When do you rewrite your novel?
Not today, or tomorrow, or any time you’re in the middle of writing it.
Here’s a short version of the truth: You can’t genuinely rewrite until the first draft is finished, so let those horses run!
Why wait to rewrite? You don’t know the characters or the story well enough when you start out. You might have to go back and fix the chronology—both of us have put several days together with zero nights when writing. That doesn’t wash on Planet Earth! And you might realize you’re a little short on research that will make your pages sing.
When you write a novel, and your imaginative doors are open, what the characters do will surprise you. New characters walk on stage. The setting changes. You will only find your voice and rhythm as you move forward.
Let’s back up and make sure we’re talking about the same thing when we say “rewriting.”
Rewriting is not proofreading. And proofreading is the last thing you should do to your manuscript. That happens after you’ve finished the final draft.
- Here are some examples of rewriting:
1) Realizing that a character wouldn’t do something, or wouldn’t say something, and then rewriting that scene.
2) Seeing that a half page where you’ve summarized what two characters are saying should be changed to dialogue.
3) Knowing that a moment of anger needs a supporting action like throwing a book across the room.
4) Cutting out a scene entirely. (If this scares you, keep the scenes you cut in a virtual file.)
5) Writing a new scene with an important dramatic point.
When you begin a novel, you’re setting out on a voyage of discovery. Be prepared! You can’t know all the exciting things that will happen. Isn’t that terrific? So get that entire canvas painted before you start making big or small changes.
For instance, Meredith and I began our novel Moonlight Water, published last January, with one simple idea: A rock musician suddenly realizes, in mid-life, that he wants to abandon everything—home, wife, career, money, the lot—and go somewhere else and start over. He has a hungry soul.
Where to go? He doesn’t know. Doing what? No idea. With what friends or a new family? Doesn’t have a clue. He just knows one thing, and he knows it as surely as if a burning bush had told him: I need a completely new beginning.
The key here is that we didn’t know what he’d do either.
We had some thoughts, some possibilities. Since he lived in the Bay Area, he would head east, into parts of the country that he didn’t know. But what town would he like? Who would he meet? Who would he get involved with there, in friendship, in business, in playing music (or not), in romance, in volunteer work—whatever. We would simply let him drive on whatever highway he chose and see where he ended up.
What adventures would he have? Being confident about our imaginations, we were sure he would have many. And so it was.
When you come to the computer each morning (or whenever you write), your job and joy that day is not to fix what you’ve already written but to move your story forward.
Yes. Every day—move the story forward.
For us, and perhaps for you, that means we need to read the 4-6 pages (or however many) we wrote yesterday, not to improve them, but simply to remember exactly where we are in the story. (If there’s a problem in yesterday’s work, we might make a note about it in the ms., but not re-do it. Not yet.)
Here’s a summary of the truth as we know it from the experience of writing more than forty novels: Page one can’t be written ideally and well until the whole book has been written. It’s unfamiliar territory.
We’re offering another blog, the next one, with the first page or paragraphs of several books. Please read that blog. The books have electric beginnings, we think, and all were the last page written. They needed to flow with the energy of the entire book in microcosm. By the end of the book, we heard it. Knew it.
After that? We’ll talk about when to rewrite that narrative non-fiction, non-fiction, or blog post.
Bottom line? Say yes to everything, and then rewrite.
—Win and Meredith