I thinking?), making the town in which they live a character in itself (and thus bringing it to life), adding some more romance (smoochies!), removing words of uncertainty (maybe, perhaps, sometimes) because I was vastly overusing them. And I’ve acted on all this feedback.
I’ve cut, cut, cut – sometimes I’ve cut huge paragraphs, consecutive paragraphs, although I haven’t cut out any entire chapters yet. I don’t think I will, mainly because I feel the structure is good and it’s the smaller stuff that needs work.
I’ve added, added, added – I’ve included some screen shots of the first ten pages below with the changes tracked so you can see how much I’ve added (red means added for those not familiar with how Track Changes works).
And I’m rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. When I was reading it myself, I felt the first fourteen pages were too prose heavy, so I rewrote them with more dialogue, a little more showing and a little less telling.
In fact, in some cases I’m even rewriting what I’ve already rewritten. Why? Just because I’m making changes doesn’t mean I’m making the right changes. Reading back some of the changes I was making, I realised it wasn’t working any better than the original draft. And, luckily, I was able to identify a few things that it’s important for everyone undertaking Project November to remember.
A Fence Does Not Equal Suspense
When I did my reread, I felt the text could do with a little more suspense, a little more of the reader being suspicious about what’s going on. And for some reason, I decided that erecting a huge fence topped with razor wire around the farm the main character lives on would achieve that. And then I added some barns where a secret crop was grown and only the main character’s father knew what went on in there. Ooohhh, spooky, right?
Hardly. Apart from not upping the suspense level one iota, it was a total tangent from the original story and completely unnecessary and it also interfered with an important element of the plot, which is the main character and several others coming and going from the farm whenever they wanted and mostly unnoticed.
The fence did not equal suspense. Neither did the secret crop. So after writing them both in, the next day I wrote them both out again. I’m still looking for a way to up the suspense level but I haven’t found it yet. Sometimes the answers aren’t obvious.
I love witty characters. I love witty dialogue. And when I was rewriting the first fourteen pages to include more dialogue, there were jokes, jokes and more jokes, as well as some kidding around. But it made no sense. The main character, who has long-term amnesia, is visiting her team of medical specialists and it was a key part of the relationship that she felt quite disconnected from them. So why would she suddenly become Jokey McJokerson? Why would she be like that when she isn’t like that in any other part of the book? Why, especially when her disconnection from them is an important plot point?
Because I love witty characters and witty dialogue. It didn’t matter that it made no sense when I was writing it. I was having fun writing it.
Of course, it was less fun having to take it all out again.
Change still needs to be consistent with the plot and consistent with the personality of the characters you are writing about. Witty dialogue can be great. But if it’s out of character, then it’s just going to push your next draft further away from where it should be.
I am guilty of this in real life, just as much as I am in my writing sometimes. Generally it’s a problem I experience when I am writing first drafts and a good edit with a red pen will take care of it. But because I was adding, adding, adding – essentially writing the first draft of new sections – there was a real sense of overexplaining.
“She went here and did this for this reason and then went there and did that for that reason.” And there were some more reasons, and a sprinkling of back-story, and some things that could have been left unexplained for the reader to puzzle over but I didn’t leave them unexplained.
When I reread the sections the next day, I realised what I’d done and did some judicious editing. Sometimes rewriting your rewrites is just as important as the rewrites themselves.
Change for Change’s Sake
Just because you’re undertaking a rewrite does not mean that everything needs to be changed. I’ve had positive feedback from all five of the people who’ve read the first draft of my book. That’s the proof that not everything needs to be changed. They liked it. If I changed everything, it wouldn’t be the book they liked anymore.
If the feedback you get is more negative than positive, then perhaps a lot does need to be changed. But it’s important to specifically identify what needs changing, not just to make change for change’s sake. Every change should have a reason behind it. You should be able to explain to yourself, and others when they ask, why you changed something.
If you can’t explain it, then it probably doesn’t need to be changed. In fact, you might be changing the positives and neglecting the negatives, making your book worse instead of better.
I’m only 80 pages into my current Project November – 170 to go – but I’ve deleted about 2,000 words and added another 3,000, including brand new chapters (that’s significant in a book that’s only 80,000 words long). It might not even be the final Project November for Black Spot. I might need to do another. It’s hard. And the thought of doing another is why it’s my own Project November hell at the moment. Fingers crossed I’m on the right track.