I read somewhere that, in ancient Greece, writers were advised to leave a “finished” piece of writing alone for nine years before coming back and editing it. Nine years might be going a bit overboard, but this is still common advice: write it, leave it alone, come back with fresh eyes and edit like it’s someone else’s writing.
I endorse this advice whole-heartedly. (You can hear the “but” coming, can’t you?) I left the first draft of my novel alone for a full three months over Christmas, and wrote a novella. Now I’ve left the novella alone for three weeks while I worked on my PhD confirmation.
Here’s the “but”. When you get back to the piece of writing you left alone, you may have one or more of the following reactions:
- This is utter rubbish
- What was I thinking?
- I can’t remember why I wanted to write this in the first place
- It really is rubbish
Before you can rewrite, you need to do a few things:
- Reconnect with why you wanted to write this, what got you fired up about it
- Identify the strengths – which parts do work, what aspects have merit?
- Ask yourself whether there’s one overriding problem that’s causing your negative reaction. That’s probably the place to start reworking
For my novel, surprisingly, I did have to reformulate why I cared. Spending a year on the first draft had me bogged down in technical issues; I knew I was passionate about the story, but couldn’t have told you succinctly why. I think I can now.
Identifying the strengths wasn’t too difficult – I like all the characters, still love the setting, the dialogue and description are generally strong, and the second half flows quite well though it’s a bit rushed at the end.
The overriding problem was easy to identify, too, because my five test readers all said the same thing: they couldn’t get a handle on the protagonist. The rewrite must start with letting readers into the protagonist’s head in a way that enlists their sympathy. My problem here is the balance between trusting the reader to do the work, and giving them enough information to work with. I’m also struggling with the idea of “show don’t tell”. With internal monologue, telling is showing if you do it right – but despite reading many many examples of great writing, I still can’t work out how to do it right. Advice, anyone?
The novella is a little different. I know why I’m passionate about telling the story, so that’s not a problem. I’m having trouble identifying strengths in the writing because I’m overwhelmed by what’s wrong with it. The main problem is something to do with pace and momentum in combination with tension. The writing seems to gloss over the story; too much happens too fast with not enough tension or emotional engagement. The result is a story that feels glib and pat, when it should feel complex and powerful. Individually, the events of the plot are believable. The characters are realistic. But something about the way I’m telling the story is failing to do justice to the characters and what they go through from beginning to end. I need to find ways to deepen the reader’s engagement with the characters without slowing the story to a plodding pace. I suspect it needs to be significantly longer – too much happens in 19,000 words – but the last thing I want to do is create “padding”. Again, I’m very open to suggestions and advice from you, wonderful fellow-writers :-).