Deconstruction of a Rewrite

EJmanuscriptnotebook Years ago, I asked one of my MFA mentors how to go about rewriting the novel I was then working on.  As I recall, she told me to sit down with the manuscript and re-read it.  Um, not the most helpful of advice.  Yes, it is imperative to reread a manuscript when you are going to rewrite it, but what are you reading for?  What should you be looking for?  How do you figure out what to do?  It is incredibly daunting to hold a 350 page manuscript in your hands and try to decide what to do first.

As most of you know, I've set to rewriting my novel this summer.  This after I was convinced that the 8 rewrites I had already completed would be enough.  But then an agent read it, said she was interested, and gave me comments on what she would look for if I cared to rewrite it.

Key word: comments.  Because hers gave me a way with which to begin the rewrite.  They fell into two areas:

1.  The main character, while funny, kick-ass and brash, is also bitchy and difficult to take at times.  (She's a woman who does what she wants, when she wants, and of course, if she were a male character, her behavior would not be an issue.  But that is a topic for another time.)  The agent felt that she would have better luck presenting the novel to editors if Emma Jean were more reliable.

2.  Some of the secondary characters are not fully developed.  Because Emma Jean is such a powerful character,  the others exist as sort of satellites to her.  While I understand Emma Jean intimately, I never pushed to truly get to know some of the res of them.  

So that is my charge, to make Emma Jean relatable and develop the most important of the secondary characters.  Before I began, I also kicked these comments around with my writing group (who have read the book every time I rewrote it) and other writers who've read part or all of it.  And here's how I have proceeded so far.

First of all, I took a trip to Office Depot. (Brief aside: when I was working on my MFA, after each residency I would take part of the money from my student loans and go buy supplies at Office Depot, so it is a bit of a ritual for me.) I bought a ream of three-hole punched paper on which to print the novel, and a pretty pink binder to put it in.  Then I languished in the journal aisle and eventually, after much pondering,
bought two small spiral-bound notebooks, one red, one black and white.  One became the journal I
wrote about the characters in, and the other became a place to take random notes that occurred to me as I worked on the characters and reread the manuscript.

Next, before I did anything else, even read the manuscript, I returned to the characters, specifically the three the agent mentioned as needing development.  I started by putting each of them through the Ordinary Day exercise, which I found incredibly revealing.  In some cases, that was enough.  In others, I did a bit more work, whether through time lines of their life or writing specific bits of backstory.  All of this proved so helpful that I did it for everyone of the characters, though some only got a few pages of effort.  I wrote it out in longhand, in one of the new journals.  For me, writing longhand seems the more direct route to my deepest self.

A note here: for reasons unknown to me at the time, I felt it important to work with the characters before I reread the manuscript.  It just felt like the right choice, and also I was a bit daunted to face reading the 350-page tome.  It proved to be a good move, as I was able to come up with fresh insights that would not have occurred if I already had evidence of what I thought they were like in front of me.

By the time I finished with the character work, my little red journal was starting to get lots of good notes and ideas in it, all written as they occurred to me, without making an effort to categorize them at this point.  Now it was time to read the novel.  But first, I pulled out as many colored flags and post-it notes that I could find (should have bought more at Office Depot) and made a key.  I used pink for Emma Jean's lover, orange for her husband, purple for the throughline about her bitchiness.  The point was to be able to track the characters and themes I really needed to focus on in this rewrite.  

Finally, basket of flags and post-its at hand, I began reading the novel.  I made notes on the manuscript pages and in the little red journal, and flagged character arcs and throughlines madly, as you can see in the photos. (Interestingly, most of the flagging happened in the first two-thirds of the novel, which is where most of the rewriting will happen.)  I also made a list of chapters and what exactly happens in them, because I know from past experience how easy it is to forget.  (Does she meet Ava in Chapter One or Chapter Two?  Oh that's right, I made Chapter Two into two chapters, so now it's actually Chapter Three where they meet.)

So now I'm ready to actually rewrite, right?  Not quite.  Because my notes are a mish-mash of thoughts and ideas, scrawled as I read and wrote bios. 

In the final step before the actual rewriting, I spent a pleasant morning at my neighborhood coffeeshop with my friend and web designer (my website will be up soon!),making sense of my notes.  With legal pad, little read journal and list of what happens in each chapter, I began.  Going through the legal pad, I wrote #1 on the first page, #2 on the second, and so on, for 23 pages, which constitute the 22 chapters and one epilogue in my novel.  And then I went through my notes, and when something had to change in chapter one, I noted that on the #1 page, and so on through the book.

So now I'm ready to do the actual writing.  Which, I must say, will be far and away the easiest part.  I've done the heavy lifting already.  The pondering, figuring out, and conceptualizing are what is tough.  Now all I have to do is flip through the pages and add stuff in.  Easy, right?  Well, if you believe that I have a bridge for sale that I'd love to talk to you about.

Ah, nobody said writing a novel was easy.  And that is what makes it so much fun.  What about you?  What are your methods for rewriting?  Do you do as much pre-writing as I do?  Have a great tips to ease the process?

