Friday, March 5, 2010

From the Ground Up

I am working with an agent to get a novel in shape to submit to publishers. I've been working with this agent for almost a year now (in fact, I just realized that tomorrow is the anniversary of our face-to-face meeting wherein we became engaged--I mean, when he became my agent and I became his client), and I've done two major revisions to the work so far. Neither of those revisions managed to fix the problem with the second half of the book, and it was only during a phone call with my agent about a month and a half ago that I realized what the actual problem was. Some back and forth with Mr. Agent ensued at that point, and I told him that I know what the problem actually is, and that I can fix it, but it will take some time and work. (Now, you might be wondering what the agent actually liked about the novel since it's not submission ready and I'm doing major revisions to it, but honestly that's the way it works a lot of the time and when you get your own agent, be prepared to do more work on the novel; sometimes a lot of work.)

Anyway, here are the details. My protagonist is involved in a familiar story and is telling his own story as it relates to the famous story. The first half of the book explains my protagonist's growing involvement with the famous story (which is "Hamlet," by the way), and the second half of the book tells the story of "Hamlet," sort of, and my protagonist's role in those events. Or at least, that's the premise. In reality, during the second half of the book my protagonist often fades into the background and is merely a narrator of my version of Shakespeare's story. My version is significantly different from Shakespeare's (because I lean heavily on not only the sources Shakespeare stole from, but I also take the characters in new directions), but still I end up focusing not on my protagonist's tale, but on him telling the tale of "Hamlet." Which was interesting, but in the end confusing and a problem.

So I've figured out that the way to deal with this (or the way I'm going to deal with this) is to use my version of "Hamlet" as the framing story instead of the actual story, and I've come up with an original dramatic arc for my protagonist that overlays and intertwines with my version of "Hamlet" and keeps the focus on the protagonist. So cool for me and Big Win, right? Almost.

The problem for me now is that almost none of my prose is going to be salvagable. If I can keep 20% of what I've written, I'll be very lucky. I began writing the new first chapter this week, which I had planned to create out of the existing Chapter 4, but I think that I want to essentially rewrite the whole book from the ground up. I'll keep some of the work, but I learned a huge amount while writing a different new novel this winter and my now-much-smarter-writer-brain wants to use my newfound writer smarts and not try to retread the old stuff. It looks, frankly, easier to start from scratch. I have a sort of bet with myself that I can come up with a complete draft of the new version by July. We'll see how well I do with that.

I know that Michelle has rewritten her most recent book (Monarch) from scratch, and I know that Davin is thinking about rewriting (or writing a whole new version of) his novel Rooster. I also know that the latest novel I've written, Cocke & Bull, is in some ways based on my very first (and very bad) novel from about 15 years ago. There must be other people who have scrapped entire novels and rewritten them from the ground up. I'm betting some of you have done that, and I'd like it a lot if you could share your experiences with that, and pass along any advice you might have. Also, please tell me the work was worthwhile!

Also: Happy Friday, and about time!


  1. That's what I like about the three of you--Scott, Davin, Michelle--you're not afraid to roll up your sleeves and grab a shovel. I'm not as far down the path as you, but I have figured out that I am rewriting, not revising, the two novels I'm working on.

  2. I've rewritten my first completed MS roughly three to four times (completely from scratch each time), and rewritten the current MS twice.

    It's so very much worth it.

  3. That is commitment. I applaud your willingness to discard your much toiled-over words.

    I've overhauled my first novel three times, and at every stage I've thought: this is IT, I can't possibly do any more changes and still keep the most basic of my vision of it.

    I wonder, if the novel ever gets picked up and more major revisions are requested, to the extent you're describing here, how I will be able to do it.

    Painful and angst-filled: most definitely. Worthwhile: I believe so.

    Well, I guess the bridge is still far enough away that I can trust myself to come up with what I need when the time comes to cross it.

    Good luck on your rewrite. I am not exactly sure I know what you mean by the framing story, but I can sense your excitement in it.

  4. Since I have read your book, I agree with the changes you're making. It thought it was a good book before, but now you're going to make it great.

    Yes, I have this sinking feeling that rewriting Monarch once might not be all it needs - that I may have to rewrite it three or four times before it's right. But who knows. I've certainly shaped it better this time around.

    Writing novels is hard. That's all there is to it, and I believe 100% that rewriting something for the right reasons is definitely worth it. Even if Monarch never gets published, I'm proud of what I've done with it and what it has taught me. It has made me a better writer in so many ways.

