I was sitting at my laptop, figuring I had about twenty more pages of the novel to go and suddenly I realised… That’s it. There’s nothing to add. The story had come to a natural conclusion. It crept up on me. I had set a goal of a specific word-count, but the story itself had other ideas. So, only two weeks after myself-imposed deadline, I found myself at the end of the first draft.
There are many milestones in a writer’s life. Finishing the novel. Getting that long-awaited e-mail from an agent or publisher expressing interest. Seeing the book accepted. Then there’s the arrival of the galley copies, the book launch… These things feed into the dreams we had when we were kids, when we first picked up a book and thought, That’s what I want to do.
But even before you get to any of those points, there’s another milestone very few people can truly appreciate: finishing the first draft and getting ready for the first rewrite.
No, it’s not quite the same as finishing a book, but it’s a milestone nonetheless and deserves recognition. Getting the that first draft down on paper (or in pixels, if you prefer) is a huge accomplishment. As flawed, as incomplete, and as pitiful as it may be, it is the foundation of the work that will follow. Now the real writing can begin.
I love rewrites. Correction, I love the first rewrite. This is where I take the story apart and reconstruct it. Where I polish the prose and enhance the tale. It’s my favourite part of the writing process. Instead of just ploughing through the pages, trying to get the tale down, I can savour each sentence, weigh each word, perfect each paragraph. I test that the structure holds, that the pacing has a rhythm and an urgency where needed, and I make sure the characters are well-drawn and individual. After that, the wonderful first rewrite, it gets harder.
Each subsequent rewrite offers its own challenges. At ever stage, the writing needs to have a lyricism but not lose its spontaneity. This can be hard to achieve when you’re on your seventh or eighth pass. Once you get to the point where you know the novel almost by heart, it’s hard not to get worn down the the endless reworking. This is one of the reasons I love that first rewrite so much. The story is still malleable and fresh. Like bread dough without the yeasty aroma.
What makes that first rewrite so special? Well, by the time I sit down to work on it, I have figured out the story and know the characters. All the things I learned by getting through that creaky first draft can now be applied as I rework the tale. While I was writing that ghastly foundation draft I only had a rough idea of where I was going. Sometimes it took me a while to figure out the story my subconscious was trying to tell me. Why was Molly was so gloomy in chapter 2? It took me to chapter 11 to find out. But now as I begin the rewrite, I do know what was going on in her head. Now I can develop that early scene and give it a depth and and resonance it didn’t have before.
If the first draft is just making it up as you go along, the second draft is about refining, clarifying, and restructuring. This is where you realise some scenes are non-starters. You introduced a maiden aunt in chapter four but by chapter five she’d vanished. Sorry, Auntie Edna, but it’s time you went bye-bye. If you introduced Auntie merely to explain that Molly had suffered a miscarriage years earlier, then perhaps a more dynamic character should have that reveal. Or maybe you need to work on your exposition. Either way, there’s no point keeping a character around if they only do one thing.
Discovering a whole character, or chapter, or even several chapters, have to be eliminated may cause internal bleeding, but you and your novel will be better for it. Don’t try to wheedle out of it. Don’t try to compromise. Surgical cuts are best. Stop whining. Just do it.
Writing that second draft is where you use your most writerly tools. This is where you get to play with words, interrogate your characters, and see your prose transform from dross to gold. You’ll love it… At least until you get to the next rewrite.
As I was working on the blog last night, word came that Ursula K Le Guin has died. She wrote wonderful books that saw dragons and wizards encounter spaceships, and she used her fiction to address issues of race, gender and class. Ms Le Guin was the author of more than 20 novels and over 100 short stories, including what I consider one of the greatest short stories ever written, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
I can’t do better than to conclude by offering her following tongue-in-cheek advice:
If you want your writing to be taken seriously, don’t marry and have kids, and above all, don’t die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They approve of that.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989).