Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I am in teaching mode (I know, always, right?) because I am teaching this weekend, at the Black Diamond Romance Writers Retreat in gorgeous Sonoma, California. 

I think the best thing anyone can tell a new writer is that old saying, “Writing is rewriting.”

Before I started writing novels, I worked as a theater director, a Hollywood story analyst, and a screenwriter. All of those jobs have given me some pretty useful perspectives on rewriting and editing. So I’ve put the best things I know into one of those ever-popular Top Ten lists:

1. Cut, cut, cut.

When you first start writing, you are reluctant to cut anything. Believe me, I remember. But the truth is, beginning writers very, very, VERY often duplicate scenes, and characters, too. And dialogue, oh man, do inexperienced writers duplicate dialogue! The same things happen over and over again, are said over and over again. It will be less painful for you to cut if you learn to look for and start to recognize when you’re duplicating scenes, actions, characters and dialogue. Those are the obvious places to cut and combine.

Some very wise writer (unfortunately I have no idea who) said, “If it occurs to you to cut, do so.” This seems harsh and scary, I know. Often I’ll flag something in a manuscript as “Could cut”, and leave it in my draft for several passes until I finally bite the bullet and get rid of it. So, you know, that’s fine. Allow yourself to CONSIDER cutting something, first. No commitment! Then if you do, fine. But once you’ve considered cutting, you almost always will.

2. Read your book aloud. All of it. Cover to cover.

The best thing I know to do to edit a book — or script — is read it aloud. The whole thing. I know, this takes several days, and you will lose your voice. Get some good cough drops. But there is no better way to find errors — spelling, grammar, continuity, and rhythmic errors. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

3. Find a great critique group.

This is easier said than done, but you NEED a group, or a series of readers, who will commit themselves to making your work the best it can be, just as you commit the same to their work. Editors don’t edit the way they used to and publishing houses expect their authors to find friends to do that kind of intensive editing. Really.

4. Do several passes.

Finish your first draft, no matter how rough it is. Then give yourself a break — a week is good, two weeks is better, three weeks is better than that — as time permits. Then read, cut, polish, put in notes. Repeat. And repeat again. Always give yourself time off between reads if you can. The closer your book is to done, the more uncomfortable the unwieldy sections will seem to you, and you will be more and more okay with getting rid of them. Read on for the specific kinds of passes I recommend doing.

5. Whatever your genre is, do a dedicated pass focusing on that crucial genre element.

For a thriller: thrills and suspense. For a mystery: clues and misdirection and suspense. For a comedy: a comedic pass. For a romance: a sex pass. Or “emotional” pass, if you must call it that. For horror… well, you get it.

I write suspense. So after I’ve written that first agonizing bash-through draft of a book or script, and probably a second or third draft just to make it readable, I will at some point do a dedicated pass just to amp up the suspense, and I highly recommend trying it, because it’s amazing how many great ideas you will come up with for suspense scenes (or comic scenes, or romantic scenes) if you are going through your story JUST focused on how to inject and layer in suspense, or horror, or comedy, or romance. It’s your JOB to deliver the genre you’re writing in. It’s worth a dedicated pass to make sure you’re giving your readers what they’re buying the book for.

6. Know your Three Act Structure.

If something in your story is sagging, it is amazing how quickly you can pull your narrative into line by looking at the scene or sequence you have around page 100 (or whatever page is ¼ way through the book), page 200, (or whatever page is ½ way through the book), page 300 (or whatever page is ¾ through the book) and your climax. Each of those scenes should be huge, pivotal, devastating, game-changing scenes or sequences (even if it’s just emotional devastation). Those four points are the tentpoles of your story.

7. Do a dedicated DESIRE LINE pass in which you ask yourself for every scene: “What does this character WANT? Who is opposing her/him in this scene? Who WINS in the scene? What will they do now?”

8. Do a dedicated EMOTIONAL pass,
in which you ask yourself in every chapter, every scene, what do I want my readers to FEEL in this moment?

9. Do a dedicated SENSORY pass, in which you make sure you’re covering what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense.

10. Finally, and this is a big one: steal from film structure to pull your story into dramatic line.

Some of you are already well aware that I’ve compiled a checklist of story elements that I use both when I’m brainstorming a story on index cards, and again when I’m starting to revise. I find it invaluable to go through my first draft and make sure I’m hitting all of these points, so here it is again.

STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST

ACT ONE

* Opening image
* Meet the hero or heroine
* Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.
* Hero/ine’s arc
* Hero/ine’s ghost or wound
* Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
* Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)
* State the theme/what’s the story about?
* Allies
* Mentor (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
* Love interest
* Plant/Reveal (or: Setups and Payoffs)
* Hope/Fear (and Stakes)
* Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)
* Sequence One climax
* Central Question
* Act One climax

___________________________

ACT TWO

* Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
* Threshold Guardian (maybe)
* Hero/ine’s Plan
* Antagonist’s Plan
* Training Sequence
* Series of Tests
* Picking up new Allies
* Assembling the Team
* Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
* In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.

