Rewriting a first draft

So Nanowrimo. I’d won. I’d done it. The first in a series of stories was complete, well the first draft anyway. I immediately hit a problem. What do I do next?

The forward momentum I had used to write like a mad man during November stopped. Without the competition and the word tracker, the sense of urgency left. I spent a few days in December deciding what to do next. I had a few options in mind in regards to writing. I could

1. Immediately start rewriting my nano story.

2. Immediately begin writing the first draft of the next story.

3. Begin rewriting an old story as practice, before tackling my nano story.

4. Stop writing and read something to cleanse the palate.

I opted to do 3 and 4. I had been reading Stephen King’s On Writing during Nano and his advice was to put down the first draft for a while so that you can go back to it with fresh eyes. As I was following his advice I decided that it was time I finally read his Dark Tower series, as it’s set in a post apocalyptic world like mine. I had also been following this mans advice, so why not read his most epic series.

Unlike the year before however, I wasn’t going to stop writing completely. Doing the Wheel of Time re-read last year had actually fucked me up as far as output went. I decided to focus on 3 things over summer. Read the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, rewrite my 50K camp nano story from 2017, and learn to love the synthesiser.

To give you some context with that last one, I got a synth last year to play with the band, SectApe. My role in the band was chaos and noise but the optical theremin I was using wasn’t very musical, and I don’t really know the notes on the guitar despite having played it for some time. I learnt how to play the keyboard in high school, spending 3 years learning some basic theory and technique before switching to the guitar when I was 17. Since then I have always been able to play the keys but have hated the instrument. It always seemed like synthesisers and keyboards softened the impact of heavy bands; it took the balls out of the music I loved and played cheesy melodies over everything. I decided to really try and find some love for the synth now that I was playing it more than the guitar, and perhaps I could find some patches that weren’t too lame.

I like to think that I gave all 3 of these things a crack over summer. Unfortunately the one that I really failed at was the rewrite. I began it on the 20th of December 2017. I had a sense of urgency, motivation, and inspiration still lingering from nano. I decided that today was as good of a day to start it as any, what with me recently having gone around the sun once more. So I began.

But then the big question came up.

How?

How do you rewrite a story?

I did the logical thing and looked to reddit and youtube for advice.

Some people edited, some people didn’t (and the ones who didn’t often wondered why their self published books didn’t sell and why a publisher wouldn’t want to pick up their manuscript). There were people who had plotted out their books so meticulously that there was very little to do as far as editing went, and others who had done what I had done and written the whole thing under a stream-of-consciousness, inspiration filled burst (with a good dash of discipline to get them through). There was advice from beginning writers with youtube channels through to professionals who said to sit in the chair and do the work. No one really knew the answer, because everyone does it differently.

I was unsure how to proceed. This was meant to make the decision easier, not harder. The overall consensus seemed to be that the hard part is getting to the end of the first draft, and from there it’s just a matter of putting your head down and working even harder than before. Backwards, but logical. If you’ve already written the first draft then you’ve got a pretty good idea what you need to do in order to write the second.

But it was general advice, it wasn’t a method. It was just more of the same; peoples opinions on what had worked for them. Nanowrimo gives you a method. You sit down every day and write 1667 words. At the end of one month, you have a story (well 50,000 words of something at least).

Word counts meant fuck all now. I was just left with questions and my own rambling thoughts.

Do I copy and paste the whole thing, then go through to the bits I remembered were wrong? Do I line edit as I go? It’s a first draft, the whole thing was full of flaws, from grammar and cadence through to plot. Do I cut bits that worked and try to join them with bits that didn’t? The premise of the story was good, but I had executed it poorly. The ending opened up possibilities I could have explored throughout the story, so do I go back and add in these extra plot lines to the story I already have? Some of the characters changed names, do I go through and search for every time the name is mentioned and change it to what I want the new name to be?

And so my thoughts rolled on, as I scrolled through opinion after opinion and watched video after video.

But I did eventually get one pearl of wisdom which really spoke to me. I mean that quite literally, as I had asked this question the first time I wrote a book in a month and had posted on reddit about what to do next. It wasn’t until I found my old post that I realised I’d had the answer in my inbox the whole time.

Novel Concepts advice

I don’t know what you were like in arts and crafts, but one of my best mates David will attest to the fact that my cut and paste skills throughout primary school weren’t great. Oh I had the imagination to create things during arts and crafts time, but somehow I’d come home from school sticky and without having achieved a whole lot. Sounds like a euphemism doesn’t it? My school years were not nearly that exciting.

Regardless of my what I did and did not do in school, I had my answer. I couldn’t just edit this story, I was going to have to rewrite it from scratch.

I wrote for 6 days in December and wrote 12,000 words. In January I wrote for 8 days and only wrote 10,000 words. I was losing momentum and the story was shit. In an effort to hold myself accountable I had signed up for an online writing challenge called get your words out. It’s a year long challenge with different levels of difficulty based on either word count or days spent writing. In my optimism, I chose journey man. The plan was (and still is) to write for 240 days during the course of this year, 2018.

