How We Write: The No More Excuses Approach to Rewriting

Anyone–ANYONE–can deconstruct and rewrite a manuscript. Anyone can learn to rework a story one scene at a time. And we’re talking rewriting–NOT copy editing a manuscript to catch punctuation or grammar mistakes, or line editing to make sure prose flows beautifully. These techniques are important, but only after an author has dissected the first draft and rewoven it’s parts into the best story possible.

Today in How We Write Wednesday, we continue Jenni and my’s discussion of rewriting. I’ll do my best to cover the high points of a technique it takes me a two-day weekend workshop to teach properly. This is interactive stuff that I love to work with writes on, while they’re applying what I’m showing them to a work in progress. The result of one of these weekend retreats that I hope you’ll get after reading this post, too, is–

  • No more excuses for not rewriting.
  • No more hiding behind “not seeing” what needs to be changed in your story.
  • No more big, scary book that’s too complicated to rework.
  • You feeling in control of your creativity as you rewrite!

Once your draft is completed, the story can seem too complex to tackle, right? You feel too close to your work to be able to analyze and re-craft it. There’s just too much there, and it’s impossible to see where each change will take the story. It’s easy to find yourself rewriting in circles, never really getting anywhere. And who has that kind of time?


So, let’s talk revision technique. Not HOW to do the revisions themselves–that will be for later posts this month.  Jenni and I have already shared a little of the nuts and bolts of rewriting and there’s more to come (and, frankly, fully learning how to revise a scene or a chapter or an act or an entire novel is more about trial and errror and learning from experience). But how to deconstruct what you have, so you can get to work on what needs to be done–THAT I can show you today ;o)

My goal today is to show you how to challenge each story component in your draft. Whether you think you’ve nailed it or not, whether you love what’s there as a whole or not, you need to take your draft apart and look at its pieces to be sure you’re getting the most from them individually and then as a whole.

You want to layer as much as possible into each moment in your story, right? To do that, you need to look individually at–

The pieces of your plot:

  • Story Structure (inciting incident, turning points, midpoints, black moment, climax/resolution)
  • Secondary Plots
  • Chapter and Scene Openings and Endings
  • Conflict and Motivation

The characters in in your story:

  • Protagonist’s Arc
  • Antagonist’s Arc
  • Secondary Characters’ Arcs
  • Point of View
  • Conflict and Motivation
  • Backstory

And that’s just to start.

You can challenge these and many other parts of your story (like scene and metaphor and setting, etc.) by visually “flagging” each piece, every time it appears in the novel. I use post-it note flags.Those colorful things that you tag pages with. Pick one color for a single piece of your plot or a character trait, etc. Then do the following. Pay careful attention…it’s a VERY difficult technique to learn:

(Let’s assume you want to “see” the protagonist’s character arc)

  1. Each scene that character is in POV (assuming you’re working with a multiple POV book), flag it. All the way through the book. This gives a visual representation of each place the character’s point of view appears, so you can flip back and forth between those scenes alone. Congratulations, you’re deconstructing your novel.
  2. Read only the scenes you’ve flagged (no others) in order from the beginning of the novel to the end, skipping all the rest. Congratulations, you’ve isolated a single aspect of your novel.

Complicated, right?

Okay, that’s not what I spend a weekend teaching students. We’re getting to that. But the point I wanted to make was that the basics of deconstructing your work is just that simple. Pick what you want to work on, pluck it out of your story, focus on only that part of the draft, then get to work!


