Let’s Write A YA Novel – Part 5 (Writing is Rewriting)

Are you finished? Holy shit, you are? Well break out the pre-typed agent template e-mails, ‘cos it’s time to go and query that manuscript!

Oh, wait. Hold on. That’s a first draft. You haven’t…you haven’t re-written it? Not even once?

Huh. This is awkward.

As a reader of this series of posts you probably already know that the first draft of a book is not what you want to be sending to agents or publishers. What you might not realise, because published authors don’t talk about it a lot, is that ‘editing’ your first draft could involve rewriting large chunks of it. It might even involve rewriting all of it.

This isn’t as weird as it might initially sound. Unless you very heavily outline your story before you start writing it, you’re going to be teasing out the finer details of the plot and characters throughout the writing process. Maybe it turns out that the plot needs to start much later in the story than you thought, or maybe one of your side characters really should get more development earlier on. These aren’t things you can necessarily tell on your first go-through of the early stages of your story.

It’s worth harping on that a bit: I’m not saying that you should be able to pick up on these kinds of changes early on, but probably won’t; I’m saying that it’s probably not possible to realise you need to make these kinds of changes until you’ve gone through the process of writing a first draft. There’s a certain school of writing that treats the creative process as more archaeology than creation, with the author merely uncovering the details of a story that exists in some state prior to being written down.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for that analogy, because writing can sure feel like that sometimes, but I think it’s a mistake to think of a book as existing in some kind of idealised state that the author should be able to ‘discover’ with enough effort. The story ultimately comes from you. Yes, you might ‘realise’ that a character ‘has always been’ overly protective of his vast jelly-bean collection (or whatever), but let’s not pretend that you’re tapping into some kind of alternate dimension here. It’s still you.

Stories are also something you construct piece-by-piece, just the same way people put a house together. Yes, sometimes it’s an act of glorious creativity, but a lot of it is mechanical or formulaic. Is that sentence structure too similar to the previous three in the same paragraph? Does this dialogue go on for too long? (And never mind that it might be heart-wrenching or ingenious.) Have I put my chapter breaks in remotely the right place?

This is all the kind of stuff that will absolutely be at the forefront of your mind when you’re editing/re-writing your manuscript. In my experience, at least, these kinds of considerations will result in you ditching large parts of what you’ve already written. (See my previous post for when that happens earlier in the creative process.)

Castor’s ‘final’ wordcount is 83,092, according to LibreOffice. That doesn’t include the 20-30,000 words of material that I wrote and then cut during revision, nor does it take into account almost 7,000 words that I trimmed during the editing process. In total, then, at least 110,000 words of material went into writing my roughly 80,000 word book.

That’s actually fairly low. I’ve heard of people who routinely have total wordcounts close to twice their final number thanks to extended editing periods.

It’s also worth noting that I’m talking about pre-publication edits here. It’s not at all uncommon for literary agents and/or editors to request changes to a manuscript – sometimes fairly drastic changes. Like ‘can we redo the entire second half’ drastic.

There’s a scene in most movies with writer characters where the guy (it’s always a guy) sits at his typewriter or keyboard and hammers out a big dramatic ‘THE END’ across the bottom of a page. Maybe the music swells a bit to show what a big deal this all is. THE BOOK IS FINISHED. Publication would almost be an insult after this transcendental moment of, I don’t know, writerly self-fulfilment. Agents? Who needs agents. You just finished yourself some art.

I remember the first time I finished a first draft of a novel. Even as I approached the home stretch I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. The characters seemed somehow less developed than when I started, which I was pretty sure wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Several prominent plot threads either went nowhere or had conclusions that felt rushed because that’s exactly what they were.

Even still, I remember hitting the return key a few times and typing THE END in big capital letters and then waiting for the rush of euphoria to arrive. It didn’t, and a few days later I decided that the manuscript was beyond redemption and buried it. (Whether it actually was or not I don’t know. I suspect that the initial sting of failure was great enough that I gave up on it too soon, but it’s just as likely that it was a dud from the very beginning.)

The more involved you become with other writers, the more you’ll begin to learn that extensive (or even total) re-writing after an initial draft is perfectly normal. I’ve heard published authors describe first drafts of novels that bore almost no resemblance to what eventually made it onto the shelves – not even as something as a shared main character. (Remember, Castor was originally written in third person with two viewpoint characters. One of those characters no longer exists anywhere in the manuscript.)

So no, your work isn’t finished once you type THE END, although I advise doing it anyway since it can be pretty cathartic under the right circumstances. But don’t come away from this post thinking that the need for editing is a bad thing. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it’s also liberating. You can fix those scene transitions that always felt a bit disjointed. You can smooth over that character arc that always felt a bit bumpy.

And if you really need to (or want to), you can throw out the whole thing and start again.


Advise from this instalment of Let’s Write a YA Novel (and yes I realise I forgot to do one of these last time):

  • Writing a book usually takes quite a long time and involves a lot of different drafts…
  • …unless you’re James Patterson, apparently, but let’s not even get started on that whole thing.
  • You will probably end up discarding a lot of what you initially write. This is normal.
  • If you get an agent, they will most likely want you to edit your book.
  • If you get a publishing contract (congrats by the way), they will definitely want you to edit your book.
  • Learn to love the editorial process, because if you don’t you will almost certainly hate your manuscript by the time it shows up on Amazon.

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