Journey man

The website is, in my experience, shit. At the start of each month you are meant to log in and say how many days you spent writing. Unlike nano, where you update your word count daily by typing it into a counter at the top of the website, you can only do it during a small window of time at the start of each month and it’s difficult to find where to log in your months progress. In short, I don’t understand it and perhaps I don’t want to understand it. Nevertheless I’m trying not to get kicked out of the challenge, as it does keep me somewhat accountable. The writing challenge doesn’t specify what you have to write about, just that you have to write, so I will count something like this blog post as going towards my daily tally. If I write, it’s usually around 1000 words minimum. So that’s around an hour of writing each day, less if I’m in the zone. But if I’m in the zone, then an hour turns into many hours and many thousands of words.

I’ve digressed. With my journey man challenge begun I figured that a good project would be what I needed. The problem with the “practice” rewrite was that I didn’t have a good project. I had a 50K first draft, but after 2 months of on/off writing, I’d managed to turn the first 6 chapters from 10,000 words into 22,000 words. I didn’t feel motivated to continue with the “practice” rewrite as it was turning into a huge project I wasn’t interested in. I was dreading opening up my manuscript and investing my time in it. This happens with any project I’m learning but this one was getting especially tedious.

Meanwhile, in other parts of my life, things were going well. I was playing a lot of music. The summer of synth had shown me what I could do with the instrument. I was beginning to like my role within the band playing synth. Then in late January I found myself being asked by Mauro, the brain behind SectApe, if I wanted to sing. I jumped at the chance, as I enjoy singing, but I also quietly shit myself at the same time. Suddenly I’m not just off to the side but also fronting the band and singing. I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I needed more practice. I needed to quit smoking so I had better lung capacity. I needed to eat better too, and to get in a couple more singing lessons and to lose a couple of kilo’s and to maybe try yoga and get my breathing sorted and… and… and…

I just fucking did it.

It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. I peaked the volume out at times and sang too close to the microphone. I went a bit overboard with the reverb. I didn’t warm up properly before I sang. But I fucking did it.

Since that first gig singing, I’ve done some more. Here’s a clip from a gig we did a couple of weeks after that first one.

They haven’t been perfect, but they haven’t been terrible. More good than bad in my opinion and I’m probably my own worst critic. But that’s because I put the time into rehearsing and practicing for hours upon hours in my room, much to the chagrin of my old housemate Courtney who was working from home during this time. She said before the first gig, “I’ve lived with people in bands before but I don’t know anyone who practices as much as you do. Chill out dude!”.  She was probably right, I may have put too much pressure on myself for a mid-week gig, but I’m glad I did. Now that I know the songs I can focus on other things in my life. Back in January and February though, the time spent outside of work was spent in my bedroom practicing music with next to no writing.

Whilst I was doing all of this, I had given my girlfriend Bec a copy of the nano story I wrote in November. She read it and loved it, asking me what happened next. Here she was enjoying the first draft, and I hadn’t even read it yet! When I eventually raised my head out of SectApe world and back into writing, I decided fuck it; if I’m going to spend hours rewriting, I may as well rewrite the thing I really want to do. And so I sat down and reread my nano story from start to finish.

It’s long, clocking in around 350 pages and split into 5 parts, but it didn’t feel that long. Before I knew it I was up to part 5 and I began to get excited about pulling it apart and making all the pieces fit back together in a more enjoyable and coherent way.

This was a daunting thought, but also a motivating one.

I knew from the Reddit advice that I couldn’t just piece the story together. This wasn’t a cut and paste job. This was going to have to be a word for word rewrite. Staring down the barrel of the practice 50,000 word story had been intimidating and ended in frustration. This story was more than three times that.

I gave myself a mental beat down and shake up. If I wasn’t prepared to sit there and re-type 162,000 words again, then I was just being a pussy. Fuck, I had done that in a month! There’s no reason I couldn’t either do that again in a month or, realistically, focus on each part of the book separately for a month each. Maybe less if I could really smash it out.

That was my thinking on the 20th of February. Oh how foolish that summer child was.

I got excited and found a calendar to put on my wall. I hate to say it, but the excitement I felt about getting a calendar, well it’s nice to enjoy the small things sometimes. I hatched a bold scheme. 5 parts. 5 months. By June, I’d be finished with the rewrite, and could begin writing the second book during camp nano in July. I knew I had a new job starting which meant a lifestyle change, and I was planning on going on a road trip with my mate Josh up to the sunshine coast in April, plus I was looking at moving house and recording a live video with SectApe.

But ignoring all those things, I had a plan.

A week later, I had gone through the whole novel and written a brief overview of each chapter and what I thought needed to be changed in it. That was a skimmed reread as well as a more detailed look at what worked and what didn’t within each chapter. I then went through and did some quick maths.

