The Writer's Cookbook

Writing, productivity, publishing.

What to do When You Need to Rewrite Your Rewrite

When you’re not happy with certain aspects of your novel, be it a character or a plot point, the inevitable point comes in working on your manuscript where you have to rewrite it.

A few months ago, I embarked on a rewrite of my novelGirls Just Wanna Have Fun. I thought I’d gotten it to a place where I was almost happy with it, except for a few minor details. Then I realised something was wrong: some of my characters were too similar, and there were scenes I wasn’t happy with. I knew that it would be obvious I hadn’t enjoyed writing those scenes as I’d glazed over many of the details that made them interesting in an attempt to get the writing of them over with.

Not only that, but I didn’t like the motives or backstories of two of my characters. I knew that if I didn’t do something about it now, I’d regret it.

What to do when you need to rewrite your novel.

It can often feel like your characters are working against you. They’re not. Mostly.

When I realised what I had to change, and how much work it would involve, I was pissed. I spent most of my Saturday night listening to loud music and ranting. I stomped around the house, going to bed at two and waking up at half nine (surprisingly little sleep for me). When I woke, I was still annoyed, but I was determined. My characters are important to me, and it’s important for me to do them justice and have them feel as real to the reader as they do to me.

I’d channeled a lot of my energy recently into the rewrite, so realising that much of this work had been in vain really hurt. It was like going through a break up. I was mourning who my characters were, and who they needed to be.

Moving On

It’s been a couple of months since I had the revelation now, and I’ve come to accept it. That took a good few weeks, though, and I continued to be angry with myself. All in all, I’ve cut about 70,000-100,000 words of the rewrite. Every time I had to remove another scene, a little piece of me died along with it. When I replaced it with a new, shinier scene that I was far happier with, however, it was like a phoenix.

No word you write is ever wasted. They all help you to figure out the story.

There’s one thing I have to keep reminding myself of, though: not a single word of the original draft — or the ones I’ve cut since — has been wasted. Every one of those words has helped me to craft this story, to improve as a writer, and to make it into the novel that I want it to be.

Many of the people who’ve read the original have suggested I try to get it published, but there was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that it didn’t quite feel right. The more I work on the new version, the happier I am, and the closer I am towards publishing it.

What to do When You Need to Rewrite Your Rewrite

1. Know That No Words Are Wasted

It doesn’t matter how many words you cut from your piece, not a single word is ever wasted. Every word you write helps you to figure out your characters and your story, and may lead it to a place you never expected. Not only that, but if there’s a particular line or phrase that doesn’t work in your new version, you can always save it for a future story. This is something that poets often do, and it serves them well.

2. Accept it

I know this is easier said than done, but the sooner you accept it, the easier it will become. Going off on long rants about how terrible your writing is will make you feel better, but it won’t achieve anything. By all means have a rant at a sympathetic ear, but don’t let it consume you. Rant it out of your system, then channel that energy into your rewrite.

3. Don’t Overthink it

If your instincts are telling you something isn’t right, they’re probably right. No one knows your story better than you do. Don’t write your story just to please other people — whomever that may be — because ultimately, you’re going to end up hating it. See Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie for examples.

4. Take a Break

This is hard to do if you’ve been spending a lot of time on your novel, but if you’ve started to obsess, you really do need to take a step back. There’s no way you can work on it objectively if you’re still crying into your pillow about how you have to kill off a character you love.

Take a few days and work on a side project, then return to your main project when you’ve calmed down.

5. Plan

The more you plan your novel, the easier the writing of it will be.

I’m not going to lie to you: I despise planning my novels. However, I’ve found the writing process MUCH easier if I do. For me, writing a novel is a little bit like treading water. Sometimes, I feel like I’m drowning. Other times, my head is bobbing along just fine. Planning out what goes where makes the whole thing a lot easier for me to manage.

Having an end point is also crucial for me if I’m going to finish something. If I don’t know what my character(s) arc(s) will be, I lack the motivation to take them there.

I’m not saying you have to plan out every minute detail, but having a vague idea of where you want to go, and knowing your five key plot points — or even just one or two at the start of a new project — is enough to get you started.

6. Recycle

I mentioned earlier about how poets sometimes cut lines from poems and save them for a future poem. There’s nothing to say that you can’t do that with a line from your novel, or even an entire scene.

I had to cut one of my favourite characters during my rewriting process for What Happens in New York. He’d been a major part of every other version, but there were just too many characters for me to handle, let alone the reader. He felt much more superfluous than the others, and really didn’t add anything to the story.

This also menat cutting what had been a major scene and finding another way to get the characters to where I needed them to be. I’ve only just figured this out, but that’s ok. We can’t all write a novel in a couple of months, and we shouldn’t compare our writing process to that of other people. Everyone writes differently.

7. Just Write

Ah, the most common (and probably most hated) writing advice. It’s the best writing advice any of us can be given, though. Don’t think about it (see above), just write. Let your creativity flow and see what you can come up with.

Over to You

Have you ever had to rewrite a novel from scratch? How did you approach it? I’d love to hear your stories and tips in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. Catherine L Byrne

    Thanks for this. I know how you feel as this has happened to me a few times. Keep on keeping on! 🙂

    • Glad you liked the piece, Catherine! It’s definitely worth taking the time to do a rewrite if you feel it’s necessary — it can make a huge difference to the story.

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