Friday 28 April 2017

How to Rewrite Your Novel To The Bitter End

By Candy Gourlay

Writing is rewriting. Rewriting is writing.


My writing friends repeat this sagely as we sit complaining about the children's book industry while slurping glasses of wine.

Writing is rewriting is one of the first epiphanies a wannabe writer must have to launch her on her way.

Until you accept that the first flower of inspiration that you lay down as text will not be the final version of your opus, you are not a serious contender. I learned this the hard way in my early days of trying to get published when I excitedly posted my first drafts to publishers seconds after I typed 'The End'. Even now, I hate sending early drafts of my manuscripts to my editor, knowing my story is still cooking.

Make no mistake: everyone has a different way of climbing into a story. For what it's worth, here is mine.


The first time I write my novel, it doesn't feel like I'm actually writing a novel. It's more like I'm posing a series of questions.

What is this story?
Why am I writing it?
What do I want to say?
How do I want to say it?
Who are my characters?
Why are they doing what they do?
What is happening? Why?

During this stage I know I can still get out. I can still say, no, I don't want to write this book. I can quit at any point and write another book. Three years ago, I tried to explain this process in a blog post:

When I start a book, I am a rabbit staring at several rabbit holes ... I dive into one rabbit hole. I go right in. Go as far as I can go. Write a few chapters. Do I want to write some more? Oh, that is an interesting thing. Shall I explore that? I keep going until I don't want to keep going. If I don't want to keep going, I climb out of the rabbit hole and dive into the next one.

And if I don't like that rabbit hole I climb into another one.

I keep doing this until I find the book I want to write. Then I write it.

This draft usually has a fantastic first chapter, because when I start thinking about a book, my first lightbulb ideas are always about how the story begins, how the hero gets launched into his adventure. (Mark ye this: you will rewrite that damn first chapter more times than any other!)

But at this stage – though I might have written some great scenes that make it to the final draft – I don't really know my characters well enough! My middle sags like a Pilates-free tummy. And my ending is cursory and forgettable.

THE SECOND TIME I WRITE IT (and the third, and the fourth etc)

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.”  JOHN UPDIKE

Once a draft is down, then it's time to rewrite the story once more. You might love your first draft. You might hate it. You've got to rewrite it, whether you think it's good or not. It's not ready, trust me. Once is not enough.

And often, twice is not enough. Or three times. You have to write it however many times it takes.

When your spirit is flagging, think of bad reviews on Amazon or elsewhere. It will be easier to rewrite than to endure bad reviews for the rest of your book's life.

I do try to write nice words at this point. My friend Jane McLoughlin (The Crowham Martyres, At Yellow Lake) jokingly calls this 'writing the long words' – you know, metaphors, fancy words and literary sounding stuff that someone in the far future might quote.

But Structure must come before waxing lyrical. You can polish your words, your sentences, until they  shine, but if all those gorgeous bits don't add up to a coherent whole you've been moving deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

Structure is another thing a wannabe author needs to get his head around. Story structure is almost The Magic Bullet to getting published. All the published authors I know, understand – at the minimum! –  what a beginning, a middle and an end has got to do to deliver a good story.

Read all the books on story structure you can find. James Scott Bell is a good first stop, Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein. Screenwriting gurus make fantastic reading – read Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke; read Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee; Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. (They take potshots at each other! Yorke on McKee's ‘the negation of the negation’: 'I have yet to meet a writer who knows quite what he means.')

 I've read loads more, but these are the books that have sparked writing epiphanies for me.

The first thing you learn from these books is: it's not about you. It's about the reader.

The second thing you learn is: these gurus agree and disagree but every decision you make about your story should be about ... your story.

Not about whether you want to rant about the treatment of single mothers. Not about whether you want to describe a life-changing experience from your childhood. Not about whether you want to teach the reader a lesson about kindness. Not about whether you want to imagine a historical event in all its glorious detail.

It's. About. The. Story.

So for me, this stage ... it takes a lot of time. Sometimes (well, oftentimes) years. Congrats to all you guys who can do this in a few months. Me, I can't seem to juggle everything at the same time. I figure out what my hero wants, only to discover that this breaks the subplot with his best friend. I finally understand why a minor character behaves the way she does, but her story becomes so interesting it threatens to outshine the main story!