I had 92 chapters to write. Scenes, chapters, whatever, there were 92 files that made up the manuscript. I figured that if I did one a day, I would be finished in 100 days, with 8 days spare, taking me up to June 7th. For anyone out there who has rewritten a story, yeah I know, but hey I was an ignorant summer child.

I gave myself some leeway, and decided to give myself through to the 22nd of June, as I also had the new job and the video to record and the house moving and stuff.

And I laugh yet again at my naivety.

By now it was the 27th of February. I decided to give myself one last day to relax and prepare myself mentally before properly starting the rewrite as soon as autumn began.

The day passed quickly, as days tend to do. Suddenly it was March, and the beginning of autumn. On the first of March I had a gig, so I focussed on that all day. Then there was a nightshift the next night. Then the sun was out the next day, and I found myself enjoying some cold beers with my new housemate (but old friend) Tommy.

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Then another day went by with the summer feeling lingering and a street party taking place down the road. It’s unsociable not to drink at a street party, and the natural thing to do is to wander up the street drinking at all of the bars.

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The struggle is real.

Then my girlfriend Bec came up to Melbourne and we went and saw the triennial art exhibition.

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Then there were more sunny, drunken days…IMG_4189 1

 

leading to me being a drunken mess and bombing the group chat late at night with drunken videos as I had no one to play with.

 

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Before I knew it time had flown and suddenly it was the 7th of March, a week into autumn. I was still enjoying the warm, dreamy, can-do-it-tomorrow attitude that is summer, without actually having written anything. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone does anything during those sun drenched warm days after about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. That’s premium enjoyment time, which generally leads to slow hungover mornings with very little productivity.

 

I knuckled down though, and I began writing. I rewrote 13,800 words during those last 3 weeks of March. It’s not nano numbers, but remember this isn’t nano. This is rewriting, it’s less quantity, more quality. Less sexy, more romantic. Less glamorous, more substance. Look you get my fucking metaphor, it’s a different way of writing.

The scenes became longer. My original plan of doing a scene a day was grossly overconfident. Finish rewriting the story by June? Forget about it, that was idealistic summer time dreaming. By the end of March, I had rewritten 5 chapters. This was supposed to take 5 days in my original plan. If I was editing, then maybe this could have been accurate. But I couldn’t just sit down and retype word for word what I had written, as by rewriting it I was finding errors. The point of the rewrite isn’t to keep the problems, it’s to fix them. I was restructuring the way I wrote sentences. I was adding detail to the story that wasn’t previously there. I was expanding on concepts that were essential to the story and taking out what was superfluous. Instead of typing as quickly as I could to get the story out, I was spending time working out what I actually intended to say with each line.

I began to feel slightly overwhelmed at the scope of the task. A month had gone by and I was 5 chapters into it out of 92. Doing some quick maths (with help from my housemate Tommy) I had rewritten 5.43% of my story. If my pace was 5 chapters a month, it would take me 18 months just to get to the end of the first rewrite. As this was the first book in a series that would probably have at least another book or two of the same length, I was looking at writing and eventually rewriting something in the vicinity of 276 chapters. That’s 55 months. That’s 4.6 years! The end result of this effort would be 3 books rewritten to a readable but not finished state, as a book might get rewritten 5, 10, or even 100 times before it goes on to get published. If it gets published.

I halted my train of thought. Sure, there was a lot of work to do, but despite what people may think about me, I’m not scared of work. I’m scared of spiders and heights a bit. I’m scared of the human race dying out in a cataclysmic event like a comet or the magnets changing poles or whatever. I’m scared of running out of time and not finishing what I set out to do because death or physical disability stops me from being able to do things, but I’m not scared of work, putting time and effort into something constructive. If I had of actually stuck to writing the story when I first came up with the concept in 2012, I would already be finished. I’m 32 now. I will be around 36 when I finish these 3 stories, if I continue at the pace I set in that first month. The first week of that month wasn’t even productive, so there is a glimmer of hope that I might be able to reduce that time slightly.

I looked over the 5 chapters I had written and found that I was happy at the quality of my writing. They were almost double what they had been but they flowed better. There was more detail. I had begun to put into those chapters things from later chapters, so whilst my end result was only 5 chapters, I had cut down the number of overall chapters to write. My perspective shifted, the fear I had towards the task reduced slightly, and I found myself feeling fully capable of achieving it.

The biggest thing for me mentally, was breaking the task down. I’d scaled it up and seen it in all it’s overwhelming splendour. Now was the time to break it back down, ignore the scope of it, and focus on part one of the first book. Part one has 25 chapters. I’ve already done 5. Only 20 chapters to go and I’ll have finished a story arc. Now that felt like an achievable thing to do before the end of June. A challenge of course, but achievable.

With March over, I decided that I was going to do camp NaNoWriMo during April. Camp nano lets you choose what your goal will be, so instead of aiming for X amount of words, I set my goal to be 30 hours of rewriting for the month. I will go into that experience in the next post.

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One thought on “Rewriting a first draft

  1. Pingback: Rewriting during April 2018 (Campnano & beyond) | The Amazing Sloth Writer

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