Monday, December 12, 2022

Dealing with Multiple Drafts During Revisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

During a revision, trying to piece together all the best parts of your novel and still make the story feel cohesive can be a challenge.

Some novels are really hard to revise. The story goes through multiple drafts and there are strong scenes in each one—but no one draft that works on its own. The only way to save the story and craft the novel you know you have in there somewhere, is to pick the best scenes and smoosh it all together.

Which can be good, or lead to a Frankendraft

Don't fret though—you can turn all those drafts into a novel worth reading. It just takes a little more work and a lot more focus.

When dealing with multiple drafts of a novel, the first step is to clarify what you have that works, and what you have that doesn't.

Make a list of your scenes allows you to identify which pieces contribute to your core conflict and which don't. Note the critical details in all the scenes you plan to use and see how they flow together. Maybe even craft a one-line summary of each scene that describes the plot movement so you can see how they connect to the overall story arcs.

Once you know what you want to keep and what you can get rid of, create a new file and start pasting in all the scenes you want in the order you want them in. 

The story won't make a ton of sense since the scenes will likely be disjointed, but they'll be in the right place and will give you a better sense of how they flow and work together (and let you see where you might need to write more or cut back). 

For those using the Three Act Structure, the turning points and story beats are quite helpful in determining where your major set pieces fall, and if the right scenes are in the right places. You might find you have too much set up and not enough for Act Three (or vice versa), and will need to adjust.

Here are some pitfalls and trouble spots to keep an eye out for:

Your Darlings: Those Scenes You Love, but no Longer Work

In multiple drafts, it's easy to have favorite moments you want to include, and you'll probably work hard to get them to fit. But just because it's a great scene doesn't mean it's great for the final story or plot. 

When I'm trying to fit a favorite bit into something I'm writing, the difficulty fitting it is a big red flag that it might not be the right scene for the book. Forcing a scene almost always ends with a big stumbling block for the reader as soon as they hit it. It doesn't flow, it doesn't quite make sense, it doesn't really advance the story.

This doesn't hold true for every tough bit to fit, and once in a while, I come up with a seriously cool way to make it work that I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. But I'll be honest and say this is rare. If you find yourself beating your head against a scene, it might be time to file it away and save it for another story.

Things to Look for:
  • Does it advance the core conflict in some way?
  • Does it offer new and relevant information?
  • Does it flow with the story or feel forced in?
(Here's more with No Pain, No Gain: Killing Your Darlings)

That Looks Right, but: Leftover Information That’s no Longer Relevant

I call this "revision smudge." These are bits that get left behind that reference something no longer in the story. Maybe you changed which character was in the scene with your protagonist, or you changed the location, or the goal shifted slightly, or the stakes altered. Reading these scenes feel "right," because you know what they're referring to or how they originally fit. But when you look closely, you realize that part of the story is no longer there. That reference was cut, or changed, or was even moved to a new location.

Things to Look for:
  • Are there any leftover names or details that don't belong?
  • Is anything referenced that is no longer there, or has changed?
  • Does the protagonist still want the same thing?
  • Are the stakes the same?
  • Does the antagonist still want the same things? Has their plan changed?
  • Are there extra characters that aren't anywhere else now?
  • Is the information revealed new, or has it been added elsewhere?
(Here's more with Oh, Now I Made it Worse: When Editing Goes Astray)

Didn’t They Say That?: Information Stated in Multiple Scenes

Description and backstory are two more spots that can cause trouble. A scene that introduced a character in chapter one might now be in chapter five, and readers already know who they are. Search for each character's name (or a key detail of backstory) and see what information you reveal first, then every other time that name/detail is mentioned. This can be time consuming, but you'll know exactly where you say what about a character, and I've caught many a repetition this way.

Things to Look for:

  • Does anything sound familiar as your read? Has it been said elsewhere?
  • When is background information revealed?
  • Do readers have what they need when a character is first introduced?
  • Will readers understand early scenes based on the details revealed in those scenes?
  • Are characters making logic leaps based on information that's no longer in the story, or has been moved to after they make the leap?
(Here's more with 5 Ways Repetition Is Hurting Your Novel)

Dress Rehearsal: Revise Chronologically to Ensure Everything Tracks

Revising chronologically also helps see the story as it unfolds, since you can easily flip back and double check details. And having just read it, the actual text will be fresh in your mind. You might even make an easy-to-check list of things you changed that need to be edited overall.

Things to Look for:
  • When is the first time critical information is revealed or stated?
  • When do important plot events happen?
  • How much time do scenes and actions take?
  • Is the timetable working and plausible?
  • Where are the clues planted?

One of the hardest aspects of revising from multiple drafts is not getting caught up in what you wrote. You can't keep it all, even if the scene is good. You need to be ruthless and only choose the scenes that fit where the story needs to go.