THE MIDPOINT

* Completely changes the game
* Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
* Can be a huge revelation
* Can be a huge defeat
* Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
* Can be sex at 60 — the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems

______________________________
ACT TWO, PART TWO

* Recalibrating — after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.
* Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive
* Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)
* Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s
obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).
* A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)
* Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn’t it?)
* The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is
* Answers the Central Question

_______________________________

ACT THREE

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence — the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1. Getting there (storming the castle)
2. The final battle itself

* Thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
* The protagonist’s character change
* The antagonist’s character change (if any)
* Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
* Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you’ve been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

* RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.

———————

So, anyone have a top few rewriting tricks for me (and my class?)  I’m always looking!

– Alex

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

37 thoughts on “Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting

  1. judy wirzberger

    Sonoma – so close and yet so far away (from Fremont). Thanks for the lesson. It’s painful, but the reading out loud really works. Hope you have a marvelous weekend.

    Reply
  2. Terry Odell

    Ugh to the reading aloud. But I wish I’d done it for my first books; didn’t realize there was a clunker in the opening paragraph until I had to do a reading for a friend’s group. Ugh Ugh Ugh.

    I also recommend reading in hard copy that is NOT just a printout of your on-screen document. Change the font, change the size–make it look different so your eye won’t skip things because they’re so familiar. I print it out in 2 columns; the narrower lines give a different eye scan and I’m always amazed at how many repeated words I find that way. (I know, I know, reading aloud would do that too.)

    Reply
  3. Gayle Carline

    Great post, Alex, chock full o’ information! I do a couple more things:
    1. Check for words/phrases I use too often. Apparently, I like to say ‘apparently’ a lot. In my first draft of Freezer Burn, all my characters were starting off dialogue with, "Basically, blah-blah-blah."
    2. I read my book into a digital voice recorder, then play it back (usually while I’m driving somewhere). Not only did I catch problems reading aloud, but I caught places where the words didn’t flow as I was listening to it.

    I think I’m also going to print this and keep it handy.

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Rewriting tricks? Does anyone know any rewriting tricks? Alex, you’ve got it covered. I can’t add a thing!

    Reply
  5. Ev

    Wow, Alex. _Thank you_ for this. It’s fantastic to see the process laid out in such a well-articulated, easy to adopt way. Am tweeting now . . .

    Reply
  6. JT Ellison

    I have two revision tricks – 1st – make sure you are working in a separate document from the one you’ve just finished. I always make a new file, save as V1, V2, V3, etc. Every time I change something, it becomes a new version. That way if you change your mind, you haven’t lost anything.

    2nd is to change the font and size, and read it on paper, not the screen. HUGE help.

    Great advice, as always, Alex. I wish I had your ability to teach instead of lecture.

    Reply
  7. Perry

    Hi, I love reading how different authors approach revision. I think we all have our spin on the common elements, but it’s important to try other approaches until you find your own way.

    One thing I do for my first pass is look for two things 1) what happens in the scene and 2) what is the scene conflict.

    This helps me identify where scenes can be cut, added, or chopped up before I get into thefine work.

    When I look for conflict, I write the name of the scene POV character and what they want. It’s amazing how often I have to revise to make the POV clear and heighten the conflict along the way.

    When I’m done with this pass, I have a manuscript that has good structure which means I get less sidetracked with the big issues as I refine and refine, and polish and polish.

    I do like the read out loud pass, but I do use a text to speech program because it reads what is on the page. When I read myself I don’t notice when I say what should be there rather than what is there.

    Thanks again for this.

    Reply
  8. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, man, Alex,
    This is a wonderful summation — especially with the additional comments in the comments. I really like the last passes and think they’re what bring the writing totally to life.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  9. pari noskin taichert

    Actually,
    I guess I have one thing to add: if a scene isn’t working — DON’T be afraid to redraft it, scrap it and start with an original. That way you’re not going to massage it to death and lose your voice in the process.

    Reply
  10. Tom

    Reading aloud is something I’ve recommended for years. I’m always surprised by the resistance to it; do people not like the sound of their own words? Bad stuff goes "CLUNK" to the ears sooner than to the eyes. I even read my prosaic internal communications aloud at work before I send them.

    It will sound horribly anal-retentive, and no one wants to do it in a rewrite, but the sure cure for tangled text is to diagram the sentences. Even Gordian knots can be untied with the right map. I’ve never persuaded anyone that this helps, but I surely have seen stories hemorrhage to death from bad grammar.

    Reply
  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gayle, you are so right about each of us having writing – "tics" is what I think of them as. And they’re different for every book. There are some words I have to do a global search for every time, I use them so embarrassingly often.

    Reply
  12. Elaine Sokoloff

    Alex, I chuckled at your response to Tom: "All right, Tom, you lost me with the diagramming sentences."

    We used to diagram sentences on the way to piano lessons in elementary school.

    Reply
  13. Gar Haywood

    Just to add to what Pari said:

    Be prepared to grit your teeth and face up to the fact that a scene (or more) can’t be fixed and needs to be scrapped and replaced altogether. Man, that hurts — who wants to do all that work? — but sometimes it can’t be helped, and the longer you put it off, the more work you’ll end up making for yourself later.

