One of the most difficult things about rewriting is knowing where to begin. The first draft of a book consists largely of the writer telling the story to herself, making things up as she goes along, creating characters and conflict, creating rising action, climax and conclusion. A lot can — and does — go wrong during this process. Knowing that there are many things wrong with a first draft, a writer is often overwhelmed with how and where to begin the changes.
Enter the Sorting Hat, which may divide your rewrites into two boxes. Perhaps three. Maybe, even . . . four. The first box is always Macro — Big Things That You Need to Change. There may be a Middle box, and there will be a Micro Box: small things that need to be polished.
The problem is, the Sorting Hat merely lets you know there are at least two boxes. It’s up to you to read your manuscript critically and decide what the macro changes are. In fact, you end up doing the sorting yourself while the Hat looks on, doing nothing.
I believe it’s critical to separate all the medium-sized changes and small changes your novel may need from the BIG changes it needs. Don’t try to make all the necessary changes in one rewrite: it’s usually much too difficult to be dealing with correcting big things and little things in the same go-round. In fact, human nature being a bit on the lazy side, many people will ignore the big things and correct only the little ones, thinking they’re doing a good job of rewriting.
Macro problems can include structural problems, character problems, balance between scene and summary, and plot problems, for example. Overwriting (purple prose, explaining too much, heavy exposition, and so on) might be a macro problem, but I usually think it’s a Medium problem: at least in comparison to structural problems, point of view problems, and character-development problems.
A writer must deal with the macro issues before attempting the micro rewrites — it does little good to have powerful words and beautiful sentences in a book that has major flaws in structure, conflict, point of view, and narrative.
Probably the first thing any teacher of writing will explain about rewriting is that before you rewrite, let the manuscript rest. Relax. Idle. Do nothing. After I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I try to let both fiction and nonfiction sit around untouched for anywhere from one to three months before I attempt my first rewrite.
Resting time is important because the writer, having spent a year or more writing a book, is too “into” the manuscript to see what major rewriting the story may require. Letting the manuscript rest allows you to go on with other things in your life (preferably without thinking of the manuscript in much detail) so that when you do return, you can see the story with more objectivity — you are distancing yourself from the “you” who wrote the first draft. When approaching my first rewrite of a book, I adopt the attitude that the person who wrote it is somebody I know and like, but somebody whose story I am going to improve greatly by looking at it objectively.
Almost always, the first draft is full of flab: loose, excess flesh. Not a pretty image, I know. The flab must be toned up. The toning comes from cutting. You must cut paragraphs, pages, entire scenes or chunks of narrative that you labored over for months or years. This cutting will do wonders for your story which, now free of excess, looks leaner, meaner, and fit.
How much of your first draft is flab? That varies, of course. My first draft of She’s on First (my first novel) was 400 pages long. My agent told me: “Cut 100 pages and then I’ll represent it.”
I did cut 100 pages. (102, if I recall.) What I cut mainly was repetition . . . descriptions that weren’t necessary . . . transitions that could be replaced by wordless white space . . . scenes that could be summarized or shortened. At first I thought this would be painful. But it wasn’t. In fact, it felt good to improve my story and my writing by tightening it.
In the macro rewrite, a writer needs to look at balance — the balance between showing and telling or, to use technical terms, the balance between scene and narrative/summary.
The more common error is to write too much narrative and not enough scene. That’s probably because narrative is easier to write: we just sit down and begin typing. Scene is more difficult. If we’re writing fiction, we must imagine our characters in conflict and show this with realistic dialogue and action. If writing nonfiction, we can still include scenes, but then we must watch for too much detail, too much description.
An easy way to see whether you have some sort of balance between scene and summary is to take a yellow marker and highlight the scenes. If they’re few and far between, this means your book is almost exclusively narrative. That might work for some nonfiction, but it doesn’t work for fiction, whose readers want drama.
Backstory and flashbacks are devices the writer sometimes needs to tell the story. But in the first draft we tend to use these devices in Big. Chunks. that are Pages. Long. In the macro rewrite, it’s necessary to pulverize these chunks into smooth granules and sprinkle them throughout the book. In my first rewrite of Sound Proof I was able to eliminate all the backstory I had stuffed into chapter two and sprinkle it in a few places throughout chapter one.
Often character problems fall into the Macro box. In writing She’s on First I needed to develop several of the characters more, which meant I needed to think about their goals, their motivation, and their actions. Developing characters in a different or additional way is difficult for me: they seem to be what they are when I’ve completed the first draft, and changing my perception of them is hard. But sometimes this must be done, and I’ve found that it can be done, no matter how difficult it appears at first. Sometimes, though, the main problem with a character is . . . he or she isn’t necessary to the story. That means (Gulp!) Getting. Rid. Of. The. Character. Believe me, this is even more difficult than improving a character’s motivations.
Most writers, I suspect, find the macro rewrite difficult. I do. It involves a lot of major changes, and these aren’t easy. But when I finish my first rewrite, I always feel good. The roadbed has been bulldozed and leveled, the pavement put down. What remains to be done is a lot more fun than all that heavy work. I will talk about micro rewriting in another blog — after I recuperate from all this heavy work.
Earl Derr Biggers rewrote each of his novels once, publishing the second draft. Barbara Gregorich rewrites most of her books three times, usually publishing the fourth draft.