I’m not sure about Joseph Conrad—history does not tell—but I’m prepared to bet that a majority of writers out there whimper at the prospect of revising their work, especially if the revision involves structural rewriting. The thought of having to do something akin to removing, remodeling, and replacing several floors of a high-rise without the whole building collapsing is daunting, to say the least. To extend the analogy, what about all the plumbing, electrics and ductwork that run through the floors you’re refitting? How will changes on those floors affect the rest of the building? It’s enough to make you crazy.
As I work through my own current novel rewrite, I’m learning—not without struggle—to enjoy the process rather more. See, much as I hate this and wish the damn book had come out perfect the first time so I could send it out to earn its keep and make a start on the next, I know that it’s going to be a far better book after the revision: more to the point, it’s going to be a saleable book after the revision, which, in ninety-nine percent of cases, our earlier drafts aren’t. And when you consider that the first draft probably took you several hundred hours, what’s the big deal? It’s unlikely the rewrite will take even half of that.
So why are rewrites scary? Well, for one there’s the, ‘I’m done with this!’ factor above—which, after spending several months in labour with your novel, is not unreasonable. And the work of revising your ms. seems so much less glorious and magical than birthing the thing in the first place (note we’re talking about revision, aka rewriting, here, not simple, putzy editing). Why? Because there’s a good deal more analytical than creative process needed in the rewrite.
That’s how it should be. You’ve taken a good, hard look at the raw love-child you’ve delivered your muse of, and maybe had some writer friends offer their two cents on, and discovered that there’s room for improvement. Your antagonist is thin as cardboard, and why on Earth would the empowered female protagonist risk her neck for a guy who’s an insufferable misogynist? You could drive a truck through some of the plot holes—nobody can swim three miles in 45-degree water towing a mini-submarine by a rope between their teeth. And the cultural mores of Mongolian yak herders are not going to be those of twenty-somethings from the San Fernando Valley. What were you thinking??
Well, okay. Once you’ve got over the sting of critique and finished beating yourself up, it’s time to square your shoulders and get on with the rewrite. Here’s what works for me.
When the story’s cooled, and I’ve reread it and fully digested the notes from my trusted critiquers, I first of all try to pinpoint exactly what the story is about—in other words, idea or theme. The answer should be very clear, and admit of brief, unambiguous definitions, like, ‘Crime doesn’t Pay’; ‘Freedom comes at a price’; or, ‘There’s no place like home’. Knowing what the story’s about when you begin your revision will allow you to prune and cut out stray tendrils and offshoots and make your whole story point in the same direction.
Next, I go through the ms. and do a scene-by-scene, ‘after the fact,’ outline of what I have. Armed with this three- or four-page structural overview, it’s much easier to follow the plot thread and spot breaks, missing connections, loose ends, and all the rest. I note down where I need to move, add, or delete scenes, introduce or alter plot events, etc.
If you believe, as I do, that the writing process is entirely dependent on a collaboration between the conscious and unconscious mind, then the whole success of the writing process is founded on communication. What’s your creative subconscious trying to say in this story? And when you took dictation and wrote that first draft, how much did you get right? You’re working—or should probably be—fast in a first draft. You’re going to make mistakes. Get over it.
Looking back over my current novel draft, as well as some earlier stories, it seems to me that, at some level, the whole story is there, but in the process of transcribing that raw unconscious material, I’ve put things in the wrong place or left something out: I’ve misheard.
I repeat: at some level, the whole story is there.
Thus, in the process of revising my current novel, I realized that I had two characters exactly reversed in their major traits—no wonder they weren’t working! As soon as I switched them around, everything they did suddenly made sense.
Similarly with plot: although some of the first-draft plot events weren’t working, when I looked carefully at my setup and all the strands available to me to pull on, I saw that all the elements were in place for the fix—like a jigsaw, it was all there, I’d just been trying to pick up the wrong pieces in the first place. Once I realized that, the fix was easy.
Many rewriting issues, from plot to dialogue, can be solved by looking hard at your characters and making sure they’re fully alive, real people with their own hopes and fears and agendas. If a character isn’t working, or isn’t behaving credibly, look hard at their goals and motivations, work on their bio and backstory—in short, breathe life into them.
Of course, there are going to be side-effects and repercussions to any changes you make, and you’re going to have to track those diligently and make adjustments as required throughout the story. And some of the solutions will take time: my advice is, don’t force the pieces. But do talk to your characters. All the time.
As for the more minor mechanics of revision, I’d suggest that you keep a copy of every major draft and dump your deletions and cuts (at least those you’re fond of) into an ‘out-takes’ file. But don’t be afraid to make cuts, even whole chapters, and especially those scenes or lines of dialogue or description which—although they no longer work—you think you can’t bear to get rid of. Kill your darlings! You have an inexhaustible supply of imagination, and will find lines every bit as good or better to replace them with.
In summary, revision may not be always easy or fun, but it’s vital work that will make the difference between a great book and a dull or so-so one.
Which would you rather have?