Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Structural Rewrite of Death

By Juliette Wade

JH: Fellow writer Juliette Wade and I were talking about a major rewrite she's planning for one of her books (and one I've been dying for her to finish, I might add), and she had a great epiphany on tacking a rewrite of a written book. I asked her to blog about it for us, and she graciously agreed.

Juliette blogs about language and culture and how that applies to writing over at TalkToYoUniverse, a must for anyone writing about science fiction or fantasy cultures. Her short stories have appeared in Analog Magazine, and I've no doubts that once she finishes this book, you'll see it on the shelves before too long.

Take it away Juliette...

I knew this would be a perfect post for The Other Side of the Story, particularly after I read Janice's post on outlining. I'd like to talk about this novel that I'm rewriting from scratch.

Let me explain what I mean.

Okay, so I wrote this novel. Or, I started to write it. For a long while it was going really great, and then it lost momentum halfway through, and I was never able to finish it. One reason why I never finished it was that even though the scenes were exciting, my readers kept telling me they didn't know where it was going. It was involving, yet somehow lacked a sense of forward drive. I think this was because I only vaguely knew where it was going myself–I knew where the end was supposed to be but I didn't know how to get there. My chapter outline was getting on to sixty-five chapters, and down that road lies insanity.

I don't necessarily have anything against long stories. But tell me if you recognize this: you write a story, it's too long, you go through agonizing over how long it is and try to cut, but the word count creeps downward only a tiny bit at a time until you don't think you can squeeze another word out of the text as it stands.

I've been through this more than once, and what it means for me is that the text as it stands is wrong. Once you've fixed all problems with verbosity and redundancy, and you've gotten down to something as concise and constantly original as possible, you still may not have enough drive to make the story sing. At that point, there's only one way to go any lower:

Structural rewrite of death.

I had tried other ways of increasing the sense of drive. I'd added fights, a death, other stuff. But these were all tangential things, like arrows that pointed outward from the main thrust of the story, arriving out of nowhere to carry it forward just a little, but not really solving the fundamental problem.

What I needed to do was back off and start over.

It's a scary idea. How can you start over? How can you abandon everything you've done?

Well, you are, and you aren't.

In a sense, you are, and it's critical that you do. I personally find that if I go back and look at any of the text I've written, one thing leads to another so naturally that I can't drag myself off of it to consider alternatives. I have to start with an entirely blank page, or the old story sucks me in like quicksand.

In another sense, though, you aren't. Don't open a file, and don't look at your old outline. Now ask yourself what you remember. What parts of the story did you love? Which parts haunt you? Which parts stay in your head when the text itself is gone?

Those are the pieces that are important–they have to be. You remember them precisely because of their importance. So take those pieces and write them down in a blank file. A phrase here or there, in no particular order. "The Eminence dies." "This character gets sick." "A tea party with an influential Cabinet player."

Take those scenes and let them float free of the moorings they had in the last draft of the story. Let them bounce around a little, and see if any of them stick together. "Oh," you may realize, "this scene has to happen before that one." Or, "these two scenes really would work well in immediate sequence." Maybe, "this event changes the entire nature of the story," or, "wouldn't this scene work well as a sort of reply to that one."

The scene that starts the main conflict should probably be your first scene, and the more story arcs it gets started, the better. In my book, it's a scene where the main character goes to a concert and someone drops dead on stage, causing a panic. It actively demonstrates the world; it actively shows the reason behind the atmosphere of fear constantly surrounding the main character; it also gives the main character's parents a reason to come back from a trip to protect him. In the same scene, the main character meets a girl that he'll pursue later, ends up getting entangled in personal tension with his best friend, and has a fight with his brother over what happened that night.

Once you have a scene like that, see if you can keep the arcs moving forward in your head. What kind of immediate consequences could each piece have? Do any of them fit with scenes that you've previously written? I realized, for my book, that there would be an investigation into the death in the first scene that I could use as motivation for another scene I'd written in the previous draft. A scene which, in that draft, had a motivation that seemed quite arbitrary.

The order of the old scenes won't matter. Of course you have to keep logically connected events in order, but you can make the old scenes serve the needs of the new arcs, and create a new outline. You can say to yourself, "this is the scene where everything changes, so it needs to occur just at the point when everyone is least ready for it." I discovered I had a scene where one of my characters had just signed a contract that got him in way over his head, and was wallowing in fear and praying that nothing bad would happen. So, logically, the thing that everyone fears the most, which will make the character's life infinitely more difficult, should happen immediately in answer to his plea. (A very Janice sort of move, in fact!)

