Rewriting, revising, it’s-all-going-to-be-crap; or, to be one of the happy few

"What? ANOTHER revision?"

Revising, like war, is hell.

For those of you stuck in your own Work-In-Progress, or for anyone who wonders why it takes so long to write a novel, I offer up my own (unfinished) experience.

The backstory

This is not my first novel. I wrote my first novel in the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, got a 60-odd page draft out of that, which I spent the next three years revising (took it to end of third draft, full-length manuscript by that point), even working with an editor on that third go-round. Decided I no longer wanted to work on that novel.  Too autobiographical, was sick of the story and characters, and knew there was no point in going further with it.

Draft 1

This brings us to early 2003. In a burst of creativity and about a week, wrote a novella about heavy metal, werewolves, vampires and suburban Winnipeg in the 1980s.  Had a total blast writing it.  Took it to my writing group for feedback, and got plenty — mostly encouragement, but also some criticism. Ringing comment on this, which I didn’t realize would be the first of many drafts, was “I wanted there to be more.” I hadn’t fleshed out the world, the characters, or the story.

My solution: tinker with the story, rewrite the dull opening, move a few things around, and start submitting it.

Fantastically exciting lessons from the submission process:

  • There is almost no market for novellas.
  • If you wish to quote extensively from song lyrics, you need permission for every one, from each rights holder (there were many), and you have to pay based on the print run and other factors. This is BEFORE you submit, because in submitting you need to have secured all rights to the text you’re submitting. Yep, it’s a barrel-of-laughs catch-22.

Draft 2

Cut all quoted song lyrics and build up why the music is so important.  Hm, this actually makes the whole story stronger.

Cut to 20,000 words. Ouch. Keep submitting sporadically. Try to find more places to send novella. Blah.

Draft 2.5-ish

As a side project, rewrite events of story from other main character’s point of view. Wow, this is exciting!  I’ve suddenly got two whole novellas that stand on their own!

Take new novella to writing group. Everyone agrees it does not stand on its own without the other novella. Women in group agree my take on adolescence from girl’s point of view needs serious work. Nobody really feels this main character, the way they felt the main character — a male — in the other one. Crap.

Around this time, 2004-ish, have been working on this huge work for more than a year. Keep working on other short stories in this world, with some of the same characters, but begin working for small Icelandic newspaper, and all writing energy now gets poured into that.

In 2005: get married, buy first house, get big promotion at work.  Start and abandon new novel with same characters, set in present day.  Get roughly 80 – 100 pages of this done before realizing it won’t work until the earlier story has been revised and rewritten — and published! Abandon all of this as work becomes all-consuming for the next two years.

Bright light of success: one of side stories set in same world is published, after working with editor at The Harrow.  I am fantastically overjoyed by my second fiction sale ever, and that it’s a story I am (still, even today) proud of.

Drop out of writing group since job as editor of Icelandic newspaper leaves no time for anything else.

Read many books published by Writer’s Digest on plot, structure, revision, writing fantasy.

By 2007 — first daughter born, change jobs to work nights as copy editor at Winnipeg Free Press. Get polished version of original novella onto shortlist for anthology. Editor of same asks to see something else, so I hastily write a second novella set in same world, expanding a villain who I’d been dying to write a backstory for.  Submit that as well.

Both novellas rejected.

In 2008 – 2009, start working on different “sequel” novel to original story, set immediately after events of same.  Plough through writing first draft, using spare minutes, hours, any scrap of time available. Churn out 300-page new novel and ring the bell of psychological success: this is the longest fully complete work of fiction I have ever written.

Ask good friend Sharon Caseburg, talented and hard-working editor, if she’ll look it over for me. She agrees.

After writing “sequel,” have serious concerns that without publishing original story somehow, new novel will make less sense and all world-building will have to be done there instead. And then, if I ever get original stories published, they will seem extraneous, when in fact they were the main story to begin with. Crap.

Draft 3

Brilliant idea: take two original novellas and merge them into one novel. Get both first-person perspectives, all the world-building, and a complete story.  Tell Sharon this is the book I would like her help with; she has some reservations about whether there is a novel there, based on my description of project.  “Pshaw!” I say.  “This should be easy.”

Things to be learned from combining two narratives:

  • merging timelines doesn’t mean narrative tension is preserved, even if the chronology of events is consistent.
  • a lot of extra scenes are suddenly needed.
  • man, this needs to be rewritten again even before Sharon sees it.

Draft 4

Go over everything to smooth it out. This takes months. Second daughter born. Stop writing entirely for a while.

Draft 5

Chuck everything that drags (which is a lot), put in cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, intersperse both POVs equally, completely scrap old ending and rewrite into knock-down drag-out climax.

Give MS to Sharon. Ask wife and members of former writing group such as Ariel Gordon and Perry Grosshans for their reactions of this new, great, just-about-ready-to-publish draft.  Just needs a few tweaks and some polishing, surely.

Take in everyone’s feedback.  Most of it positive; but rumblings that some of this complex world and its many, many characters hard to keep track of. Perry says, and I quote: “A-ha! You’ve crossed over to join me in writing YA! I knew it!” Or something to that effect.  Tell Perry to shush. Also, people still finding it hard to get into female character’s POV.  Why is that? Did tons of more research and revamped (hah) the whole thing.  She’s way more fleshed out now. Right?

