This is the fourth part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.
If writing the first draft of a novel is like eating dessert, the re-write is like eating the main-course. The pleasure is less intense and ecstatic, but it is nevertheless satisfying and sustaining.
In my experience, no novel – or scene for that matter – is perfect at its inception. If nothing else, when writing at a fast pace to get the raw idea/inspiration translated into coherent words, it is normal to make typographical if not spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Such corrections fall more properly under editing which I’ll discuss later. Today I want to focus on something more fundamental.
Even if a novelist writes one brilliant chapter after another, with each scene therein a masterpiece, the novel as whole will probably still need re-writing. This is because a novel evolves during the writing process, particularly if it takes, as it often does, years to write. By the time the last scene of a novel is written, when the ending is final and the author knows this is “it,” there are likely many aspects or parts of the early portions that no longer fit properly. Essentially, because a novelist rarely knows how individual characters will evolve and because in the course of a novel important sub-plots and ancillary themes evolve, the beginning usually needs to be re-examined after the end is certain.
The first re-write is, therefore, a matter of going back to page one and re-reading each scene again with the final form of the novel in mind. This is not merely a matter of removing extraneous or superfluous material, it usually entails adding things as well. For example, if in the latter portion of a novel a particular character or theme have become more important, it may be necessary to provide more information about the character earlier or foreshadow thematic developments. This may require the drafting of completely new scenes or even chapters. In the extreme, it may require a completely new beginning to the novel.
Once the structure of a novel stands, i.e. the beginning and end are set and the episodes of the novel are complete and lined up in the correct order, I personally find it useful to let a novel sit for a year or two. Ideally, I am already at work on the next novel, and set the finished one aside without further thought to concentrate on the new project. Alternatively, if I am anxious to get a book to print, then I like to get the opinion of others while I take a break from the book of at least two months.
During this phase, the rough draft of the novel is sent to several people for candid but constructive feedback. Based on the suggestions of these readers, I undertake a new re-write. Again, this may include cutting or adding entire scenes. More often it entails massaging existing scenes to make them sharper and more effective, or it may entail providing additional background information about characters and developments. This is the stage in which I test how effectively I have communicated my message. I see the re-write as an opportunity to adjust the method of telling the story to make it more successful.
There is no set number of re-writes that a novel must undergo, but experience certainly helps reduce the number. My first novels (such as An Obsolete Honor) underwent at least a dozen re-writes. More recent novels, like my Leonidas Trilogy, are not taking more than two to three.