Revision: Mining Old Stories to Make New Ones

Revision is my arch-nemesis, and also essential to achieving professional quality–apparently.

Fine, fine. It’s true. None of my first drafts are publishable. Some come close to being good, and possess raw energy that the following drafts lack, but that worked in my favor much more when writing fan fiction than it does for original. And, while a relatively good first draft can be redrafted to be near identical and also of good quality, it is my experience that stories almost always must be rewritten entirely.

Your mileage may vary, of course! My example is the only one I’ve got at the moment, so that’s what I’m going to use.

I need a real logo.

Revision Confessional?

Back in my fandom days, I made a point of (sometimes) sharing both the first and second drafts of stories that turned out well. I wanted people to know what a difference redrafting made. Now, I rarely redrafted fan fiction, and in fact still feel morally opposed to putting so much effort into a thing I can’t publish. I don’t know why I wanted to make this point to people, in retrospect. However, the practice turned out to be useful for me as well.

Just as I hated revising fan fiction, I also hate revising my original fiction. I thought–and part of me still believes–that if I can’t get it right the first time, it isn’t good. It’ll never be good. If I’m a good writer, I should be able to produce a high quality first draft. Redrafting also always feels like you’re losing the soul of the work, or the spark of the inspiration that made you write it. I can’t stand that. When I see other writers talk about revision as their favorite part of the process, it blows me away. Why? How?

But… over the years, that the vast difference in quality between my first and second drafts proved consistent, and convinced me to tolerate the idea that I must revise up the ass if I want to get anywhere.

I do not like the idea. I merely accept it.

Revising My Idea of Revision

How do I force myself to do something I hate? I’ve got a bad record on that. Laundry? Cooking? Essays my final grade depends on, which I still haven’t started writing, even though they’re due tomorrow?

(Yeah. Some of those didn’t get turned in. Shhhhh.)

What I do is tell myself that I’m writing a new story. At times that’s exactly what comes out: the basic plot idea might be the same, and the characters are the same, but the story changes so much people tell me it’s almost unrecognizable. Second drafts like this are almost always better at capturing what I want to say with the story.

Here’s why I think this is a good outlook:

  • It breaks you out of the expectations you’ve developed for the story.
  • It forces you to spend more time on your building blocks: setting, character, dialogue, etc.
  • You must continue to create new situations rather than clinging to the scenes you’ve already written.
  • By coming at your story from a new angle, you may find plot holes or other important elements that are missing.

When I cling to my first draft, I won’t always make necessary changes. I’m too busy trying to make this or that “work” while also fleshing out the background and adding ideas–but not too many, nothing game-breaking!–to explore new angles.

There is definitely a time and place for avoiding big changes and nitpicking your sentences–like later drafts! But when working with the very first iteration, completely rewriting the story can be valuable even if you later decide that the sequence of events in the original was best. In my case, rewriting also feels a little bit less like I’m trying to make excuses for something that should’ve come out perfectly the first time.

How to Approach a Complete Redraft

This is where I start stating the obvious. But sometimes seeing is believing, and prompts action.

I’m thinking short stories here; maybe novellas. I’m unsure how to approach rewriting a truly epic-length story, because I have not bothered to revise any novels yet. (They’re not worth it.) Probably the same way, but on a longer timeline, and with a new first step: throw manuscript at wall.

Step One: Put the Old Draft Away.

Close the file, stash your printout, shut the notebook. Stop looking at it. If you can make yourself stop looking at it a day ahead of time, even better.

If you were wondering, I take this waaaaaay too far and am known to let stories sit for more than a year before revising them. I don’t recommend this method if you want to actually get somewhere with your writing.

A week is fine. Even a month is fine.

Step Two: Pick a New Place to Start.

Choose a different point of view character, choose to begin with a scene at a different point of the story, consider using a different format, or change the tense.

For example, one of my more advanced stories (“advanced” referring to number of revisions endured) began in the format of old apocalyptic manuscripts with an omniscient narrator, which I submitted to my Very Literary writing program for critique. (I have no regrets.) There were problems with that draft, not least that I wasn’t good enough to carry the gravitas of that format, so for the second draft I rewrote the story in a more conventional style.

That didn’t work either. So I started again, focusing instead on the conflict I thought of–at the time–as central to the story. I was wrong, so I… started it again, with a completely different point of view, and so on. Seven drafts later, it still needs work, but at least it’s somewhat viable in its current state, and I have moved on to the aforementioned nitpicky stage.

I discovered a lot about that story as I rewrote it. Some of those discoveries were hard. One was fundamental–because it turned out the story I wanted to tell wasn’t what I thought at the beginning, but it took four drafts to realize that.

Step Three: Work on Your Building Blocks

Sometimes revising a good first draft reveals nasty problems hiding under the surface. Stuff like, say, your character motivation is missing or illogical, the sequence of events couldn’t possibly work, your setting has no substance. You’re starting to think Character A and Character C are more likely to get a room than to hate each other, and maybe that’s an interesting idea, but it changes everything.

You know: stuff.

Just doing the writing contributes in a small way. To use the easiest example: if you choose a new point-of-view character, for instance, they might view your setting quite differently, or focus on different details, which leads to more organic growth. But your point-of-view must be firmly grounded, and your reader has to know where they’re standing. So if you start in Character A’s living room, and have no idea how big it is, how light or dark it is, and where the couch is in relation to the door, that’s going to cause some confusion.

If you want your reader to feel like they’re floating, that’s cool. But if you don’t want that, now’s the time to work on grounding the story.

Step Four: Sit Down and Write

Because the majority of what I redraft is short, I tend to do this in one sitting. Obviously, novellas don’t get done in one sitting. (I’m sure it’s possible, but my wrists say no.)

Don’t feel obligated to follow the same path you did in the first draft. You can. But if you’re inspired to go in a different direction, go for it. Worst case, you just come back to your original draft and say, “nope, this was the right way.”

Step Five: Profit?

Or, in my case, “Look, you need to redraft again!”

Read your new draft. Compare it to the old one. Assess what you learned. Did you stumble across anything good, or, like me, is it just one more step in the long slog through the battlefield of I hate my writing, why did I become a writer, what did I think I was doing, etc. etc.?

I’m still fighting that battle, so let’s hold hands and start another redraft. After we take a nap.

Step N: It’s Never Over

I’m told that when you’re a Planner (vs. a Pantser), sometimes your first draft will be good enough to skip all the dramatic reassessment stuff. I have never experienced this and think it’s a myth, but other people magically make it happen.

Yes, despite what I said above about believing my first drafts should be perfect.

There is also a lot more to reassessing the direction of a story than what I summarized in step three. If I stay on the ball, the next several entries will be about developing these aspects of the story. For those of you who can actually follow a plan, these are steps you might take before you even start–but not always, since they’re often suggested as revision techniques. For those of us who can’t follow a plan, they definitely happen between drafts.

Since I wrote this in a hurry–the new normal, these days–I’m sure I missed something. I’ll add or change things later as I think of them, and if you have better ideas, please let me know!

Wednesday counts as Monday, since it’s after Christmas. Right…?

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