How, you ask? Well, let’s continue with the protagonist example. With your POV scenes flagged, you’re now ready to–

  • Look at how often that character is in point of view. Are there large stretches when we’re in the antagonist’s POV or a secondary characters’? Is there not enough variety, and you need to work in more alternative looks at the action in your story and show things more from the perspective outside your protagonist’s head?
  • Look at how you open each POV scene. Is it always in dialogue? Always in narrative? Always in action? Always coming or going from somewhere? This may seem simple, but it’s the type of pattern we follow can get into in drafting and not even realize it. Mixing things up from a single character’s perspective at times can add a fresh look to a scene.
  • You can go deeper by first skimming all the character’s POV scenes. Do you see a lot of dialogue with no external observations or internal thoughts? Too much internal dialogue and only sparse dialogue. This kind of review can give you an immediate feel for what might need work for a single character, no matter what you’re doing with the rest.
  • Go deeper still by reading each of the protagonist’s scenes in the first half of the draft. Can you clearly see his/her build up to and reaction to the inciting incident first turning point and midpoint of the story? Is he/she changing in each key place in the story, and is that clear in from his/her POV?
  • Do the same for the key turning points in the second half of the story.
  • THEN (this is more story structure detail than I usually summarize, but here goes), look at his/her emotional reality at the Inciting Incident. Look at it at the Black Moment, Climax and Resolution. Has he/she changed significantly? Have you been working with the same core values and emotional arc throughout? Are you showing a full character arc that will satisfy the reader?
  • And if that’s not enough to have your head spinning yet, you can read back through each POV scene in sequence (reading NONE of the other scenes in between, remember) and see if the protagonist’s point of view experience is seamless and uninterrupted. Can you understand his/her story without having to resort to reading other scenes? Is he/she reaction and responding to the rest of the story in a believable way with escalating conflict and goals?

I could go on, but I’m suspecting you’re starting to see why this might take a weekend workshop to teach fully, and I don’t want to completely short-circuit your attention span.

Especially when you stop to realize that all we’ve talked about so far is a single character’s point of view and arc. The idea would be to do this for your antagonist, too. And for each secondary character. And not just for POV. You could pull out their conflict individually, and their motivation, too. See how each arcs on their own. And what about their backstories and how each are set up and woven individually into the story. AND THEN there are all the plot elements listed above that you could pluck out and deal with in the same detail.

Once a plot or character element is isolated and analyzed, it’s time to rewrite based on what you’ve learned. I recommend beginning with working on a single part of your story:

  1. Work only on that element, flipping through the book from beginning to end, reading the portions of the story where it appears.
  2. Making hand-written notes on the hard copy of how you can improve the reader’s experience of what you’ve already done. Don’t type the changes in as you go. Focus on reading and working on the hard copy. Flip back and forth as you need. Stay in the story. SEE what’s really happening on the page with this one element–leave the bigger picture for later.
  3. Then, after working/flipping all the way through the draft dealing with only that story element, and only then, type in the changes.
  4. Then begin again with another part of your story.

When I teach, I discuss how to revise the individual story elements I list above, as well as more intermediate techniques for deconstructing groups of story elements at a time. But for now, I think you’re beginning to get the idea of how powerful doing a deep rewrite could be.

Like I said at the start, the overall process itself takes time to teach because it can begin to seem too complicated. Too much. 

But remember. The basic idea is very simple. Isolate and challenge ONE thing about your story. Work on that thing alone. Then move on to the next thing. And only when you have gotten the most out of each piece and put it all back together again do you say, “There, it’s rewritten. It’s the best I can make it.”

Of course there’s not always time to do everything. In which case you do the best you can with what you have. But what I hope you WON’T say after today’s HoWW post is that you don’t know how to rewrite, or your story is too complex, or you just get lost when you try.

Rewriting is hard work and takes a lot of time to do well, but the HoWW mantra for the day is…anyone can do it. ANYONE.

I’m actually working on a non-fiction book dealing with this topic, so don’t get me wrong. I know I’ve just thrown a lot of stuff at you. But please start with the basics (and perhaps try it for just the first quarter or half of your draft your first time out) and give it a shot. Take control of the beautiful thing you’ve done with your current novel. Give yourself permission to make it even better. No more excuses. No more hiding.

And by all means, ask whatever questions you have in the comments!

