Notes from the Writing Trenches: Revising My First Novel

By Anna Brady Marcus

As a first time novelist, for years and years my main goal was to get to the end of my first draft. When I wrote the last sentence on page 420 of my novel “After Alice” (working title), I felt euphoric. I bragged about it on Facebook, and slapped myself on the back. I thought it would just take a month or two for me to polish up my manuscript and start sending it out to agents and editors. This time next year I’ll be closing on my publishing deal, I told myself privately.

I laugh at my naïveté now, and I hesitate to tell you, dear reader, of how quickly I fell from my precipice. First, perhaps out of shear exhaustion, or perhaps from fear of hating what I had written, it took me a good two months to even open my manuscript again. Many people say you need to take a break between the writing phase and the revising phase, and for me it was a major process to retool my brain and take stock of what I’d done before I felt ready to read my book with fresh eyes.

At the advice of an agent I met, I bought “The Last Draft,” a book on the revision process by Sandra Scofield. She is a big proponent of reading and revising on physical paper, so I printed out a hard copy of my manuscript, single-sided, double spaced, on three-hole punched paper. When I picked it up from Staples it weighed about fifteen pounds and barely fit inside the carton! Seeing my manuscript in a huge stack like this made me proud of all the work I’d done, mixed with a double portion of dread. How many pages would I have to cut to get this to a manageable size?

I bought a thick binder to contain the sprawling script, and armed with multicolored highlighters and many sticky notes, I sat down and read my novel cover-to-cover. To my relief, the bones of the book I thought I had written were there, but there were many passages that needed major work – plot inconsistencies, dead ends, unnecessary characters and scenes, and far too many clichés. I really didn’t know where or how to begin to fix it all.

Luckily I had already signed up for a writing class with Julie Chibbaro, and she leant me a book called “The 90-day Rewrite” by Alan Watt. This book breaks down the rewrite process day-by-day into bite-size chunks filled with encouragement, psychological advice, and short exercises to help a writer get a handle on their manuscript. I immediately latched onto the title of this book. Only ninety days! There was hope! I made schedules for myself based on Watt’s process, which follows the general narrative arc of a novel. In week one I would make my new outline, in week two I would cover the dilemma and inciting incident, and so on and so forth. I could practically see the end of the revision already!

Well dear reader, it became clear within a few days that I would not complete my rewrite in ninety days. It took me a couple of weeks just to finish the preparation exercises in the book. I had to redo my forecasted schedule every month, continually pushing out the final date of completion. Nevertheless I plodded on, at my own pace, and I started to actually enjoy the rewrite process. I was honing my craft, smoothing out the plot points, and finding more juiciness in the characters. Slowly, I was peeling away the chaotic layers I’d laid down in the first draft and finding the pulsing heart of my story. I rewrote whole chapters, rearranged the scenes, changed one of my protagonists’ names, and cut out several minor characters. Finally this summer, a year and a half after starting my rewrite, I got to the end of the second draft! This time I didn’t bother to post anything on Facebook about it. I still have lots of work to do. I’m rewriting large chunks of my second protagonists’ chapters, and then I need to check my antagonists and make sure they are truly living up to their menacing potential. When that is done, I will give my manuscript to a few beta readers, and then I’ll have more changes to make based on their feedback. After that, I’ll need to hire a copy editor and get it all proofread and clean before I start to send it out to agents and editors.

I won’t lie and say that it’s been fun and easy. It’s been a real slog to rewrite my novel, but in the process I’ve become much more invested in my work. These characters are like my family now. I owe it to them to get their story right. Writing a novel isn’t about acquiring fame for me, it is about saying what I need to say, listening to the small voice inside me, and exploring the questions that have nagged me all of my life. Ninety days or 548 days, what difference does it really make how long the rewrite takes? I’m not going to give up now, if anything, I’m more optimistic than ever that what I’ve written is powerful and it will be shared with the world, when it is good and ready.

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