Autumn Leaves: A Writer's First Novel Rewrite


Vision 9

Autumn Leaves:

A Writer's First Novel Rewrite


Jennifer Shafer

Copyright © 2014, Jennifer Shafer, All Rights Reserved

When I completed the first draft of my first novel, my initial reaction was, "I'm done!"

Which was immediately followed by, "I'm not done!"

I had 129,000 words of text, and more characters and plot threads than could fit into my ending. In addition, my ideas for the novel had changed over the year it took to write. I needed a serious revision. But how? I was as new to rewriting as I had been to novel writing. As with writing a novel, I had heard a lot of conflicting advice on how to go about revision. So like my first time writing a novel, I decided just to start and see what worked for me.

The obvious first thing to do was to read through my manuscript and figure out what I needed to change. I already knew that I needed to move some scenes and add others, so the plan was that I would read, do line edits as necessary, and decide what needed moving before I did the actual rewrite.

That plan didn't last long. Since I planned to alter the storyline, I wasn't sure whether any scene would stay or go, so I quit doing line edits. I also found that it was hard to keep such a large number of scenes straight, both in content and order. So I switched to Plan B: write a synopsis with a short description of each scene, then rearrange the synopsis before I began rewriting.

Plan B proved much faster and easier. Reading through my manuscript, I found some dialogue I liked that I only vaguely recalled writing, and details in the early part of the story I'd completely forgotten, but would be useful near the end. I also discovered discrepancies I hadn't realized were there, repetition of ideas, dialogue, and names, and references to story events that never happened.

Before I started making changes to the synopsis, I made notes of what things I already knew needed fixing: a couple of characters had subplots that had been left unresolved, a plot element that influenced the climax had to be introduced earlier, one of my major characters didn't appear at the climax.  And, more importantly, I had gotten more interested in Brian, one of the major characters, at the cost of Amber, the main character, so I needed to fix the ratio of Brian scenes to Amber scenes.

I also kept in mind some of the things I had learned about the craft in general. For example, that a small cast of complex characters is better than a large one; that short scenes tend to make for more disjointed reading; that every scene should have some action and conflict. All of these were things I needed to address. So I sat down, located a pencil, and attacked my synopsis.

I grew aware of my plot as topography: twists and curves and tangles, hidden caverns and tall peaks. My job was not to flatten it but to smooth the rough spots, correct the proportions, and make sure there was a clear path from beginning to end. I immediately found scenes I needed to cut where there was no action, or where the action could be mentioned briefly in the next scene without detracting from the storyline. I moved scenes back and forth to space my subplots more consistently, and created new scenes to add depth to my characters' relationships and problems. My story had five point-of-view characters and I was concerned that switching between them too frequently interrupted the flow of the story, so I made an effort to combine scenes when possible.

I also discovered that my opening scene no longer made sense. After an attempt to fix it, I decided to cut it as well. Cutting it meant that my book didn't start with a scene that didn't fit the rest of the text, and began in my main character's point of view, rather than a lesser character's.

Since five point-of-view characters seemed like a lot, I considered removing or combining the two less important ones. I only decided against it when I discovered it would be extremely difficult to extricate either of them from my web of cause-and-effect leading to the ending, and even then I was unsure I was making the right decision. Was I being lazy? Were these characters truly important, or did I simply like them too well? I did cut two minor characters and combine two others, which gave one of my villains a reason to be even more sociopathic and eliminated the need for a minor plot thread. And I realized that I did like the resulting smaller, more complex cast better than my original one.

Once my synopsis was well and truly marked up, I typed in the changes to get a clean copy of what I expected my finished second draft to look like and began the actual rewrite.

As I read through my first draft, I had noticed some stylistic habits: choices of certain words over others, too many semicolons, not enough description, and too many nervous beats. I found a particular dialogue structure--person A asks three questions, B responds with the same word to each question--in four different places. So when I did line edits, I kept an eye out for those problems, as well as awkward dialogue and sentence structure, extraneous words, and abrupt transitions.

Revising was more fun than I had anticipated. It made sense, though; after all, I was taking a story I liked and making it better. Cutting wasn't so bad... at first. However, once I was really into my story, I was able to see that I ought to cut or mutilate even more scenes. Some contained neat bits of dialogue, or interesting character development, or important information. I didn't want to get rid of them. But I already knew, from other people's descriptions of their experiences, that I would feel this way. And like a tree shedding its leaves in autumn, my story would retain more vitality if I cut those scenes. So I did.

New scenes were interesting to write. I knew my characters much better than when I had written draft one. I inserted new action, and suddenly that was what happened in the story.   My world had become malleable, even after I had created it. Halfway through writing a new scene I discovered that a minor character badly wanted out of a secret program --which gave him more definition and a far clearer role. There were other places I discovered resonances in the new material, relating it to multiple existing threads. This sort of focus and clarity was exactly what I was hoping for when I began the rewrite, but it was still startling to discover that my story would continue to evolve for as long as I chose to play with it.

My draft two synopsis slowly became covered with new notes. As I progressed through the manuscript, I found the problems I had set out to correct disappearing, replaced by a story that was much smoother and less diffuse, more concentrated on the plot and themes. This gave me momentum to reach the climax, where I needed to give two characters new roles -- including one of the characters I had considered cutting -- and develop an entirely new plan for defeating the villain. It was a lot of work; but if I had left it alone, I would have had to live with knowing I could have improved my novel immensely and hadn't bothered.

I learned a lot from my first rewrite. I found a method that seemed to work for me, even though it took a little experimentation. I found out how rewriting feels: the pleasure of finally cleaning up a scene that's been bothering me for sixteen chapters, the dismay at realizing a 3,500-word scene is completely worthless in the context of my story. Cutting words was a vital part of the process for me; I ended up deleting more than 25,000 words. It depressed me a bit to realize I had written a novella's worth of useless material, but the story is better for it, just like leafless trees in winter. I think that I'll be able to write my next novel more efficiently, knowing what I now know about writing and rewriting. The process took some mental adjustment, but it's been both useful and genuinely fun. A lot of it was learning by doing, just the same as when I wrote my first novel; and just like writing a first novel, my first rewrite has taught me about the writing process, how to craft a story, and what I need to be willing to do to make my story the best it can be.