Next week, Jenni will take us deeper into what she does when she gets into the nitty gritty of rewriting. You don’t want to miss it ;o)

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12 Responses to “How We Write: The No More Excuses Approach to Rewriting”

  1. wow…these are fabulous suggestions, Anna. I’m not sure I could be so organized as to color-code different characters/arcs/sub plots but it’s definitely something I’ll try.

    • You should see how Anna reads a non-fiction book…color coding.

      Actually, I have to wonder who is more obsessed with color coding, me or Anna.

      Always amazing how different our processes are, yet we’re doing essential the same things.

  2. Great suggestions. I found the post-it note method a while back and it really helps. I’ve done it for secondary char arcs, and sexual tension.

    Q: if your book is in 1st person, what would you suggest we concentrate on flagging re: looking at character arc?

    • I use colored highlighters.

      I’ve never really written in first person, but I would think you could flag based on other key elements of your story, and work that way and then look at arc. I think Anna will tell you to follow the arc first.

      Gee, sounds like we’re going to oz or something….been a long week and it’s only Hump Day!

    • Anna says:

      Higley, in first person POV, I’d still flag each secondary character’s indivudal perspective of what’s happening in the story. Each secondary character is their own subplot, as it were. Each is a different way of seeing what’s happening to/around the protagonist.

      What mulitple points of view offer a story teller is the ability to show the world from different perspectives–showing the same situation in a differnt light, depending on which charter is currently holding the camera that the reader’s seeing from. What I’ve noticed first person authors that I like doing is something very similar, but they have to work even harder at showing the perspective of their different characters from only the one POV.

      Look at the characters in the Stephani Plum series, for example. You know the grandma’s zany POV, even if you’re never in her head. And Ranger’s. And Morelli’s (sp?). Or even Bob the dog has his own unique way of reacting to situations. Because the author is a master at showing you each character’s unique point of view of the world, even though we never leave Stephanie’s head.

      You can do that, too, by following each secondary character through the story and making sure you’re delivering his/her subplot or view of the main story in his/her own unique way. Not the central/POV character’s way, but that secondary character’s individual way of seeing the world. To make that come alive on the page, it would be a valuable exercise to flag each time that character acts/reacts within a scene and seeing if that reaction stays true to the charcter (while escalating/growing as the story’s tension and subplots moves forward).

      Make sense?

  3. Rae Summers says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Anna. I’ve ground to a halt with revisions on my current novella, and this post is exactly what I needed!

  4. Walt Mussell says:

    When you separate out based on one POV, do you not lose some of that character’s actions when they occurred in someone else’s POV? If you have lost something, does that mean your story is missing something?

    • Anna says:

      Hey Walt–Yeah, looking at only one point of view will keep you from “seeing” action that’s being presented in another POV. But it shouldn’t separate you from the reaction to what’s happening in the flow of the story from that one point of view you’re looking about. There should be a building sense of knowing that one character (being that one character) and his/her reaction to the escalating external and internal story line. So, if something’s happened in another character’s POV, you wouldn’t in that scene know what you need to know abou thow THIS character reacted to it. You might see him/her in action in the previous scene, but you wouldn’t get an internal understanding of his/her reaction until you’re back in his/her POV. Does that make sense.

      I’m not talking about rehashing pact actions or bringing the reader “up to speed” on what was thought earlier in the story when things happened and the narrative wasn’t in the POV of the character you’re tracking. BUT that character was changed by those past events, even just a little, and in the next POV the character’s in, you need to show him/her moving forward, changed by the past even, and focused on new goals/conflicts that whatever’s happened brought about.

      The idea of following only a single POV through the story without looking at other scenes is to focus only on that once character’s experienc and journey without letting what others are seeing or doing meddle with that focus. The character is an island in his/her mind. What he/she’s thinking and the decisions he/she’s making are based on other things, but must be authentic to who he/she is as a person–and that perspective needs to be dealt with at least in one revision pass in isolation from other perspectives, so the character has an identity (journey) uniquely his/her own.

      Make any more sense?

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