It’s taken me a very long time to rewrite the opening three chapters of my novel. I did no research before writing the first draft and, as a result, I made a lot of assumptions that needed to be changed. Natasha Lester, a writer of historical fiction, explains that she does most of her research before writing the second draft, and then needs to rewrite or add scenes as a result:
“The research might also mean that something I have in the story is impossible historically and I have to change it, or that a new possibility for a scene has arisen out of the research and I need to rewrite a section based on that” (2018, para. 3).
I knew before I began this process that pretty much all of the first three chapters would need to be tossed. Only a handful of lines have survived the cull. Initially, the first chapter was just a summary where the narrator talked about what would be happening in the rest of the novel. This chapter is now written in present tense and introduces the narrator leading up to the inciting incident. The second and third chapters also needed to be completely rewritten. Both of them had two major issues in terms of plot: the first was how implausible my understanding of military structure and operations was, and the second was the fact that the location jumped around. In one scene, for example, the narrator is in Sydney, then she’s in Canberra, and then she’s back in Sydney and ready to travel to Canberra for the first time. It didn’t make sense. There was also one other issue in the opening chapters that I needed to address; the main love interest wasn’t introduced until chapter four. He is now introduced in chapter one.
I really hated rewriting the opening chapters. I thought having an existing story, and a clear idea of the ending, would make rewriting easier. It didn’t. Instead, I found myself wanting to include details because they were accurate, and not because the story needed them. It was hard reading entire books only to have them become two lines in the manuscript. Part of what held me back from including a lot of these details was point of view. The point of view for the entire novel is first person, and the narrator is a civilian with no military knowledge. As a result, even when she overhears things, they can sound foreign, and she can’t always repeat them. I’m sure there are times where you’ve heard words or phrases that were so foreign, you couldn’t remember what they were, even though you’d only just heard them.
For me, this first edit is about making sense of the story. As Lester explains, “My main [goal] is is [sic] to ensure the story makes sense! Because the story evolves for me while I’m writing the first draft, one of the most basic things I need to do is look at the continuity” (2018, para. 2). When I was writing the first draft, I was still learning what the story was, now I’m bringing it to life. As Bernard Malamud explains; “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.” (1988, para. 33).
I think one of the big reasons I’ve found rewriting so painful is because there’s a voice in my head which loves being hypercritical. The issue is that it’s no longer just criticising my writing, it’s also trying to make me think about how the scene fits into the main plot and subplots, and whether the character is authentic. It’s so easy to get caught up in what my writing should do technically, that it becomes very hard to step back and think about it creatively. I feel like I’m stuck in an in-between state at the moment, where I still need the freedom of writing the first draft, but I’m also wearing my editor hat and am thinking more critically about how everything is coming together.
Lester, N. (2018). Burrowing In: Working on the Second Draft of a Novel. Natasha Lester. Retrieved 6 July 2018, from https://www.natashalester.com.au/burrowing-in-working-on-the-second-draft-of-a-novel/
Malamud, B. (1988, March 20). Reflections of a Writer: Long Work, Short Life. The New York times, p. 15.