redrafting a novelGetting a Novel Right Part 2 - Redrafting

by Marg McAlister


At one time or another, you're bound to read through something you've written and realise with a dreadful sinking feeling that it Just Doesn't Work. The temptation is to ignore this knowledge and pretend it isn't so. Understandable enough. No-one wants to admit that months (or years) of hard work has just gone down the drain.

There's only one thing worse than having to grit your teeth and admit that your story needs major surgery, and that's ignoring the danger signals and sending it off to an editor anyway.

If you know the story's fatally flawed, do you honestly expect that the editor won't notice? Or that he will, but take it anyway?

You're a professional. Don't be tempted to behave like a high school student willing to settle for a passing grade. Your editor's not handing out grades. You either hit the jackpot or you don't. An editor will discuss fixing minor problems with you, but he won't bother with major rewrites.

What are the signs that you need to redraft whole sections of your story?

  • Your story rolls along nicely until about halfway through, then stalls. Even you lose interest in your characters.
  • You know in your heart of hearts that the reasons for a character's actions aren't logical-and the rest of the book from that point hinges on those reasons.
  • You've included scenes that indulge an interest or hobby of yours rather than advancing the plot.
  • The ending isn't logical or satisfying: i.e. the reasons for the hero being able to track down or capture the villain, or the way in which the climactic scene is handled.
  • You've let a sub-plot or secondary character overshadow the main plot/main characters.

What to do:

Analyse the problem. Be honest with yourself. Get input from other writers.

Go back to the point where your story started to 'lose the plot'. Where was the point of departure? Did you stick to the original outline even when it became clear that it wasn't going to work? Did you veer off course into a new story direction that didn't work?

  • If the problem was poor character motivation - can you supply a more powerful motivation for the character's actions that will fit in with the same plot development? (If you can, the revisions may be less extensive.) If you can't, you'll have to do substantial rewrites. The reader won't believe in a character who does things for no good reason.
  • If a sub-plot grew too big  -how can you fix it? Reduce its importance? Leave it out entirely? Cut it out and substitute another? Keep in mind that any subplot must contribute to the story line.
  • If a minor character assumed too much importance - can you give them a less prominent role in the story? Fewer lines of dialogue? Keep them off stage more? (If youreally like this character, perhaps you can substitute another less colourful character and keep this charismatic person on file to be the lead in your next book.)
  • If your story is out of balance because you gave too much space to your own interests - Do you need to cut the scene (or chapter) and move on with the rest of the story? Can you insert a new scene somewhere else which will add to the conflict or add a new twist?
  • If your story stalls and you're not sure why-it's often because there's not enough action and too much reflection. Or a scene includes too much rambling dialogue. Or the conflict isn't important enough.

Perhaps you need to introduce an extra subplot to keep the story moving and the reader involved. If there's not enough conflict, can you introduce a new plot wrinkle? (Bring in an unexpected character with some startling news? Have a letter arrive which takes an eyewitness away unexpectedly?) Use your imagination. Just make sure that any new developments have a direct bearing on the plot... and that they make the main character's job of reaching his/her goal even harder.

If you know something's wrong but you still can't work out for yourself why, ask a critique group or a writer friend to look at your work and offer suggestions, or use a critique/editing service.

Two final thoughts: (1) Does the problem lie in the opening scenes? Should you simply start at a different place in the story? Or (2) Is the story irretrievably flawed? If you can't think of a way to fix it, you might have to face facts and start with a new story and a new cast. Be philosophical about it: lots of authors regard this as just part of their apprenticeship.

© Marg McAlister


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