And so it goes. And it (I) have to keep going until I've worked out all the things important to my story. This means:

  • Writing scenes that might not make the final cut
  • Really, really, really getting to know my characters
  • My hero comes to life (this involves hearing voices. I knew that I was on to a good thing when while writing Tall Story I heard a voice in my head say: 'So many armpits, so little deodorant!')
  • All the threads of story are written down, whether they're going to be in the final draft or not
  • I know my way to the ending


“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” KURT VONNEGUT

I've just pressed 'SEND' on my next novel. My editor is reading it now. I think it's the final draft – I'm sure there will be comments, but I don't think I'll be completely rewriting scenes, or restructuring the novel, or changing the sex of a character, or anything major like that.

I think.

Writing this draft , the final one, involves:

  • Writing the words that your reader will actually see
  • Writing all those lovely 'long' words
  • Getting to the emotional core of my characters, of my novel
  • Creating an emotional experience for the reader
  • Making sure everybody in the book is alive
  • Really knowing what your book is about

This particular book was difficult because  historical/anthropological  details got in the way of my really understanding my story. So I did something I had never done with my previous books.

I took out all my favourite structure books. And then I spent a month working out how my story fitted into the structures advocated by each book.

It was hard work. What I was trying to do was ask every question I needed to ask about my characters and my story to get to the end. But how was I to know what questions to ask? I trawled my beloved books for clues.

When I came upon a pithy line like 'A character's facade is an outer manifestation of an inner conflict', I turned a critical eye on my characters' inner and outer manifestations. When I came upon a piece about Freud and Ego Defence Mechanisms and steps to how the immature becomes mature (intellectualisation, repression, regression, sublimation, rationalisation, isolation, projection, denial, displacement, reaction), I tried to work out how to apply this to my character arcs. When I read 'choices make character' in Robert McKee,  I reviewed the choices my characters made, and thought carefully about what these indicated about them

Here are just two examples – Into the Woods and Saving the Cat.

Reading Into the Woods again, I scribbled down how my story fitted into the outline Yorke discusses, in the process understanding the scenes I still have to write, for clarity, the set-ups that are missing from my story to strengthen and deepen the outcome.

1. 'Home is threatened.' How are my protagonist's ideas about his ordinary world threatened? Will my reader sympathise?

2. 'The Protagonist suffers from some kind of flaw.' What is my Protagonist lacking? Is it clear to the reader?

3. 'The Protagonist goes on a journey.' Do we feel the cause and effect of what comes to pass? Have I set up the impetus of this?

4. 'Exactly halfway through the story, the protagonist embraces for the first time the quality he or she will need to become complete' – what he needs to finish the story – sometimes it's a truth about himself.  They know what they need to do ... but do they do it?

5. 'On the journey back' the characters face consequences. Everything gets worse. The hopes and dreams at the beginning are all betrayed or crushed.

6. The characters face 'a literal or metaphorical death'.  This is an overwhelming moment, a time to write like you're a lead guitarist playing a riff. This is the part of your story that fans will be desperate to talk about and yet have to bite their tongues so as to avoid revealing spoilers.

7. The hero is 'reborn as a new person', 'in full possession of the cure', 'home is saved'. How does it end? What is 'home'? How is it saved?

Blake Snyder prescribes a 'Beat Sheet' in Saving the Cat. You can visit this website to read the Beat Sheets of various movies. But here are the steps:

1. Opening Image. This must set the tone, style and mood.

2. State the Theme. What is your story about? The main character usually doesn't get it so why not get a secondary character to ask the question that states the theme. (eg. Identity: Who am I? )

3. Set Up – Snyder calls this 'the six things that need fixing' – I actually made a list! Then I checked to make sure that my set ups were in place

4. Catalyst. Something happens that sets the story in motion.

5. Debate. For clarity's sake, it's good to have the characters discuss options. What are my choices? What do I do? Should I go? Should I stay?

6. Break into Two (the 'two' being the second act). A moment of decision when the hero walks through a door of no return.

7. The B Story. Snyder calls this the 'Breather' or the 'Booster Rocket', a subplot, sometimes/often the romantic story line.

