How We Write: Deconstructing BEFORE Rewriting. No more excuses…

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 skills are important, too, but only after an author has dissected the first draft and rewoven it’s parts into the best story possible. These are the ideas I discuss with writers at conferences year around.

This week in HoWW, I’ll do my best to cover the high points of a deconstruction technique that, combined with rewriting, it takes me a two-day weekend workshop to teach properly. This is interactive stuff that I love to work with in person, while students apply what I’m showing them to a work in progress. In fact I’m already lining up several hands-on rewriting workshops for 2013. And the mindset of one of these weekend retreats that I hope you’ll also achieve, at least a little, after reading this post, 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.
  • No more feeling out of control of your creativity as you rewrite!

Next Wednesday, we’ll get more into what to do with your story once you can see its various pieces more clearly. Today, let’s zero in on the seeing part!

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 deconstruction technique. Not HOW to do the revisions themselves–that will be for next week.  And, frankly, fully learning how to revise a scene or a chapter or an act or an entire novel is more about trial and error and learning from experience). This is a post about 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)

How can you 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

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. This is deconstruction–digging out each element so you can see it, and it alone, for how it contributes to the overall story.


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 (she says knowing you’re going to see the simplicity of it as soon as she’s done explaining).

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?

Nope. It’s merely a matter of isolating one component of your story and only looking at that piece from the first scene to the last. Then, pick another component to deconstruct, and follow it through the book without being distracted by anything else. And then another.

This isn’t the rewriting I spend a weekend teaching students. Not yet. We’ll get to that.

The point I wanted to make today is that the basics of deconstructing your work is simple. NOT threatening. What you have to do, ALL you have to do, while deconstructing is see your manuscript as a series of stages and parts, and hten pick what you want to work on. Pluck the various pieces of story out of your novel, focus on the parts of your draft that you want to dive into, then get to work rewriting!

Next week… ;o) We’ll talk rewriting next week.

For now, remember that the overall process of rewriting takes time to learn because it can easily seem too complicated. Too much. Give yourself a chance this week and begin with the deconstruction phase alone. Get comfortable with your story and your characters and see what’s already there, before diving into trying to make what you’ve done even better.

Rewriting is hard work and takes a lot of time to do well, but anyone can do this stuff. I promise. ANYONE.

I’m actually working on a non-fiction book dealing with these techniques, so don’t get me wrong. I know I’m throwing a lot at you at once. But I assure you, you CAN 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.

See you next Wednesday in How We Write!

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3 Responses to “How We Write: Deconstructing BEFORE Rewriting. No more excuses…”

  1. Kathy says:

    great post, thanks Anna!

  2. Amy Pfaff says:

    Great Post and very timely. I have my stack of post-it flags right next to me.


  3. Awesome advice, Anna. :~)

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