Monday, 22 August 2011

Re-Write? Or Write Another?

So your manuscript has gone out, and come back more than several times.  You've had feedback from friends, fellow writers, possibly some comments from agents, perhaps a book doctor.  Do you re-write - AGAIN - or do you put it in the bottom drawer, and start another?  You know that persistence is key, but does that mean persistence with this novel, or persistence in getting on and writing another?

I think this is a very hard decision to make and it's one that only you can find the right answer to, but here are some pointers to help you along the way.

1.  Have you put the manuscript away so you're coming to it fresh?
You need distance to work out what you're doing wrong.  The easiest way to get distance is to put your ms away for at least 4 weeks, more if you can bear it.  Up to you whether you start a new novel project in this time, but I'd definitely recommend writing something else.  

2.  Can you see what needs doing?
If the feedback you've already received doesn't make sense to you, then there's no point in fumbling around trying to rewrite.  You have to write with conviction; if you don't understand the fundamental problem you won't be able to correct it.  I'd be inclined to write something else in this situation and wait for time (and experience) to show you what wasn't working.

3.  Does what needs doing involve a lot of work?
I've been there.  I realised what needed doing would involve a major rewrite and put it off for several months because I didn't want to do the work before deciding to just Do It.  I've seen other people decide against re-writing because they didn't want to do all that work.  Your call, but I think if you understand what needs to be done, then it's a lot less work to fix that than it is to write another novel.  Plus you will learn a lot from the re-write, and maybe won't make the same mistakes again...

4.  How many times have you sent it out?
One of my writing friends has sent her novel out twice, and has had encouraging responses both times - but no acceptance.  She's now re-writing it, which I think is daft.  Another, even dafter friend hasn't even sent it out because she thinks it's not quite right yet, despite everyone telling her it's fine. (You know who you are - get on with it!)  I think you need to send it out at least 6 times before you can begin to judge where it stands in the market place.  Leave the novel alone until you've had that feedback, and get on with writing something else.

5. How much have you written before?
It always amazes me that people launch themselves into writing a novel with no previous writing experience, knock it off in a couple of months (or even weeks) and then think it's finished to a standard that someone else should give them thousands of pounds for it.  You wouldn't treat any other creative discipline in the same way, such as painting or pottery.  Get real!  Yes, it's possible you may have written a masterpiece without any previous experience, in the same way that buying one ticket might win you the Lottery jackpot, but it's not very likely.  And the chances are you won't understand why your work isn't up to the standard required which will lead to frustration.  Re-writing will teach you a lot, as will writing something new.  Going to classes, reading lots of novels (both in and outside your genre), joining a critique group will also teach you more about creative writing.  

There are plenty of successful novelists out there who wrote several novels before they got published - I personally know at least 4 novelists who are now doing very well who have 6 or more unpublished novels in their bottom drawer.  Writing something new worked for them. 

I was advised to treat Adultery for Beginners as a learning experience and start another novel.  I did an extreme re-write instead (in the end, about 90% was substantially re-written).  So extensive re-writing worked for me.

But - and this is the big but - I understood exactly what the problem was, and could see how I could fix it.  If you don't, writing another novel may be the learning experience you need.


JO said...

I have my first two novels in the 'bottom drawer' - but can't bring myself to press the delete button, as I'm proud of having got this far. And I'm hoping that, one day, I'll be able to see why they don't work.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s a semantic thing I’m sure but I’ve never really understood the concepts of ‘draft’ and ‘re-write’. I wrote my first two novels in the space of about three months and spent five years editing them grafting in bits here and there, expanding what needed clarifying. A little was lost along the way but not much. So I could never say how many drafts it took me to finish the project. With my last novel I wrote 10,000 words and realised that the book was going in a direction I couldn’t handle – I do know my limitations as a writer – and so I scrapped everything bar the core idea and began again. Again I don’t think of what I ultimately finished as a second draft. The first go was a false start. I stopped and started again. But I agree totally with putting your manuscript away for as long as you can bear. In my case that’s years. I finish a book, stick it in the proverbial drawer, work on something else and by the time I look at the book again I’m as close to a raw reader as I’m going to get. I suppose I’ve been lucky in that none of my beta readers has suggested any major changes. I think this has less to do with my skill as an author as it has to do with the fact I write fairly simple stories where not a lot happens: no cast of thousands, no subplots, just one or two characters on a page making life hard for each other.

In principle I agree with you on #5 but I never studied creative writing or anything like that. I wasn’t even that well read when I wrote that first book. It’s not a masterpiece but I read a lot these days and if that was the sole criterion for publication then there would be hardly any new books being printed. As I said I wasn’t that well read when I wrote that first book but I wasn’t unread and it’s obvious that I picked up a lot. Maybe I’m just a quick study. I also watched an enormous amount of TV and there is no doubt in my mind that I learned much about how to tell a story (and how not to tell a story) from the box.

Sarah Duncan said...

JO - whatever you do, don't press the delete button. All that work might come in useful, whether to re-write or just mine for characters or scenes.

Jim - What I mean by redrafting is moving scenes around, changing characters, thinking in a global way. Re-writing is more detailed, less global in outlook. I don't think it really matters what you call them so long as the work gets done!

Mama J said...

Great advice again.

I'm not up to the rejection point yet with this book but I will come back and reread this when they start rolling in.

Victoria said...

Sarah, this post is incredibly timely and I'm so grateful.

At an early stage in its writing, my agent told me she didn't like my present novel. Perhaps, in the light of her opinion, I was mad to continue working on it. But I was fond of my characters and couldn't bring myself to leave them in the lurch.

I finished the 1st draft just as the school summer holidays began.
Thanks so much for discussing the rewrite vs start-something-new dilemma so lucidly. It's a real help.

Sarah Duncan said...

Mama J - look on the bright side, for your ms there may be no rejection! On the other hand, if it does come your way, forewarned is forearmed.

Victoria - I HATE it when my agent comments negatively on an early version. I don't find it useful at all, just makes me lose confidence in the whole project. So good for you for having faith in yourself and carrying on - it's what comes out at the end of the process that counts, not the various stages along the way.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I agree with Victoria in that this post is very timely for me too, and I also have found it incredibly helpful.

I languished in that place where I couldn't see how to take my M/S forward. I knew it was quite advanced but I've had several rejections so I knew it wasn't quite up to standard.

I'm lucky enough to have found an experienced editor who has pointed the way. She has told me it's '80% there' and is almost a 'very strong first novel'. She has given me a chapter by chapter critique and I have a mountain of rewriting to do. I have enough experience to calculate the time needed. It's a month's work and I've completed the first week (by putting myself into you do).

However, I can see exactly what she's driving at and I agree with all her comments except two. I feel encouraged to have another big push now and get it up to the higher standard.

I don't intend to leave it to languish in a drawer for years. I write technology/sf and this stuff dates. I think all I can do is continue to send it out there but if there's no market for it, I will start a new one next year.

I have learnt so much from this rewrite experience. It is a real enlightenment!