Writing a novel is a learning process. Rewriting one, even more so. Whenever I am working on a rewrite, I get mad at my earlier self for not being more careful with continuity and pacing. “What idiot wrote this gobbledygook anyway?” I shout to the heavens. Oh yeah…it was me.
I’ve been through the writing/rewriting cycle a few times now: for two, as yet, unpublished novels, for Going Through the Change, a novel which came out this spring from Curiosity Quills Press, and the sequel, Change of Life, which I’m hoping will come out next year.
Here’s what I have learned in all of this work:
1. Each novel is its own specific puzzle. You can’t put this one together the same way you did another.
I felt like I learned so much from writing and rewriting my first novel, His Other Mother (unpublished). For example: how to structure a novel that featured a lot of internal conflict in such a way that the reader is still engaged. Or how to stick really well to the point of view in a particular chapter without accidentally slipping into another character’s head.
And those lessons served me well when I sat down to write Going Through the Change. The first draft of Change was ten times better than the first draft of Mother.
But that wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all. In reworking Change, I had a different kind of puzzle to solve. Much of the conflict was external. There were physical fight scenes in which logistics had to be clear, but I still had to maintain the emotion and excitement of the fight. Nothing I’d written in that first novel helped with those new problems. This isn’t a learning curve with an end. There’s always more to learn.
2. When you write with the end in sight, the first draft holds together better.
Another contrast between that first novel and the second one was planning. I would still say I’m a pantser rather than a plotter, meaning that I write to discover what’s going to happen most of the time rather than working from an outline. In fact, I had no idea how Mother was going to end until I was nearly done writing the first draft. Of course, that meant that I had to go back and rework a lot of the earlier parts of the novel in the second and third and fourth drafts to make sure that the beginning and middle led to and supported the ending.
In contrast, in the Change, I knew what the ending scene would look like very early on. I wrote a draft of the ending chapter when I had only written six or seven chapters of what ended up being a fifty-chapter book. That made all the difference. I knew what I was leading up to, and, though, of course, there was a lot of rewriting to do, the first draft led to the ending far better this time.
3. Even with the end in sight, things will change and you will have to backtrack and fix things.
When writing goes well, at least for me, it feels like story just flows out of you. So sometimes, you are surprised by what happens. Characters say or do something you hadn’t anticipated. Do you scrap it just because it’s not in the plan? Oh, heck no! Some of that stuff is really good, probably better than the stuff you had planned!
But when you deviate from the plan, it means you’ll have to go back and change other things. For me, this time, that was a timeline issue. I changed when my character Linda told her family about her, um, changes. So that changed, all told, parts of about fifteen chapters. But, my beta readers were right. It didn’t make sense for her to take so long. And it is MUCH better now.
Which brings me to:
4. Don’t resist change just because it will be hard work. Do what the story demands.
Changing when Linda told her family led me to also change how someone in her family reacted. It added another layer of complication, but it played more true. When I realized how house-that-Jack-built this particular stack of dominos was getting, I considered not going there. But, no–it served the story better. It let me deepen Linda’s storyline by adding some tension in an otherwise over-perfect marriage. It made her more real. So, yeah, hard work, but so worth it.
Of course, organizing those adjustments to the manuscript was no easy chore when we’re talking about 80,000 or more words. That leads me to the final lesson I learned:
5. A good graphic organizer can save your sorry butt.
It was a sort of timeline/chart that helped me this time. My mad scientist, Dr. Liu, was in the scenes of different women at different times. I was getting confused about where I’d left her last. I found a mistake where I had her in two places at the same time.
So, I made a little chart of chapter titles and highlighted the ones that Dr. Liu was in, so I could see where she was and make sure she had time to get from one place to another and could see when she was having a behind-the-scenes moment, unobserved by other characters and able to enact her nefarious plans.
In other projects, it was a character relationship chart, or a motivation tracker, or a literal timeline of what happened when. Usually, I make these up myself, or adjust some template someone gave me or that I found on the Internet.
There’s a lot of information to juggle in a novel. That grandchild you gave your character in chapter one was a boy, right? But here in chapter thirty-seven, it’s a girl. Oops. So, yes, graphic organizers.
So there you go! See, she can be taught! I hope that what I learned can be of use to someone else who is heading down this convoluted road we call novel-writing.