  5. Oh, and I think it's worth it to note the title of your post - From the Ground Up. That's not "Halfway Up" or whatever. Rewriting is different than revising. A real rewrite, for me, comes only when I open a new document and start over. I only used about 5% of my old draft from before. If that.

  6. Yat-Yee: A frame story is a story that sets up the more-important story (or stories) by introducing to the reader a setting and narrator who then tells a story different from the one he is inside. The most famous example is the story of Scheherezade, whose dramatic life-or-death situation leads her to tell the tales of 1,001 nights, which are stories-within-the-story. The Arthurian legends are another frame story with nested stories, as is Ovid's "Metamorphoses." Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is another. I could go on, but mercifully I won't. In discussing my book, I'm using "frame story" a bit more loosely than that, in that my book will present itself as "Hamlet" but then tell a different story-within-the-story.

  7. I've done a complete re-write, and the book is much better for it. It's a difficult decision because of the amount of work, but well worth it in terms of quality.

    I've also re-written chapters, most commonly the first chapter. If you make any significant changes to the middle or end of the story, chances are you will want to revisit the beginning to set a more solid foundation.

  8. A little different situation, but I got 30k words into my current MS and realized I needed to approach it differently. So I stopped writing and started over. And what I have now is sooo much better! It can be discouraging when you realize you need a major do-over, but it seems worth it. :)

  9. Two things I saw when I read this post. First off, you three are impressive in your determination to plunge in again and again to get your books written well.

    The second thing I noticed is that all three books have something "animal-like" about their names. Yes, my weird brain tied together Monarch (butterfly), Rooster (self-explanatory), and "...Bull" (the bovine, as opposed to how you meant it of course). I'm sure the books themselves are in no way aligned like this. Just a funny observation I had.

    Happy Friday and good luck on your revisions.

  10. Eric: Yes, we've made this connection before. Isn't it funny? Of course, we were usually going with Scott's Hamlet book and the EEL scene, but the Bull works, too. :)

  11. Scott: thanks for the explanation.

    Another thought occurs to me as I slog away at my WIP (okay, technically I'm procrastinating right this moment because I am here commenting, and not writing). The certainty that many, if not most, of the words I am putting down today, will be discarded or at best, morphed. And that is strangely comforting.

  12. Yat-Yee: Last week I finished the first draft of a new novel. The whole time I was writing it, I kept in mind that every single word was only provisional, and I found that to be a great comfort. "I don't have to love it, I only have to finish it" was my mantra for that draft.

  13. Michelle & Eric: Well, nature is cool, you know. And animal names in titles sell! Yes, they do! I read that on Wikipedia. Erm...

    I don't know if Davin, Michelle and I are determined so much as we seem to be stubborn. But as Robert Fripp once said, "Purely through hard work, one can become an artist."

    I am pleased to see comments that starting over from scratch has been worth it for others. I have high hopes for my own book. I also hope that I learned enough revising (and failing) with this book that I didn't make the same mistakes and won't need to do as much work on the novel I have just finished. I think the structure is solid and all I need to do is expand some stuff I basically sketched in, and narrow down the characterizations. Otherwise, it's a work of blindingly bright genius, I'm sure. No, I am. Honest.

  14. Tricia: The only choices I see are to roll up our sleeves and get to work, or to whine when nobody reads our unpublished books. I've never really considered the difference between "revising" and "rewriting" before, but I sure am now.

    Matthew: I'm glad to hear it's worth it. How much time did you spend on the rewriting?

    Yat-Yee: Though I admit to moments of abject tears during this process, knowing that my agent loves the premise, the voice, the writing and direction I'm taking and knowing that other writers have gone through the same thing on their way to publication, gives me strength. Also, and maybe more importantly, every new vision I have of the book (or "re-vision" if you will) makes it a better book.

    Michelle: There is no wasted effort; it all goes to experience. I think about the four years I put into my very first novel, and while the book itself sucks, I'm glad I used the time to write instead of play video games or just think about writing or whatever.

    Rick: How is the rewrite to Fate's Guardian going? You're still working on Rudy now, aren't you?

  15. Scott, so true. I was watching a movie this afternoon and there was a line in there that said, "In 40 years we'll both be dead, anyway." That made me think of what I'm going to leave behind after I'm gone, and my novels are something I'd be happy leaving behind. Of course, that takes a lot of work and time so I'm glad I'm not wasting that time doing stuff that's a waste.

