Writing a Novel – Rewriting

A Single Source of TruthThis post is part of a series of articles about writing my novel, A Single Source of Truth.

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As the old adage goes: “writing is rewriting”. It's an iterative process, and no one – no matter how good they are in the eyes of their readers or peers – can write a pitch-perfect novel in one fell swoop. A tweet, maybe, but that's 140 characters versus approximately 500,000 characters of a novel.

As I alluded to in my previous post on outlining, A Single Source of Truth was an extremely iterative process; more than I would have expected, and much more than I ever want again on any project. In hindsight, the main issue was that my goal was unclear to start with and moved around a lot. What started out as an idea for a short film, ended up being a 110-page screenplay, and then 110,000-word novel. The various phases of re-tuning, re-outlining, and re-working kept me going back and forth, tweaking one area only to realise it had a knock-on effect that resulted in necessary changes to other areas, and so on in an almost exponential fashion. It seemed never-ending.

Suffice to say, rewriting was a very large part of getting A Single Source of Truth into publishable shape. Had I intended the story to be a novel from the start, I'm pretty sure it would have been a much smoother ride. However, I also wouldn't have learned so much about the following techniques that I'll certainly make use of on future projects.

How I Rewrite

  1. Frequent Reviews and Revisions of the Outline

    The outline of A Single Source of Truth started life a bullet list of about 40-50 points – essentially one bullet point per chapter. It then expanded into a scriptment that was finally whittled down into a document of a paragraph or two on each chapter. This let me get a high-level view of the purpose of each chapter and let me add some vital details that I might have otherwise forgotten. Whenever I came to write a new chapter, I'd review this document and go “ah yeah, that's what this one was about…” and then start writing it. However, once I got further into the novel, I'd often forget what went on before, so instead of having to re-read the whole book up to the point I was at, I could just look at the outline again. It was the spine of the story.

    Spines can bend. Often when reviewing the outline, I would notice things in earlier scenes that might have evolved or changed further ahead. This is only natural because it's only when you're deep in the trenches of writing a chapter can new ideas form. All I did here was course correct and rewrite the outline too, ensuring both versions of the storyline stayed in parallel to one another.

  2. On the Fly

    As I've said before, some people like to do vomit drafts. They write and write and don't look back until they have the first draft. I don't and can't do that, so I'll often rewrite on the fly. If I write a sentence that I think is shit, I'll go back and reword it, shift things around, search for synonyms online, or bash my head against a wall, trying to come up with a better way to say something. The creation of fluid, vivid prose is an art unto itself, some people are excellent at it… I am not, and probably never will be, and so I have to pull it from a kiln and hammer it over and over.

    Another thing I do, at the start of a new writing day, is to go back and re-read what I wrote the day before, tidying and rewriting bits that, after a fresh night's sleep, may look and read like total garbage. Re-reading stuff at the beginning of a writing session is actually a good way to get the ball rolling… a bit like doing a warm-up before exercise.

  3. The Fresh Eyes Read-through

    After spending six months key-bashing through a new draft of A Single Source of Truth, I couldn't see the woods for the trees. My brain was automatically masking over gaps and issues because that's what brains do when it doesn't have all the information – makes presumptions. At that point, I would move onto something new, like write a play or another movie script; anything to give myself some distance from the book. Stephen King puts his manuscripts in a drawer for six weeks before looking at them again. That's sage advice, and when I came back to the novel, having not read a single word for at least a month, it was a bit like I was reading it for the first time. The issues, not just grammatical, but structural, almost leapt off the page.

    Getting distance from work is important to unlocking a fresh perspective. I do it with everything. I certainly don't write these blog posts in one go and then click the publish button straight away. No way. I give it at least a few days before I come back and re-read them because invariably I find something wrong, giving myself ample time to try and fix them before I subject you with gobbledygook.

  4. Focused Passes

    When I was on the 6th or 7th draft of A Single Source of Truth, I decided to get more specific in my rewriting. It's all well and good reading a chapter and looking for things you can improve, but really, there are just too many variables to consider. The best solution I found for this was to do multiple passes of the same chapter, but focus on one particular area. In doing this, I was able to spot a lot more issues and resolve them instead of pinning my hopes on a “catch-all” read-through approach. The list below gives you some example of focal points and the things I would think about when doing each pass:

    1. Plot
      1. Does it make logical sense?
      2. Do events from previous chapters tie incorrectly to subsequent ones?
    2. Time
      1. Do parallel subplots take the correct amount of time to tie into the following scenes?
      2. Do the time of day and the day of the week align correctly to the sequence of events?
    3. Characters
      1. Are they consistent in the way they talk and act?
      2. Are their clothes and personal belongings correct for each chapter?
    4. Location
      1. Does the distance and time it takes to travel between locations add up correctly?
      2. Are environments described as well as they could be?
    5. Detail
      1. Are any details missing?
      2. Is there too much detail and would the reader get bored?
      3. Is any further research required?
    6. Grammar
      1. Can sentences be more concise?
    7. Spelling
      1. Any spelling mistakes?

  5. Beta Readers

    Beta readers are people you send the book to before anyone else. They'll read it and give you their (hopefully) honest opinion. It's a pretty scary thing to release your work into the wild, especially when no one has even glanced at it, but feedback is absolutely vital for improving work.

    For A Single Source of Truth, I handpicked a few people who I think would a) read the whole book and b) have a chance of enjoying it. There was no point giving my crime thriller to someone who reads nothing but mushy romance novels; their opinion would be skewed from the outset. Also, beta readers don't have to be writers themselves or expert story analysts; it's also good to get the opinion of people who just like to read a good book. Initially, my beta readers were the latter, which meant the feedback I'd be getting wasn't perhaps as detailed as I would have liked, but if I just got a couple of positive words, such as ‘I liked it', then at least I knew I was in the right ballpark. Out of four people I gave the book to, three read it, and they all seemed to like it. Phew.

  6. Professional Help (Not Therapy)

    Having someone who really knows their stuff read your work is the most valuable feedback. I could only go so far with passing early drafts of A Single Source of Truth to friends and family. Sure, I could have just accepted those few positive reviews and slapped it on Amazon, but if I'd spent so much time and effort writing it, I wanted to do a proper job. I knew there'd be issues; there are always issues that the writer is blind to. And that's not even the grammatical/proofing stuff which comes even later. Basically, I didn't want someone to buy my book unless I was totally happy with it. And I wasn't.

Stay tuned for next week's article where I'll go in-depth into my experience with a paid editorial assessment of my novel.

If you have any comments or questions, please post them in the box below.

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