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13 Responses to Deconstruction of a Rewrite

  1. Ledger 07/09/2010 at 15:25 #

    Find another agent…Your being a novelist, ghostwriter, and writing coach, living in Portland, Oregon, with frequent trips to LA and Nashville, and having already re-written your novel “8” times, I should think you know what side of the fence the words are greener on…Are you going to sacrifice your novel apon the alter of Random House?…Who’s novel are you writing anyway? Yours or your agent’s?

    If your novel was a story about fourteen year old vampires in love, or a tale about bare chest men with bulging biceps, six pack abs and flowing locks of yellow hair who make love to buxom raven haired beauties in a milk bath strewn with flower petals while unicorns frolic in the misty forest, or a story about witless child wizards who save mankind from the darkness or perhaps a story about zombies eating the brains of the living, you wouldn’t even have to re-write it.
    Good-luck anyway.

  2. Charlotte Dixon 07/09/2010 at 16:23 #

    Ledger, I thought very carefully about whether or not to take this agent’s advice, and I discussed it with my writing group. There’s no guarantee that even with a rewrite, she’ll sign me. The thing that convinced me to do a rewrite was that when I read her letter I got excited. I always said I was done with the book until I got advice from an agent or editor, and that happened. If I had felt that the rewrite wouldn’t improve the book, I wouldn’t do it in a second. But I believe the opposite, so I thought it worth a try.

  3. Ledger 07/09/2010 at 17:34 #

    Well good luck with the mammoth overhauling. Just seems strange that such an accomplished wordsmith would continue to keep revising what already has been revised, I can only surmise that in the recesses of your mind, your novel was never really polished enough. As you know sooner or later the bridge has to be burned and another path will be ready to explore.
    Happy red penning, or was that blue?, green?

  4. Jessica 07/09/2010 at 18:24 #

    Wow. You are far more organised during a rewrite than I. I tend to take to it with a coloured pen (purple mostly) and begin scribbling, moving on to the blank facing page often. But I really like your method! (I especially like the binder and the coloured tabs! I need to buy in bulk when go visit home because the variety in China is pretty much non existent.) And I’m always up for buying new journals (being someone who also spends a lot of time in the journal isle, pondering which most fits my needs – Good News: China is full of interesting journals).

    In my current rewrite I have completely chucked the previous draft and am starting afresh, so I can’t put your directions into immediate effect. But I want to give it a go with the next one.

    Colour-coded sticky tags! Heaven.

  5. Jessica 07/09/2010 at 18:25 #

    Oh, one more question. What interesting scribbles do you have on the page slipped in the front of your binder?

  6. Charlotte Dixon 07/11/2010 at 08:45 #

    Ledger, it is not a mammoth overhauling by any stretch of the imagination. The pre-writing is by far most of the work. As I mentioned before, when I started sending out my novel, I had taken it as far as I could without an agent or editor weighing in. Now an agent has weighed in and I’m choosing to follow her advice. If you polled 100 unpublished novelists in the same position, I’d bet at least 98 of them would do the same thing, particularly, because, as I said, I felt her ideas for the rewrite would make the book stronger. Until I started sending the novel out I had no idea what the current publishing climate would accept and now I know.

    The thought occurs to me that perhaps we have different views of the writing process. I am of the school that believes in crazy, wild, sometimes awful first drafts, and then returning to this draft repeatedly to make it better. For many people who adhere to this school of writing, 8 drafts is nothing.

    Jessica, Oh yes, I agree, color-coded sticky tags are heaven. And so is having an excuse to go the office supply store and buy journals and other supplies. I bet China has the most interesting selection of journals ever! I think that starting another rewrite without referring to the first draft is also an excellent way to go. Very brave, too!

  7. David Paine 07/13/2010 at 08:05 #

    Your post is rather novelistic in and of itself. I’m sitting here dying to know what happens to the heroine.

    Pulling for a happy ending.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 07/13/2010 at 18:06 #

    Well, David, you’ll have to read the book. And please, let’s all hope that you will have the chance to read said book in published form.

  9. David 07/14/2010 at 08:59 #

    Actually, I was referring to the heroine of the novelistic rewrite saga. (Meaning you.) Your fictional heroine is another kettle of fish altogether, and, of course, I’m interested in what happens to her, too. Can’t wait for the book signing at a bookseller near me!

    My lack of clarity – which I can now see sticking out of my post like a sore thumb – is yet another reason I need to work it little harder – and visit your blog more often.

  10. Suzanne 07/14/2010 at 10:01 #

    Your rewrite plan sounds perfect. Hope it goes well! You are right, 8 times is nothing if you think it’s going to get better each time (and if you don’t you wouldn’t rewrite). A wonderful, insightful writing coach once told me to put each scene on color-coded index cards to see where the action needed to move, and the structure needed overhaul. It was a great idea, and the color-coded stickies are even better. Heading out to the office store ASAP …

  11. Charlotte Dixon 07/14/2010 at 10:02 #

    David, actually, when I go back and look at the string, your comments make perfect sense. So maybe it is a lack of reading clarity? I guess this all just points to how objective writing is, and how one never truly knows how the words they put on the page are going to be read.

  12. Charlotte Dixon 07/14/2010 at 10:03 #

    Suzanne, The color-coded stickies are pretty dang fun, and I must say they have superseded the color-coded index cards in my mind! I sure hope you are working on your very own novel rewrite….and thanks for the good thoughts.


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