Piecing together multiple drafts can be tricky, but a little pre-planning can save you a lot of time and effort.

It'll also help you get some distance from the story, which will help you be objective about what can stay and what can go. and you can always save those deleted scenes for extras for your newsletter, or even turn them into a novella or short story to use as a reader magnet.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick your favorite structure and identify which scenes best fit the major turning points and beats. That will make it easier to tell what scenes fit the new flow of the plot. 

Have you ever pieced together several drafts? Or tried to combine two story ideas into one? What pitfalls did you stumble into? 

*Originally published October 2009. Last updated December 12, 2022.

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is a great post! Thanks!

  2. Great post. I'm walking on my second draft so I can relate lol

  3. Thanks, Janice. I'm just heading into another revision, so it was great timing for me to discover your blog post!

  4. Glad I could help! Welcome to the blog, Sharigreen. We talk about revisions a LOT here, LOL.

  5. I love your lists Janice. When it comes to "darlings" if I can't decide if I should cut or keep, I usually cut it. But I will save it in a file so I can use it latter if I want.

  6. During my first round of rewrites I cut a scene that I was so intently into when I was writing it, it made me sad to see it go. It was so hard, but it just didn't make sense with where the story ended up going. :/ So, I saved it, just in case I can use it later. :)

  7. This is what I'm dealing with right now, so your post couldn't be more timely! Thanks Janice--you rock!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. Thank you for this informative and helpful post. I have often struggled with trying to piece together bits of multiple drafts, but I hadn't thought about it this way.

  9. Angela, thanks! That "save for later" file is a blessing, isn't it? Makes it easier to get rid of things we like.

    Danielle, smart move. I had to cut a scene I loved from Darkfall. So hard! I plan to post it on the website as a deleted scene :)

    Angela, thanks! I'm glad I pulled from the archives today then.

    Susanna, most welcome. I hope it makes it easier for you on your revisions.

  10. Oh! Great post. I actually did this with the MS I'm querying right now! The thing for me is that I can't outline. At all. I get ideas for twists and stuff but if I write anything down, I lose the interest in writing and I can't get anything done. Soooo, the problem with that is that I have a "pre-draft" that is basically me figuring out what to do with the plot and story, and then I have to re-write the story again, which is really time-consuming and often tiring, but this time it makes the story much stronger. I think what I do with multiple drafts is that I remember the scenes I like, but I don't write them down. The bad ideas will eventually be forgotten, but the ones that remain in my head after two new drafts show that, by overcoming even my brain's filtering system, those scenes are the ones I feel truly important. :)

  11. Julianna, sounds like you're a natural pantser :) But you nailed it - the good stuff sticks with you and the bad stuff fades away.

  12. Combining two different drafts or story ideas sounds like a challenge! I haven't tried something like that before, but I have had points where I had to cut a scene I loved! I have a couple of them up on my webpage as deleted scenes, to offer readers after they read my book.

  13. Rinelle, you don't always need to do it, but sometimes you try one thing and it doesn't work, but then you see how you can mix and match.

    Deleted scenes are great for website extras :)

  14. It's the changes I make but don't realize I've made that drive me nuts! Good post!

    1. Ooo, those get me, too. When did I write this???

  15. "Revision smudge" is an amazing phrase, and I've so rarely seen this problem addressed! Changing one scene might mean you have to change the same thing - or things affected by that scene - throughout the whole story.

    I had a scene with too many minor characters and my editor suggested consolidating them into fewer people - so I had to go through the rest of the story and make sure none of the cut characters showed up anywhere and that the behavior of the remaining characters still made sense with their functions in their big scene.

    1. Thanks! It's so easy to leave something behind and so hard to catch unless you read it in one or two sittings. I hope you caught all the smudge from your character consolidation!

  16. Great post. But can I add the opposing vision, you like a scene so much that you rewrite the entire novel to incorporate it. I am certainly not recommending this approach, only a fool would follow that route.
    Yours sincerely, The fool.

    1. Thanks! LOL, hey, it's a radical and drastic approach, but if that was the scene that really resonated with you and captured the right story, kudos for being brave enough to cut everything else away :) That takes guts!

  17. This is a fabulous post. I have copied all of it into a document that I can carry around with me for reference. I'm revising the first draft, not that the first draft is actually finished yet. I still don't know how the story ends. Some of the comments are also wonderfully helpful and I've added those too. E.g., Raynayday's!

    1. Thanks! Ooo, not knowing how it ends is a tough one. You might try looking at your beginning and how the conflict is set up, then figure out how to resolve that. What's a "win" for your characters?

      Here are a few posts I did that might help:

      Good luck finding the ending!