8. Fun and Games, 'the Promise of the Premise'. Snyder says these are the moments that usually appear in the movie trailer! The scenes where buddies clash, where we think, yeah, this is why I'm watching/reading this, cool stuff.

9. Midpoint. By now the stakes are raised. The hero knows he's got a problem. But can he fix it? His view of the world changes.

10. Bad Guys Close In. Or one could also say, this is the time when the good guys lose it.

11. All is Lost. The old way of thinking dies. There's a whiff of death. Note to self: is my character suffering enough, as in, MORE than the suffering he's endured before? It's gotta be bad.

12. Dark Night of the Soul. What is the worst thing that could happen to your hero?

13. Break into Three (as in the third act). Another door of no return, a moment that leads inexorably to your ending. But what is it?

14. Finale + a Final Image that mirrors your first image.

“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” HELEN DUNMORE

Of course I still don't know if the draft I have just sent to my editor is any good.

Someone on Facebook told me, 'My editor says she'll tell me if it's my final draft.'

I will let you know.

P.S. 8 May 2014 - Just read this piece by Jess Lourey on Classic Story Structures, if you're looking to understand story structure more,  go read it!

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and ShineIf you liked this, you might like Candy's post The Final Draft: Looking for SatisfactionsVisit her website


  1. I agree, it's about the story. If you can get all the other stuff, fine. Your description of your reading of into the Woods sounds a bit like the Hero's Journey. :)

    1. I did the Hero's Journey too! In Into the Woods,Yorke has a chart comparing all the diffetent story structures, where they are similar and where they differ. Every book takes a different approach and examining your writing through these different prisms is so useful.Like wringing every bit of meaning you can get out of your story.

  2. Excellent blog, Candy. Your writing insights have powered my own story writing. I find myself nodding in agreement with everything you say. Thank you :-) Good Luck with your story. I hope it is the last re-write. I'm looking forward to reading it!

  3. Brilliant, as always! I've just finished Save the Cat and have printed out that beat sheet for myself. I heard an interview with Jacqueline Wilson on Radio 4 recently and she was saying that she only started to write stories for other readers (and not just herself) when she began school visits. She met more children than her own young shy self and it opened out her stories. Thanks, Candy!

    1. There's an irony to this writing malarkey. The more we write, the less time we experience the world that inspires our stories! You see it in some narratives: stories inspired by other stories rather than genuine insight!

    2. I know! Oh to be balanced!

  4. I'm liking the bunny!
    (Banrock says hi)

    1. I need to pull that bunny out again now that I'm writing another story!

  5. Fingers crossed it's the final draft... Thanks, Candy. Really good to read. I need to try Into the Woods again some time. Maybe I read it at the wrong time but I couldn't get into it. But I love Save the Cat! I've had Story on my shelf for ages now and still haven't started it. I will one day -probably the day I properly start working on a book that's longer than a picture book (I still found Save the Cat! useful as a picture book writer. And it's really fun to read). Good luck.
    Happy adventures down your next rabbit hole... x

    1. Thank you! I found that I began to get into Story once I was actually problem solving a novel, but not before. Persevere with Into the Woods!

    2. I will pull Save the Cat out next time I write a picture book!

    3. I have to agree with Clare about Into the Woods - I really hated it but can't entirely say why. I love Story though and will now investigate Save the Cat!

    4. Mind you I really hated Story until I loved it! Into the Woods gave me a fresh view of narrative structure, and many leads into other stuff I should read. I'm still ploughing through Hero With a Thousand Faces ... sometimes it's easier to read about a book than the book itself!

  6. This is a really helpful and interesting insight into your writing process. Thank you for sharing Candy!

    1. My pleasure! I write something like this at the end of every draft. It's a good record to look back on.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post. So insightful and helpful. I found it really inspiring.

  8. This makes me feel better about the six different plot rewrites I did for my current MG WIP which now is in its and I hope final first draft - And I have set myself a goal of 5 revisions in 5 months. Thanks Candy for sharing.

    1. Realising that this is not the final version is a very liberating thing. Though it has an EEEK element when you think about the length of time you will be working on a project.

  9. Inspiring post - thank you! Really highlights how writing a novel is a process involving graft, experiment, time and passion.


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