For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2020, I redrafted the fourth novel in The Expansion Series. This is the second time I’ve redrafted a novel from scratch. I thought it was time to write about a process few writers talk about, but almost all of us go through at some point in our development.
Writing is hard. Beyond the common examples brought up to support this statement — the mental effort and practice required to develop your prose, character and story into something not just “good enough” but actually good—something other people might actually want to read— there’s another aspect less talked about, for reasons that will be obvious.
The casualties along the way. I don’t just mean your early trunk novels that will never see the light of day. I mean the earlier drafts of novels that you fully intend to publish.
I mean the total redrafts.
Total redraft — are there any two words more likely to send a shiver up writers’ spines?
My editor is also one of the people I love most in the world. That’s probably a contributing factor as to why, when he recommended I redraft my third novel, I didn’t recommend he jump head first into a lake. But I was tempted.
I’d thought my third novel was okay: I just had to tighten the structure, update some characterizations; how much had I really changed/grown as a writer in the intervening years since I’d finished it?
A lot, as it turned out. Enough that my “okay” draft had become a soggy, tedious mess. And I was faced with a decision. Which brings me to:
How do you know when to abandon a project, and when to redraft?
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes you look back at a project that needs to be redone from scratch and realize it’s not worth doing. Maybe it doesn’t work because the premise is too flawed, you’re not the right person to tell it, or your interests and concerns have changed from when you wrote it.
But what if, like me, you are still invested? What if you care about the story and believe it’s worth telling?
Then it’s time to buckle up, because this is where writing gets hard.
What redrafting asks of you
I recently read Dean Wesley Smith’s short book Stages of a Fiction Writer, in which he attempts to describe the four stages fiction writers go through as they develop in their careers. I didn’t agree with all his points, but one thing stuck out that felt true in my own experience: as a writer develops their craft, they go from caring about the prose— the actual words on the page—to caring about the story those words convey.
This might strike the average reader (or reader-writer) as odd. After all, isn’t the prose the lifeblood of written fiction, the medium through which the writer constructs the story?
To which I say, yes — but focusing on writing good prose without building a solid story structure to hold it up is like building a skyscraper without a foundation. The result in either case is disaster.
Redrafting forces you to look past the actual words you wrote to the supporting structure (or lack thereof) underneath. To successfully redraft a novel, you need to understand its structure: what works in the story, what doesn’t, and how to fix it. Redrafting is what finally made me understand that revising a scene doesn’t mean fiddling with the prose until it reads prettily. It means knocking out a wall, adding a new window, sometimes ripping down the entire building.
Words in this metaphor are your materials: you used them to build the first version of the scene, but to make it stand you have to demolish them and rebuild with new materials. There will always be more words.
Redrafting also makes you reimagine what the story could be on a macro level. Writers often talk of the terror or the blank page, but writer’s block can attack just as fiercely when staring at the full page. It’s easy to get hung up on the previous version of a novel as the way it “should be”, because that’s the draft that currently exists.
I sometimes call this “but that’s how the story goes” syndrome. The way I combat it is to think of the earlier draft as practice or proof of concept and tell myself nothing is set in stone. The book isn’t published; it isn’t even a book yet. It’s a drafting board, a playground where I’m free to bounce ideas off each other and discover a new life for the story.
That’s the final point I want to make. Redrafting your novel gives you freedom. It can be incredibly freeing to let go of the old draft, of “how the story goes”, and begin afresh.
You might just find a whole new novel waiting for you.
I want to hear from you! Have you ever redrafted a novel, or are you redrafting one right now? If you participated in NaNoWriMo this year, how did it go?