Get feedback from Writer-in-Residence at Winnipeg Public Library, Maurice Mierau. When asked, he says yes, this would work well for YA. Maurice asks me to be part of public reading at library. I accept, because I never met an open mic I didn’t like.

Submit much-revised first page to Anne Mini’s highly respected writing blog and win third-place prize of detailed critique.  Am ecstatic to get such critical feedback — surely I am on the right track with this. And: wow, is formatting a manuscript even more involved than I realized. And I thought I’d done everything right. Start to realize maybe what I’m writing is YA. But maybe not.

Sit down and listen to Sharon’s feedback. She raises many, many questions about the scope of the novel, the split perspectives, the complex world that is not explained enough. Ringing quote from this round of feedback: “You’ve got three novels here. Take the first third and turn it into a complete book.”


Draft 6

Become Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Aqua Books.  Get studio space for free, lead workshops on editing and writing, spend many hours writing (and eating) there.  Owner Kelly Hughes lets me use space for two extra months.  Rewrite along lines suggested by Sharon. Make good progress, about 150 – 200 pages. Read first two chapters of this draft as featured writer on open mic night at Aqua Books to great support and enthusiasm. Also discuss work in progress live on UMFM’s Cretin Radio show.

This brings us into 2011.

Apply for and get new full-time position working days at the Free Press. Wow: consistent paycheque, nights open — this rocks!

Time during days for writing… gone.

Abandon draft for about six months. Discuss ideas for revision with Sharon.  She advises, again, that I drop the female POV. Finally, I agree.  Decide to bring that character into male POV’s story at beginning and tie their stories together from the start, HOWEVER MANY CHANGES this means for the story. Feel in my gut that this is right. Never liked that in previous drafts it took so long for main characters to even meet — a function of sticking to chronology from original novella. When you add enough to the story it has to change shape, otherwise you get structural problems like this.

Draft 7

In November, see Michael Rowe read from Enter, Night, his vampire novel set in 1970s Ontario. Get encouragement from him to finish my own novel. Sit down next day and start writing from scratch. Stop worrying about whether it is YA or not and just write.  Sure, there’s swearing, violence and sexual tension, but… that’s high school.  Plan, somewhere down the line, to take Anne Mini’s advice and submit to both YA and adult markets.

Write during any scrap of time available. On days off, during lunch break, on bus while commuting.

Start following agents and editors on Twitter. Find out about Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel books. Read them and start working through them, applying everything to novel.  Take writing workshop with Anita Daher. Start up a blog, because I have so much free time. Not.

Today: have been working on this novel, including many related works that may never see publication, for nine years. Novel at 70,000 words, probably needs 40,000 more, then huge edits. After that, probably an eighth draft and more editing and polishing. Then it will be submission-ready. Realize I’ve thought this repeatedly throughout this whole process. Don’t care.

Doubt that I will finish this novel: none.

Doubt that it will be published: ditto.

8 thoughts on “Rewriting, revising, it’s-all-going-to-be-crap; or, to be one of the happy few

  1. David,

    I’m a writing friend of Maggie Bolitho’s. I read your last comment and felt compelled to read your blog. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at reading this. I’ve chosen to laugh, mostly for self-preservation as I am now facing some of the same hurdles you have already mastered.

    I admire your tenacity. A full-time job and family is a drain on anyone’s time. I know. I’m there now. I too, had a news background. Writing for television, with a steady paycheck, was apparently too dull for me. Some days I want to kick myself for embarking on this whole novel-writing project. It’s not an easy one. Some days it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, others pure torture. If I didn’t have Maggie to prop me up and give me a swift kick from time to time, I would have scrapped it long ago. I feel like I’m in a slow marathon, struggling to the end. But right now I think I’m at the 20th mile mark (this is first draft BTW).

    I hope your latest revision is ‘The One.’

    Allison Doke

    • Hey Allison:

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad to hear you are slogging away at your WIP. Best advice I ever read about starting a novel is not stopping until you get to the end of the draft. All the way. Screw the inconsistencies and major problems — don’t fix them yet. By the end of the draft you’ll know what the story is really about. Then you can go back and revise accordingly. My problem was that I was too impatient and kept trying to send the thing off before it was fully formed (who was I kidding, calling it a novella?), and then getting sidetracked by either clinging to the older versions or, paradoxically, throwing them right out and starting something new. It all became fodder for the One True Draft, though; and along the way I’ve tried to absorb as much as possible about the craft of writing and making sure I don’t slack off on anything in the MS.
      If you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying workbook. Best time to read them is between drafts, because they provide very, very useful tools for getting the most out of your story, and can really re-energize you when you tackle revisions.
      Keep on going. Writing a novel is a marathon. It just takes constant work 🙂


  2. G’day David – great blog.

    Every year, since 2007, it has been my tradition to take out my great Australian novel and revise it. In December I finally gave it to a professioanl editor. Among other things, she said I really had 3 novels, not just one. I’m currently in the process of stripping out all the superfluous bits and fleshing out what is clearly missing.

    I take consolation that this is just part of the process. Thanks for a blog that breaks the isolation.


    • I wish I had fully appreciated the value of substantive editing earlier in the writing process! But one thing that eventually sank in was that taking a good editor’s advice saves you so much grief in the long run. Was heart-breaking to hear I had to break Draft 5 up and totally rewrite it… but that advice rang so true I knew I had to do it. Would love to hear about your rewriting process… have you blogged about that? Feel free to put a link in the comments.

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