Rewriting Your Novel

Gizmo, courtesy of Robin Riley

Rewriting a novel is hard. Yet after you’ve spent so much time drafting and then cooling off your hot property, that story deserves to be fixed up.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few ideas for rewriting your drafted novel.

So What?

Most first-time novelists rewrite by tinkering with sentences and word choices. Some might change character names or that famous opening paragraph. While these are part of the rewriting process, looking at the small stuff might be better after you’ve nailed down your story.

I always advise writers to start big—first, review your story stakes, goals and obstacles. The stakes of a story reveal so much—stakes will tell you if your work can pass the So What? test. The So What test answers the question, “Why should readers care?” If Character A doesn’t do/win/get the overarching goal, so what? If the answer is, “well he/she will be sad,” consider raising those stakes.

Goals and obstacles are partners. The goal is the positive force that pushes the character forward. Obstacles (which can be people, weather, nature) try to prevent that forward motion and defeat the character or the goal. Without a worthy set of goal and obstacle, your story will fail the So What test.

Goals and obstacles are partners.

Start at the Start

Many first-time novelists open the story too far back in time. Readers must sift through several chapters of background before the action starts. If there is too much “set-up,” most readers won’t keep reading until the match is struck.

Determine the moment/scene where the character is forced to go after the story goal. Something changes—after which, nothing will ever be the same. This is often called the Inciting Incident. Your hero is going along fine, then Bam! He/she has little choice but to pursue the goal.

I usually advise those with these “slow” opening chapters to find that inciting Incident and move it way up. A little bit of characterization and then Bam! Lop off those long explanations and set-up. Readers prefer action to explanation.

Back Story Blues

But what about all that rich info from those lopped off chapters? Use the info in very small doses (see Rule of Three) to embroider the action. You can weave one to three sentences of inner thought, emotional or interior dialogue to show your character’s motivation and info at the same time as the action is unfolding.

The temptation will be to copy/paste these long paragraphs of flashback into the active scene. That’s why I love the Cold Mashed Potato rule. If you interrupt the scene to let the character’s mind “reel back,” you risk the reader forgetting all about the present scene.

Limit these back story inserts to a few sentences (the higher the action, the fewer the sentences). Readers will need to be reminded of “where/when” they are about every three sentences or paragraphs, depending on the genre. Be sure that the back story isn’t more interesting than the real-time scene. You want to deepen and embellish, not overrun the real-time story.

Next: Storyboarding for Pace

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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