  16. I detest the thought of a rewrite, but always feel better after I get started.

    Good luck!

  17. I'm not an outliner, so I often write a first draft of a novel, come up with new ideas for the story, and start over with a new draft. Sometimes I can save some text from the original draft, but often I start from scratch. It takes a lot of time, but it is a learning experience. As for advice, all I can suggest is don't look back at the old draft but focus on moving ahead.

  18. Sandra: I don't think there's anything wrong with doing that. In fact, I think you are an outliner - you're just doing it in a roundabout way, and your outline is really long and detailed. :)

  19. Yes I have rewritten ALMOST from scratch a couple of times. Yes, it is worth it.

    My writer brain wanted to use all the new stuff I'd been learning too and though the gist of the story is there, it doesn't look at all like the original I was so very proud of.

    Congratulation on figuring out your problem spots and having the courage to pour so much more effort into the story.


  20. I did that with mine. I even changed from 1st person to 3rd. I was able to salvage some things and with those I ended up using them because I kept thinking "how did I say that in the old one? That's just how I want it here." Then I pulled up those pages and would use the section or rework it somehow. In some ways it was easier to do the fresh parts though.

    One of my favorite chapters came about because of the complete rewrite. It added a whole new dimension to the story and it's a chapter the betas have all loved so far.

  21. Well, I don't have an agent, so I guess I don't know yet if it was PRACTICALLY worth it, but dang, it sure was EMOTIONALLY worth it!

    I rewrote a book from scratch and it was a zillion times better. And that wasn't a fix after a first draft. That was after I thought I was totally and completeley DONE but then realized, like you, that there was a fatal flaw that NEEDED to be repaired.

    I repaired it (requiring a dramatic rewrite) and now it's a story I'm proud of.

    Hard, hard work, but almost totally exhilerating because THAT'S when you really get to see just how awesome your story is.

    Yay for you for making this hard decision. Good luck!

  22. I hate doing even minor rewrites. Guess that's why I'm not on the NY Times bestseller list. Anyway, I just wanted to stop by and show you all my new hat.

  23. Last summer I’d thought my novel was pretty much done.

    Then I found Victoria Mixon, the editor. I sent her the opening passages, mainly to be sure the premise was clear, since the entire story (as well as the title) rested on that premise. Word count alone determined the cut off of what I sent. When she replied she made some good suggestions which I understood right away. She also said, regarding the end of the passage I’d sent, that it was a great set up for the next passage and she couldn’t wait to read it! Funny thing, though. It wasn’t a set up. It was actually the end of that passage. When I thought about it I realized she was right, and that I could insert a whole new scene right there that would enhance everything following it. So I did, and after a few weeks sent the next sections to her. The same thing happened again. What she was expecting to follow wasn’t at all what I’d written, but was exactly what needed to be written. So I re-worked the next chapters and sent them off, with the same result.

    It was then I knew it was time to go back and rewrite the whole damn thing! The rewriting took longer than the original draft. It wasn’t quite as much fun as writing the first draft, but was far more satisfying. The story is much better now. Scenes got put in better places. Suddenly there were obvious ways to replace exposition with dialog. A secondary character became more integral to the story and opened the door for a more in-depth development of one of the main characters.

    The rewrite is now finished. As soon as I find that lottery ticket from December I misplaced (I’m sure it’s the winner!) I’ll send the whole manuscript to her.

  24. I'm rewriting write now, and I think it's harder than writing the first time around. Probably because a voice in my head keeps whining, "Oh, come on, didn't we write this thing already." And it takes an effort to shut him up. Not to mention the characters in my head adding to tangents to the story every time I blink, darn them. Stupid things have a mind of their own, but that's a conversation for another time.

    Good luck with your rewrites. I hope they work out for you.

  25. I've definitely done it.

    One novel, is on it's 4th rewrite. We aren't talking minor tweaks. We're talking major plot changes. About the only thing it has in common with the original is the names of a few characters! (yes, each time I wrote 80-90k).

    Another is undergoing a major tweak because the original concept was too weak.

    The rest, so far, haven't needed huge rehauls. It's a long, hard process. But once you get that plot right, it's so exhilerating (sp?)

  26. I always do this. I'm going through it right now with two novels. The first has already been through one lot of ground-up rewrites. The second is in second-draft stage, but I'm tackling the big picture and the structure before I home in on the details. I already have five older versions, all radically different!

    Really helpful post - even though it's a familiar process, I found the details of your rewrite interesting and they cheered me on with mine.


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