    Great post, Alex.

    Reply
  14. allison davis

    We used to read ad copy out loud to make sur we caught all the glitches and typos and it works great for novels. For me, it helps with the character’s voice as well, as my lawyer/theatre training comes up and I start acting it out…the cat’s amused.

    When I get stuck, as I have lately, and thank you so much for this timely post, working through draft two, I have a stack of writing books that I will go through that will help me break the ice, freshen up the editing process and help me see some obvious issues. Books like: Judy Greber/Gillian Robert’s You can Write a Mystery, The Art of Dramatic Writing (Egri), Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne/King), The First Five Pages (great for nits!) (Lukeman), The Fire in Fiction (Maass) or read great blogs like Murderati. What I don’t do is sit and stew. I have writing pals but not locally and plenty of mentors but no group per se, so these "voices" help me break through.

    I just printed this out and making room on the wall…..

    Reply
  15. Sara J. Henry

    Back when I used to edit fitness and health books, I marked one sidebar in a manuscript with the note <This sidebar is really stupid; use it only if you absolutely have to for space>. Unfortunately the author saw it.

    I cut (and rewrote) an enormous amount before my first manuscript was salable. No one will ever, ever see my first draft.

    Reply
  16. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, Alex. Ditto the reading out loud.

    I also ask myself, "Can these scenes be combined?" Is there a way of showing this thing and that thing, together? We may think linearly, but complex scenes can add real spice to a project where everything else is cause/effect.

    When I’m in doubt of a section, I read it backward. (Yes, I know. Strange.) But you’d be surprised how much clunky sentence construction becomes visible when you’re not reading in order, anticipating the next sentence. Reading it in reverse stops that anticipation process and allows me to look clearly at the sentence.

    [I always intend to do this for the whole ms., but don’t always manage it. I’m sure I’d be happier with the results if I did.]

    Reply
  17. billie

    You are so smart! I love this – it’s like a cheat sheet.

    And… coming to you from Weymouth, which is why I’m so late in the day.

    πŸ™‚

    Reply
  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Perry, I didn’t see your comment the first time – some REALLY great rewriting tips there:

    >>One thing I do for my first pass is look for two things 1) what happens in the scene and 2) what is the scene conflict.

    And that critical check for what the main character in a scene WANTS. Absolutely essential. Thank you!

    Reply
  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Love this, Toni – absolutely agree:

    >>>I also ask myself, "Can these scenes be combined?" Is there a way of showing this thing and that thing, together? We may think linearly, but complex scenes can add real spice to a project where everything else is cause/effect.

    Reply
  20. Elaine Sokoloff

    I worked for a time with Arnon Grunberg, a Dutch author who has won a few writing awards.

    He was quite ritualized, a quality in itself that possibly makes for a serious award winner.

    One thing I do remember him saying that stuck was he did the same things pretty much every day.

    The same wake up time, the same cafe

    Then he would go home and write for a certain amount of hours and a certain amount of words.

    He would put on a certain soundtrack or song, and keep that playing through his whole session.

    It could be from a classical masterpiece to Madonna song but it had to be at a continuous loop to get his head into a rhythm.

    I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone but it worked for him.

    Reply
  21. Alafair Burke

    Thanks for this, even though it makes me with my "tell the story the way it wants to be told" approach feel ridiculously inadequate.

    Reply
  22. judy wirzberger

    Curses upon the old souls – Who diagrams sentences any more? I used to make money in grade school diagramming sentences for my brother’s friends in high school. $.50 a sentence and this was back in the fifties. I was rich. Ah and those dreaded dangling participles. I see them today in best sellers. Ya never really know a sentence until ya diagram it. Thanks to Tom for awakening old memories. Now I’ll just fall asleep in my rocker with my cane by my side.

    Reply
  23. Eika

    Whether this pass is ‘done’ or not, you’re finished when you want to kill something, someone, or yourself every time you see it. I reached this point a few weeks ago; I already have my friendly critique group, and I sent it to three people (who I knew would want to beta the whole thing) without even asking them, because I was afraid I’d get rid of every copy in the next 24 hours otherwise. I’d been meaning to read it aloud, but at that point, it just wasn’t happening.

    And don’t be afraid to combine things in scenes, or add new but needed ones late in the game. I had a terrible resistance to that, because this was the third pass and I only just realized I needed that scene at the end of the third pass. It solidified a very important relationship, complicated four different things, and had the MC state a conviction that turned the ending from (as one person told me about draft two) ‘good, but where did it come from?’ to, if I did it right, a combination of betrayal and relief. If it works, hurrah, and if it doesn’t, I didn’t lose anything by writing it (or so I keep telling myself. I know I’ll feel that way once I’ve completely lost the urge to delete that story from my computer and all twenty or thirty different versions backed-up in e-mails to myself).

    Reply
  24. Lydia

    This is fabulous and timely! I’m just starting the rewriting process and these guidelines will be so helpful!

    Reply
  25. Mary Kay Andrews

    Awesome tips, Alex. I wish my mind worked the way yours does. Hell, I just wish this manuscript was finished so I could re-write!

    Reply

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