I won't say that you need a complete, end-to-end outline before you start writing again. I will say, though, that I want one for myself before I start into this again–so I know that this time I'll make it all the way to the end. The changes I've made to the outline will mean drastic changes to the text. I expect not to retain much of what I'd written before–I'll be using my old draft less like a previous draft than like a dictionary, to look up phrases that I liked, or see how I did one thing or another. When I get finished, it will be the same book–same story, same characters, same main events. But I know it will be shorter, because I won't get lost in tangential and unmotivated stuff I included last time. And I feel in my gut that it will be better, because rather than taking existing text and trying to inject drive into it, I'm making the scenes I have serve the new drive I've envisioned.

I hope some of you may find this technique useful. Thanks very much to Janice for inviting me to post.


  1. Great advise, Juliette! I'm in the middle of rewriting a story that didn't come out too long, but lacked that drive you spoke of. After a few starts at a rewrite, I finally parted ways with the original MS and started with a blank document because I kept suffering from 'MS tunnel vision of doom' and couldn't see all the other places I could explore with the story. It's going so much better.

  2. Awesome post! I'm rewriting a story from scratch and changing a lot of the scenes to make them more active and interesting and just improve the writing in general. It's been much more challenging than I anticipated. I've been feeling stuck for the last few days and this post has given me a new angle to work from. Just what I needed. Thank you!

  3. Huh. That technique sounds handy. If I ever have a project that's blown up too much instead of being the usual empty balloon, I'll have to try it.

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has started over on a story. I had gaping plot holes, and my characters had drifted in directions that were not working for my story arc. Rereading my early notes reminded me of what I had envisioned. I also did some research which has flooded my brain with ideas that should improve this draft considerably.

    Personally, I still have to have my old files handy, but to the side with a clean sheet in front of me, so to speak, since I'm doing this all on the computer. Not too bad when Scrivener makes it easy to flip between subfiles, even split screening to look at my current scene and one of the reference files at the same time. I consider everything I've already done as brainstorming, testing out the characters and plot ideas.

  5. YES! I <3 Scrivener!

    To clarify, I have done rewrites, but those usually involve fleshing things out. Yeah, some things end up cut and redone, but when I've had a novel draft start at 17k words, verbosity isn't a major problem of mine.

  6. Melissa over at chasing dreams informed me of your blog! I'm glad I stopped by to check it out!

    Awesome post by the way, I am currently rewriting my story and changing a lot of scenes, sometimes things just need to be fresh!

    Look forward to future posts!

  7. Excellent post, thank you!

    I've just done this--I had a novel (that was so badly flawed, I wasn't sure how to fix it) and wanted to make it shiny.

    So knowing that trying to revise the draft as it was wasn't going to work for how much work it needed, I sat down and (without looking at the old draft) began sketching a new outline with these same characters and basic plot, trying to work out how it connected better and fixing plot holes and logic fails along the way. Then I started writing from scratch once I had an outline I was happy with, and it's worked beautifully so far (a month in and nearly 30k written).

    It's the story I wanted, only now I have hope that it'll work when I finish it.

    Very timely post, thank you again! :)

  8. Such a great advice. I thought I was going mad when I embarked on the same thing - I wanted to rewrite a book of mine and I started from scratch. New outline, new everything. Glad to I wasn't on the wrong

  9. Gee, I'm really glad my experience spoke to so many people. Good luck to all of you - I hope you make it through those rewrites!

  10. Thanks for the great advice. All your details make it so helpful. I really like how you're trying to figure out how to do it right before you start writing again. Sometimes we're too anxious to write and then have to rewrite yet again.

  11. Came over from Melissa's blog and glad I did. :)
    Great advice. I have had a lot of practice cutting and revising so it's more concise. This gave me even more good ideas.
    Karen’s Blog

  12. Thanks again, Juliette, for a great post! And welcome to the new folks (and another thanks to those that sent them here)

  13. What parts of the story did you love? Which parts haunt you? Which parts stay in your head when the text itself is gone?
    I love this advice, love it, love it, love it

  14. Great, great, great advice. I second what Trinity said. The parts that stay in your head that was key for me in this whole wonderful post.

  15. Thanks, Trinity and Amelia! I'm glad you found the post meaningful.

  16. Thanks for the tips. I’m not at the rewrite stage yet, but I aim to be!

  17. Oh my. This is exactly I'm in the process of doing right now, and it's been driving me insane - mainly because I thought the fact that I needed to do this at all implied that something was wrong with me. I feel kind of validated now. :) The color-coded Excel sheet that's sitting in front of me doesn't feel like an evidence of my insanity anymore!

    Thanks for tweeting these older posts again, Janice! Very useful for relatively newer blog readers like me.

  18. Swati, most welcome. That's why I do it :) Most of the information on the site is relevant even if it's a few years old.